Lanterns in the Streets of Hoi An

Happy in Hoi An?

Hoi An is a beautiful place, full of old yellow buildings with wooden shutters, elaborate red-gold temples and decorative assembly halls filled with statues of dragons and birds. The ancient colonial port is preserved as a UNESCO world heritage site and has plenty of rustic buildings to explore. Trees line its wide streets, which feel curiously empty in the daytime due to a motor vehicle ban; all you have to worry about is dodging bicycles and rickshaws as you wander through the city centre. In the evenings the roads and riverside restaurants are lit up with colourful lanterns strung between lampposts and Vietnamese women sell candles to float down the river past the ancient Japanese bridge and creaky cargo boats which sit atop the black water.

Street in Hoi An, Vietnam

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Despite Hoi An’s beauty and its historical credentials, we just didn’t connect with the city in the way we’d expected to, which  was strange considering how we’d fallen in love with Luang Prabang in Laos, a city that looks remarkably similar on paper.  To us, Hoi An felt somehow like a giant tourist attraction and we were the walking dollar signs; our guard was always up and we couldn’t quite relax. We found the city was stuffed full of shops, tailors and restaurants and we daren’t linger too long in one spot in case we were nabbed by persistent vendors, shop assistants or waiters. Despite the uncomfortable vibe, we made the most of our stay Hoi An and spent a day taking in the city’s main sights.

River in Hoi An Vietnam

Things to do in Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An is a small, compact city, comprised of a warren of interconnecting streets bisected by a river.  You’re free to wander around, perusing the shops and cafes but if you want to explore any of the temples, assembly halls or traditional houses you need to buy a ticket which costs £3.50 and allows you to see five different attractions.

Streets in Hoi An

We decided to pick whichever sights looked most interesting as we strolled around. Our first stop was a wooden Cantonese assembly hall; built in the 19th Century it was used as both a place to meet and worship. We were impressed by the elaborate, coloured statues of dragons and the pretty surrounding gardens but somewhat perplexed by all the Choco-Pies that were left as religious offerings.

Assembly Hall in Hoi An Vietnam

Next up was the 17th Century Ong Pagoda again made from wood painted in red and gold and decorated with bonsai trees and stone water features. Our visit to the city museum was pretty disappointing; amongst the dry, dusty displays of ceramics and maps were dull posters detailing Hoi An’s history as a port and trade-centre during colonial times. The museum was certainly no match for the incredibly modern and informative ones we’d visited back in Hanoi.

Dragon Statue in Hoi An, Vietnam

We also stopped in at a traditional Vietnamese family home, which we felt slightly awkward walking around once we realised people still live there today. On the top floor of the wooden building we were offered the chance to sit down for tea, which we declined when we saw all the piles of souvenirs and deduced it was merely a sales ploy. After only a couple of hours we hit our last stop, another assembly hall, this time Chinese.

Assembly Hall in Hoi An in Vietnam

Our sightseeing over much quicker than expected, Andrew and I debated what to do next. We’d planned to spend around five days in the city and thought about taking a trip to one of the nearby beaches but in the end we decided to move on down the coast and booked a 16-hour bus ride to the beach resort of Mui Ne in search of sun and sand dunes.

Lanterns in the Streets of Hoi An

  • Alyson
    Posted at 12:51h, 27 March Reply

    Hi! Now we loved Hoi Ann and hated Luang Prabang at first. It was only after we’d been in LP for a couple of weeks that we grew to love it again. We really hated the bad overpriced food and expensive rip offs in LP at first, possibly because it was a return visit for us and the place has changed so much with the huge influx of fly-in tourists.. It’s 14 years since we were in HA, but even back then it was a lot more expensive than the rest of Vietnam, I remember struggling to find accommodation. I wonder if, when we make it back, we’ll find that HA has changed too.

    • Amy
      Posted at 16:12h, 27 March Reply

      Hi Alyson, I will be interested to hear how you find Hoi An and Vietnam in general when you get back there, it was one of our cheapest countries so I can imagine it must have been ridiculously cheap when you last visited (minus Hoi An). Come to mention it, we did struggle a little bit with food in LP, but everything else made up for that.

  • Matt Baker
    Posted at 17:28h, 27 March Reply

    Totally understand that walking dollar sign feeling. I felt like the whole of Vietnam was bad for that but the beauty of the place and snippets of time when people weren’t just after your money was worth it (sitting drinking Bia Hoi with locals in HCMC being my best memory of that). It was really the food that made Hoi An for us I think. Didn’t make it to Mui Ne (went to Nha Trang instead – I bet Mui Ne was the better choice!).

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:30h, 28 March Reply

      Hi Matt, I’ve heard many people say they’ve felt like walking cash-points in Vietnam too; the Vietnamese are so enterprising and industrious in general, we really noticed this coming straight from Laos where the people were too laid-back to bother hassling us! We did consider Nha Trang but were drawn to Mui Ne as it’s supposed to be quieter and we wanted to see the sand dunes – more about that coming up in the next couple of posts.

      • James Long
        Posted at 05:13h, 28 March Reply

        Hi Amy,
        In Vietnam we paid $5 US a night for accommodation everywhere. A double room with fan and en-suite. Even in Hoi-An, but we did have to walk around a bit. Food was even cheaper. I did a great tour there with a former Telstra worker.Took me through the villages and we had a great authentic lunch. Felt guilty I didn’t pay him enough, even now. Alyson also learnt to drive a moped there but with limited success. I will let her explain that. I think we are going to find a changed Vietnam, it was 13 years ago, straight after 9/11 and tourism there was in its infancy. My uncle went out there as one of the first foreigners to help with soil problems after the war and that was the late 90’s. I don’t want to go on and sound like my parents though, how it was always better in the old days.

        • Amy
          Posted at 13:19h, 28 March Reply

          Wow, $5 – that’s crazy-cheap James! Sounds like a great tour too; you could write a great post about how Vietnam has changed if you go back there this year. I’m keen to hear about Alyson and the moped – I have yet to try it myself, I just leave the driving to Andrew and hope for the best!

  • Shaun
    Posted at 19:18h, 27 March Reply

    Seems like just a so-so place. It’s pretty telling when you book a 16-hour bus rip out of a place you were planning on spending a week at. Beach resort does sound a little more appealing.

    Sometimes you just run in to towns that aren’t your style. You gave it a chance, but figured it was time to move on.

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:32h, 28 March Reply

      Hi Shaun, you’re right, sometimes you just don’t connect with a place and that’s ok. I’ve heard plenty of people say they love Hoi An while others hated it – Vietnam in general seems to really divide opinion.

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 03:10h, 28 March Reply

    You know that Tony & I back you on this 100%! I always argue that when people say they LOVED Vietnam and their favorite city was Hoi An, then this means they did not actually love Vietnam at all. Because Hoi An is really nothing like the rest of the country but feels like a theme park. Yes it’s pretty from afar (provided you can see it for all the tourists), but given that nearly all those “picture-perfect” shops now house tailors and other souvenir stores, that detracted a bit from the ambiance for us since it really did feel like everyone was trying to sell you something. We actually decided to skip the historical attraction pass, which might have let us see a slightly different side of the town, but I can’t say we really regret it. I didn’t hate Hoi An and we did wind up spending 5 days there (our hotel had a pool!), but it was one of the places I was most excited to visit in Vietnam and was certainly one of the biggest letdowns. Definitely not my scene.

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:35h, 28 March Reply

      I know what you mean Steph, Hoi An feels nothing like the rest of Vietnam. I bet years ago it was a pretty nice place but now it’s just too touristy – or it was for us anyway. I don’t think you really missed out either on the historical pass, we got about a morning’s use out of it and just as much value as we did from merely walking around. We were also expecting to love Hoi An too based on how we felt about Luang Prabang so it was a bit of a disappointment for us.

  • Carmel
    Posted at 07:28h, 28 March Reply

    I feel pretty lucky that we were in Hoi An during Tet. At first, it felt like a pain, but it ended up being really nice. We spent something like 6 days there, but most of the city was shuttered for the holiday and there were WAY fewer vendors touting their wares. It was fairly quiet on the tourist front and locals were mostly out getting drunk, sitting in their living rooms singing karaoke with the family, and just hanging out. There was also a festival during the end of our stay, which was pretty nice. It was inconvenient to have so many places closed, limited our options for eating and drinking, but overall, it seems we had a better time because of it. We also looooved our homestay, which treated us to a couple of traditional meals with the other guests. The beaches near Hoi An were also really nice and surprisingly cheap. But I can definitely see how you wouldn’t have fallen for it.

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:23h, 28 March Reply

      Hi Carmel, sounds like you visited Hoi An at exactly the right time; you really luck out on festivals don’t you, what with the one you stumbled upon in Kanchanaburi too?! Since we weren’t too keen on Hoi An we didn’t stick around to see the nearby beaches either, although we heard they were nice.

  • Maddie
    Posted at 13:31h, 06 April Reply

    We absolutely loved Hoi An but we went in eyes completely wide open and knowing what to expect, we just took it for what it is and appreciated the beauty. It’s definitely geared up for tourists but as a UNESCO site that is always going to be the case. I think people realise that if you want more gritty and real Vietnam than definitely head to Hanoi but Hoi An has it’s place too.

    • Amy
      Posted at 15:29h, 06 April Reply

      Hi Maddie, I think one of the problems was that we went into Hoi An expecting to love it and planning to stay for five days so it was a real disappointment to find that we didn’t like it there. You’re right though, Hoi An does have its place and I know plenty of people love it there.

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