Many things make Vietnam magical. You feel the magic as the sun rises from the South China Sea and when the sun sets over the green rice paddies. You feel it from the genuine, kind and curious people. You taste it in the phenomenal cuisine.
But there is one place in Vietnam that is more enchanting than any other — where heritage and culture, sea and sand, food and architecture come together in a charmed way. Lovely Hoi An.
By luck or by design, Hoi An was spared the ravages of war, both recent and ancient. The old town features a distinctive architectural style of its own: a fusion of Chinese and Japanese styles that have survived hundreds of years, floods, wars and change.
In 1999, the historic town became a UNESCO Heritage site and today, tourism is what drives the economy instead of the ancient spice and silk trade.
And yes, sometimes it feels a bit touristy. Most tourists are rushing about because most tour operators offer only a two-day stop here. It’s not enough. If you come, make the effort to stay longer.
Linger here and you won’t regret it. There is so much to see and do, and a quick tour stop misses much. Wander within the hidden alleys and peek behind the historic doorways. Cruise on the river, walk the beach and tour outlying villages and rice paddies on a bike. Magic.
Each evening, Hoi An becomes luminous. Thousands of lanterns light the ancient area at night in the pedestrian-only old town, giving it a fairytale quality.
The historical trade routes of merchant ships from Thailand, China, Japan, India, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and Spain brought a wealth of riches to Hoi An, including silk. Today, the silk lantern has become a symbol of the area as well as a souvenir. Silk lanterns are on display and sold everywhere for very reasonable prices.
Taking the love of lanterns a step farther, Hoi An celebrates the full moon each month with a Lantern Festival. Electric lighting is turned off in the town so the lanterns are the only illumination. If you are lucky enough to be in Hoi An on a full moon, it’s a special treat. But beware, the event draws thousands of people and can become a bit of a party.
If you aren’t into that scene, then any normal night in Hoi An is more for you and still very festive. Stroll the corridors and enjoy the color and beauty of this luminescent town.
Unique to the UNESCO town is the Old Town Heritage Ticket. Purchase a ticket for 120,000 Vietnamese dong (about $5) and you receive entrance to your choice of five out of the many of the ancient structures throughout the city.
All within walking distance, you can visit the gorgeous, covered, Japanese bridge; any of several historic homes still privately owned and occupied; temples and assembly halls. Your choice and a “must do.”
Tickets are sold at any of the entrances to the old town and are good for multiple days. The money is applied to the restoration and preservation of this beautiful site.
If you are looking for a made-to-order suit, dress or any other clothing item you can think of, Hoi An is the place. Hundreds of tailor shops dot the streets of both the old town and the newer section. Shop around because prices vary widely. And bargaining is always expected. Additionally, you can have a pair of shoes made to order.
As tourism has increased, so have the choices for dining. Quaint and historic Hoi An has become quite the cosmopolitan dining capital of Vietnam. The sheer number of restaurants, street food and dining options is overwhelming.
For a unique, fun and educational approach to dining in Hoi An, take a cooking class at Ms. Vy’s.
Ms. Vy’s Cooking School is hosted at a fantastic facility. You not only will go away with an eye-opening awareness of Vietnamese cuisine but will also go away stuffed! Cooking classes include a half dozen demonstrations on some of the unique foods and preparations indigenous to Vietnamese cuisine, followed by hands-on cooking of traditional and regional dishes.
You will learn to make the local favorite Cao Lau noodles, a Hoi An pork-and-noodle dish in a rich and delicious broth, as well as other Vietnamese specialties such as crispy pancake, spring roll and the delicate white rose dumpling.
For something different, try the evening cycle food tour with Grasshopper Adventures. You will visit and learn about the beautiful rice paddies that surround Hoi An as well as the gorgeous city garden that grows and supplies most of the produce for the town. You will then eat your way through Hoi An and visit local homes, tiny restaurants and major dining hot spots to taste and indulge in a variety of amazing and tantalizing (and sometimes a bit weird) Vietnamese dishes.
Hoi An will change a lot in the next decade, as new and huge hotels are in the works. The 20-mile beach drive between Hoi An and the city of Danang (where the airport is) is rapidly developing. Making a visit to this lovely place sooner rather than later is recommended. Staying longer and immersing yourself in the area is also recommended.
Try staying a week at the fabulous Tan Thanh Homestay, located 4 miles from the Old Town on An Bang Beach.
Bikes are free to ride to town and taxis are cheap and plentiful. Ha and her family at Tan Thanh will treat you like royalty with a fabulous morning breakfast served at your cottage or on the beach. The neighborhood of An Bang is in itself a wonderful place to explore, dine and relax on the beautiful and nearly deserted stretch of sandy beach.