Written by: Matt Newkirk
Visited: May 2017
Hội An Vietnam is famous around the world for its stunning display of Chinese silk lanterns. The ancient town in Hội An offers visitors a chance to experience the colorful ambiance of the Vietnam of old. The narrow streets light up every night, illuminating the traditional shop houses of the river-side port town. Whether you are looking for a romantic evening stroll along the river, or want to take in some of Vietnam’s history, the warm glow of Hội An’s lanterns will provide an experience that will stay with you for years to come.
The first time that I visited Hội An was about four years ago. My wife (still girlfriend at the time) and I were on a extended trip across the the long coast of Vietnam on 125cc motor scooters. By the time we had reached Hội An, we had been in Vietnam for a few weeks, our butts were sore, we were tired and dusty, and we were nearly as worn out as our Chinese motorbikes, which were literally starting to fall apart.
After visiting countless towns along the coast of rural Vietnam, I remember getting to Hội An and being totally disgusted by the sheer number of tourists. Wherever we looked, it seemed like there was nothing in Hội An besides wine bars, pizza restaurants, and drunken backpackers.
At the time, I have to admit, I was pretty put off by Hội An. Even still, some of the charm of Vietnam's ancient port city must have rubbed off on me, because when I had the chance to go back, I found myself really wanting to give it another try, from a fresh perspective.
I am so glad that I did. Hội An truly is a charmer! Even as you approach the “Ancient Town” strings of handmade silk lanterns, shining down in every color imaginable, hang across the narrow shophouse-lined streets. All of the old merchant houses and warehouses have been refurbished and converted into up-scale dining and wine bars, but it is apparent that great care has been taken to retain the original heritage and rustic appeal of the old port city.
Lanterns light the narrow streets
The cracking paint and plaster of the buildings almost gives the feeling of a rustic village in Tuscany. It really is hard not to love the romantic old-world charm of Hội An Ancient Town, even despite the constant crowds of tourist buses dropping off endless legions of camera-snapping zombies.
Lanterns in the Ancient Town, Hội An
The best time to see the Ancient Town is just before sunset. It is at this time that you can watch the lights dim over the river and see the transformation as the silk lanterns begin to shine over the narrow streets. Old women paddle to the shore on small wooden boats to sell floating candles to mesmerized tourists along the banks, who make wishes and float the shimmering lights down the stream. It really is a magical experience to watch Hội An fall into the spell of the night.
Woman selling candles
My wife and I were lucky enough to get a table at one of the many rooftop restaurants along the river, where we could enjoy the nightly metamorphosis over a glass of wine and some Vietnamese noodles (yes I know, I have become one of the camera-snapping tourists myself, and I'm fine with it).
Traversing a small tributary of the river on the west side of the northern shore is the Japanese Covered Bridge. Originally built in the 16th century by Japanese merchants, it is still fully functional, and probably looks exactly as it has for centuries.
Crossing over the narrow covered bridge you will find beautiful tree-lined streets filled with tea and coffee shops, antique dealers and art galleries. Vietnam is a great place to find good quality original oil paintings. Skilled artists portray both traditional and contemporary themes on canvas, and are not cheap, but still a bargain by most standards.
I have run into many travelers in Vietnam who mention that they want to go to Hội An for its beaches. Yes, it is true that there are beaches in Hội An, and there is definitely a lot of tourist infrastructure such as bars and restaurants being built up along the beaches. I would not however call this a tropical paradise.
Hội An Beach
The beaches here are piled with sand bags to keep the sand from washing away, and the water and sky both tend to be a mysteriously murky gray color. There are a some nice beaches in Vietnam, especially to the South, in places like Mui Ne, Qui Nhon, and Phu Quoc, My advice is to enjoy Hội An for the culture, food, and amazingly friendly people. If you want a tropical beach vacation, I recommend Thailand, Indonesia, or the Philippines. That being said, I have gone to the beach on Hội An, and I went swimming in the ocean. The water was warm and the white sand feels nice between your toes as you walk along the shore.
Traditional fishing boats along the river
Walking through the streets of Hội An is like walking back in time. Rows of old shops and warehouses, lit with the warm glow from the traditional silk lanterns, lead down to the riverfront, once an important port city for commerce, Hội An is now filled with wonderful trendy restaurants and bars where travelers can while away the hours over glasses of wine, cold beer, and Vietnamese food.