Hoi An – Everyone’s Favorite Ancient Town

The lanterns of Hoi An
The lanterns of Hoi An

If you find yourself traveling to Vietnam, you will inevitably hear about a handful of “must-see” destinations. Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Phu Quoc Island, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City are the ones I hear most often. But of all the places I’ve been told I MUST visit, I think Hoi An was the only one I consistently heard positive things about, and I mean overwhelmingly positive. I never met a single person who didn’t like Hoi An, and several (including my Vietnamese friends) have said it was their favorite place in Vietnam. Strangely, nobody could give reasons for their love of this town. So naturally I figured I needed to see what all the fuss was about for myself.

I set out from Hue early in the morning and boarded a sleeper bus headed for Da Nang and Hoi An, about a four hour ride. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the sleeper buses here in Vietnam are pretty comfortable,and the top bunk offers a nice view of whatever you happen to be passing. This trip was particularly beautiful, and absolutely lived up to the gorgeous travel photos I’ve seen advertising the central highlands. I wish I had stayed awake for more of this trip, but if you give me a bed and a rocking bus, I’ll probably fall asleep. I did manage to get a few photos between naps though.

Central Vietnam en route from Hue to Hoi An
Central Vietnam en route from Hue to Hoi An

Mid-day we arrived in Hoi An, and upon disembarking the bus were bombarded with the usual crowd of taxi and xe om drivers looking to get a fare. Before getting on the bus I had been told that my hostel was within easy walking distance of the bus station, so I refused taxis and decided to save a few thousand dong by walking. Luckily for me, several other passengers were headed to the same hostel. None of us were particularly great at reading maps, but we made it to our destination without too many hiccups.

Riding my bike through the rice paddies
Riding my bike through the rice paddies

As far as hostels go, the chain I stayed with in Hue and Hoi An, the “Backpacker’s Hostel,” was as stereotypically backpacker-y as you can get. Everything was clean, safe, and well-located, but they also had full bars, loud music late at night, and decorations with sexual puns all over the place. This isn’t exactly my scene, but my philosophy of travel is still that the hotel/hostel is only important for location, safety, and cleanliness. I don’t tend to spend much time in the room, so I’d rather not pay a ton for something I barely use. But man, the party thing is so not for me. I also tired quickly of the shallow conversations and constant discussion of how “real” this country is. It all stung of gross privilege and a well-meant but ultimately futile attempt to find “authentic experiences.” Honestly, I could go on and on about my frustrations with backpacker culture, but I’ll spare you that for now.

Doner Kebab! A true highlight of my trip.
Doner Kebab! A true highlight of my trip.

Regardless, I set my stuff down and went out to get a feel for my surroundings. I walked into the Ancient Town, the central attraction that takes up a good part of the city (which is really a small town). I quickly discovered that Hoi An was an excellent shopping destination, particularly if you want to have clothes tailored. Seemingly every other shop is a tailor, and everywhere you go people try to pull you into their stores. Even though I had plenty of time to have something made, I decided that I would rather wait and have this done in Can Tho, where the prices are lower and the hustle is nonexistent. However, if you’re only visiting Vietnam for a short trip, I think this is probably one of the best places to have clothes made. It’s also a great place to find charity shops and high-quality handicrafts. I found several beautiful jewelry stores, quilt shops and even a silent tea house, all benefiting local artisans or disadvantaged children. Nothing like a good cause to help alleviate the guilt of over-shopping!

The famous Japanese covered bridge, right on the edge of the "Ancient Town"
The famous Japanese covered bridge, right on the edge of the “Ancient Town”

In any case, I spent my three days in Hoi An wandering the streets and going from shop to shop, and was very happy. That first night I wandered into a shop called “Cool Japan in Hoi An” and chatted with the store owner, who just so happened to have lived in St. Louis. Small world! Everyone I met in the town was super friendly, and English was widely spoken. I’ve also never seen so many expats in Vietnam! If you’re interested in the tourism industry here, I guess this is where you end up (or Ha Long Bay). There were several expat-owned restaurants and coffee shops, including one that sold chai hot chocolate and delicious coffee, and I think I went there every day of my stay.

Walking by the river, a group of boats. I love the painted faces, which are meant to keep evil spirits from sinking the boat
Walking by the river, a group of boats. I love the painted faces, which are meant to keep evil spirits from sinking the boat

Besides shopping and sipping coffee, I also took a bike tour of the town and spent some time at the beach. I didn’t even realize Hoi An had a beach! It was gorgeous, and if I hadn’t already had my beach fill in Vung Tau, I probably would have spent a full day there. But in the end, I really prefer looking at the water to getting in it, so I wandered back to town.

So over the course of three days I learned to love Hoi An. It was cozy, quaint, and charming. The beaches are beautiful, the town is small and easy to navigate, and the food is fantastic. I finally got my hands on a doner kabob, which I have been craving ever since I left Hanoi (that’s three years) and it was marvelous. Local specialty dishes were also quite delicious, and there was no shortage of food options. And to top it all off, Hoi An is known for lanterns, which are everywhere in town. They look nice during the day, but the town is transformed at night. Wandering the lantern-lit streets was downright romantic, even if I was on my own.

Hoi An at night
Hoi An at night

At the end of three days I was sad to see my vacation coming to an end. While I had purposefully left my plans up in the air, giving myself flexibility should I find one place more interesting than the others, I decided to take my final day of the holiday and explore the neighboring city of Da Nang, which I will tell you all about next time.

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