A trip to Central Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the old town of Hoi An. It’s a picturesque little Southeast Asian town with old traditional Vietnamese houses lining the narrow lanes; lanterns hanging from across the streets, and fishing nets and small boats floating along the river. I spent 2 nights in Hoi An, but only had one full day to explore the beauty of the historic old town, and its surroundings.
Hoi An Old Town
Hoi An was a trading post from the 15th to the 19th century, with ties to countries in Southeast Asia, East Asia, as well as other parts of the world. This has influenced the culture and traditions of the people who live here, which can be also seen in the town’s unique blend of architectural designs. Hoi An was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.
The historic center is like a living museum. The locals live and work in it — shops, restaurants and museums are set within the old wooden shop-houses, and fishermen still ply the waters looking for their daily catch. The town has gotten more commercialized throughout the years with peddlers in every corner of the streets, and hundreds of tourists and tour groups visiting every day. Thankfully I stayed the night, and got to witness Hoi An without the massive crowds.
Arriving in Hoi An
I arrived in Hoi An on a rainy evening. After checking into my hotel, the Lantana Hoi An Boutique Hotel (read about it here); I waited for the rain to die down a little before heading out for a short walk around town to get my bearings. I used the time to get my old town entrance ticket and a map to plan my visits the next day, and to look for dinner.
Dinner: Banh My Phuong
After the short navigational town tour, I was feeling some banh mi for dinner. Banh mi is Vietnamese baguette sandwich; and a popular place in Hoi An to get one is at Banh My Phuong (apparently Anthony Bourdain came here too). It was a little early for dinner, but the small stall was packed to the brim. I joined the queue and ordered my sandwich with all the meat in it for VND25K (US$1). They prepare the sandwich on the spot, and I really enjoyed my crunchy meat-filled sandwich.
I retired to bed early that night because of the rain, and also because I had an early start for my full day in Hoi An.
A Day in Hoi An
My day started at 5am for the My Son Sunrise Tour to visit the ruins of My Son, located about an hour or so from Hoi An. The ancient temples were built by the Champa people from the 4th to the 14th century; and is one of Vietnam’s most significant archeological sites. Read more about my trip here:- The Ancient Ruins of My Son. The tour arrived back to Hoi An about 9am.
Hoi An Central Market
Upon returning from the tour, I headed to Hoi An’s Central Market to witness the morning’s activities at the wet market. Everything was in full swing — locals were buying their groceries, and vendors were selling their wares from meat and vegetables to fruits and local treats.
Breakfast: Cao Lau
I made my way to the market’s food hall — it was packed with food stalls, and vendors were calling out to me from every corner. I finally settled on a bowl of Cao Lau at Ms Ha’s Stall 35. Cao Lau is one of Hoi An’s signature dish, and is best enjoyed here because of the local ingredients and water used for the noodles and broth. I loved my bowl of noodles with barbecue pork slices and pork crackling, as well as bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs. Absolutely delicious!
Hoi An Old Town
Time to explore the old town of Hoi An! I bought my entrance ticket the day before for VND120k (US$5). It is valid for 24 hours, but the lady at the counter said I could use it for the duration of my stay — so I could freely roam about town whenever I wanted. The ticket comes with 5 tear-off coupons that allow you to visit 5 out of the 22 buildings and sites that are on the attractions list. I was able to see 6, as my coupon wasn’t torn off at one of the sites.
I choose to visit the two bigger museums, a temple, a community house, an old residential house and of course, the famous Japanese bridge. One of each!
Hoi An old town usually gets crowded for most of the afternoon and at night, so its best to explore it by foot during those times. However, there are slightly less people in the morning, so I rented a bicycle and cycled around. It only cost me VND25k (US$1) for the entire day. I absolutely enjoyed zooming along the lanes, stopping by the many interesting buildings, and watching the locals go about their daily chores.
I took about 3-4 hours visiting the 6 sites; and by the time I was done, the tourists were coming in and the town was getting packed. I returned my bicycle and headed for lunch.
Lunch: White Rose Shrimp Dumpling
Known locally as Banh Bao Vac, White Rose Shrimp Dumpling is a Hoi An Specialty. It is made of minced shrimp bunched up with translucent white dough to look like a rose, thus its name. The dish can only be found in Hoi An as it is a local family’s secret recipe — they supply White Rose to all the restaurants in town, and operates from 533 Hai Ba Trung Street. The restaurant is a little out of the old town, so I decided to try it at the Rice Drum Restaurant in town. White Rose dumplings are really the most light, fluffy and melt-in-your-mouth dumplings I’ve ever tasted.
Shopping in Old Town
And it’s time for shopping! Since the entire old town is filled with people in the afternoon; the best way to avoid the crowds (and escape the heat) is to shop. Hoi An is known for its tailor shops, silk, and beautiful colorful lanterns. Custom tailor-made dresses and suits here are cheap and of acceptable quality, but time is needed. I spent the afternoon hunting for souvenirs, handicrafts and jewellery — I was especially fascinated with the handmade paper pop-up cards.
Across the River
Towards the evening, I walked across the river to the other part of the Hoi An old town — a small islet named An Hoi. Part of the islet is an old town designated area with old wooden traditional houses as well; and the row lining the river are made up of restaurants, cafes and bars. There is also a sculpture park and open spaces by the river. Further in, small stalls and booths selling souvenirs and small eats are set up along the main road.
I made my way to the waters edge and was approached by a lady offering me a short 45-minute cruise along the Thu Bon River for VND100k (US$4). I didn’t know what the rates were for a boat ride; but she was nice and friendly, and it was the best time of the day for a river cruise so I agreed. I had the whole wooden covered boat all to myself! It was a leisurely cruise — I saw fishermen bringing in their nets for day, and floated along a portion of the old town and some of the other islands around the area. The best part of course, was the lovely cool breeze.
Dinner: Com Ga Ba Nga (Chicken Rice)
I am big fan of chicken rice. So when I read that Hoi An serves up a good plate of Vietnamese chicken rice and one of the most popular places to have it is at Com Ga Ba Nga — I was there! I thoroughly enjoyed my meal; the rice cooked in chicken broth was flavorful, and it was topped with shredded steamed chicken, a piece of chicken gizzard, Vietnamese mint, shredded green papaya, sliced onions and chilli sauce. I just had to mix them all up together and dig in!
Hoi An at Night
Come night, the streets of Hoi An came alive with street performances, traditional dances, and music all around. The Night Market was in full swing too. The large crowd added to the merriment, and it felt as if everyone was celebrating a huge festival. I couldn’t take my eyes off all the bright lights — the yellow street lamps, the hanging lanterns across the streets, and the candle lit paper lanterns floating along the river. They gave such a surreal glow to the entire town.
It was lovely just walking by the river; admiring the beauty of the town and soaking in the lively atmosphere — the perfect way to end my journey through time in Hoi An.