The Lantern-Lit Streets of Historic Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, our second stop in Vietnam was a large contrast from our first stop of Saigon: instead of wide lanes clogged with motorbikes and fronted by modern buildings, there were narrow streets that were pedestrian only and featured quaint old buildings that looked like they haven’t changed in hundreds of years. We spent three days exploring the atmospheric streets of Hoi An and the scenic sites of the surrounding region.

Getting There

For most ways of travel, to get to Hoi An, one first has to get to the major town of Danang, where there is an airport and train station. We debated between taking a cheap flight that would arrive late or taking an overnight train, and in the end chose the train partially for a slight cost savings and partially just for the novelty of an overnight train.

Based on the advice from the very helpful Seat 61 blog, we hoped to book beds in the “soft sleeper” class, which have 4 bunks to a cabin. But, by the time we tried to book, all of these were taken, so we had to settle for bunks in the “hard sleeper” class, which have 6 bunks to a cabin. We had to take the middle bunk, which wasn’t ideal.

Our train pulled out of the station promptly at 7:30, and we headed north. Our bunks were not as spacious as we would have hoped; there wasn’t enough room to sit completely up, so we just had to lay down. Our cabin was full, with two older gentlemen in the bottom bunks and a young married couple in the top bunks. Unfortunately none of them spoke English so we couldn’t really discuss the logistics of moving around and going to bed in the tight space.

They went to bed fairly early, but we had reading lights so we could read for a while longer. We got some fitful sleep, but then were woken up early when the gentlemen in the lower bunks decided to have a full strength conversation at 5:30 in the morning.

We arrived in Danang on time at 12:30. Della’s parents had arranged their travels from Siem Reap (Cambodia) so that they were also in Danang and we could continue our trip through Vietnam with them. We caught a cab to the hotel where they were waiting.

They had arranged for a private van to transport us the 30 minutes to Hoi An. They also set it up so that the driver stopped for us to sightsee at the Marble Mountains, a tourist attraction in between. We went up the most popular of the mountains, and visited a few of the Buddhist pagodas and caves found on top.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at a recently opened guesthouse called the Viet House Homestay just outside of the Old Town. The family that ran the place was very nice and made sure that we were enjoying our stay. The rooms were nice and large, and the included breakfast was cooked to order. We also enjoyed the location, as it was within walking distance of Old Town but also on a more local street with some very affordable restaurants.

What We Did

Explore Old Town – The town of Hoi An was once a major center of trade, and now definitely shows the influence of the different cultures that were the trading partners: China and Japan. There are also many French influences. It is scenic just to walk through the streets and admire the sights, but to really get a feel for the history you need to purchase a ticket to go into some of the historic structures. Each Old City ticket gives you five vouchers to visit a choice of more than 20 buildings, so we made sure to structure our visit to see the five that seemed most interesting.

Our first stop was the Handicraft Workshop, where we made sure to arrive in time to catch the first showing of the twice-daily arts performance. This was a nice overview of different Vietnamese arts, including music, dance , opera, and a special bingo game in which the winning combinations are sung out.

We also went to two assembly houses. These structures were built by groups of Chinese immigrants from the same part of the country to be used as a place to gather for social events and a place to pray to their gods. We visited two: the Assembly Halls of the Chaozhou  Chinese Congregation and the Fujian Chinese Congregation. The former was smaller, but with nice wood carvings and a party going on as were were visiting. The latter was pretty elaborate and fronted with a nice pink gate.

Hoi An also has many private residences which can be visited for one of the vouchers on the Old City ticket. We first went to a small one, the Quan Thang house. We didn’t see the fancy carvings that the guidebook promised, but we did enjoy chatting with the proprietor and having the place to ourselves. Our final stop was the Lonely Planet top choice, so we knew we wouldn’t be the only ones inside. It was quite pretty inside, and we were able to eavesdrop on a tour and get a little bit more information about what we were seeing.

It wasn’t a part of our ticket, but we definitely wanted to make sure and visit the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge, built in the 1590s to link the Japanese side of town with the Chinese.  We went on our first night, and then returned after sightseeing one afternoon to make sure we got good pictures.

Bike Ride to An Bang Beach

Our plans to do a guided bicycle tour fell through, but after consulting a map we decided we could just rent bikes and head to some of the sights ourselves. The Viet House provided two bikes for free, and then our host suggested a place across the street with cheap options to rent more.

We followed a vague plan that was a scenic route towards the beach. As we got away from the city, we saw large rice paddies and shrimp farming. Everything was an impressive shade of green. Our maps program led us down what turned out just to be a tiny path through shrimp fields, but we made it though just fine.

At An Bang Beach, we found a place that had chairs under an umbrella, called the Banyan. In hindsight, there were plenty of places down the beach that were probably cheaper, but the Banyan was a comfortable, convenient place for us to base ourselves for an afternoon of relaxation. The water wasn’t as warm as in Thailand but was still refreshing.

Day Trip to My Son – Before the Vietnamese people moved south into the area, the dominant power was the kingdom of Champa. At the site of My Son, there are the remains of a large number of temples built by the Cham people. The temples are primarily dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and there are many examples of linga and yoni that are shrines to him. The Cham built their temples using bricks with no mortar in between, and we found it impressive how well the structures and carvings had held up. Parts of the site, though, were seriously damaged during the war when the US bombed the area to try and destroy the Viet Cong forces using it as a headquarters. We were glad to be able to add another UNESCO World Heritage site to our list, but the heat and humidity in the jungle setting was so oppressive that they detracted from the experience a bit.

We booked a cheap tour through a travel agent we found in Hoi An. Our transport to the site was a 30 minute minivan ride, but for the way back we “splurged” and paid a little bit extra to return by boat. This was a little misleading, as we drove back about two-thirds of the way before getting on a boat for the final stretch. The boat did make an extra stop at an island that is a center of woodcarving. This would have been more impressive if we hadn’t already seen the process in every other Southeast Asian country we have visited.

Lantern Festival – On the night of every full moon (well, really the 14th day of every lunar month), the old town of Hoi An throws a Lantern Festival. The streets are lit just by lanterns (most normal lights are turned off), businesses put out shrines for their ancestors, and on a few corners there are special music and theatrical performances. The most impressive part is the launching of lit candle boats onto the river for good luck. You can actually do this every night, but on the night of the Lantern Festival it is ramped up and the river is filled with the illuminated rafts. We felt a little guilty contributing to the pollution but still decided to do it once. Honestly, we were a little underwhelmed by the festival itself. The atmosphere wasn’t that much different in the Old Town than on the other nights, and the hassle of the crowds was harder to deal with.

Where We Ate

Hoi An specializes in a few  good dishes that aren’t found anywhere else in the country, notably cau lau, a dish made with a unique type of noodles and served with roasted pork, and “white rose,” a small shrimp dumpling. We made sure to sample these at multiple restaurants in the area. Our first night in town we headed to a slightly fancy place in the Old Town that presented a more refined take on these Hoi An classics. It was a bit pricey though, so the other nights we ate at the cheap restaurants on the same street as the Viet House, including one that was strictly vegetarian so had slightly different versions of the dishes.

In Hoi An we also had our first chance to sample “fresh beer,” a classic beverage that is unique to the country. The beer is called fresh because it has just recently been brewed and is served without preservatives. It has less alcohol than normal beer and less carbonation, but is very cheap. We paid 5000 Vietnamese dong (about 25 cents) at one place, and then at the restaurants near us it was only 3000 dong (about 15 cents)!

Final Thoughts

The town of Hoi An is quite charming, with great history and beautiful architecture, and we loved the streets lit up by the colorful lanterns at night. On the other hand, it felt a bit like an amusement park version of Vietnam, with more tourists on the streets than locals and quite a few vendors wherever you turned. Our favorite day was probably when we took our bikes out to the beach and got to see more of the everyday life of people in the area.

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