Stepping back in time in Hoi An, Vietnam: Things to do & see


I had dreamt of visiting Hoi An ever since the first time I saw a surreal photo of the town all lit up with lanterns. It was difficult for me to believe the quaint charm the image exuded. I though perhaps some photography gimmick? I was sceptical but intrigued. After reading about the mélange of cultural influences this place has had, I was determined to check it out in person.

Unfortunately, when I visited Vietnam in 2017, I could not make it to Hoi An. So, when I went back to Vietnam for a second time in 2020, there was no way I was going to miss it. And I am happy to tell you, it was totally worth all the wait.

With the Thu Bon River flowing through its heart, Hoi An is an invitation to time-travel. The small town is a melting pot of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese architecture. The colourful streets of Hoi An are lined with postcard worthy houses. At night, as the lanterns that line its streets come alive, it makes you feel as if you are walking on a movie set. And yes, with the number of cute cafés and restaurants here, you will be tempted to stop and indulge yourself with good coffee every few meters. With the iconic yellow walls of this town providing the perfect backdrop against which to watch life unfold.

Things To do in Hoi An, Vietnam

Even though many people visit Hoi An for a couple of days or even save it for a day-trip, my husband and I decided to stay here for a full 4 days. Apart from spending a lot of time wandering its streets and trying out the afore-mentioned cafes, we made Hoi An our base to explore the neighbouring places. Well, not that we visited other famous landmarks, instead we just took our time exploring the rice fields, farms and beaches around Hoi An.

Speaking of road trips in Vietnam, you should read this before cruising through Vietnam on a motorbike.

Though I am a fan of unstructured slow travel sans any bucket list, it always helps to have a rough idea of what to expect when you land up someplace new. So to help you do a bit of your homework, below I share some of the things to do and see in Hoi An, Vietnam. In the last section of the article, find some travel tips I picked up while visiting Hoi An. These might come in handy for your own trip.

Explore Hoi An Ancient Town and get lost in its narrow lanes

I am not exaggerating when I say that walking around in Hoi An Ancient Town is a transportive experience. The town is strikingly well-preserved, with buildings bearing the clear vestiges of its Chinese, Japanese and French influenced architecture. The city was established in the 15th century and it became a trading centre and a major hub of commerce and cultural exchange. This ancient part of Hoi An is comprised of over a 1000 historic buildings, as well as a river bank, and old monuments which can be traced back to right when the city was a thriving port.

The varied influences of different cultures in the architecture of the city, is a clear indication of how rich this city’s history is. Every twist and turn on the road will lead you on to startlingly pretty corners, hidden museums or artistic boutiques and of course, extremely Instagram-worthy cafes and restaurants. There are also a lot of vendors in the street selling a variety of foods, drinks and souvenirs.

Hoi An Vietnam lantern festival and cafes
Hoi An Vietnam and its postcard pretty cafés

Enjoy the Lantern Festival and Night Market in Hoi An

The night-market in Hoi An is by now, iconic. The sight of Hoi An glittering with a cornucopia of lanterns hanging in almost every nook and cranny of the city, is unforgettable. The Thu Bon River too is filled with boats decorated with lanterns. My boat ride here at night, surrounded, by a sea of lanterns, is one of the most surreal memories from my trip to Hoi An.

The tradition of releasing lanterns onto the river, as a form of prayer for happiness, peace and prosperity, comes from its Chinese heritage. It is believed to have been started by the Han dynasty in China. Visitors are also welcome to participate.

Apart from this, the streets of the Hoi An are filled with street food carts and vendors selling a huge variety of things. These include everything from clothes, objects of decorations, musical instruments, to paper mache creations.

Japanese Covered Bridge – Cau Pagoda or Chùa Cầu

As I mentioned above, The whole of the Hoi An Ancient Town is like walking into a historical exhibit. But there are two monuments which deserve special mention.

The first, is the Cau Pagoda, which is a footbridge. It was constructed in the 17th century and it is referred to as the “Japanese bridge’ since it was made by Japanese merchants. The architecture of the bridge is very interesting because it is made of wood and is held up with bricks and stones. This bridge is a monument of national importance in Vietnam and can also be seen on the 20.000 Dong Vietnamese currency note.

Hoi An Vietnam café architecture
Hoi An is full of great restaurants and cafés

Quan Cong Temple

The second noteworthy mention is for Quan Cong Temple. With a vibrant pink coloured facade and green tiled roof, this temple is stunning to look at. When we visited the Quan Cong Temple, there was not a soul in sight inside the whole temple complex.

The courtyard had an interesting collection of bonsais and once, you walk across it, you reach the main temple-complex. The temple walls have gorgeous depictions of mythical creatures such as dragons and unicorns as well as many Chinese inscriptions. The main alter has a statue of Quan Cong, a military general, in whose honour this temple was constructed.

The combination of solitude and the dramatic beauty made me feel like I was walking in a parallel universe or a set from the Pixer movie Red Panda.

Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum

This place definitely does not get the amount of attention it deserves. Precious Heritage Art Gallery and Museum is an initiative by French photographer Réhahn. He is acclaimed worldwide for photographing and showcasing Vietnamese culture and it’s people.

The museum is a 5000 sq. metres space which is designed to showcase Vietnamese heritage. Here, various lesser known facets of the diversity of Vietnam and its people, are displayed. Over the years, Réhahn has painstakingly been collecting traditional dresses from various Vietnamese tribes and ethnic groups, as well as other cultural artefacts. These are displayed within the intimate setting of this small, but significant gallery and museum.

A visit here is a great opportunity to learn more the rich diversity of Vietnam, while enjoying the photographer’s stunning visuals of this gorgeous country.

Hoi An Vietnam Precious Heritage Gallery Museum
Hoi An Vietnam Precious Heritage Gallery Museum

Explore nearby beach and villages with a bicycle or scooter

There are a number of day-trips that could be taken from Hoi-An, such as to neighbouring Danang City, My Son or Hue. A trip to the beach too is super close by. You can easily rent a bike or a bicycle in the city and head to the nearest beach. It is barely 20 minutes away from Hoi An city by scooter. Exploring beyond the city limits of Hoi An also gives you a chance to enjoy the picturesque rice fields in the villages nearby.

Plus you might just discover hidden herb gardens or ponds filled to the brim with lotuses. Trust me, there are quiet a few of those too. For me, these unplanned detours are the highlight of any trip. And the picturesque roads around Hoi An do not disappoint.

Tips for visiting Hoi An, Vietnam

After reflecting on the trip, here are some travel tips that can help you have as stress-free a time as possible while travelling in Hoi An.

Begin your day as early as possible.

In Vietnam (and Asia in general), the day starts very early. And by ‘early’, I mean 6 or 7 A.M. Considering how the mid-day temperatures can rise as high as 35 °C even at 11 A.M. in summer, it is quite prudent to do as the locals do.

You will find that even your hotels and Airbnb’s start serving breaking from 6:30 AM! A lot of tours and trips also begin around the same time. The streets of Vietnam are also buzzing and alive even that early. So just embrace the local rhythm and start your exploration as early as possible.

Hoi An Vietnam ancient town
Colourful Hoi An

Hoi An during the day and Hoi An at night are two different planets.

During the day, Hoi An is quiet, save for the monuments of tourist attraction. But come nightfall, and it transforms completely. The lantern festival, the night market, the street vendors all create a raucously joyous atmosphere. But well, while it is fun, it could also get a tad too crowded and cramped especially on a weekend.

While the night life in Hoi An is not to be missed, make the best of your trip and carve out some time during the day. Walk around the city and really take in the history and beauty of this place.

Pack at least one cute outfit. Trust me on this one!

By now, I think I have made it ample clear how romantic this place can be. And by romantic, I do not mean you need to be coupled to enjoy it. By romantic, I mean the sensation of feeling immersed in this surreally beautiful place straight out of a storybook. Even if for it’s just for a couple of days.

So, take a cute dress along, and go for a special dinner. Even better, take yourself out for a boat ride even if you are travelling solo. Take some photos of yourself. But do go that extra mile to treat yourself! Also take that cheesy selfie by the glittering lantern lights, you will want to remember your time here.

Hoi An Vietnam café
The facades of Hoi An Vietnam

Don’t just come for a day-trip

With the amount of history, culture, food and nightlife here, Hoi An deserves more than just a day-trip. I would recommend you to stay here for at least 1 night. As I mentioned above, for me, it was an ideal base to explore the nearby places from. It was a welcome break after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and an opportunity to rest and rejuvenate.

Bargain while shopping, but be respectful.

Bargaining for prices is an accepted part of the culture in Vietnam. If you buy wares from hawkers on the street or local shops without fixed prices, you are free to bargain. But do remember to be respectful. Many westerners travel to places like Vietnam and expect to be handed things for peanuts. They might talk down to vendors and quote unreasonably low prices. The sellers may accept just because they need something to live on for that day. So, just don’t be that person!

Also, do not bargain as if it is a game. Because you are haggling around someone’s livelihood. Be respectful and quote prices you deem as fair and reasonable.

Note, bargaining does not occur in restaurants and food joints. They usually have a clearly displayed fixed prices.

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