You all know about Venice in Italy, of course. And some of you have heard about Suzhou, the “Venice” of China and one of several Chinese “Venices”. Today it is time to explore Hoi An, the “Venice of Vietnam”.
Hoi An is simply one of most interesting ancient places in Vietnam and one of the best preserved old Vietnamese towns. I have previously written about Vietnam’s capital of contrasts, Hanoi, and probably you have heard about the Ho Chi Minh City of today. But many people don’t know much about the really romantic and amazing Hoi An. It cannot be compared to Venice simply because of it canals, but also because it was a regional center of commerce, and because it is romantic like Venice, but in an Asian way.
History: To understand a destination well, you must always know its history. Beginning as far back as the 10th century, Hoi An was an important trade center between East and West. Its importance peaked during the period of imperial Vietnam, between the 16th and 18th centuries. At that time it was an important focal point for commerce between China, Japan, the Indian states, Portugal, and the Netherlands. The city was a real melting pot of nations since it had Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Portuguese, and Dutch quarters. Spices, textile products, glass, silver, and ceramics were exchanged here. From the 19th century until 1954, Hoi An was under French colonial rule. Today it is an attractive tourist destination with a rich cultural heritage and a lot of options for entertainment.
How to get there?
It is simple to take a train from Hanoi to Da Nang, which is the closest large city to Hoi An. The trip takes 16h and costs only 35eur. You can enjoy the beautiful scenery of central Vietnam and its unspoiled landscape while on the train. Between Da Nang and Hoi An you can take a public bus and ride for about 40min.
Top things to do and see:
Old Town: First of all is the Old Town, which offers a rich tapestry of unique sights. It is probably most beautiful Old Town in Vietnam, and certainly the best preserved. Along the main canal there are narrow streets, each offering a specific experience. On the main street, next to the Grand Canal, you will see many Vietnamese and foreign tourists taking pictures and exploring. There are many French colonial buildings along this street, mixed with local architecture. Palms and other trees standing next to the buildings make for an exotic atmosphere. Imagine summer temperatures that rise above 40degrees Celsius, dozens of people around you, and the wet smell of the canal. That’s real, tropical Vietnam. There are many bars nearby where you can buy fresh juice made from orange, papaya, marakuya, pineapple, watermelon, mango and other fruits. Such juices will be your best friends in Hoi An’s hot and humid weather. Along the main street and the streets around you can find many souvenir shops where you can buy fascinating souvenirs for a low price, especially if you are good bargainer. You can find traditional linen paintings, Buddhist beads, porcelain vases and cups painted in various colors, traditional hats, traditional silk clothing, decorative lanterns in various colors, and Buddhist figures. If you want to experience local life, you must venture into some of the narrower streets. It is impossible to explore all of the streets, so choose those with the most colorful, faded facades and flowers on balconies. There are a lot of such buildings with pink, red, or white flowers on balconies and in window boxes. In these tight streets you will see many locals cooling off in the shade of trees or balconies, smoking pipes, playing chess, drinking beer, sitting next to cages with parrots or children playing with kittens or puppies. Many will display naked bellies and feet because of the high temperatures. You will see bikes parked in lines and covered by a bit of dust. Also you will see shops with open doors which sell litchi, pineapple, mango, bananas, beer, and iced tea from plum, lemon, and green tea. You can also walk along the canals and down the narrow streets, but watch your step so that you don’t fall down since there isn’t much space between the buildings and the canals.
Museum of Sa Huynh Culture and Museum of the Revolution: This museum offers a rich collection of ancient artefacts, including a collection of pottery and other objects from the Sa Huynh culture (1000BC-200CE). This is one of oldest cultures in Vietnam, and the first merchant settlers of Hoi An were Sa Huynh people. Artefacts made of jade, iron, terracotta, glass, and bronze can be found in this museum. They include pottery, animal figures, swords, spears, glasses, and cups.
Tan Ky House: Built in the 18th century by a Vietnamese merchant family, this is one of the best preserved old houses in Hoi An. Tan Ky literally means “progress shop”, and the house was given that name in the hope that it would help to establish prosperity in the family business. The courtyard is very beautiful with much greenery, and a lot of light falls there during the day. The house itself is built on a triple beam structure which stands for heaven, the earth, and the human race. Inside there are many decorative paintings and carvings of natural landscapes, the five elements, and objects which belonged to the family. Also there are Chinese poems carved in shell material and a Japanese style ceiling in the living room. There are also two swords sheathed in silk – the swords represent strength, and the silk represents flexibility. Quan Cong Temple: Built to honor the brave and loyal Chinese general, Quan Cong, this is a 17th century building, dating back to 1653. A statue of Quan Cong stands in the temple complex, where there are also facilities where other deities and spirits are worshipped. The temple courtyard is very beautiful, and a combination of tropical plants, red ribbons hung in the trees, and a pond make for a unique atmosphere. You can take refuge in this temple when you get tired of the crowds of tourists.
Japanese bridge pagoda: This is a famous and important spot in Hoi An – a covered bridge with a pagoda roof and therefore called the bridge pagoda. Japanese merchants built the bridge in the 17th century. Today it is a famous spot where you can walk across and take a picture in front of it next to the canal. This view of the bridge pagoda is often seen on postcards sold in Hoi An. If it is raining you can climb on the bridge and hide under its roof and watch the rain falling into the canal.
Fujian Assembly Hall: This is one of several historic halls where Chinese merchants gathered during the 17th and 18th centuries. Another is Cantonese Hall. Fujian hall was mostly an assembly point for tea, poetry, and the business meetings of Chinese merchants who came from Fujian Province. In addition to the meeting hall itself and nearby rooms, there is a section which serves as a temple devoted to Thien Hau (in Chinese, Mazu), the guardian goddess of sailors. There are also figures of other Chinese and Vietnamese deities for wealth, compassion, and fertility. Lifestart Foundation Painting and Lantern Making class: This is a workshop in Hoi An, and if you like painting and traditional lanterns, you are in the right place. A local instructor will teach you how to paint on linen and also how to make the colorful traditional lanterns which make Hoi An famous. In this foundation, all the money that you pay for the lessons goes to charity for poor people and people with disabilities.
Time to Eat:
I have already written about the rich, delicious, and often spicy food of Vietnam in my article about Hanoi. Basically, food is more or less the same in Hoi An, and cheap, of course. Here in Hoi An you can have a great meal for only 3eur. Something unique to Hoi An is Cao Lau, a dish of rice noodles cooked first in water and then later pork, herbs, and vegetables are added. If you like to do your own cooking, several restaurants offer practical cooking classes. You pay about 10-15eur and with your teacher you go to the local market to buy ingredients, and then he/she teaches you how to prepare classical Vietnamese meals, and afterwards you eat what you have prepared.
Magical nights in Hoi An:
As is true everywhere in Vietnam, you can sit in an open door pub in one of Hoi An’s narrow streets or next to the canals and drink cheap beer. I have already written about cheap beer and socializing in open door pubs in my article about Hanoi. In Hoi An there are dozens of open door pubs where a lively and upbeat atmosphere can be found, all characterized by beautiful lanterns, live music, cheap beer, and friendly local people. But here in Hoi An, in addition to drinking beer and socializing with locals in pubs, you can do other things, too, such as walking through the old town, which at night is even more magical and romantic than during the day. Each street is festooned with traditional, colorful lanterns. Red, yellow, green, violet and blue rounded or oval lanterns are hung on trees, on balconies, and on the walls lining most of the streets. You can find them anywhere, hanging from trees, in front of shops, next to pubs, and over the canals. To make your adventure even more romantic, you can rent a boat and take a ride with your loved one. A boat ride will take you through the canals, and during that time you can observe picturesque night scenery, and the lanterns and how their light is reflected in the water. Alongside the canals you will notice beautiful young girls in traditional clothing selling paper lanterns in the shape of the lotus. You can buy one and light a candle in it and let it float in the canal. Before you set the lotus lantern in the water, you can make a wish.
There are plenty of cheap hotels, including a famous one where a night costs about 25eur. Also you can find cheaper options such as the Riverside Garden Home where one night is only 10eur.
Bike- If you are staying longer in Hoi An, rent a bicycle and explore the surrounding countryside. There are plenty of old villages nearby, and charming rice fields.