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2 days in Hoi An: Unveiling Vietnam’s Luminous Beauty

A stroll through Hoi An, by far the best-preserved old town in Vietnam, gives you a rare feeling of stepping back in time. The pretty lantern-decorated streets reveal a cosmopolitan architecture that reflects the past of this once prosperous trading port.

Situated on the banks of the Thu Bon River, Hoi An is a coastal town in Vietnam that captivates visitors with its historic charm, well-preserved architecture and peaceful ambience. Not only have the ancient buildings survived the wars of the 20th century, but they have also retained traditional features that are rare today.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hoi An offers a unique experience that harmoniously blends history, culture and natural beauty. It was a fantastic discovery, and I recommend it to every traveller on a trip to Vietnam.

Discover Hoi An through its history and heritage

Hoi An’s history goes back many centuries, as a prosperous trading port from the 15th to the 19th century. Once known as “Faifo”, the town was a major trading hub, attracting merchants from all over the world. Today, the vestiges of this flourishing era can be seen in its exceptional architecture, with wooden houses with yellow facades adorned with colourful lanterns.

The historic heart of Hoi An is the Old Town, a maze of narrow streets lined with traditional Chinese, Japanese, French and Vietnamese houses. Most of these buildings have been remarkably preserved, creating a unique and timeless atmosphere that transports visitors back in time.

The city is renowned for its well-preserved architecture, reflecting the influence of different cultures over the centuries. The Japanese Bridge, an emblematic symbol of Hoi An, is a perfect example of this cultural fusion. Built in the 17th century by the Japanese community, the bridge is adorned with sculptures and statues that tell its fascinating story.

Chinese trading houses, such as the House of Tan Ky, are living witnesses to the city’s past prosperity. With their richly carved wooden balconies, peaceful courtyards and preserved artefacts, these houses offer a captivating glimpse of life in Hoi An over the centuries.

To wander around the old town, we were told that we had to buy a ticket from an official ticket office for around VND 120,000. This would allow you to walk freely around the city while being able to enter 5 of the 22 heritage sites in the historic centre. In reality, the system is a bit confusing as it doesn’t specify whether you need a ticket per day or not, and in the end, we managed to get past this by wandering around the old town without a ticket and even crossing the Japanese Bridge without anyone stopping us.

The lights of Hoi An

Hoi An is also famous for the colourful lanterns that light up the city once the sun goes down. The narrow streets come alive with a soft glow, creating a magical and romantic atmosphere. The lanterns are not only a decorative element, but also an important cultural symbol.

The lantern festival, which takes place every month during the full moon, is one of the most special moments in Hoi An. The city is immersed in the glow of floating lanterns on the river, traditional performances and religious ceremonies. It’s a unique experience that celebrates the culture, spirituality and beauty of Hoi An.

So we couldn’t miss out on an iconic craft: making our lantern. Indeed, the narrow streets of the old town are full of workshops where craftspeople skilfully transform delicate silk paper and shimmering silk into brightly coloured and intricately patterned lanterns. One morning, we booked our activity through Airbnb.

To make short work of this wonderful experience, we had the opportunity to take part in a workshop, where we learned the painstaking art of lantern making, from cutting out the patterns to delicately assembling the pieces. It took a lot of patience and delicacy (two adjectives I don’t usually associate with myself), but the result was well worth the effort.

This experience not only offers a fascinating insight into the cultural heritage of Hoi An, but also allows us to create tangible memories of our time in Vietnam by customising our lantern.

Later that evening, as we wandered through the narrow streets of the old town, the countless lanterns lit up with a magical glow, creating an enchanting atmosphere to which we seemed to contribute.

Get your hands dirty in the mud of a pottery village

When you’re in Hoi An, I recommend getting out of the city for a while and exploring a quieter way of life at the Thanh Ha pottery village. It can be a bit touristy, but if you’re willing to get your hands dirty (with clay here), learn a few pottery techniques and have some fun in the process, it could be well worth the diversions.

So we decided to visit the pottery village of Thanh Ha, renowned for its traditional crafts. Although our experience wasn’t entirely conclusive, as we were mainly encouraged to buy (and also our pottery didn’t look like anything), we nevertheless had a great time. Indeed, it was interesting to see rudimentary blocks of clay being transformed into works of art by the expert hands of the artisans in the pottery village, rather than our less-than-skilful hands.

This village has an ancient history dating back to the 16th century, having begun in the village of Thanh Liem before moving to the Thanh Ha district where it now stands. The 16th and 17th centuries are considered to be the heyday of this village, where its ceramic products were even presented to the king.

You can hire a bike to get here, as many people do in Hoi An, although I’d recommend taking a taxi or Grab (the local uber – very convenient and cheap) instead.

Access to the Thanh Ha pottery village is subject to an entrance fee of VND30,000. This fee includes a small souvenir offered by one of the houses, but I’ll leave it to you to find out what it is!

In addition, access to the Terracotta Park, also located in Thanh Ha village, requires an extra charge of VND50,000.

Tailor-made clothes in Hoi An

After a few minutes in the town, what jumped out at us – apart from their obvious love of lanterns – was the fact that the place was full of tailor shops.

As we explored Hoi An, we were often approached by people offering their services and showing us catalogues proving their skills. I was looking for pashmina, not tailor-made clothes.

Although there are many quality establishments, the number of options is impressive and many of them work on commission. Don’t hesitate to scout around before stopping at a shop, if you’re in the mood to make your clothes.

Getting to Hoi An

There is no airport or train station in Hoi An, so you have to take the scenic route. The nearest and best-served city is Da Nang.

From Ninh Binh and Hué, where we spent half a day brunching and discovering its imperial city (I highly recommend it but don’t spend any more time there), there are several transport options.

The most common method is to take a bus, which offers a relatively comfortable and affordable journey. Local and tourist buses run regularly between the two cities, offering travellers a variety of timetables and fares – but after the night train, we wanted a bit of comfort.

Another popular option is to hire a scooter or motorbike to enjoy a more flexible journey and have the option of stopping to admire the scenery along the way – a great idea if I knew how to manoeuvre such a bike.

So if you prefer a quicker, more convenient journey, you can also opt for a taxi or private car service, which is what we did. You can find many travel agencies offering this service on the Internet. I don’t remember which one we used when we left Hue, but it was a comfortable drive, albeit in complete fog, as the weather wasn’t quite right for us to enjoy the scenic route.

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