Just south of Da Nang, at the mouth of the Thu Bon River, lies the magical city of Hoi An. Despite having beautiful beaches and a scenic coastal setting, it is the unique ancient town where you’ll want to spend most of your time.
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From the 15th to the 19th century, Hoi An was an important Southeast Asian port. During that time, the town bustled with foreign traders, most of whom were Japanese, Chinese and Dutch. Trade may have since declined, but the striking mustard architecture, Chinese temples and ancient tea warehouses have been preserved. Now, Hoi An is a favourite destination of travellers to Vietnam.
Walking through the narrow streets, you’ll find rows of shop-houses – typically two-storey establishments with homes above and stores below – as well as tiled roofs with colourful lanterns strung between them. You’ll see men on rickshaws pedalling curious tourists along alleyways, and women – wearing traditional áo bà ba garments and conical nón lá hats – selling brightly coloured vegetables, trinkets and local delights in baskets skilfully balanced on their shoulders.
Many buildings are bathed in a distinctive golden-yellow hue. It’s like the city is always wrapped in sunshine. Why yellow? Locally it symbolises royalty, luck, pride and prosperity; significant architectural monuments are therefore painted in various shades. Another reason is a little more practical: yellow absorbs less heat and is thus better suited to the humid, tropical weather of Vietnam.
The Hoi An sunrise is particularly charming. Sunlight illuminates the yellow walls, and the whole city begins to wake from its slumber. You’ll begin to hear the sounds of brooms sweeping houses and streets, birds chirping, bicycle bells ringing, vendors setting up their stalls for the day, and the laughter of schoolchildren as they greet their friends during breakfast.
Grabbing an inexpensive banh mi and Vietnamese coffee for breakfast will fill you up for the rest of your walk.
Hoi An has more than 1,000 ancient houses to explore, and of these, 844 are included in the Unesco World Heritage list. Many have been turned into museums, shops, cafes and artist workshops. The city is full of craftsmen, tailors, shoemakers and artisans. Tailor shops are everywhere and outnumber all other businesses two-to-one; get yourself an item tailored to your taste to take back home.
Because of Hoi An’s protected status, very strict building regulations are in place, and so it has retained the traditional wooden architecture of the past. The original grid street plan, including canals and bridges, remains intact. Hoi An even escaped the war almost completely unscathed. As you wander through the alleyways you will feel as if you have gone back in time.
Among the ancient houses, there are many you can visit that are not shops. These include Phung Hung Old House, Duc An Old House, Museum of Sa Huynh Culture and Quang Thang Ancient House. Some of these still have families living on the upper floor, but they are kind enough to open their doors for you to explore the lower sections, which have been turned into displays of old artefacts, books and art.
You need a ticket to get into these homes; a package ticket can be bought at every entrance to the ancient town. With each one, you are able to visit five of the 21 open houses.
Take your time wandering. This way, you will come across unique alleyways and cafes for a refreshing cup of cà phê sữa đá, which is Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. If you get lost, don’t worry – most locals speak a fair amount of English and will point you in the right direction.
With its gentle demeanour and poetic charm, Hoi An will undoubtedly leave an imprint on your memory. It’s a place like no other in this world.