Hoi An – Vietnam’s living history

Ho An fishermen | Photo credit: Trevor Mills

Visit the small city of Hoi An and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back through the ages, to a time where vessels from around the world sailed the Seven Seas to trade in exotic spices and fine silks.

But look beyond the historical buildings and people in traditional dress and you’ll see internet cafes squeezed in between first-class restaurants, and friendly bars hiding next to galleries filled with contemporary art.

But you will also find heritage-listed shop houses selling traditional goods; historical temples full of ancient statues; ornate pagodas with original decorations; narrow streets where pedestrians rule, and vendors hawk their wares …

And that’s the beauty of Hoi An. A former trading port that once welcomed ships from all over the world, its fortunes changed when the king imposed a closed trade policy, then the river silted up and larger vessels were forced to dock elsewhere. Left to its own devices, Hoi An plodded on as before, minus the modernising effects of continuous contact with the outside world.

As a result, it was frozen in time and the original jumble of Chinese, Japanese and European influences that arrived in the city’s early days were left intact.

It wasn’t until Vietnam opened up to the world in the 1990s that Hoi An began to draw the attention of visitors – and UNESCO – and now it’s one of the most popular tourism destinations in the country. Also famous for its delicious cuisine, and exquisite arts and crafts, it has more to offer than just a history lesson.

Many visitors arrive here intending to stay no longer than a day or two, but plenty end up prolonging their trip as they get caught up in the relaxed way of life and enticing rhythm of this now-thriving city.

Did You Know?

  • Hoi An is famous for its made-to-measure clothing, and there are hundreds of tailors in town.
  • White rose – a tiny steamed dumpling stuffed with shrimp – is a delicacy of Hoi An.
  • The city once had the largest harbour in South-East Asia.

How to Get Here  

Hoi An is in central Vietnam on the South China Sea at the mouth of the Thu Bon River.

There are a few options to get here, which depend on what type of transportation is preferred. The easiest, fastest and most convenient way to get here is by a combination of air and minibus travel. When coming from overseas, most travelers choose to fly into the country’s major airport located in Ho Chi Minh City. The distance from Ho Chi Minh to Hoi An is 950 km, Visitors can get to Hoi An by air, by road or by rail. At present, there is not an airport and train station in Hoi An. It is better to go by air or rail to Da Nang. By road, it is 28 km from Da Nang to Hoi An.

Vietnamese Dong

The dong is the currency of Vietnam. ATMs frequently offer 2 million dong withdrawals. This takes some getting used to. You will learn to count zeros backward from right to left to determine if you are holding a 1,000 or 10,000 dong note in your hand. U.S. dollars are accepted in most locations, but you’ll have a better time negotiating a good price if you stick to the dong.

The easiest way to obtain local currency is through ATMs, which are found throughout the country in towns and cities. ATMs only dispense dong, never U.S. dollars. Banks and better hotels also offer exchange services, but the rates won’t be as favourable.

For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.

All major credit cards can be used in more upscale locations but are rarely accepted in smaller shops and restaurants. Credit card transactions may incur a surcharge on the purchase price. As ATMs become more widespread, traveler’s cheques are becoming less negotiable and may be subject to a surcharge where they are accepted.

Do spend down all your dong before leaving Vietnam, because dong cannot be converted back into American or Canadian currency, nor is it possible to exchange dong for the currency of any neighbouring countries.

Do not change money on the street.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

Hoi An is located about mid-way up (or down) the east coast. The city lies in the tropics, but due to the topography of the region it is often much cooler and less humid than Ho Chi Minh City in the south. There are two seasons – the rainy season is from May to November and the dry season is from December to April. During the rainy season there is still plenty of sunshine, as showers tend to be sudden and short. Temperatures average around 29 Celsius year-round, although it can drop a few degrees during the dry season and nights can be cooler.

Getting Around

By far the best way to see Hoi An is on foot. The city is relatively compact and much of it is pedestrian-friendly, so strolling around and soaking up daily life is easy.

If you’re weary after a day sightseeing, hire a cyclo. These three-wheelers – imagine a bicycle with one wheel at the back and two at the front with a seat (yours) in between – are everywhere and usually pedalled by ex-soldiers who were unlucky enough to fight for South Vietnam during the war. Pre-war many had illustrious careers in medicine and education, but they were stripped of their right to work once the country was unified. As a result many have had to resort to pedalling for a living. Cyclos are a great way to see the city as they only go as fast as your driver can pedal, and most drivers will tell you a bit about the history of the area as you go. There is a tendency to overcharge visitors, or add a few extra dong to the final fare, so confirm the price before you board, and remain firm at the end of your trip. You can hire cyclos for short journeys or by the hour.

Motorbike taxis are an inexpensive way to get around. You hop on as a pillion passenger and your driver zooms off with you on the back. It can be quite nerve-wracking as you zoom up and down narrow, crowded alleys, but good fun too. Fares are similar to cyclos, but motor taxis are a lot quicker. You can usually find them hanging around outside hotels shouting, “Moto? Moto?” as they wait for a fare. Make sure the driver has a spare helmet for you or you could get fined by the police.

Taxis are few and far between in Hoi An, and it might be difficult to flag one in the street. Asking your hotel to order a taxi will probably be more effective.

International driving licences are not yet accepted in Vietnam, so hiring a car may not always be possible. Many people hire a car with a driver, which is inexpensive, especially if there are a few of you.

What not to miss …

World Heritage Site(s)

Old Town of Hoi An | Photo credit: Nam-ho Park

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. There are currently five World Heritage Sites in Vietnam

And two of the five World Heritage Sites just happen to be situated in the Hoi An area.

The Old Town of Hoi An was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 thanks to its exquisite architecture that dates back several centuries – archaeological findings show evidence of people living here as far back as the second century BC. Waves of immigrants and traders from China, Japan and Europe have all passed through the city, with the Japanese and Chinese remaining the most influential. The Japanese eventually disappeared over the years, but the Chinese flourished and still make up a large portion of Hoi An’s inhabitants. As an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port, Hoi An is a unique place that has retained its heritage while embracing the future.

The second UNESCO World Heritage site is My Son, which is 40 km southwest of Hoi An. The stunning ruins here date back to the 4th century and the ancient Kingdom of Champa. Once a prestigious educational and religious centre of learning, the historical monuments at My Son are still fascinating today, even though many were destroyed or ruined during the Vietnam War. Covered in Sanskrit and etched with symbols from Hinduism as a result of the early kingdom’s close commercial ties with India, the ruins are overlooked by majestic Cat’s Tooth Mountain but surrounded by tangled vegetation. This is an easy day trip from that offers an intriguing glimpse at an ancient past.

You may want to arrive in town for the Full-Moon Festival and if so, you’re in for a treat. On the 14th day of the lunar calendar the town is closed to traffic and all electric lights are turned off. Instead, lantern-lit streets become a backdrop to an array of traditional song and dance performances, and festivities carry on well into the night. Many people don traditional outfits and the delicate silk lanterns cast a warm glow of light everywhere.

Quite simply, the Old Town of Hoi An is what many people come to see. The buildings have elaborately carved facades and ornate decorations, and are exceptionally well preserved. Walking through the narrow streets is like taking a trip back in time. The best way to see a selection of the most famous sights is to buy a ticket from one of six outlets dotted around town (ask where the nearest one is at your hotel) that allows you entry to five places of interest. The only condition is that you can’t visit two places that fall in the same category – so, for example, you can visit one temple, one museum, one Chinese Assembly Hall, one merchant house or family chapel and the Hoi An Handicraft Workshop. If you want to visit more than one museum or merchant house, you’ll need to buy another ticket. There are too many to list them all here, but details are provided with your ticket.

One of the most popular merchant’s houses is Tan Ky House. The same family has lived here for six generations and, like many other homes in Hoi An, this one is a corridor house. This means the rooms are placed one behind the other, so the shop is at the front, facing the street, and the rooms where the family live are built behind it, one after another. Long and thin, these narrow houses are characteristic of the area and Tan Ky House has changed little through the years.

The Japanese Covered Bridge is another favourite with visitors. It was first built in 1593, and bridged the gap between the old Japanese and Chinese communities. There is a small temple on the bridge, and watch out for the statues of dogs and monkeys. Legend has it that work began on the bridge in the Year of the Monkey and ended in the Year of the Dog.

The grand Chinese Assembly Halls in Hoi An were built by Chinese communities to serve as a place of worship and a community hall. A popular hall to visit is the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall. As it served one of the largest communities, it is the grandest of them all, with several imposing statues and many colourful friezes and stone engravings. Wander through the rooms and marvel at the craftsmanship.

The food in Hoi An is famous throughout Vietnam, and several specialities you’ll see here are unique to the town. If you fancy having a go at making them yourself, sign up for a cookery course and learn from the experts. There are several in town and it’s a great way to make your holiday memories last forever.

For the kids …

A paddle-boat trip on the Thu Bon River will be a hit with adults and children. Head down to the river and you’ll see a row of traditional wooden vessels lined up waiting for you. But, the river regularly floods during the rainy season, when it wreaks havoc on buildings nearby.

A traditional music and dance performance will keep the family entertained. A show takes place every night at the Traditional Arts Theatre, but it’s quite small so seats are limited. Enjoy an hour-long performance of vibrant costumes and complicated dance routines.

Cua Dai Beach is just 5 km east of Hoi An, and an ideal place for the kids to let off some steam after all that culture and history. It can be too dangerous to swim much of the time, but you can still dip your toes and relax under a palm tree.

About Shopping

Well suited | Photo credit: Emilio Labrador

One of the main reasons why tourists come to Hoi An is to get tailor-made clothes. Even if you arrive here with no intention of having anything made, chances are you’ll find yourself leaving with an outfit or three. The tailors are very persuasive, and when you can have the latest fashions made especially for you, for a fraction of the price, you might well think why not?

Standards and expertise vary enormously, so shop around and check out the fabrics on offer. A word-of-mouth recommendation is always a good start, and it’s an idea to have one piece made and see how it turns out before ordering a new wardrobe. Even if you end up ordering something you’re never likely to wear back home, the novelty of being measured up and choosing the fabrics and design yourself is worth the few dollars. If you have a particular garment in mind, take along a picture from a magazine and any tailor worth his needle will be able to copy it.

Custom-made shoes are also a popular purchase with visitors used to buying their footwear off the shelves. Often technically simple – many shoemakers will simply draw around your foot on a piece of paper – the end result is quite impressive and there are hundreds of styles to choose from.

Hoi An is also a great place to buy local crafts, from woodcarvings and pottery to silk lanterns and chopsticks. It’s also becoming a hot spot for art galleries and there are some fine examples of local artist’s work scattered around town. Browsers beware – you can easily spend a day or two browsing through the shops, and you’re likely to part with a fair bit of cash.

Market lovers will enjoy a visit to the market by the river. Here you’ll see locals shopping for supplies, including medicinal herbs and rice, as well as tourists snapping up woven baskets and wooden goods.

As elsewhere in Vietnam, bargaining is normal in Hoi An, but you often get what you pay for, particularly shoes and clothing.

Shopping in Vietnam is a fun and (always) interesting experience. It is true to say that you can find nearly anything in Vietnam. Shops vary from high class shopping malls to boutiques, galleries and street stalls.

It is not recommended that you buy imported, famous branded products such as clothing, perfume or electronics in Vietnam as taxes make these items more costly than in neighbouring countries.

Vietnam is most famous for its handicrafts, war souvenirs, authentic clothing, art, antiques and gems.

Vietnam has very strict regulations about exporting real antiques. Most “antique” and art pieces sold to visitors are fake or copies of the original. Be careful and check your sources for certificates.

Clothing varies greatly from beaded handbags to traditional ao dai (the traditional costume) made to fit your size. Items made from silk are a popular buy, with prices varying depending on the material and tailor. Pre-made traditional dresses are sold in many places. However, it is recommended to have a dress made to fit, which takes more time and slightly more money.

Shoes, slippers and handbags made from traditional materials (silk and bamboo) are also popular.

The Vietnamese traditional conical hat can be found everywhere throughout the country, but hats made in Hue are most famous as they have a poem embroidered on the inside.

Vietnam is rich in gemstones. Sophisticated works are produced by both large jewellers and traditional craftsmen. The quality of the gemstones sold is sometimes doubtful, so it is recommended that you buy gems at well known establishments, and be wary of “if it sounds too cheap ”.

Most war souvenirs sold today in Vietnam (for example, Zippo lighters engraved with platoon philosophy) are fake reproductions. Be careful while transporting these items as many airlines do not allow weapons, even fakes to be carried on board.

Popular handicrafts in Vietnam include lacquer ware, wood-block prints, and oil and watercolour paintings, blinds made from bamboo, reed mats, carpets, and leatherwork.

It is popular in Vietnam and thus convenient for visitors for a whole street or district to sell the same products. For example, Hanoi has entire streets selling only shoes, silk, or earrings. So, take your time browsing these places and compare the products and prices.

Many villages in Vietnam are famous for producing a distinct kind of handicraft and it is interesting to visit these villages and buy the items at source, and probably at a better price.

Hoi An is the best place for having clothes/shoes made while Hue cannot be missed if you want an Ao Dai.

Remember to bargain. A growing amount of galleries and shopping centres have prices labelled on the products and do not allow bargaining. This does not mean that these centres offer the best price and many times a lower price can be obtained for the same product elsewhere, through bargaining.

If the price is given to you by word of mouth, it is always necessary to bargain. Shop sellers, especially at tourist attractions, may raise the price from 2-5 times to what the product is actually worth. Early morning is especially not a good time to haggle, as you might be one of the first customers, and shopkeepers might become cranky if you set a bad start to their business day. There is no definite rule on how to bargain and what price a product may ultimately sell at, so smile and try.

Hoi An after dark …

Eating your way through Hoi An’s wide selection of restaurants is a delicious way to spend your evenings. You can sample the local delicacies – particularly cao lau, which is flat noodles mixed with croutons, beansprouts and greens, and topped with slices of pork. The official dish can only be made in Hoi An as, traditionally, the water used to make the savoury broth must be taken from the Ba Le well nearby.

Sports / Outdoor Adventure

Cham Island | Photo credit: Andy Bremner

The largely unexplored waters off the coast of Hoi An offer exceptional diving opportunities, particularly around Cham Island, which lies a few kilometres off the coast. Described by many as being like Thailand was 30 years ago, this peaceful place is home to a small group of ethnic Cham people, whose ancestors fought the Vietnamese centuries ago for control of this area. The west side of the island is protected by several islets, which leaves the water flat and calm – ideal for beginners. But there is much keep experienced divers happy, including visits by huge barracudas and tuna fish, appearances by dugongs and the occasional octopus, and several swim throughs and unusual reef formations. As much of the area is still unexplored, experienced divers have the chance to find old wrecks and places of interest that have yet to be ‘discovered’.

Local Customs and Etiquette

It’s vital to remember that Vietnam – and Asia in general – is all about ‘Face’. Face relates to prestige, and losing Face is a big no-no in Vietnamese culture. This affects visitors by causing locals to become unresponsive and unhelpful if you start to kick up a fuss about something. Smiling goes a long way, especially when language is a barrier, and your success in dealing with Vietnamese will hinge on the amount of respect you show. This is especially true when dealing with officials.

The teachings of Confucius influence the Vietnamese. Confucianism is a system of behaviours and ethics that stress the obligations of people towards one another based upon their relationship.
The basic tenets are based upon five different relationships: Ruler and subject; Husband and wife; Parents and children; Brothers and sisters and Friend and friend. Confucianism stresses duty, loyalty, honour, filial piety, respect for age and seniority and sincerity.

Another useful thing to know about Asian culture is the importance placed on heads and feet. Symbolically a person’s head is their highest point – so never touch or pat it, and always remove your hat when speaking to someone older than you. Similarly, feet are seen as lowly things. Never point the bottom of your feet at anyone as it’s considered rude, and never, ever point your feet towards a sacred Buddhist figure or shrine, whether in someone’s home or in a temple or pagoda.

If invited to a Vietnamese home bring fruit, sweets, flowers, fruit, or incense. Gifts should be wrapped in colourful paper. Do not give handkerchiefs, anything black, yellow flowers or chrysanthemums and always remove your shoes at the door.

Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are frowned upon, and women should dress quite conservatively – avoid short shorts and skirts, especially if you are visiting a place of religion. Covered shoulders are also the norm.

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