What to do in Hoi An, Vietnam
What to see in Hoi An, Vietnam?
When you’re travelling Vietnam, you’ll rarely be free of the travellers rhapsodising about Hoi An. The city captures the imaginations of those that have less experience travelling in Asia, because its multicultural trading history has made Hoi An a centre of art and culture in Vietnam. Palpable influence from China, Japan, Malaysia, and even the west, has made Hoi An an architecturally varied and historically rich spot.
I spent just over a week in Hoi An, hoping it would make for an escape from the rains of the coffee fields and the heavy smog of Saigon. While I had plenty of issues with travelling in the city, Hoi An is nonetheless one of the best spots along the tourist route through Vietnam. Whether you’re interested in history and culture, shopping, eating, partying, photography, or escapes to the countryside, the city has something to offer you. As a part of my very low-budget lifestyle, I don’t really shop ever, but if you’re looking for a guide to getting the best tailor-made clothes in Hoi An check out this review.
Being one of the most unique cities in Vietnam, with its varied cultural influences, my attention here was taken by the architecture and the history.
Chinese lanterns hang from Dutch-inspired roofs, while locals and tourists alike bustle in and out of Indian restaurants and haggle over Japanese designs. Hoi An was the site of conflicting empires, civil war, and economic busts and booms. Floored by passing conquerors and stylised by European occupiers, the city has seen hundreds of generations of change and development, for the better and for the worse. Though it all the culture grew, and bore the city you see today.
What to do in Hoi An
As is generic in any guide to a European city, many guides to Asian cities, even guides to some American cities, there’ll be an old city that you can hang out in. In Hoi An, as in most historic cities, this is the most beautiful part of town. Characterised by the crumbling corners of washed-yellow shopfronts, silk lanterns dangling over cobbled streets, greenery peaking between bobbing boats from the murky river waters, and tourists moving locals aside for the sake of their instagram-glam.
Head out early in the morning for the best atmosphere in the old city of Hoi An. At around 6-7 am vendors are just setting up for the day, the typical gaggle of Vietnamese gather to eat breakfast together on plastic stools, and the tourist hoards have yet to arrive in full force. Wander through back alleyways, drink an icy coffee on the riverbanks, and stroll through some of the city’s 22 temples before the temple-hopping crowds arrive.
The fading facades of the city’s houses and stores are some of the most picturesque in Vietnam, if not South East Asia as a whole. Clear architectural influences can be spotted all over Hoi An, relics of the Chinese and Japanese traders that came to town in force are found everywhere from the décor to the infrastructure.
Japanese Covered Bridge
The Japanese were one of the most significantly sized ethnic subgroups that moved to Hoi An to trade in its early years. However, much of their contributions to the city were destroyed in the 18th century. At the time, Vietnam was divided and ruled by two families: the Trinh and the Nguyen. During this period, the Nguyen family were attempting to unify Vietnam, fight the Tay Son rebellion in the south of the country. While they were distracted with this, the Trinh army seized their opportunity to expand, including taking Hoi An. They decimated the city, destroyed much of its buildings and trading infrastructure, and left as the city collapsed. Much of what was lost in this period was built by the Japanese, with many treasures of Japanese architectural style presumably lost to time. Japanese expats in Hoi An were uncommon after this period, as Japan instigated laws commanding death for any Japanese person living outside of Japan. Unsurprisingly, it made them less keen to move for business. When peace was restored and the people began to rebuild their city, Hoi An’s population was predominantly Chinese and Vietnamese, leaving the Japanese heritage to memory.
Though little is left of the Japanese influence in Hoi An, the Japanese Covered Bridge is often considered one of the ‘must-see’ spots in the city. Intricately designed in medieval Japanese style, the bridge was built to unite the Japanese and Chinese sides of the city. It is symbolic not only of the cultural influences at play in the city but the unity that residents found regardless of their ethnicity and heritage.
The Lantern Market
I never saw Hoi An in the dark. At night, you can hardly see the sky’s inky black through the lights that glow throughout the streets. Though they dangle from every other shop front and are draped over city streets, there is one place that you can go specifically to take in the Chinese-style silk lanterns that have become synonymous with Hoi An. The night markets are always full of people and full of life, you can wander around to find Chinese style goods and some of the best street snacks in town.
Though the market is typically touristy and busy, which if you’ve read much of this blog you’ll realise is my worst nightmare, its worth visiting to experience it once you arrive. Generally, these crowds move on to the relatively very expensive riverside restaurants, or to the western-style bars pumping loud 00s club music throughout the night. If you’re looking for a spot to have a drink with friends, I’d recommend walking further down the river, beyond where the main club scene is. There are some good bars away from the main tourist centre, with far cheaper drinks and far fewer 18-year-old English kids ‘finding themselves’ at the bottom of a vodka bottle. I’m all for a party, but that’s just not really my scene.
You can also take a lantern-lit boat ride under Hoi An’s historic bridges. It’s touristy and overpriced, but if you fancy it anyway just look in the vague direction of a boat and a whole lot of vendors will offer you a ride.
The food market in Hoi An was one of my favourites I visited in Vietnam. It’s quintessentially Vietnamese; women in conical hats lay out piles of the freshest herbs and spices. Piles of pineapples teeter precariously over vegetable stands, and girls sit together and gossip as they butcher meat or sort fish in the back of the market. It’s lively and local and the best place to pick up some affordable fresh produce. One of my favourite parts of metropolitan life in Vietnam is the markets. They offer an escape from the smoggy streets and the crowded attractions, and an opportunity to talk to the people working in the market. It can be a tough country to make local connections in, and chatting to vendors is one of the best chances you get to practice a touch of Vietnamese (or if you’re me, entertain people with your total mispronunciation of most words).
Hoi An is a beautiful and historic city, and if you’re travelling in central Vietnam it is one of the highlights of the region. That being said, as I’ve outlined in pretty much everything I’ve ever written about Vietnam, prepare yourself for a suffocating volume of tourists. Hoi An gets the holiday-makers, the amateur backpackers, and seasoned travellers. It’s exactly that beauty and history that draws in the crowd, and makes it one of the most interesting cities in South East Asia, but don’t be fooled by the carefully crafted instagram shots. Stick to early mornings and late afternoons, avoid the overpriced restaurants in the heart of the old city, and wander out to the suburbs if you ever hope to meet some local friends.
There are lots of things to do in the countryside around Hoi An, and you can find a guide to the best day tours from the city here.
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