Hoi An is about midway between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi up the Vietnamese coast. If you’re traveling between the two largest cities in Vietnam, it is the perfect spot to take a break. It’s also worthy of a visit on its own merits.
I stopped there for a few days to take a break from the Reunification Express train ride between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Hoi An turned out to be much more culturally interesting to me than the two larger cities and, ultimately, was my favorite stop in Vietnam.
In stark contrast to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Hoi An is very walkable. You don’t have to dodge a dozen motorbikes when you cross the street like you do in the larger cities. You can rent a motorbike if you wish, but it won't be necessary if you stay in the city center.
Hoi An is also a much more relaxing city to explore – even the garbage trucks play music on pickup day. You can walk for hours perusing the shops and then stretch out on the beach or take a swim.
Most of the city's attractions are just a few blocks apart in the Old Town area. The central market by the river gives a feel for how the locals interact. Get there as early as possible. Hoi An is shopping heaven for souvenirs, clothes, handicrafts, ceramics and Asian art. Prices are low, and the shopkeepers are not shy about inviting you into their stores.
Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the 18th century, it was considered to be the most important trading town in Southeast Asia by Chinese and Japanese merchants. The influence of the Chinese and Japanese is evident in the architecture that characterizes the town. The Museum of Trade Ceramics provides a good introduction to Hoi An’s history and culture.
Buy a ticket in Old Town that gives you access to five of the city's top historic attractions for just $5. The most interesting visits for me were to the homes that had been passed down through as many as eight generations and combined influences of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese architecture. Many of these buildings have been well preserved.
The Tan Ky and Hung Phung houses are a couple examples. In the latter, photos of several generations of ancestors adorn the walls and the family makes and sells sheets and pillowcases with intricate designs. Even though many of these homes are still occupied, families invite visitors in for a peek and photos. There are floods periodically, but there's generally been enough warning time to move everything upstairs.
If you like the beach, Hoi An has a lovely one just a few kilometers from the town center. To get there you can walk, hop on a taxi or rent a motorbike. Taking a taxi is a preference for many visitors in Vietnam since they're so cheap.
The food in Hoi An is also a treat, and there are several local specialties. Be sure to try the white rose shrimp. Have lunch or dinner at the Blue Dragon with a nice view of the river and know that a percentage of your payment goes to a charity working with the local population of street kids.