Hoi An

Itinerary Route Map

Graceful, historic Hoi An is Vietnam’s most atmospheric and delightful town. Once a major port, it boasts the grand architecture and beguiling riverside setting that befits its heritage, but the 21st-century curses of traffic and pollution are almost entirely absent. Whether you’ve as little as a day or as long as a month in the town, it’ll be time well spent.

Hoi An owes its easygoing provincial demeanour and remarkably harmonious old-town character more to luck than planning. Had the Thu Bon River not silted up in the late 19th century – so ships could no longer access the town’s docks – Hoi An would doubtless be very different today. For a century, the city’s allure and importance dwindled until an abrupt rise in fortunes in the 1990s, when a tourism boom transformed the local economy. Today Hoi An is once again a cosmopolitan melting pot, one of the nation’s most wealthy towns, a culinary mecca and one of Vietnam’s most important tourism centres.

This revival of fortunes has preserved the face of the Old Town and its incredible legacy of tottering Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples and ancient tea warehouses – though, of course, residents and rice fields have been gradually replaced by tourist businesses. Lounge bars, boutique hotels, travel agents and a glut of tailor shops are very much part of the scene here. And yet, down by the market and over on Cam Nam Island you’ll find life has changed little. Travel a few kilometres further – you’ll find some superb bicycle, motorbike and boat trips – and some of central Vietnam’s most enticing, bucolic scenery and beaches are within easy reach.

  • History

The earliest evidence of human habitation here dates back 2200 years: excavated ceramic fragments are thought to belong to the late Iron Age Sa Huynh civilisation, which is related to the Dong Son culture of northern Vietnam. From the 2nd to the 10th centuries, this was a busy seaport of the Champa kingdom, and archaeologists have found the foundations of numerous Cham towers around Hoi An.

In 1307 the Cham king presented Quang Nam province as a gift when he married a Vietnamese princess. When his successor refused to recognise the deal, fighting broke out and chaos reigned for the next century. By the 15th century peace was restored, allowing commerce to resume. During the next four centuries Hoi An – also known as Faifoo to Western traders – held sway as one of Southeast Asia’s major ports. Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Indian, Filipino, Indonesian, Thai, French, British and American ships came to call, and the town’s warehouses teemed with treasures: high-grade silk (for which the area is famous), fabrics, paper, porcelain, tea, sugar, molasses, areca nuts, pepper, Chinese medicines, elephant tusks, beeswax, mother-of-pearl, lacquer, sulphur and lead.

Chinese and Japanese traders in particular left their mark on Hoi An. Both groups came in the spring, driven south by monsoon winds. They would stay in Hoi An until the summer, when southerly winds would blow them home. During their four-month sojourn in Hoi An, they rented waterfront houses for use as warehouses and living quarters. Some began leaving full-time agents in Hoi An to take care of their off-season business affairs.

The Japanese ceased coming to Hoi An after 1637 (when the Japanese government forbade contact with the outside world), but the Chinese lingered. The town’s Chinese assembly halls still play a special role for southern Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese, some of whom come from all over the region to participate in congregation-wide celebrations.

This was also the first place in Vietnam to be exposed to Christianity. Among the 17th-century missionary visitors was Alexandre de Rhodes, who devised the Latin-based quoc ngu script for the Vietnamese language.

Although Hoi An was almost completely destroyed during the Tay Son Rebellion, it was rebuilt and continued to be an important port until the late 19th century, when the Thu Bon River silted up. Danang (Tourane) took over as the region’s main port.

Under French rule Hoi An served as an administrative centre. It was virtually untouched in the American War, thanks to the cooperation of both sides. The town was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1999 and there are now very strict rules in place to safeguard the Old Town’s unique heritage.

Today Hoi An’s economy is booming. Tourist arrivals rose 22% between 2012 and 2013, and at times the Old Town can struggle to contain the sheer number of visitors. A glut of new accommodation options have opened around the town’s periphery, as Hoi An expands to meet the seemingly insatiable demand from the ever-hungry tourism sector.

WATERWORLD

Hoi An’s riverside location makes it vulnerable to flooding during the rainy season (October and November). It’s common for the waterfront to be hit by sporadic floods of about 1m and a typhoon can bring levels of 2m or more.

  •  Sights

By Unesco decree more than 800 historical buildings in Hoi An have been preserved, so much of the Old Town (www.hoianworldheritage.org.vn; tickets 120,000d) looks as it did several centuries ago.

The Chinese who settled in Hoi An identified themselves according to their province of origin. Each community built its own assembly hall, known as hoi quan in Vietnamese, for social gatherings, meetings and celebrations.

All the old houses except Diep Dong Nguyen and Quan Thang now offer short guided tours. They are efficient, but sometimes coming across as perfunctory. You’ll be whisked to a heavy wooden chair while your guide recites a carefully scripted introduction to the house, and given a souvenir soft sell. You’re free to wander around the house after the tour.

One downside to putting these old houses on show is that what were once living spaces now seem dead and museum-like, the family having sequestered itself away from visitors’ eyes. Huge tour groups can completely spoil the intimacy of the experience too, as they jostle for photo opportunities.

All four museums are small. Displays are pretty basic and the information provided minimal.

Eighteen of these buildings are open to visitors and require an Old Town ticket for admission; the fee goes towards funding conservation work. Buying a ticket at any of the Old Town booths is easy enough; planning your visit around the byzantine admission options is another matter. Each ticket allows you to visit five different heritage attractions: museums, assembly halls, ancient houses and a traditional music show at the Handicraft Workshop. Tickets are valid for three days.

Despite the number of tourists who flood into Hoi An, it is still a conservative town. Visitors should dress modestly, especially since some of the old houses are still private homes.

  •  Japanese Covered Bridge BRIDGE

(Cau Nhat Ban) This beautiful little bridge is emblematic of Hoi An. A bridge was first constructed here in the 1590s by the Japanese community in order to link them with the Chinese quarters across the stream.

The structure is very solidly constructed because of the threat of earthquakes. Over the centuries the ornamentation has remained relatively faithful to the original understated Japanese design. The French flattened out the roadway for their motor vehicles, but the original arched shape was restored in 1986.

The entrances to the bridge are guarded by weathered statues: a pair of monkeys on one side, a pair of dogs on the other. According to one story, many of Japan’s emperors were born in the years of the dog and monkey. Another tale says that construction of the bridge started in the year of the monkey and was finished in the year of the dog. The stelae, listing all Vietnamese and Chinese contributors to a subsequent restoration of the bridge, are written in chu nho (Chinese characters) – the nom script had not yet become popular.

While access to the Japanese Bridge is free, you have to surrender a ticket to see a small, unimpressive temple built into the bridge’s northern side.

 Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation TEMPLE

(Phuc Kien Hoi Quan; opposite 35 Ð Tran Phu; admission by Old Town ticket;  7am-5.30pm) Originally a traditional assembly hall, this structure was later transformed into a temple for the worship of Thien Hau, a deity from Fujian province. The gaudy, green-tiled triple gateway dates from 1975.

The mural on the right-hand wall depicts Thien Hau, her way lit by lantern light as she crosses a stormy sea to rescue a foundering ship. Opposite is a mural of the heads of the six Fujian families who fled from China to Hoi An in the 17th century.

The penultimate chamber contains a statue of Thien Hau. To either side of the entrance stand red-skinned Thuan Phong Nhi and green-skinned Thien Ly Nhan, deities who alert Thien Hau when sailors are in distress.

In the last chamber, the central altar contains seated figures of the heads of the six Fujian families. The smaller figures below them represent their successors as clan leaders. Behind the altar on the right are three fairies and smaller figures representing the 12 ba mu (midwives), each of whom teaches newborns a different skill necessary for the first year of life: smiling, sucking and so forth. Childless couples often come here to pray for offspring and leave fresh fruit as offerings.

 Tan Ky House HISTORICAL BUILDING

(101 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc; admission by Old Town ticket; 8am-noon & 2-4.30pm) Built two centuries ago by an ethnically Vietnamese family, this gem of a house has been lovingly preserved through seven generations.

Look out for signs of Japanese and Chinese influences on the architecture. Japanese elements include the ceiling (in the sitting area), which is supported by three progressively shorter beams, one on top of the other. Under the crab-shell ceiling are carvings of crossed sabres wrapped in silk ribbon. The sabres symbolise force, the silk represents flexibility.

The interior is brightened by a beautiful detail: Chinese poems written in inlaid mother-of-pearl hang from some of the columns that hold up the roof. The Chinese characters on these 150-year-old panels are formed entirely of birds gracefully portrayed in various positions of flight.

The courtyard has several functions: to let in light, provide ventilation, bring a glimpse of nature into the home, and collect rain water and provide drainage. The carved wooden balcony supports around the courtyard are decorated with grape leaves, which are a European import and further evidence of the unique blending of cultures in Hoi An.

The back of the house faces the river and was rented out to foreign merchants. Marks on one wall record recent flood heights, including the 1964 record when the water covered almost the entire ground level. There are two pulleys attached to a beam in the loft – in the past they were used for moving goods into storage, and today for raising furniture for safekeeping from the floods.

The exterior of the roof is made of tiles; inside, the ceiling consists of wood. This design keeps the house cool in summer and warm in winter.

Tran Family Chapel HISTORICAL BUILDING

(21 Ð Le Loi; admission by Old Town ticket;  7.30am-noon & 2-5.30pm) Built for worshipping family ancestors, this chapel dates back to 1802. It was commissioned by Tran Tu, one of the clan who ascended to the rank of mandarin and served as an ambassador to China. His picture is to the right of the chapel.

The architecture of the building reflects the influence of Chinese (the ‘turtle’ style roof), Japanese (triple beam) and vernacular (look out for the bow-and-arrow detailing) styles.

The central door is reserved for the dead – it’s opened at Tet and on 11 November, the death anniversary of the main ancestor. Traditionally, women entered from the left and men from the right, although these distinctions are no longer observed.

The wooden boxes on the altar contain the Tran ancestors’ stone tablets, with chiselled Chinese characters setting out the dates of birth and death, along with some small personal effects. On the anniversary of each family member’s death, their box is opened, incense is burned and food is offered.

After a short tour you’ll be shown to the ‘antique’ room, where there are lots of coins for sale, and a side room full of souvenirs.

Quan Cong Temple 

(Chua Ong; 24 Ð Tran Phu; admission by Old Town ticket) Founded in 1653, this small temple is dedicated to Quan Cong, an esteemed Chinese general who is worshipped as a symbol of loyalty, sincerity, integrity and justice. His partially gilded statue, made of papier-mâché on a wooden frame, is on the central altar at the back of the sanctuary. When someone makes an offering to the portly looking Quan Cong, the caretaker solemnly strikes a bronze bowl that makes a bell-like sound.

On the left of Quan Cong is a statue of General Chau Xuong, one of his guardians, striking a tough-guy pose. On the right is the rather plump administrative mandarin Quan Binh. The life-sized white horse recalls a mount ridden by Quan Cong.

Check out the carp-shaped rain spouts on the roof surrounding the courtyard. The carp is a symbol of patience in Chinese mythology and is popular in Hoi An.

Shoes should be removed when mounting the platform in front of the statue of Quan Cong.

Phuoc Lam Pagoda 

(Thon 2a, Cam Ha;  8am-5pm) This pagoda (founded in the mid-17th century) is associated with An Thiem, a Vietnamese prodigy and monk from the age of eight. When he was 18, he volunteered for the army so his brothers could escape the draft; he eventually rose to the rank of general. Later he returned to the monkhood, but to atone for his sins of war he volunteered to clean the Hoi An market for 20 years, then joined this pagoda as its head monk.

To reach the pagoda, continue past Chuc Thanh Pagoda for 500m. The path passes an obelisk that was erected over the tomb of 13 ethnic Chinese who were decapitated by the Japanese during WWII for resistance activities.

MUSEUM

(80 Ð Tran Phu; admission by Old Town ticket;  7am-5.30pm) Occupies a simply restored wooden house and contains artefacts from all over Asia, with oddities from as far afield as Egypt. While this reveals that Hoi An had some rather impressive trading links, frankly it would take an expert eye to appreciate the display. However, the small exhibition on the restoration of Hoi An’s old houses provides a useful crash course in Old Town architecture.

Chinese All – Community Assembly Hall HISTORICAL BUILDING

(Chua Ba;  0510-861 935; 64 Ð Tran Phu;  8am-5pm)  Founded in 1773, this assembly hall was used by Fujian, Cantonese, Hainan, Chaozhou and Hakka congregations in Hoi An. To the right of the entrance are portraits of Chinese resistance heroes in Vietnam who died during WWII. The well-restored main temple is a total assault on the senses with great smoking incense spirals, demonic-looking deities, dragons and lashings of red lacquer – it’s dedicated to Thien Hau.

Assembly Hall of the Chaozhou Chinese Congregation HISTORICAL BUILDING

(Trieu Chau Hoi Quan; opposite 157 Ð Nguyen Duy Hieu; admission by Old Town ticket;  8am-5pm) Built in 1752, the highlight in this congregational hall is the gleaming woodcarvings on the beams, walls and altar – absolutely stunning in their intricacy. You could stand here for hours to unravel the stories, but if you’re just popping by quickly, look for the carvings on the doors in front of the altar of two Chinese women wearing their hair in an unexpectedly Japanese style.

Chuc Thanh Pagoda 

(Khu Vuc 7, Tan An;  8am-6pm) Founded in 1454 by a Buddhist monk from China, this is the oldest pagoda in Hoi An. Among the antique ritual objects still in use are several bells, a stone gong that is two centuries old and a carp-shaped wooden gong said to be even more venerable.

To get to Chuc Thanh Pagoda, go north all the way to the end of Ð Nguyen Truong To and turn left. Follow the lane for 500m.

Handicraft Workshop 

(9 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc; admission by Old Town ticket) Housed in the 200-year-old Chinese trading house, the Handicraft Workshop has artisans making silk lanterns and practising traditional embroidery in the back. In the front is your typical tourist-oriented cultural show (10.15am and 3.15pm) with traditional singers, dancers and musicians. It makes a sufficiently diverting break from sightseeing.

Tran Duong House HISTORICAL BUILDING

(25 Ð Phan Boi Chau; admission 20,000d; 8am-5.30pm) There’s a whole block of colonnaded French colonial buildings on Ð Phan Boi Chau between Nos 22 and 73, among them the 19th-century Tran Duong House. It’s still a private home, so a family member will show you around. There’s some antique French and Chinese furniture, including a sideboard buffet and a sitting room set with elaborate mother-of-pearl inlay. By contrast, the large plain wooden table in the front room is the family bed.

Hoi An Museum of History & Culture

(7 Ð Nguyen Hue; admission by Old Town ticket; 7am-5.30pm) Housed in the Quan Am Pagoda, this museum provides a sampling of pre-Cham, Cham and port-era artefacts, with some huge bells, historic photos, old scales and weights alongside plenty of ceramics.

Quan Thang House HISTORICAL BUILDING

(77 Ð Tran Phu; admission by Old Town ticket;  7am-5pm) This house is three centuries old and was built by an ancestor who was a Chinese captain. As usual, the architecture includes Japanese and Chinese elements. There are some especially fine carvings of peacocks and flowers on the teak walls of the rooms around the courtyard, on the roof beams and under the crab-shell roof (in the salon beside the courtyard).

Assembly Hall of the Cantonese Chinese Congregation HISTORICAL BUILDING

(Quang Trieu Hoi Quan; 176 Ð Tran Phu; admission by Old Town ticket;  8am-5pm) Founded in 1786, this assembly hall has a tall, airy entrance hall that opens onto a splendidly over-the-top mosaic statue of a dragon and a carp. The main altar is dedicated to Quan Cong. The garden behind has an even more incredible dragon statue.

Assembly Hall of the Hainan Chinese Congregation HISTORICAL BUILDING

(Hai Nam Hoi Quan; 10 Ð Tran Phu;  8am-5pm)  Built in 1851, this assembly hall is a memorial to 108 merchants from Hainan Island who were mistaken for pirates and killed in Quang Nam Province in 1851. The elaborate dais contains plaques to their memory. In front of the central altar is a fine gilded woodcarving of Chinese court life.

Phung Hung Old House HISTORICAL BUILDING

(4 Ð Nguyen Thi Minh Khai; admission by Old Town ticket; 8am-7pm) Just a few steps down from the Japanese Covered Bridge, this old house has a wide, welcoming entrance hall decorated with exquisite lanterns, wall hangings and embroidery. There’s also an impressive suspended altar.

Diep Dong Nguyen House HISTORICAL BUILDING

(58 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc;  8am-noon & 2-4.30pm)  Built for a wealthy Chinese merchant in the late 19th century, this old house looks like an apothecary from another era. The front room was once a dispensary for thuoc bac (Chinese medicine); the medicines were stored in the glass-enclosed cases lining the walls.

Museum of Folklore in Hoi An

(33 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc/62 Ð Bach Dang; 7am-5.30pm) Located in a 150-year-old Chinese trading house. The exhibits give some idea of local customs and culture, though it’s awfully dusty and decontextualised for a folk-history museum. The view of the river from upstairs is very picturesque.

Phac Hat Pagoda 

(673 Ð Hai Ba Trung)  Phac Hat Pagoda has a colourful facade of ceramics and murals and an elaborate roof with snake-like dragons. There’s a huge central courtyard containing hundreds of potted plants and bonsai trees.

Museum of Sa Huynh Culture & Museum of the Revolution

(149 Ð Tran Phu; admission by Old Town ticket;  7am-5.30pm) On the lower floor you’ll find stone, bronze, gold, glass and agate jewellery, assorted ceramic fragments and burial jars dating from the early Dong Son civilisation of Sa Huynh. The upper floor’s revolution museum was closed at the time of research.

Museum of Sa Huynh Culture & Museum of the Revolution LANDMARK

 This square well’s claim to fame is that it’s the source of water for making authentic cao lau, a Hoi An speciality. The well is said to date from Cham times and elderly people make their daily pilgrimage to fill pails here. To find it, turn down the alley opposite 35 Ð Phan Chu Trinh and take the second laneway to the right.

HOI AN HOUSES: A CLOSER LOOK

The historical buildings of Hoi An not only survived the 20th century’s wars, they also retain features of traditional architecture rarely seen today. As they have been for centuries, some shopfronts are shuttered at night with horizontal planks inserted into grooves that cut into the columns that support the roof.

Some roofs are made up of thousands of brick-coloured am and duong (yin and yang) roof tiles – so called because of the way the alternating rows of concave and convex tiles fit snugly together. During the rainy season the lichens and moss that live on the tiles spring to life, turning entire rooftops bright green.

A number of Hoi An’s houses have round pieces of wood with an amduong symbol in the middle surrounded by a spiral design over the doorway. These mat cua (door eyes) are supposed to protect the residents from harm.

Hoi An’s historic structures are gradually being sensitively restored. Strict rules govern the colour that houses can be painted and the signs that can be used.

It’s not just individual buildings that have survived – it’s whole streetscapes. This is particularly true around Ð Tran Phu and waterside promenade Ð Bach Dang. In the former French quarter to the east of Cam Nam Bridge there’s a whole block of colonnaded houses, painted in the mustard yellow typical of French colonial buildings.

  •  Activities

Diving & Snorkelling

A trip to the Cham islands is a superb excursion, and Hoi An’s two dive schools offer some tempting packages, including overnight camping and diving trips. The diving is not world class, but can be intriguing, with good macro life.

Both dive schools charge almost exactly the same rates: a PADI Discover Scuba dive costs US$70, two fun dives are US$75 to US$80, while Open Water courses start at US$360. Snorkelling costs US$35 to US$42, depending on the trip, including gear.

It’s usually only possible to dive or snorkel between February and September; the best conditions and visibility are in June, July and August.

Cham Island Diving Center DIVING

( 0510-391 0782; www.chamislanddiving.com; 88 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc) Run by a friendly, experienced team, this dive shop’s mantra is ‘no troubles, make bubbles’. They’ve a large boat and also a speedboat for zippy transfers. Their overnight snorkelling and camping trip costs US$80.

Blue Coral Diving 

( 0510-627 9297; www.divehoian.com; 77 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc) A friendly, professional outfit with an 18m dive boat and additional speedboat. Chief instructor is Steve Reid from the UK.

Massage & Spa

There are scores of massage and treatment centres in Hoi An. Most are of a very average quality indeed, run by locals with little or no experience and minimal training. At these places a basic massage costs around US$12 an hour – there’s a strip of them on Ð Ba Trieu. At the other end of the scale you’ll find some seriously indulgent places that offer a wonderful spa experience (with prices to match); these are mostly based in the luxury hotels.

 Palmarosa SPA

( 0510-393 3999; www.palmarosaspa.vn; 90 Ð Ba Trieu; 1hr massage from US$21;  10am-9pm) A cut above the competition this highly professional spa offers a full range of massages (including Thai and Swedish), scrubs, facials as well as hand and foot care. A mineral mud wrap is US$17.

Countryside Charm SPA

(Duyen Que;  0570-350 1584; http://spahoian.vn; 512 Ð Cua Dai; 1hr massage from US$16; 8am-11pm) On the beach road, this centre has fairly functional premises, but you’ll find staff are well trained and know their stuff. A 70-minute hot-stone massage is US$22.

Ba Le Beauty Salon SPA

( 0905 226 974; www.balewellbeautysalon.com; 45-11 Ð Tran Hung Dao;  9am-6.30pm) Ba Le is run by a fluent English speaker, who has trained in the UK, and offers inexpensive threading, waxing, facials, manicure and pedicures.

  •  Courses

Cooking

Hoi An has become a mecca for Vietnamese cooking courses, with almost every restaurant offering classes. These range from a simple set-up in someone’s backyard to purpose-built schools.

The town does make an ideal place for budding chefs. There are many local specialities unique to the Hoi An region, but most are fiendishly tricky to prepare.

Courses often start with a visit to the market to learn about key Vietnamese ingredients.

Green Bamboo Cooking School 

( 0905 815 600; www.greenbamboo-hoian.com; 21 Ð Truong Minh Hung, Cam An; per person US$35) Directed by Van, a charming local lady, accomplished chef and confident English speaker, these courses are more personalised than most. Groups are limited to a maximum of 10, and take place in Van’s spacious kitchen. You choose what you want to cook from a menu with dishes including banana blossom salad with shrimp and pork and lots of vegetarian choices. It’s 5km east of the centre, near Cu Dai beach.

Morning Glory Cooking School 

( 0510-224 1555; www.restaurant-hoian.com; 106 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc; half-day course US$27) This is the cooking course that put cooking courses on the map. It’s directed by the acclaimed Trinh Diem Vy, owner of several restaurants in town, or one of her protégés. Classes concentrate on local recipes including cao lau and ‘white rose’. You’ll learn to cook in a very professionally organised, school-room-style environment. However, note that classes can have up to 30 people and some people feel the whole experience is perhaps just a little too slick and organised.

Red Bridge Cooking School 

( 0510-393 3222; www.visithoian.com/redbridge; Thon 4, Cam Thanh) At this school, going to class involves a relaxing 4km cruise down the river. There are half-day (US$29) and full-day (US$47) courses, both of which include market visits. The half-day class focuses on local specialities, with rice-paper making and food decoration tips thrown in for good measure. The full-day class, which has a maximum of eight people, is more detailed: you’ll learn how to make a classlic pho (beef noodle soup). As an added sweetener, there’s a 20m swimming pool at the school! It’s 4km east of the centre on the banks of the Thu Bon river.

Yoga

Hoi An Yoga YOGA

( 0168 8741 406; http://hoianyoga.com; 193 Ly Thai To) Professional hatha and yin yoga classes either on An Bang beach (meet at La Plage restaurant) or in a studio 2km north of Hoi An. Weekdays only; check the website for the latest schedule.

TOURS AROUND HOI AN

The evergreen, quintessentially Vietnamese countryside and rural lanes around Hoi An beg to be explored, and you’ll find several excellent tour operators offering trips in the region. Motorbike and bicycle trips are wildly popular and there’s no better way to appreciate the countryside than on two wheels. Jeep tours are another option.

The idyllic Cham Islands make another perfect day-trip destination during the March to September season. Both Hoi An dive schools run tours.

Hoi An Motorbike Adventures ( 0510-391 1930; www.motorbiketours-hoian.com; 111 Ba Trieu, Hoi An; tours US$40-1050) Specialises in tours on cult Minsk motorbikes. The guides really know the terrain and the trips make use of beautiful back roads and riverside tracks.

Phat Tire Ventures ( 0510-653 9839; www.ptv-vietnam.com; 62 Ba Trieu) Offers a terrific mountain bike trip to My Son ruins that takes in country lanes and temple visits.

Hoi An Free Tour ( 0510-097 958 7744; www.hoianfreetour.com) Ride on a bike around the fringes of Hoi An with students. You get to meet the locals and see village life, they get to practise their English.

Taste of Hoi An ( 0905 382 783; www.tasteofhoian.com) Walk the streets to meet the vendors, then munch your lunch an ancient (air-conditioned!) Hoi An townhouse.

Heaven & Earth ( 0510-386 4362; www.vietnam-bicycle.com; 57 Ð Ngo Quyen, An Hoi; tours US$15-19) Cycling tours are well thought out and not too strenuous; they explore the Song Thu river delta area.

Love of Life ( 0510-393 9399; www.hoian-bicycle.com; 95B Ð Phan Chu Trinh; tours US$19) Has good bicycle tours along quiet country lanes past vegetable gardens and fishing villages, and walking tours of Hoi An.

Vietnam Jeeps ( 0510-391 1930; www.vietnamjeeps.com; 111 Ba Trieu) Heading up into the hills of behind Hoi An, this group offers tours in original US jeeps to a Co Tu tribal village. There are hot springs and great hikes in the region.

Hoi An Eco Tour ( 0510-392 8900; www.hoianecotour.com.vn; Phuoc Hai village; tours US$38-72) Offers cultural activities along the river: you can fish, paddle a basket boat, ride a buffalo or learn about wet rice planting.

  •  Festivals

Hoi An is a delightful place to be on the 14th day of each lunar month, when the town celebrates a Full Moon Festival ( 5-11pm). Motorised vehicles are banned from the Old Town, street markets selling handicrafts, souvenirs and food open up, and all the lanterns come out! Traditional plays and musical events are also performed.

  •  Sleeping

Hoi An has an excellent selection of good-value accommodation in all price categories. There are only a couple of hotels in the Old Town, but plenty of options close by. Many budget and midrange places are spread out to the northwest around Ð Hai Ba Trung and Ð Ba Trieu. The pretty An Hoi Peninsula is also very close to the Old Town.

There were no hostels in Hoi An at the time of research, but three places have dorms. Many luxury hotels are a few kilometres from town, on the beach, but all offer shuttle-bus transfers.

The best places book up fast, so plan as far ahead as you can and confirm shortly before you arrive.

Nhi Trung Hotel $

( 0510-386 3436; 700 Ð Hai Ba Trung; r US$17-27) Around 1.5km north of the Old Town, this well-run hotel has spacious, light rooms, some with balconies, that represent excellent value. The free breakfast (pancakes, omelettes, fruit) is superb.

Sunflower Hotel $

( 0510-393 9838; http://sunflowerhotelhoian.com; 397 Cua Dai; dm US$7, r US$20-22) Popular place 2km east of the centre with a hostel vibe that draws lots of young backpackers. Dorms are decent and the buffet breakfast will set you up for the day.

Phuong Dong Hotel $

( 0510-391 6477; www.hoianphuongdonghotel.com; 42 Ð Ba Trieu; s/d/tr US$13/16/20) It’s nothing fancy, but a safe budget bet: plain, good-value rooms with comfortable mattresses, reading lights, fridge and air-con. The owners rent motorbikes at fair rates too.

Hoang Trinh Hotel $

( 0510-391 6579; www.hoianhoangtrinhhotel.com; 45 Ð Le Quy Don; s/d/tr US$20/25/30) Well-run hotel with helpful, friendly staff where travellers are made to feel welcome. Rooms are quite ‘old school’ Vietnamese but spacious and clean. A generous breakfast and pick-up are included.

Hoa Binh Hotel $

( 0510-391 6838; www.hoianbinhhotel.com; 696 Ð Hai Ba Trung; dm US$9, r US$15-25) A good selection of modern rooms, all with minibar, cable TV and air-con, and a reasonable dorm. The inclusive breakfast is good, but the pool is covered by a roof.

Nha Nghi Quynh Chan GUEST HOUSE $

( 0510-353 3977; 9 Ð Nguyen Phuc, An Hoi; r US$15-20) Owned by a friendly lady, these five modern, well-kept rooms (all with fridge and some with balcony) are located in a block opposite the Vung Hung Riverside Resort.

 Ha An Hotel HISTORIC HOTEL $$

( 0570-386 3126; www.haanhotel.com; 6-8 Ð Phan Boi Chau; r US$60-120) Elegant and refined, the Ha An feels more like a colonial mansion than a hotel. All rooms have nice individual touches – a textile wall hanging or painting – and views over a gorgeous central garden. The helpful, well-trained staff make staying here a very special experience. It’s about a 10-minute walk from the centre in the French Quarter.

Thien Nga Hotel $$

( 0510-391 6330; thienngahotel@gmail.com; 52 Ð Ba Trieu; r US$35) This place has a fine selection of rooms, most are spacious, light and airy and have a balcony and a minimalist feel (though the bathrooms are more prosaic). Book one at the rear if you can for garden views. Staff are smiley and accommodating, and breakfast is generous. The pool is covered by a roof though.

Vinh Hung 3 Hotel $$

( 0510-391 6277; www.hoianvinhhung3hotel.com; 96 Ð Ba Trieu; r US$37-43) A fine mini hotel with modish rooms that have huge beds, dark-wood furniture, writing desks and satellite TV; some rooms also have balconies. All bathrooms are sleek and inviting, and breakfast is included. The rooftop pool area is perfect for catching some rays or cooling off.

Thien Thanh Hotel $$

(Blue Sky Hotel;  0510-391 6545; www.hoianthienthanhhotel.com; 16 Ð Ba Trieu; r US$40-60, ste US$68) Staff are dressed in traditional ao dai at this atmospheric hotel and maintain good service standards. The hotel’s spacious, inviting and well-equipped rooms enjoy a few Vietnamese decorative flourishes, DVD players and bath-tubs. At the rear the pool is a small indoor-outdoor affair, but the oasis-like rear garden is a real bonus.

Long Life Riverside HOTEL $$

( 0510-391 1696; www.longlifehotels.com; 61 Ð Nguyen Phuc Chu; r US$42-75 ste US$90) Impressive hotel with a peaceful riverside setting in An Hoi Peninsula where there’s virtually zero traffic noise to contend with. Rooms are spacious, all boasting tasteful modern furnishings, a computer and state-of-the-art bathrooms complete with jazzy jacuzzi-style bath-tubs. The pool area, in the centre of the hotel, is a bit of an afterthought however.

Orchid Garden Hotel GUEST HOUSE $$

( 0510-386 3720; www.hoianorchidgarden; 382 Ð Cua Dai; r US$40-60) Between town and beach about 2.5km east of the centre, this little guesthouse has spacious accommodation with hardwood and marble flooring. The inviting bungalows with kitchen are ideal for self-catering and guests get free bike use and breakfast.

Hoi An Garden Villas $$

( 0510-393 9539; http://hoiangardenvillas.com; 145 Ð Tran Nhat Duat; r US$64-114) Enjoying a tranquil location on a quiet, suburban lane this eight-roomed hotel has attractive rooms all with huge beds, bath-tubs, a balcony or terrace with pool views and fine-quality furnishings. It’s about 2km east of the centre.

Windbell Homestay  $$

( 0510-393 0888; www.windbellhomestay.com.vn; Chau Trung, Cam Nam Island; r US$65, villas from US$110) A luxury homestay with lovely spacious rooms and villas that either have a pool or garden view and a huge flat-screen TV. The host family is a delight. Located in Cam Nam island, a 10-minute walk from the Old Town, which offers a more local experience.

 Hoi An Chic Hotel$$$

( 0510-392 6799; www.hoianchic.com; Ð Nguyen Trai; r US$96) Surrounded by rice fields, halfway between the town and the beach, Hoi An Chic enjoys a tranquil, near-rural location. A lot of thought has gone into the design, with hip, colourful furnishings, outdoor bathrooms and an elevated pool. Staff are very eager to please, and there’s a free shuttle (in an original US jeep!) to town. It’s 3km east of the centre.

Little Hoi An HOTEL $$$

( 0510-386 9999; http://littlehoian.com; Ð Nguyen Phuc Chu; r/ste from US$75/90) Boasting a superb position opposite the old town in tranquil An Hoi this new hotel has real polish and class. Rooms are very comfortable indeed, with furnishings that are very high grade, and sleek en-suite bathrooms. Staff are welcoming and there’s a good restaurant and small spa. The pool is tiny and covered.

Vinh Hung 1 Hotel HISTORICAL HOTEL $$$

( 0510-386 1621; www.vinhhunghotels.com.vn; 143 Ð Tran Phu; r US$80-110) For a unique Hoi An experience, this hotel (occupying a 200-year-old townhouse) is unmatched. The whole timber structure simply oozes history and mystique – you can almost hear echoes of the house’s ancestors as they negotiate spice deals with visiting traders from Japan and Manchuria. Rooms at the rear are a little dark – if you can, book 208 (featured in Michael Caine’s version of The Quiet American), which has a wonderful street-facing wooden balcony.

Anantara Hoi An Resort $$$

( 0510-391 4555; http://hoi-an.anantara.com; 1 Ð Pham Hong Thai; r/ste from US$120/145) There’s a real attention to detail at this large colonial-style resort with beautifully furnished rooms that have a really contemporary look, and wonderful bathrooms. The expansive grounds are immaculately maintained and there’s a classy bar, fine restaurant, cafe, spa and sublime riverside pool area. It’s located in the French Quarter, a short walk from the heart of town.

  •  Eating

Hoi An is a premier-league dining destination. Central Vietnamese cuisine is arguably the nation’s most complex and flavoursome, combining judicious use of fresh herbs (which are sourced from organic gardens close by) with extraneous influence due to centuries of links with China, Japan and Europe.

The beauty of Hoi An is that you can snag a spectacular (and spectacularly) cheap meal at the central market and in casual eateri es – or you can splash out on a serious fine-dining experience.

Being such a cosmopolitan place, Hoi An is also blessed with myriad international dining choices too, including a Parisian-style bakery and a North Indian tandoori.

 Mermaid Restaurant VIETNAMESE $

( 0510-386 1527; www.restaurant-hoian.com; 2 Ð Tran Phu; most dishes 38,000-95,000d;  10.30am-10pm) For local specialities, you can’t beat this modest little restaurant, owned by local legend Vy, who chose the location because it was close to the market, ensuring the freshest produce was directly at hand. Hoi An’s holy culinary trinity (cao lau, white rose and banh xeo) are all superb, as are the special fried wontons.

Bale Well VIETNAMESE $

(45-51 Ð Tran Cao Van; meals 45,000-85,000d;  11.30am-10pm) Down a little alley near the famous well, this local place is renowned for one dish: barbecued pork, served up satay-style, which you then combine with fresh greens and herbs to create your own fresh spring roll. Non-touristy, and has plenty of atmosphere in the evenings.

The Market VIETNAMESE $

(http://msvy-tastevietnam.com/the-market; Ð Nguyen Hoang, An Hoi; dishes 55,000-90,000d;  11am-9.30pm) Offering a (sanitised) street food–style experience for those slightly wary, this huge new place has food stations cranking out Vietnamese favourites like cabbage leaf dumplings with fish and mushrooms. You sit on benches in a courtyard-like space; drinks include lassis, fruit crushes, smoothies and juices.

Little Menu VIETNAMESE $

(www.thelittlemenu.com; 12 Ð Le Loi; dishes 50,000-135,000d;  7am-9.30pm) English-speaking owner Son is a fantastic host at this great little restaurant with an open kitchen and short menu – try the fish in banana leaf or duck spring rolls.

Phone Café VIETNAMESE $

(80b Ð Bach Dang; dishes 22,000-62,000d;  7am-9pm) This humble-looking place serves up the usual faves, plus some good clay-pot specialities.

 Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant VIETNAMESE $$

( 0510-224 1555; www.restaurant-hoian.com; 106 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc; dishes 45,000-130,000d;  8am-11pm) An outstanding restaurant in historic premises that concentrates on street food and traditionally prepared dishes (primarily from central Vietnam). Highlights include the pork-stuffed squid, and shrimp mousse on sugarcane skewers. There’s an excellent vegetarian selection (try the smoked eggplant) including many wonderful salads. Prices are reasonable given the surrounds, ambience and flavours.

 Cargo Club INTERNATIONAL, VIETNAMESE $$

(0510-391 0489; www.restaurant-hoian.com; 107 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc; dishes 35,000-105,000d;  8am-11pm) Remarkable cafe- restaurant, serving mainly Western food, with a terrific riverside location (the upper terrace has stunning views). A full day here catching the vibe and munching your way around the menu would be a day well spent. The breakfasts are legendary (try the eggs benedict), the patisserie and cakes are to die for, and fine dining dishes seriously deliver, too.

Ganesh Indian Restaurant INDIAN $$

( 0510-386 4538; www.ganeshindianrestaurant.com; 24 Ð Tran Hung Dao; meals 65,000-135,000d;  noon-10.30pm) A highly authentic, fine-value North Indian restaurant where the tandoor oven pumps out perfect naan bread and the chefs’ fiery curries don’t pull any punches. Unlike many curry houses, this one has atmosphere, and also plenty of vegetarian choices. Slurp a lassi or slug back a beer and you’re set.

White Sail Cafe VIETNAMESE, SEAFOOD $$

(Canh Buom Trang; 134 Ð Tran Cao Van; meals 50,000-155,000d;  7am-10pm) Enjoyable little restaurant serving authentic Vietnamese food including great squid (stuffed or salt ‘n’ pepper), smoked eggplant with tamarind and caramelised prawns. Prices are moderate, though the kitchen can struggle a bit at busy times.

White Sail Seafood $$

(47/6 Trang Hung Dao; dishes 45,000-140,000d;  11.30am-10pm) Very local, no-frills place in someone’s scruffy backyard, where it’s all about the freshness of the seafood. Little English is spoken, but the cooking is first-rate, with perfectly grilled fish, crab, giant prawns and fragrant steamboats. Not to be confused with the tourist-geared White Sail Cafe.

Ca Mai VIETNAMESE $$

(45 Ð Nguyen Thi; meals 90,000-170,000d;  7am-10pm) Casual new cafe owned by Duc (of Mango Mango fame) which has something for everyone with Hoi An specialities and pan-Asian dishes including great tempura and Peking duck. The cocktails here are amazing too (happy hour is 5 pm to 7pm).

Miss Ly Cafeteria 22 VIETNAMESE $$

( 0510-386 1603; 22 Ð Nguyen Hue; dishes 28,000-110,000d;  9am-9pm) A refined little restaurant run by a Vietnamese–North American team with mellow music and antique wall prints. Dishes include tasty cao lau, and other Vietnamese favourites are well presented.

Hai Cafe INTERNATIONAL $$

(www.visithoian.com; 98 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc; meals 75,000-140,000d;  7am-11pm) Hai Cafe has a front porch for people-watching, a rear courtyard garden and an atmospheric dining room. It’s good for a Western breakfasts and Vietnamese dishes, and has a popular evening barbecue.

Gourmet Garden INTERNATIONAL $$

(www.gourmetgarden-hoian.com; 55 Ð Le Loi; tapas 40,000-60,000d, mains 85,000-130,000d; 7am-10pm) This restaurant occupies a beautifully restored town house and Mediterranean -style rear patio, and has an eclectic menu of Asian and Western dishes, including lots of Spanish tapas. Doubles as a wine bar.

Mango Mango FUSION $$$

( 0510-391 0839; www.themangomango.com; 45 Ð Nguyen Phuc Chu; meals US$25-35; 7am-10pm) Celebrity chef Duc Tran’s most beautiful Hoi An restaurant enjoys a prime riverside plot and puts a global spin on Vietnamese cuisine, with fresh, unexpected combinations to the max. Perhaps at times the flavour matches are just a little too out there, but the cocktails are some of the best in town.

Green Mango VIETNAMESE, INTERNATIONAL $$$

(www.greenmango.vn; 54 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc; meals 130,000-300,000d; 11.30am-9.30pm) The setting, inside one of Hoi An’s most impressive traditional wooden houses is beautiful, and the accomplished cooking (both Western and Eastern) matches the surrounds. There’s also one of the only air-conditioned dining rooms in the Old Town upstairs.

A HOI AN TASTER

Hoi An is a culinary hot bed and there are some unique dishes you should be sure to sample.

‘White rose’ or banh vac is an incredibly delicate, subtely-flavoured shrimp dumpling topped with crispy onions. Banh bao is another steamed dumpling, this time with minced pork or chicken, onions, eggs and mushrooms that’s said to be derived from Chinese dim sum. Cao lau is an amazing dish – Japanese-style noodles seasoned with herbs, salad greens and bean sprouts and served with slices of roast pork. Other local specialities are fried hoanh thanh (wonton) and banh xeo (crispy savoury pancakes rolled with herbs in fresh rice paper). Most restaurants serve these items, but quality varies widely.

  •  Drinking

Hoi An is not a huge party town as the local authorities keep a fairly strict lid on late-night revelry. The Old Town is a great place to treat yourself to a cocktail or a civilised glass of wine.

Bar action tends to be just across the river in An Hoi. Happy hours keep costs down considerably. Most bars close by 1am in Hoi An, though Why Not? usually stays open till the wee hours. If you’ve the stamina for more action, catch one of the free minibus shuttles that leave Before & Now to the Zero SeaMile club on Cua Dai Beach.

 Dive Bar BAR

(88 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc;  8am-midnight) The best bar in town, with a great vibe thanks to the welcoming service, contemporary electronic tunes and sofas for lounging. There’s also a cocktail garden and bar at the rear, pool table and pub grub.

White Marble BAR

(www.visithoian.com; 99 Ð Le Loi;  11am-11pm) Wine-bar-cum-restaurant in historic premises with an unmatched selection of wines (many are available by the glass, from US$4) and refined ambience. Lunch and dinner set meals cost 200,000d.

Why Not? BAR

(10B Ð Pham Hong Thai;  5pm-late) Great late-night bar 1km east of the centre, run by a friendly local character. Choose a tune from YouTube and it’ll be beamed over the sound system. There’s a popular pool table and usually a party vibe in the air. Yes, things can get very messy.

Q Bar LOUNGE, BAR

(94 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc;  noon-midnight) Q Bar offers stunning lighting, lounge music and electronica, and the best (if pricey at around 100,000d) cocktails and mocktails in town. Draws a cool crowd and it’s gay-friendly.

Before & Now BAR

(www.beforennow.com; 51 Ð Le Loi; 7am- midnight) Popular but slightly bland travellers’ bar, complete with pool table and clichéd paintings of the likes of Che, Marilyn and so on. Happy hour is from 6pm to 9pm.

3 Dragons PUB

(51 Ð Phan Boi Chau; 7.30am-midnight) Half sports bar (where you can watch everything from Aussie Rules to Indian cricket) half restaurant (burgers, steaks and local food).

Sun Bar BAR

(44 Ð Ngo Quyen, An Hoi; 5pm-1am) Backstreet backpackers’ bar with a booming sound system (choose a tune from the playlist), dance floor and happy hour (8pm to 11pm).

  •  Shopping

Hoi An has a history of flogging goods to international visitors, and today’s residents haven’t lost their commercial edge. It’s common for travellers not planning to buy anything to leave Hoi An laden down with extra bags – which, by the way, you can buy here too.

Clothes are the biggest lure. Hoi An has long been known for fabric production, and the voracity of tourist demand has swiftly shoehorned enough tailor shops for a small province into the tiny Old Town. Shoes, also copied from Western designs, are also popular but quality is variable.

Hoi An has over a dozen art galleries too; check out the streets near the Japanese Covered Bridge, along Ð Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. Woodcarvings are a local speciality: Cam Nam village and Cam Kim island are the places to head for.

 Metiseko CLOTHING

(www.metiseko.com; 86 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc;  9am-9.30pm) Winners of a 2013 Sustainable Development award, this ecominded store stocks gorgeous clothing (including kids’ wear), accessories, and homeware such as cushions using natural silk and organic cotton.

 Reaching Out SOUVENIRS, CLOTHING

(www.reachingoutvietnam.com; 103 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc;  8am-8pm) Excellent fair-trade gift shop that stocks good-quality silk scarfs, clothes, jewellery, hand-painted Vietnamese hats, handmade toys and teddy bears. The shop employs and supports artisans with disabilities.

Lotus Jewellery ACCESSORIES

(www.lotusjewellery-hoian.com; 100 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc;  8am-8.30pm) Very affordable and attractive hand-crafted pieces loosely modelled on butterflies, dragonflies, Vietnamese sampans, conical hats and Chinese symbols.

Mosaique Decoration HANDICRAFTS

(www.mosaiquedecoration.com; 6 Ð Ly Quoc; 7.30am-8pm) Offers stylish modern lighting, silk, linen and hemp clothing, bamboo matting, hand-embroidered cushion covers, gifts and furniture.

Avana CLOTHING

(www.hoiandesign.com; 57 Ð Le Loi;  8am-8pm) Stylish boutique run by a European fashion designer that stocks fab off-the-peg dresses, blouses, shoes and accessories (including great hats and bags).

Tuoi Ngoc HANDICRAFTS

(103 Ð Tran Phu;  7am-8pm) This family-owned business has been making Chinese-style lanterns for generations and has a great selection for sale.

Randy’s Book Xchange BOOKS

(www.randysbookxchange.com; To 5 Khoi Xuyen Trung;  9.30am-6pm Mon-Sat) Head to Cam Nam Island and take the first right to get to this bookshop. Set up like a personal library, it has more than 5000 used books for sale or exchange and offers digital downloads too.

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