It is no wonder that Hoi An attracts high numbers of foreign and domestic tourists each year. This popular destination has the complete package. The rich history, beaches, adventure, arts and shopping are all wrapped up in an old town charm which captivates the hearts of those who travel there. The warm yellow buildings and colourful lanterns create an enchanting atmosphere, almost as if the scene could have sprung from the pages of a fairytale. Hoi An has been beautifully preserved and remains an accurate illustration of the busy trade port that once operated here.
Hoi An’s history dates back way before it became the well-known trade port in the 15th century. The earliest settlers are believed to be the Sa Huynh whose tools and relics have been discovered in Hoi An, some dating back 2000 3000 years ago. In approximately the 1st to the 2nd century AD, the Cham people established their kingdom in Vietnam and settled in Hoi An. Hoi An functioned as the centre for trade and commerce, Tra Kieu was most likely the political centre and My Son the spiritual and religious capital. During this time the Cham people set up an impressive and highly successful port trading silk and spices, amongst other things. Over time, conflicts developed with the Viet people and the Khmer people from neighbouring Cambodia. Over time, the Cham Kingdom's dominance and power grew weaker and eventually, the Viet people overthrew the Cham Kingdom and took control of Hoi An.
Hoi An old quarter and waterfront.
From the 15th century, the port town was under the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty and once again became one of the most important and influential ports in South East Asia. This bustling trade centre attracted business from across the globe. Merchants from Japan, China, India and Europe all frequented the port, their ships laden with valuable cargo. Some merchants lived part of the year in Hoi An whilst waiting for the best sailing conditions. Eventually, some merchants even settled permanently in Hoi An and evidence of this is can be seen in the Japanese and Chinese living quarters that are still standing today.
The international influence was not only limited to trade, but missionaries from France also became part of the culture in Hoi An. One French priest, Alexandre de Rhodes, made a lasting impact when he penned the Latin-based script, quoc ngu, which is used in modern Vietnamese.
However, Hoi An could not continue its reign as a powerful epicentre of global trading as the elements were against it. The Thu Bon River silted up and was no longer accessible to large ships. Also, the defeat of the Nguyen Dynasty during the Tay Son rebellion saw a decline in foreign trading. Eventually, under the rule of Emporer Gia Long, the trading rights of neighbouring Da Nang were given to the French and Hoi An began its new life as a sleepy, riverside town. Hoi An remained relatively intact and untouched by the wars that plagued Vietnam and much of what is still standing, is in its original form.
As well as the meticulously preserved architecture of the Old Town, Hoi An has numerous other attractions. There are beaches and clear waters which are perfect for snorkelling and scuba diving, multicultural temples, pagodas and meeting halls each ornately decorated, and fantastic shops selling artisan wares.
See and Do
Hoi An's Ancient Town is made up of more than 1000 traditional structures including timber frame buildings, monuments, pagodas and temples. These are original buildings, still standing strong and beautifully preserved from Hoi An's commercial prime as an international port. The town is set next to the Thu Bon River which flows into the South China Sea, making it an ideal port location. The Ancient Town is the perfect place to see the influence of the Japanese, Chinese and European merchants who once lived here.
One of the best-preserved houses in the Ancient Town is Phung Hung House
. Built in 1780, this timber structure showcases traditional Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese architecture. It also features some incredible decoration with ornate embroidery, wall hangings and traditional silk lanterns which hang from the rafters and blow in the breeze.
Another house that has remained in its original glory is Tan Ky House
. Modest on the outside, but grand on the inside, this house has been meticulously maintained over seven generations. Inside is an exquisite ion of antiques and detailed wooden carvings. The dark rich wood accented with red and gold give the air a house of luxury and prosperity. Here again, you can see the multicultural influences on the architecture and design. Possibly the most impressive Chinese element of this building are the Chinese poems which are written in mother-of-pearl and hang elegantly from the supporting columns.
Not far from Tan Ky house is the Japanese Bridge. This ornate bridge was a literal and symbolic connection between the Japanese and Chinese quarters which sit on opposite sides of a peaceful tributary of the Thu Bon River. At one end of the bridge is a pair of skillfully sculpted monkeys and at the other a pair of dogs, each faithfully guarding the bridge. There are two different explanations of the choice of guardians but both based on the Japanese zodiac system.
The Chinese settlers in Hoi An built a number of lavish assembly halls for their communities in order to maintain their culture and sense of community. There are five remaining Chinese assembly halls in Hoi An, all of which have become great tourist attractions dur to their cultural and historical significance and their incredible beauty. Majestic gates lead into beautiful grounds which feature gardens, courtyards, and temples.
Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, a popular attraction.
One of the grandest of all the assembly halls is the Phuc Kien (Fujian) Assembly Hall
. Originally a Vietnamese thatched pagoda; it was sold to Fujian merchants after it fell into disrepair. The merchants renovated the complex and created the cultural and social hub that stands today. The assembly hall was not only a place for its guests to socialise but also as a place of worship. The intricate artwork and ornate sculptures feature scenes depicting some of the many gods in Fujian tradition. The assembly hall is dedicated to Thien Hau, the Goddess of the Sea, who is believed to protect sailors on their dangerous voyages.
Another magnificent assembly hall is the Assembly Hall of the Cantonese Chinese Congregation
which was founded in 1786. It is another fantastic example of the highly decorative Chinese style. The focal piece of the complex is a spectacular mosaic statue of a dragon rearing up out of a pond.
The Chinese All-Community Assembly Hall was built as a communal place for all of the Chinese settlers in Hoi An to socialise and worship their respective gods. The hall showcases Chinese iconography, gold and red detailed carvings, and fearsome looking dragons. The hall also features an area devoted to the remembrance of the Chinese heroes who died during World War Two.
Due to its multicultural past, Hoi An also has an interesting collection of temples and pagodas, each one dedicated to different deities. Quan Cong Temple was built in 1653 and dedicated to the highly respected general Quan Cong
whose statue stands proudly in the temple with his two guardians on either side of him. People worship the statue in the name of sincerity and loyalty. The temple has been beautifully preserved and showcases intricate adornments in the architecture and many fascinating pieces of artwork.
My Son, built by the ancient Cham Kingdom.
Visitors can view the historical and ruins of My Son
which date back to the Cham Kingdom
. These temples were built according to the Hindu religion and sit in a basin encircled by mountains. The majority of the temples were constructed in red brick to worship the Hindu gods, in particular, Shiva. The intricate and complex architectural style of the temples shows not only ingenuity of the Cham people but also their dedication to religion. Unfortunately, bombing by the US during the war had devastating consequences on the stunning complex. Now the crumbling remains, although still immensely impressive, have somewhat given into the forces of nature with the bricks crumbling into the ground and the vegetation creeping up the sides of the temples. This fusion of history and nature, along with the secluded environment creates a mystical ambience for those who wander through the ruins.
Hoi An also has a collection of Museums to help visitors make sense of the town's rich history. Three of these are located in the Old Town. The Hoi An Museum of Museum of History and Culture
which documents Hoi An's development from the Cham period and throughout its years as a trading port. The museum itself is set in the grounds of the charming Quan Am Pagoda and showcases a range of interesting artefacts.
The Museum of Sa Huynh Culture
focusses on the ancient Sa Huynh culture who are widely believed to be the first people to settle Hoi An. The museum features fascinating artefacts such as terracotta pots, tools and weapons, some of which are believed to be 3000 years old.
The Museum of Trade Ceramics
is located in restored traditional timber building which inspires visitors to step back in time as they enter through the doors. Inside is a large collection of ceramics which tell the story of Hoi An's development. Here visitors can see the work of skilled artisans from Vietnam and its neighbouring countries. The beautifully decorated artefacts paint a picture of Hoi An and its significance as a trade port.
Aside from its rich history, modern day Hoi An still has plenty to offer its visitors. The town is a shopping paradise made even more enjoyable by the pedestrianised streets. Here you can wander at leisure through the quiet streets lined with colourful lanterns. Hoi An is famed for its many tailors offering exquisite tailoring at very reasonable prices. It is the perfect place to stock up on new suits and dresses with an endless variety of beautiful fabrics on offer. The fabric market
is a great place to pick your fabric before taking it to your chosen tailor. Here the mountains of material are stacked high, their colours and patterns creating a beautiful mural across the shop. Hoi An also has plenty of other shops selling everything from beautiful traditional Vietnamese decorations and traditional clothing to artwork and ceramics.
Tra Que Village, famous for its organic produce.
For those wanting to get out of the town and into nature, Hoi An and the surrounding areas have plenty of adventure opportunities. It is a great place to rent a bicycle and either join a tour or explore by yourself. One popular route takes cyclists down narrow roads, through the patchworks of agricultural land and past the lazy water buffalo to the charming Tra Que Village
. This sleepy village is renowned for its fresh organic produce that goes into the delicious local dishes of Hoi An. Here visitors can enjoy the relaxing environment or get stuck in and have a go at some of the traditional farming techniques themselves. Tra Que is the perfect place to nourish your body and soul.
A quiet corner of Hoi An River.
Hoi An also has beautiful beaches along its coastline. An Bang Beach
is an idyllic spot to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature. The tall palm trees cast lazy shadows across the soft white sand and the clear turquoise water is an enticing escape from the summer heat. Here visitors can relax under a palm umbrella and sip on a refreshing drink or take to the water for a spot of swimming or snorkelling.
Another place to experience the beauty of Hoi An's coastline is the archipelago of the Cham Islands
. Just a short journey from Hoi An will take you to this island paradise. Only one of the islands is inhabited, Hon Lao which has two small villages. Due to dangerous weather conditions, the islands can only be accessed for part of the year, from around March to September. The Cham Islands are an amazing spot for snorkelling and diving as there is a fascinating coral ecosystem which is home to many species of marine wildlife.
Culture and Arts
The Hoi An Traditional Art Performance Theatre
is a great place to experience the local music and folk dancing of Hoi An. The venue is intimate and modest but the performers and their colourful traditional costumes do a great job of bringing the fascinating history and folklore of the town to life.
Hoi An is awash with art galleries
and numerous studios
are dotted around the town. There is a great variation of mediums and styles on show from traditional painting to photography, woodwork, and ceramics. The skilled work reflects Hoi An's development and gives a beautiful illustration of how tastes have changed over time. Hoi An is also a great place to see the work of some amazingly skilled contemporary artists or even choose an original piece to take home.
There are many art galleries all over Hoi An.
Arguably the most amazing piece of art in the whole town is the living mural
of the lantern lined
streets. Each lantern glows, revealing the intricate patterns embroidered on the silk. The light radiates down the streets illuminating the richly textured yellow houses and reflecting softly on the river. This tranquil yet captivating scene is such a large part of what makes Hoi An so magical to visitors and locals alike.
The paper lanterns of Hoi An have become famous due to the festival.
A great place to experience local culture is Cam Kim Island
which sits peacefully in the middle of the Thu Bon River
. The recent addition of a bridge connecting Cam Kim to the mainland means it is now even more easily accessible. Whilst cycling around this serene island, visitors can learn more about the local culture. Here there are many families each specialising in a different skill. You can meet the families handmaking weaved floormats, their gardens decorated with the brightly dyed grass drying in the sun. You can learn about the production of traditional Vietnamese foods such as rice paper that is used in so many of the traditional dishes, and the infamous local rice wine. Also on the island is the fascinating wood carving village of Kim Bong
where you can see the skill that goes into each handcrafted piece. The island itself is a serene haven away from the shops and stalls, surrounded by luscious nature and roaming buffalo. It is the perfect place to meet local people and find out more about their trades and traditions whilst drinking in the beautiful surroundings.
Food and Drink
Hoi An has a whole host of restaurants and cafes for visitors to enjoy cuisines from all around the world. It is particularly beautiful during the evening when delicious, freshly prepared dishes can be enjoyed while taking in the lantern-lit scenery.
Cao Lau being served.
Hoi An has a distinguished cuisine with a number of dishes that are specific to the town. One example is Cao Lau,
a flavoursome noodle dish served with thinly sliced pork and green vegetables. It is the special mixture of water and ash used in the preparation that gives this dish its unique taste and texture. The water comes from an ancient Cham well and is combined with the ash of special trees from the Cham Islands to create a lye mixture which is used to cook the noodles. The somewhat mysterious and secretive recipe makes this dish even more enticing. White rose dumplings
are another speciality and local favourite of Hoi An. Rounds of rice paper are filled with either shrimp flavoured with herbs and spices (banh vac) or pork and mushrooms (banh bao) and formed into delicate dumplings. Once steamed, the edges of the rice paper curl slightly and the dumplings resemble small white flowers. Again this delightful food is a well-kept secret with the recipe being held by one family who supplies all of the restaurants with white rose dumplings.
Another dumpling dish popular in Hoi An is Hoanh Thanh wontons
. Wontons are Chinese in origin however the recipe has been altered over time to incorporate local taste. This crispy fried wonton is stuffed with seasoned pork and topped with fresh salsa made with cilantro, pineapple and cucumber. The flavours and textures compliment each other beautifully in these mouthfuls of Chinese and Vietnamese fusion.
A sweet treat to top off the amazing savoury foods of Hoi An is Xi Ma
. This is thick black pudding made from black sesame has a wonderful, rich, nutty flavour. It is made using local well water and served hot from steaming cauldrons at the side of the road.
Festivals and Events
Each month, the already charming Hoi An takes a step back in time as all of the electrical lights in the city are switched off, and motor vehicles are prohibited from entering the town. Rather than being plunged into darkness, the town glows with the light from hundreds of coloured lanterns. This spectacular event happens on the 14th day of every lunar month to celebrate the full moon
and creates a truly magical atmosphere. This is a chance for people to take time out to socialise and worship their ancestors and gods. The soft, warm light of the lanterns illuminates the crowds of people carrying out the ritual offerings to their ancestors and partaking in traditional games and activities. It is particularly beautiful from the water where people float small lanterns that bob down the river. A great way to enjoy the ambience is on one of the long sampan boats that float lazily down the river carrying visitors over the shimmering reflections and past the floating paper lights.
Decorations for Tet in Hoi An.
Hoi An also has an annual Chinese festival celebrated by the Chinese inhabitants at the Guangdong and Chaozhou Assembly Halls. Nguyen Tieu
is held on the 15th day of the lunar new year in celebration and honour of Emperor Shen Nong. People gather in temples and pagodas to make ceremonial offerings to their gods and the pray for health and prosperity in the coming years. The celebration lights up the town and brings with it a great sense of unity and community.
Children during Tet in Hoi An.
The festival of Long Chu is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh and eighth lunar month to ward off the disease and ill health that was often a threat during the warm, humid months of the summer. During the festival, a royal barge carved in the shape of a dragon floats down the river to rid the town of evil. The procession involves ceremonies in which the village's appointed spiritual doctor performs rituals to send the evil spirits into the water thereby protecting the health of the villagers. After the completion of the ceremonies, people from all around join in the celebration with singing, dancing, and traditional games.