South of Da Nang is Hoi An. This beautiful, UNESCO World Heritage Site has to be a contender for the most attractive town in Vietnam. A port town in years gone by and frequently flooded by the Thu Bon River and seasonal typhoons it retains its beauty. The Old Town is famous for the old Chinese shophouses, its canals and the number of tailors found here. If you want a well-tailored suit, shirt, skirt or dress, made to measure in 24-48 hours then this is the place to come.
At night, the town comes to life in a different way. Lit by thousands of lanterns it can be a delight to stroll through and with many good quality restaurants and bars it’s a great place to sit and chill.
The UNESCO designation of the Old Town means over 800 buildings are preserved as they have looked for centuries. They range from simple houses and shop fronts to the grand meeting places and temples. Technically, all visitors to Hoi An should buy an Old Town entrance ticket for 120,000 Dong, about £4. You could be stopped and asked to produce one. I certainly didn’t see this rule being enforced but if you want to visit many of the popular historical buildings you will need the ticket. It entitles you to enter 5 sites of your choice and you can’t pay at the door. Also, this money is being used for maintenance costs so that future generations of tourists will be able to appreciate it as much as you….so pay up!
Pagodas, Assembly Halls and more
Hoi An is full of well preserved and renovated buildings dating back hundreds of years. The town is a UNESCO site because it is such a well preserved example of a South East Asian trading port. There is a rich blend of both indigenous Vietnamese and foreign influence apparent in its architecture. If culture is your thing here’s a quick look at some of these sites.
Quan Cong Temple
Ancestor worship is common throughout SE Asia with most houses having an altar to the dead. There are also many temples to heroes celebrated in the same way. Quan Cong temple is one such example. The temple is dedicated to a Chinese general who is worshipped as a symbol of loyalty and justice. It is, obviously, on a much bigger scale than a home altar.
Minh Huong Communal House
Communal houses and assembly halls were used as both places of worship and for administrative functions within a community. Many were built to serve the Chinese communities and therefore incorporate Chinese designs. There are several examples within the city. The Minh Huong house was built by Ming Dynasty Chinese immigrants to Vietnam who were amongst the first Chinese to migrate here.
Also called the Cau Chua Pagoda the bridge was built in the 1590s to connect the Chinese and Japanese Quarters together. It contains a small shrine to a weather god where sailors would come and pray for good weather. These days, especially at night, it is simply heaving with tourists.
An interesting collection of artefacts looking at silkworm farming, fishing and handicrafts in old Hoi An. This palm-leaf raincoat looks amazing and could catch on.
Suits you sir
If you fancy splashing out on something in Vietnam then Hoi An is the place to come for a suit or a dress. With over 400 tailors in the town, there is probably something for almost every budget. What’s more, it is probably one of the cheapest places in the world for some good quality, tailored threads. Whether it be a silk dress or a wool & cashmere suit, there is a huge number of options available.
I went to Yaly Couture on Tran Phu Street and felt the service provided was excellent. You can bring your own design or browse the many books they have before deciding on the colour and fabric of your choice. Having chosen my fabric and design, the staff took more measurements than I realised were possible before lastly selecting the choice of silk lining for the garment. You can probably get your garments turned around in 24 hours but it’s better not to rush it if you can. By giving them 48 hours it was possible to get 2 fittings in and a much more comfortable finish than 24 hours would have allowed. They also delivered the finished article to my hotel before departure.
Hoi An After Dark
As the day grows old, the streets of Hoi An start to fill with more and more tourists. Mostly Chinese, who are staying in the hotels and resorts of Da Nang and make the 30-minute journey down the coast. As night falls, all the charming lanterns that line the streets advertising the local shops become something else. Lit up, the advertising disappears, turning the narrow streets of the town into a glowing bazaar of colour that transports you to the oriental world of the past.
The Thu Bon River here, and along Bach Dang, is full of lantern-lit boats and you’ll have no trouble getting a ride on the river if you want one. The boat owners are quite persistent. Alternatively, just do what many others are doing. Soak up the atmosphere, stop for a drink or bite to eat in one of the many bars and eateries and watch the world go by.
Surprisingly, Hoi An seems to have a curfew. By 10-10:30 pm, all the shops are shut and most of the lanterns turned off throughout the old town. Apart from the bars and restaurants on An Hoi island everyone seems to have gone to bed. Walking back through the town is quite eerie as there is barely a soul, or moped, around.
Hoi Na doesn’t flood every year, but it is fairly common. The rainy season runs from September to December. You can see from the picture below the frequency and magnitude of the worst floods that hit this area.
Other things to do in Hoi An
If you just want to chill and relax on a beach then Hoi An has something for you too. An Bang Beach is just a short Grab ride out of town where you’ll find the glorious sandy beach that extends from Da Nang. It is also almost deserted. Head to Kahuna’s Hoi An Beach Club where you can find sun loungers on the beach, SUP’s for hire, a refreshing swimming pool and great food and drink at reasonable prices. It is popular with backpackers so expect a youngish crowd.
If you didn’t manage to shop enough during the day then head to Nguyen Hoang Street for the night market. Along with coconut bowls and wooden chopsticks you can pick up lanterns in all manner of sizes to take back home. A word of warning though, once you get home you’ll wonder what you’ll do with it now. There is also a great variety of street food on offer, including freshly made ice cream rolls and grilled octopus. Not served together.
The Reunification Express connects Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city. The train runs on a single-track railway with passing points for when trains come in the other direction. You could, if you really wanted to, travel the whole way. It would take you between 33-36 hours. I think there are far better ways to spend your time, and besides, you wouldn’t get a chance to experience the beautiful towns, coastline etc. in between. I would, however, suggest taking the train for part of your journey.
We double-backed to Da Nang and caught the night train from there to Nha Trang which is a modest distance of 524km. Taking 10 hours it’s not really what one would call Express.
There are 4 options of travel available from a hard chair up to a 4 berth cabin with ‘soft’ bed. We opted to travel in style. However with narrow beds, freezing air-con and a clunky train it certainly isn’t the Orient Express, or even the 8:15 from Bedford to St. Pancras. But then, despite the classy name you shouldn’t really be expecting that. It serves its purpose and is an experience in itself that I’m glad I completed. Once the sun comes up you do get excellent views of the beautiful countryside as the train ploughs on.
Arriving in Nha Trang at 6 am gives you plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and to plan your day. Unlike Hanoi, Hue or Hoi An it isn’t rich in cultural or architectural sites although there are a small number to see. This beach city, with its long, sandy beach and high rise hotels, is reminiscent of Miami. The bay has 14 islands, with one popular trip being to island-hop on an organised tour for a day. We didn’t do this so I can’t comment on how good the experience is.
One of the islands just across the bay is dominated by the Vinpearl amusement park which can be reached by cable car. It will set you back 650,000 Dong (£22) which also includes entrance to the amusement park and all the rides. Sadly, you can’t just take a ride on the cable car. It does look impressive as it stretches out, over 3km (2 miles), across the bay.
The city has many high-end hotels and is very popular with both Russian and Chinese visitors. Western tourists are clearly in a minority here, so don’t be surprised if you are offered services in Russian, rather than English, as you walk around.
If it is ancient architecture you are after then the Temple at Po Nagar, on the north side of the Cái River, is well worth the visit. Built between the 7th and 12th centuries by the Cham people it was originally a site of Hindu worship. It is still used today for worship, but the locals have to fight their way through the tourists to get inside. If you are lucky you’ll also get to see some traditional dancers performing in their brightly coloured costumes.
Tam Bun Thap Ba Mud Spa
Whilst you’re on the north side of the river, you could take time to visit one of the spas and relax in a therapeutic mud bath. Yes, mud bath. Wallow like a hippo for 15 minutes in warm mud before soaking in hot mineral water. It’s supposed to be good for the skin. If you go to somewhere like Tam Bun Thap Ba you’ll pay just 200,000 Dong (£6.75) and can spend the rest of the day sitting in the pleasant gardens with free use of the swimming pools and waterfalls. Quite the bargain.
Both these sites are easily accessible by taxi from hotels. You may find it difficult to get a Grab taxi back from the spas but the metered taxi is still reasonably priced and was available immediately when I left.
The beach is a gorgeous sandy beach with sunbeds to rent for the day and a range of beach bars along the front. You will also get the obligatory beach vendors offering you anything from tasty doughnuts and fresh fruit to t-shirts and knock-off Raybans.
Assuming you manage to safely cross the non-stop traffic in the evening, then the boardwalk is a great place to walk. You’ll find both locals and tourists out enjoying themselves. It offers the best views of the high rise hotels, lit up by neon and LED. Even the cyclos are lit up like Christmas trees.
Whilst we were in town there was a Festival of Lights on the beachfront which was incredibly popular with selfie-takers, kids and adults alike.
From Nha Trang, it is just a short, 45-minute flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the Mekong Delta.
For more information on North Vietnam:
Click here to find out about Hanoi and Halong Bay.
Click here for more on Hue, Da Nang and roads in between.