Travel / Vietnam

The Lanterns of Hoi An

With it’s traditional Vietnamese buildings, multi coloured lanterns, lush green countryside and white sandy beach, it’s no surprise that Hoi An is a very popular Vietnamese destination. It quickly became one of my favourite places on our Southeast Asia trip, and you could tell that many people felt the same way. It was very busy with tourists, even though it was the rainy season. The weather, much to our surprise, was glorious for a few days in a row and our time in Hoi An really felt like a holiday.

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We rented motorcycles in Hué and drove to Hoi An ourselves. Loads of backpackers rent or buy bikes and drive the whole length of Vietnam, and we read that the stretch between Hué and Hoi An was meant to be one of the best. We drove along busy main roads, through farm land, over a mountain range and along the coast. The Hai Van Pass, which is the part of the journey that crosses the mountains, offers some lovely views. The day we went was fairly cloudy, so it wasn’t great for photos, but I can see why it’s such a popular road to drive. As we reached the top, we were waved to one side and told that there was a large forest fire not far down the road and the traffic had been stopped in both directions. We could see smoke emerging beyond the trees and we started to consider an alternative route (which apparently involved going all the way back down the mountain, loading our bikes onto a lorry and catching a lift through the large tunnel at the bottom, although it wasn’t very clear). Luckily for us, however, while we were discussing what to do a bike emerged over the hill and the driver called to us that the road had been reopened. The fire was under control so we continued our drive down the road through the smoke, which obscured our view of some beaches that looked like completely isolated patches of paradise – typical! We stopped off in Da Nang, Vietnam’s third largest city, which is situated right on the coast. We cooled down in the sea and had a rest on the beach, which is set against a backdrop of large brand new glitzy hotels, and a few building sites. Once a little more rested, we completed the final leg of our mini road trip and arrived in Hoi An in the evening.

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We didn’t get a good look at the town until the following day, when we borrowed bicycles from our hosts and took to the streets. The old town is full of beautifully preserved buildings, in colours of yellow and terracotta, which have been turned into quaint gift shops, tailors, cobblers, restaurants and museums. Along the edge of the canal cycling proved a little more difficult and we had to concentrate to not crash into pedestrians or animals, but the busyness didn’t bother me. The town had a cheerful atmosphere, definitely heightened by the yellow facades and the sunshine. A canal runs right through the old town, and on the other side it was much less busy, and was home to sleepy family-run restaurants, 20p local beer and a very friendly puppy.

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We purchased a tourist ticket which includes all the historical sites and museums of the town. We visited a ceramics museum, housed in an ancient rickety wooden building which I actually thought was more interesting than the ceramics themselves. On the canal there’s also the Japanese Bridge, a rather small but beautiful tourist attraction which divides two sections of the town. On the other side, lining the canal, was a wonderful little exhibition of portraits of local Vietnamese women. A few streets back from the canal is the Hoi An Museum, which offers information on the town’s history and it’s important role in shipping and importing during the Early Modern period. There’s certainly a lot to see and learn in Hoi An.

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Perhaps most famous of all, is Hoi An’s night market. Most postcards of Hoi An have photos of incredible paper lanterns, which at night line the small cobbled streets of the market. If I didn’t have several more months of travelling to go, I would’ve definitely bought several. The market is also a good place to buy typical Vietnamese souvenirs like T shirts and colourful silk scarves, and a great place to try some interesting street food.

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Aside from the market and historical buildings, one of the things Hoi An is most well-known for is its abundance of cheap, high quality tailors. Toby had decided to get a suit made as a birthday present from his dad, so we chose one that had been recommended by a friend (there really are so many to choose from, we thought that was as good a way as any). Toby chose his style and was measured up. His suit took two days to fully complete, and he had some shirts made too. Grace and I were completely convinced it was a brilliant idea, so we had some trousers fitted too. We then went round the corner to a leather shop, and Toby got some made-to-measure smart shoes. Once again, Grace and I were highly impressed and I ended up getting a pair of leather brogues and Grace got a handbag. It felt so luxurious! It was all so cheap, especially as you can show them a picture of almost anything and they will make it for you. As much as we tried, we couldn’t persuade Matt to get anything for himself, which was a shame as it was very enjoyable picking out your own design and having them made.

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Along with all the town centre has to offer, Hoi An also has a beautiful beach just a short cycle ride away. Hoi An was one of my favourite places to visit for just this reason; it has the best of both worlds. When it got too hot and we were a bit tired from the busy streets, we hopped on our bikes and went to the coast. The road to the beach takes you through some lovely countryside, with luscious green paddy fields on both sides. The beach itself, although busy, was much nicer than the one we had visited a few days earlier in Da Nang. After a few days of sightseeing it was a real treat to relax on the beach and cool down in the sea.

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As you can probably tell, I really liked Hoi An. Yes, it was busy and it was touristy, but sometimes the best places are. Hoi An is popular and I think it wholly deserves its popularity. It’s a place with an abundance of attractions and lovely streets to wander through, and when you’re tired it’s a great place to people watch from quaint canal-side cafes, adorned, of course, with lanterns.

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