The Best Day Trips From Hoi An, Vietnam
Where to take a day trip from Hoi An, Vietnam?
One of the biggest tourist bases in the country, Hoi An is the gateway to travel in the central Vietnam. Whether you’re interested in exhilarating motorbike tours through mountain passes, quiet days at sandy beaches, or cooking classes in nearby villages, there are a huge number of options for tourists in Hoi An.
Hoi An has been a historical and cultural hub in Vietnam for centuries. Relics of the Champa kingdom can be found close to memories of the Japanese and Chinese trading communities that made the city their own. In my personal opinion, the most interesting day trips to take in Hoi An aren’t really organised trips at all. Rather than taking a guided tour with a group of other tourists, why not just venture out to a nearby rural area, wander the dirt tracks that cut through expansive paddy fields, and get to know anybody you can meet in town. Rural Vietnam is significantly more interesting and authentic than the overtouristed cities and attractions. That being said, there are many options available if you aren’t comfortable just doing your own thing.
I personally almost always refuse to take group tours or do pretty much anything via paid tour group, so I won’t be recommending any here. I did take a cooking class via a tour group, organised at Tribee hostel just outside the old city of Hoi An.
Hai Van Pass
The most popular trip to take from Hoi An actually doubles as the route to/from Da Nang and Hue, if you’re planning on stopping there on your trip up or down the country’s coastline. A winding route through towering mountains and past sand-dusted seaside coves, the road is considered one of the most beautiful in Vietnam, if not all of South East Asia.
Serving as a passage between the Champa and Dai Viet kingdoms, the road dates back to the 1300s. The grand gate that sits at the summit marks the line at which travellers cross between Vietnam’s ancient border, a relic of the country’s rich history, which is often overlooked by tourists seeking Vietnam War memorabilia and stories of Chinese invaders.
Crossing the border is palpable, with the climate shifting as you reach the front lines. The heavy air of the southern tropics gives way to the north’s cooler breezes, though I can’t say that the humidity ever relents.
The easiest way to visit the pass is to rent a bike and drive yourself there, as is irritatingly typical in Vietnam. For those of us that can’t drive, or have no interest in taking on Vietnam’s hectic and often dangerous roads, there are a couple of other options. My recommendation would be chatting to the people that you meet in Hoi An, and hope that at some point you find a competent driver willing to let you travel on the back of their bike. This is the only other option that isn’t extortionately overpriced, in a spot where everyone is looking to take tourists for all their worth.
The other options are to take a jeep tour through the pass, if you can gather a group of pals this is sometimes cheaper than taking a motorcycle tour, and is generally more comfortable. This costs approx $65 USD.
Probably the most popular route, other than renting your own bike, is to take a motorbike tour. This way, you go on the back of a bike driven by an experienced Vietnamese driver and get the freeing sensation of biking the pass without having to be worried about the unyielding trucks or hoards of inexperienced tourists driving on the roads. If you have the monetary flexibility, this is probably the best option, but is out of reach for strict-budgeting backpackers like me at roughly $95 USD.
My Son Sanctuary
My Son is a remnant of the Champa kingdom that once dominated this region of Vietnam. A highly spiritual people, the Champa people that still live in Vietnam make up was one of the few Hindu kingdoms that prevailed outside of the Indian subcontinent. The religion inspired a number of the most impressive sites in South East Asia, including Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the temples of Bali in Indonesia, and My Son.
The kingdom reigned in this region of Vietnam for 900 years, eventually being annexed by the northern power of Da Viet in the 19th century, but you can still visit this relic in an easy day trip from modern Hoi An. The sanctuary is thought to be the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indochina, and is one of 70 such temples built in the area. Only 18 survived the heavy attack suffered by Vietnam during the American War, and of those surviving, My Son is by far the most impressive.
Dedicated to the god Shiva, the dark ochre bricks of the temple walls crumble slightly in the wake of centuries of worship. At around midday, the tour groups come in force from Hoi An, and the sun reaches its peak, making it easily the worst possible time to try and trudge through the site in the high sun. Should you have the flexibility of a bike or a taxi, visit early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the crowds and the blistering heat.
Tours are easily arranged in Hoi An, but I’ll stress again that if it is at all possible to take a bike or split a taxi fare with a group, you should. The tours in this city, and in much of Vietnam, have become a considerable rip off since tourism has increased so dramatically here.
The Cham Islands, named for those former rulers of the region, make for a peaceful escape from the city streets of Hoi An. Only 2 hours away from the mainland, the islands offer a number of secluded spots, sandy beaches, and the quintessentially South East Asian palm trees that billow on the islands of the South China Sea.
The 8 islands that make up the group make up some of the least developed parts of Vietnam, making them idyllic next to the enormous cities of Saigon or Hanoi, or the tidal wave of traffic that flows up and down the country in any metropolitan area. Go snorkelling or diving in exploration for colourful tropical fish, hike through the low growth of the forested hills, or laze in the sunshine without the crowds of tourists that bustle on the mainline shores.
Try going early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the crowds and the worst of the sunburn. Ferries go from Hoi An to the Islands regularly.
Take a cooking class
One of the best things about travelling in Vietnam is the constant access to incredible, fresh Vietnamese food. Fragrant, delicate and unpretentious, it is one of the best countries in the world for culinary travel, and food plays a central role in the culture and day-to-day life of Vietnamese people. Steamy bowls of spicy noodles on city street corners will always be central to my lasting memory of the country.
While here, you should learn how to bring a slice of that back to your home country. Many companies organise cooking classes in the villages around Hoi An, picking up tourists at their hostels or hotels in town, and taking them out to small boats that lead out to the country. On our boat, the Vietnamese man steering was catching crabs to take home for dinner, which I joined in with and my boat-mates found horrifying. Maybe, if you’re going to cook meat, be prepared to catch it yourself. Regardless of your thoughts of that issue, you’ll be taken to a small restaurant after travelling down the river, and shown a number of recipes to take home. We were shown to make beef pho, Vietnamese pancakes, rice paper rolls, and more. Probably the technique I use the most in my cooking today is their method for quickly pickling vegetables while broths are stewing, to add an extra kick to your veggie medleys.
While I’m typically not a big advocate for group activities or paid tours, I love learning new skills on the road.
The Marble Mountains
Each of the 5 mountains spanning the marble stretch between Hoi An and Da Nang symbolises an element crucial to sustaining life in this ancient region - water, wood, fire, metal and earth. In the days of the Champa kingdom, the depths of these mountains were centres of worship, the caves and grottos settled in the stomachs of the mountains making for spiritual sanctuaries away, finding the epitome of seclusion and serenity in their cavernous depths. Home to a number of shrines and pagodas, you can explore some of the region’s religious history while traversing the caves of the water mountain, the only one that is open to the public.
There are also some insights into the darker days of Vietnamese history, with bullet holes lining some of the inner walls of the caves. Troops used to spy on American soldiers laying on the beaches near Hoi An from strategic vantage points within the mountains. As with much of the history of the war that is still evident in Vietnam, Vietnamese knowledge of their own terrain and ingenuity in guerrilla tactics is clear- from the Cu Chi Tunnels and the monkey bridges, to this deep cave diving technique. Vietnam is an ancient land, and they learnt to use their environment to their advantage centuries before the Americans arrived.
You can get involved with abseiling into caves, or climbing up rocky cliff-sides, if you’re feeling adventurous. Otherwise, spend a few hours trekking up and down the winding route between caves and grottoes and indulge in the spiritual history of the mountains.
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