Vietnam is a destination that speaks to travelers for a number of reasons, but has an especially emotional connection with Americans. Visiting the country today is an eye-opening experience for many.
Guest contributor, Teresa Otto from The Nomad’s Daughter is here to tell us all about her recent trip to the country where she found that Vietnam has way more to offer than its reputation as a former war-torn country. Take a look at her tips for how to spend three days in Hoi An.
Three Days in historic Hoi An, Vietnam
My uncle survived two tours of duty in Vietnam. I imagined him trekking through jungles that swallowed people and spit them out broken. I thought about John McCain’s unwanted stay in the Hanoi Hilton. And I vividly remembered seeing the war’s death toll on the evening news.
This was the Vietnam I expected to experience. We did, in fact, explore the Mekong Delta and Hanoi, getting the Vietnamese perspective on the ‘American War.’ But it was the visit to the less hectic, less well-known city of Hoi An that captured my attention and made me realize Vietnam was so much more than a former war zone.
Midway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An provides both historical and cultural perspective on Vietnam. Three days, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, one ancient lunar festival, and a half-day cooking school in Hoi An allows a glimpse into Vietnam, past and present. Here are suggestions to best spend your time in this golden coastal city.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Hoi An’s Old Town
Hoi An’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 21 historical places to visit. Built on a trading site from the Cham people, the current Old Town, with its gold stucco facades, dates to the 1400s when it was a major port and commerce center between Europe and Asia.
Learn more on an Hoi An Ancient Town walking tour. Book here.
Japanese and Chinese immigration influenced the Old Town’s homes, temples, pagodas, and assembly halls.Step back in time by touring homes with period furniture and housewares, including ceramics that were actively traded when it was a major port city. Descendants of the original owners still live in some of the houses.
Assembly halls were both temples and places to conduct business. Worship continues in these ornate buildings decorated in vibrant colors, with prime examples of craftsmanship such as mosaics, statues, and wood carvings.
Check out Hoi An Museum for its rooftop view of the city. Although the Precious Heritage Museum is not one of the UNESCO sites, the gallery highlights the work of French photographer, Rehahn, who is known for his iconic portraits of ethnic people in Vietnam.
One must-see is the Japanese covered bridge linking the old Japanese and Chinese sections of Hoi An. The covered wooden bridge, built in the 1590s, is the symbol of Hoi An. Chinese characters above the entrance translate to “Bridge for passengers from afar” and a temple to the Taoist God of Weather, Tran Vo Bac De, is located inside.
In addition to the historical sites, Old Town is loaded with coffee shops, restaurants, handicraft shops, tailors (who can make clothing for you in two to three days with patterns and cloth you choose), and unique hotels.
Buy the Old Town entrance ticket for 120,000 VND (Vietnamese dong), about $5 USD, at a kiosk at one of the main entrances. The ticket gives you access to a traditional performance plus five of the 21 sites noted on the map you receive when you buy a ticket. If you’re interested in seeing more sites, all you need to do is purchase another ticket.
All of Hoi An’s Old Town is easily explored on foot, on a rental bike, or by bicycle taxi.
Spend a half-day biking on a Hoi An culinary food tour. See more.
Unlike Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, Old Town is free from motorcycles that come in waves and make crossing the street in these large cities a death-defying act. Motorcycles are only allowed between 11 am and 3 pm and overnight. Cars and taxis aren’t allowed at all.
The Second UNESCO World Heritage Site: My Son
While Hoi An was originally a commercial center for the Cham people, their nearby spiritual center was My Son. My Son, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a Hindu temple complex built from the 4th to the 13th centuries.
After paying the entrance fee (150,000 VND or $6.50 USD) visit the museum. From there a tram takes you to the looped walking trail that winds through the ruins. Many reddish-brown brick buildings are intact even though no mortar was used during construction.
The site is open from 6:30 am to 5:30 pm. Large tour groups overrun the complex in the morning, so if you arrive in the early afternoon, the crowds thin out.
Hail a taxi from Hoi An Old Town for the 45- to 60-minute trip through farmland still worked by man and beast. If you’re hungry, enjoy the dish of the day at the My Son taxi stand before you enter. We had pho (a noodle soup dish) and a soft drink for about $3 USD—the best pho we ate in Vietnam.
An Ancient Ritual: The Lantern Festival
Timing your visit to coincide with the monthly lantern or full moon festival (schedule for 2019) is key. Fabric lanterns hung on storefronts and strung between the golden stucco buildings along Old Town’s main street, Tran Phu, add a pop of color each evening.
But on the eve of the full moon, Old Town’s lights are turned off and candles light the way. The lunar festival celebrates ancestors. Residents leave gifts of carved fruit and gold chrysanthemums on altars to ask for prosperity and to honor their loved ones.
Ancestor worship is a part of everyday life but is an especially memorable affair during the full moon. Children sell red and gold paper boats with candles and their parents row visitors in painted wooden boats up and down the Thu Bon River (for a negotiated fee of $15 to 20 USD).
Visitors set their paper boats free with a single lit candle in honor of their relatives that have passed away. Although the festival occurs each month, the biggest celebration happens on the lunar New Year (January 25, 2020).
Learning something new: Red Bridge Cooking School
Red Bridge’s small group cooking classes begin at Old Town’s open-air meat, fish, and vegetable market. The chef describes how he chooses fresh ingredients for the day’s recipes. The class then climbs aboard a painted wooden boat for a short trip upriver to the Red Bridge Cooking School.
This is a hands-on class. We ate fresh rice paper shrimp rolls as an appetizer before we made the Quang noodle chicken and steamed ocean fish entrees we shared at the end of class. Vegetarian meals are available.
If you don’t enjoy cooking, learn lantern-making from the Lantern Lady, improve your photography skills with a private lesson, or lounge on a beach for the afternoon. After all, it is a vacation.
Best place to stay in Hoi An
Stay in Old Town Hoi An, as the place is yours after the crowds leave. We stayed in Vinh Hung Heritage Hotel. This 200-year old Chinese merchant’s courtyard house is furnished with antique carved wooden furniture. The hotel’s claim to fame was its use as Michael Caine’s dressing room during the filming of The Quiet American.
I think its outstanding feature is the fact you can stay in a historic building, with all the modern conveniences, eat a robust buffet breakfast with fresh fruit, French pastries, and Vietnamese coffee right in the center of Old Town. If you prefer to stay in for dinner, make a reservation for a traditional Vietnamese meal served at 6pm.
Where to eat in Hoi An
Hai Café serves traditional Vietnamese rice paper rolls, dumplings, baguette sandwiches, and beef noodle soup plus international favorites in a former merchant house. Sit in the courtyard near the outdoor kitchen where the aroma of barbequed beef, chicken, pork, fish and vegetables will make your mouth water. The menu includes plenty of vegetarian options as well.
Spending three days in Hoi An was a fun boomer travel adventure exploring history, food and culture.
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