Travel Report: Hoi An, Vietnam.
Hoi An, Vietnam.
I had a good feeling about the Vietnamese city of Hoi An the moment I left my hotel on the first day. I’d been walking for just a few minutes, but could already see that this was my kind of town. Despite being one of central Vietnam’s most popular tourist draws, the roads were eerily quiet. There wasn’t much in the way of foot flow either. In fact, most of the rickshaw drivers had given up looking for customers in favour of an afternoon nap. I could only guess that I’d caught Hoi An at a pleasing lull.
The sleepy vibe continued as I made my way towards the city’s famed Ancient Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Birds flitted between the trees in one deserted lane. In another, I poked my head inside a second hand bookshop. But I didn’t want to disturb the owner, who was fast asleep in a comfy armchair.
In the Ancient Town a few tourists strolled past me on their way between historic houses. Looking for a ticket booth, I stopped for a moment to watch a local woman prodding fruit out of a tree with a long stick. Moments after I took my shot she hit the jackpot and three mangoes came hurtling to the ground with a thump… thump… thump.
Hoi An, Vietnam.
Hoi An’s Ancient Town is a mesmerising open air museum of well-preserved historic structures. Some of the highlights date from the 15th to 19th centuries when the city was a prominent trading port. To visit these buildings, you have to pick up a ticket book from one of several wooden huts peppered around town.
There were different sized ticket books depending on how many sites you were interested in seeing. I went for a five-ticket book that allowed me to enter five sites of my choosing. Priced at just 120.000VND (£4/€4.50/$5), it seemed like a bargain.
With no particular plan that day, I found myself wandering into the first compound I came across, Fujian Assembly Hall. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries Hoi An was home to a sizeable Chinese community. They flocked here from Fujian province in order to capitalise on Hoi An’s booming business as South East Asia’s most strategic trading port.
Hoi An, Vietnam.
Before long, the Chinese decided to build a social centre that would serve their growing community. Thus they created Fujian Assembly Hall from an abandoned Vietnamese pagoda dating back to 1690. Initially, the complex featured just a small meeting hall set within a handsome courtyard garden.
Eventually, they transformed the old pagoda into a stunning temple dedicated to Thien Hau, a Chinese sea goddess more commonly known as Mazu. Glimpsed between the various potted trees, it was a beguiling sight that day as I approached. So much so that I stopped for a moment to rest on a bench and enjoy the temple from a distance before entering.
There was a tiny store next to the bench with a cold drinks cabinet. So I grabbed a bottle of water and asked the storekeeper if he’d take my photo. He happily obliged. Back on the bench I guzzled the water and listened to the traditional Chinese music crackling out of the storekeeper’s radio. At some point a large colourful butterfly wobbled by. My god, the whole scene was so ridiculously idyllic.
Fujian Assembly Hall.
The inside of the temple was lovely too, largely decked out in red and gold. It was a feast for the eyes, with fruit-stuffed altars, painted dragons and unicorn statues among the many treasures. One of the altars draws in childless couples who come to pray for fertility aid. “Oh powerful goddess, grant me a baby, if you would”.
A pair of magnificent paintings dominates the main hall. The Sea Goddess Thien Hau, they say, can grant safe passage to sailors out at sea. Especially during storms and whatnot, so it’s common to see worshippers leaving fruit offerings and praying for loved ones.
Japanese merchants had a big influence on Hoi An’s Ancient Town too. This is most evident at the stunning Japanese Covered Bridge, the city’s most iconic landmark. Dating back to the 1590s, it is one of Hoi An’s most photographed spots and a popular place for locals to do their wedding photos.
Hoi An, Vietnam.
The Japanese Chamber of Commerce built the bridge to connect HoI An’s Japanese and Chinese quarters. Before that, residents had to walk around a long section of canal belonging to the Thu Bon River. The Vietnamese call the bridge Lai Vien Kieu, which translates as Bridge that Receives Guests from Afar. If you want to enter and spend some time admiring the interior, you’ll have to give up one of your precious tickets.
This is mainly due to the presence of a tiny pagoda, added to the structure in 1763. It contains a shrine to Tran Vo Bac De, the Vietnamese God of Weather. Yup, another deity who can help protect Uncle Bob when he heads out to sea.
It was also cool to see the four stone guardians, two at each end of the bridge. On one side you’ve got a pair of dogs, referencing the fact that construction started in the year of the dog. On the other side there’s a pair of monkeys to signal the zodiac year of completion.
Tan Ky House.
I used my remaining three tickets to visit some of Hoi An’s most historic residences. Of these, the most memorable was Tan Ky House, a 280 year old townhouse home to seven generations of the Vietnamese Le family.
Mr. Le, a merchant of agricultural products, built the house in 1741. Born in Hoi An as an orphan, his hardworking and entrepreneurial spirit saw him rise from manual labour to a prominent landowner of rice fields, farms and gardens.
This wonderfully atmospheric townhouse was the home he bought for his family. Dark, cool and sophisticated, it features a stylish mix of classical Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese furnishings. It was the family’s second generation that named the house Tan Ky, which means “progress shop”. A nickname that revealed the family’s ongoing desire to remain inventive and prosperous.
Tan Ky House.
Moreover, the house showcases hundreds of family heirlooms spanning the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. However, with little in the way of English language labelling, it’s best to time your visit for one of the daily guided tours. They do this in a variety of languages, though times vary depending on the day. Check at a ticket booth for each day’s tour times.
Hoi An, Vietnam.
A small shrine in the living room pays respects to the family’s dead. It’s also another spot for praying to your favourite weather god. Indeed the house sits right on the edge of the river and is prone to flooding. Out in the courtyard there are even a number of flood level marks on the walls.
Exploring the Ancient Town saw me build up quite an appetite. Keen to try some local dishes, I made for the highly recommended White Lotus Restaurant & Cooking School on Phan Boi Chau Street.
The restaurant was a subsidiary of Project Indochina, an Australian aid organisation dedicated to the betterment of Hoi An’s disadvantaged communities. On arrival I received a warm welcome from the waitress who, with only one other customer to attend to, laid on the star treatment. First she brought a glass of ice tea, then busied herself positioning a fan next to my table. This was certainly appreciated, as it was a scorching hot day.
White Lotus Restaurant & Cooking School.
White Lotus offered a number of local specialities, in addition to a handful of western staples. I tried a curious Hoi An delicacy known as White Rose, a plate of rice paper dumplings topped with shredded pork, chopped shrimp and crispy onions. Absolutely delicious, but essentially a starter. For my main, I ordered Cao Lau, a bowl of pork noodles sprinkled with salad, crispy rice crackers and chilli sauce. Excellent.
Before leaving, I had a quick chat with White Lotus owner and Project Indochina founder Geoff Shaw. He was in the middle of a resident’s visa renewal, “an endless red tape nightmare” as he put it. Unfortunately, White Lotus closed its doors just six months or so after my visit. Similarly, there has been no update on Project Indochina’s Facebook page since October 2018. It’s a real pity, as they seemed to be doing great work.
As fascinating as Hoi An’s Ancient Town is, one couldn’t accuse the city of having just one string to its bow. Another reason I’d come here was to visit its world famous cloth market, one of Asia’s most economical spots for high quality tailored clothing. I’d never had a shirt tailored for me before, so I set off for Hoi An Cloth Market with a spring in my step.
The Cloth Market.
Back in the city’s heyday, the Chinese began producing silk products and exporting them all over Europe. Silk even became a type of currency, playing a key part in Vietnam’s economic development.
Not that I was looking for anything as fancy as silk that day. Rather, I simply wanted some cotton shirts I could teach in for what would be a hot summer back in eastern China. With so many tailors to choose from, and each of them doing their utmost to pull you in, I was happy to have secured a solid recommendation prior to arrival.
I made my way directly to 45 Cloth Shop, where two friendly ladies listened to what I wanted and wasted no time in measuring me up. It felt good to have full control over everything, from the colours and number of buttons, to pocket sizes and any other decorative flourishes I desired. Better still, I was all done within an hour and told to return the next day to pick up my order. In the end I went for three cotton shirts ($10 each) and two pairs of cotton shorts ($12 each).
Hoi An, Vietnam.
In the evenings I strolled through the utterly charming Hoi An Night Market. Occupying Nguyen Hoang Street, this 300-metre road is stuffed with cheap souvenir stalls, upmarket craft stores and food vendors pedalling all manner of delicious dishes.
Furthermore, it’s one of the best places to see fulsome displays of the world famous Hoi An paper lantern. In fact, they are virtually ubiquitous, bobbing from tree branches, lining bridges and forming colourful ceilings over sections of the street. And of course you can see store after store selling them.
For me though, Hoi An Night Market was all about the food. One of my favourite stalls was a vegan friendly Mexican joint run by a local Vietnamese man. On my first evening I went for a large tasty Beef Taco filled with fried onions and guacamole. According to my trusty notes, it set me back 35000VND (£1.15/€1.30/$1.50).
Another winner was this local lady and her grilled coconut cakes, known in Vietnamese as Banh Bo Dua. It’s essentially a fluffy pancake-pie packed with coconut shavings and crunchy nuts. Drowned, don’t you know, in a thick chocolate sauce moments before serving. There’s even a touch of lime I believe, which would have no doubt pleased Harry Nillsson.
Hoi An Night Market.
Finally, I must say a quick word on my excellent digs, Thanh Van 1 Hotel. Seriously, this was one of the best places I stayed at in Vietnam.
They booked me into a stylish double with a front door that was literally five steps from the pool. Inside, my compact room offered a pleasing mix of modern and classical furnishings, while there was cable TV, reliable WIFI and plug sockets galore. Just the way I like my rooms.
Above all, it was the staff that really made my stay. Indeed the hotel’s team of cheerful ladies were incredibly friendly and helpful. Going above and beyond to make sure my stay was a memorable one. A special thank you goes to Kelly, who single-handedly arranged my transfer to Cham Island, leaving no small detail unattended.
Thanh Van 1 Hotel.
Having a pool on my doorstep was the icing on the cake. Especially at night when I would usually sit photo editing or working on articles. To break up these work sessions, it was lovely to just stand up, lift my t-shirt off and jump into the cool water for a refresh. Another victory for the Vietnamese city of Hoi An.
Like this? Take a look at more of my pieces from all over Vietnam.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.
The colors, the lines, the art, the culture, the personality, and the overall feeling you captured is fantastic. I loved reading this. Donna
Oh that’s very kind Donna, thanks for reading this longer article and for taking the time to drop a comment. Hoi An is pretty special, even within the wondrous highlights of Vietnam.
Beautiful post, unfortunately for me when I went there I arrived by night on our road warrior trip see my post on it
Thanks for dropping by, Hoi An is an impossibly beautiful place.
You certainly portrayed the feeling of satisfaction in this post … Hoi An sounds like a lovely place. I’m always happy to see food in your posts – you said “fluffy pancakes drowned in a chocolate sauce” (now, who wouldn’t like that)!
Aah the food, yeah the pancakes are a no-brainier. Those White Rose Dumplings were equally wonderful, I’ve never tasted anything like them since.
Great post Leighton! Enjoyed reading it!!
Convinced me. Let me know when you plan to return. Everything sounded and looked fantastic. Loved the food pics and recalled how cloth merchants can make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world. Of course, I would have spent an extra day or two for the historic sites. Love red lacquer. Great story.
Glad you are convinced Memo. There is a certain pomp and ceremony to the whole fitting and ordering process at The Cloth Market.
As always the text is well written, the photos show the quality of the old houses and of course the profusion of gods.
Very kind of you to say. I think perhaps making Hoi An look and sound good is one of the easiest tasks a blogger could have.
This was a fun read, I can see why you so enjoyed Hoi An. The food looks and sounds delicious, the architecture is so colorful, and everyone seems so friendly!
What you said Diana. It’s hardly a surprise that time and time again overseas visitors say Hoi An was their favourite Vietnamese city. Thanks for reading!
What a chill vibe this place has and such beautiful architecture. Looks well worth exploring and it seems they offer great customer service wherever you go. A lot less chaotic than India, for sure. Thanks for taking us there Leighton. Allan
Yes, I was wondering how it would feel for readers transitioning into this from my India series ha ha.
So many great sights in the one city…still no sign of being able to resume our trip but we’re still hoping. Hoi An and Hue were next on our plan after Tam Coc. Ah well. I saw a comment of yours on another blog the other day, referring to the drab British weather…welcome home!! We’re not looking forward to that, not one bit.
Glad to have you back guys. Your South American adventures continue to dazzle. Yes the weather has been largely crap, but we are having a great time exploring Staffordshire nonetheless.
Great post! All I can think about is how totally different this feels than stories from your India series haha
Ha ha I know, a seismic change of tone right? Thanks for reading Lyssy.
So how was the ‘vegan friendly Mexican’ in Vietnam?” Must have been interesting. Loved this walk down memory lane, Hoi An is a great spot. You’re right it was touristy, but when we were there it was also very quiet and mellow. We had an equally beautiful hotel for $25 USD or something ridiculously cheap. Maggie
The vegan friendly Mexican food tasted pretty good, but eh who knows if it was really vegan. Sounds like our experiences were similar: charming, quiet and exceptionally well-priced.
There is a lyrical beauty to the Vietnamese towns. You have captured it well. Glad you got some shirts made too! I do love the photo of the bookstore owner asleep amid his books.
Thanks Ruth, I guess in Hoi An when you gotta take a nap you just gotta take a nap. Hope nobody abused his casualness.
Having one ticket booth for various attractions around town is unusual but efficient. Tailors are one of the best parts of SE Asia travel. After wearing tailored clothes, off the rack is a definite step down. The night market looks like a great place to explore and try some of that delicious looking food.
I should’ve probably done more tailoring in all my years in Asia. “Next time, Gadget”.
What an excellent review of Hoi An Leighton. It’s somewhere I’d very much like to visit, the Ancient Town and the temples look particularly interesting. I’m sure they will be suffering now with the lack of tourists. M.
It’s hard to imagine what the people of Hoi An have been through these past few years. Thanks Marion, hope you had a great time in The Peak District.
It’s amazing to see that the central coast’s centuries-old ancient port town Hoi An has retained its charm despite the throngs of tourists drawn here by the heady mix of wooden-fronted merchant houses, graceful bridges and ornate temples. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva
Thanks for dropping by Aiva, Hoi An is indeed a gem in Vietnam.
Loved our time in Hoi An. We loved our food there too. This brings back memories of our time there. Thanks sharing this and great images.
Thanks for leaving a comment, Anita!
Those coconut cakes look amazing. I love having those days without a particular plan and just going with the flow. Looks like you had a wonderful time in Hoi An.
Thanks for swinging by, Hoi An is a real gem.
I’ve heard good things about Hoi An, and especially so from your detailed report! Just from how you describe it, I could tell that Hoi An really left a great impression on you. From the magnificent architecture to delicious (and affordable) street food to the above-and-beyond hospitality, you definitely had a good time there. Makes me want to go someday, too!
Thanks Rebecca, it was probably the most colourful and quaint Vietnamese city I saw during my month there.
Such a different vibe to your India adventures. It’s like we’ve all landed in paradise after being whirled around in a tornado. 😋
Ha ha you’re not the first to have said that. I’m glad, as a reader, there was a reward of sorts for traipsing through India with me.
Ah, great memories of my own visit to Hoi An 🙂 We were there at the start of the pandemic (left the country just a week before it closed its borders) so it was much quieter than is the norm I believe. I completely agree about the Tan Ky House, it was easily the best of several we visited.
Glad this piece brought you back to Hoi An Sarah. What a time for you to have been in Vietnam!
Indeed it was! We were actually stopped on the street in the old town and asked to give an interview to a local news TV channel. They wanted us to talk about how we felt comfortable travelling despite Covid. At the time we didn’t really appreciate how serious it was (the UK authorities were still talking about it as just like flu) so we were embarrassingly nonchalant about the whole thing!
What an incredible and beautiful city that you have taken us to! I had to laugh at the name assembly hall because that stunning building is nothing like the stark dullness of any assembly hall I’ve seen. Definitely putting Hoi An on my list 🙂
Ha ha right? It also got me thinking about the assembly halls of my youth at the various primary schools I went to. Thanks for reading Meg and, as ever, for your general enthusiasm.
I love the book shop man asleep, that’s just such a lovely moment captured. And the whole city looks wonderful, completely other world-ly from here in grey and slightly rainy Peterborough today. The colours are just so vibrant! 🙂
Hey Hannah, it is indeed an altogether different world. I am just a few hours down the road from you in the village of Tean and the word ‘drab’ hardly covers it. We’ve even had high winds recently that caused falling trees and a local death. Sladja is definitely getting a first hand education on the English weather 🙂
Very informative post and lovely photos. Vietnam is high on my bucket list; maybe we’ll get there in 2023.
Hope you do, as it is has so much to offer right across the country. It’s taken me nearly a year to get all my Vietnam adventures published, but finally the end is in sight with this last batch of reports. Thanks for reading!
Looks like a wonderful place to visit, nice to see that you can fall asleep on the job untroubled haha. Interestingly I got a suit tailored for the first time recently, it’s amazing how many customisations you can make and things you don’t even give too much thought about usually.
Great read 🙂
Yeah having stuff tailored rocks, especially when you see the price at the end. Where did you get a tailored suit? Not in England I hope!
Haha no, it was online. I’ve not actually received the suit yet so I suppose I’ll have to reserve judgment for now but hopefully it won’t disappoint! 🙂
This really makes us want to visit Vietnam, and particularly Hoi An! Everything looks so beautiful
Hope you get to go to Vietnam. Word on the street is they’ll be opening up soon, maybe in the summer.
Fantastic article! You have an excellent blog.
Thank you very much!