Hoi An's Hidden Treasures: Must-dos in Vietnam's UNESCO ancient town

There is an ancient town tucked within the central coast of Vietnam that seems to have been caught-in-amber, where historic architecture whispers tales of centuries gone by, and lantern-lit alleyways lead to hidden wonders. This is the allure of Hoi An, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Hoi An is a living testament to its illustrious past as a bustling trading port from the 15th to the 19th century. What sets this ancient town apart is the exceptional preservation of its architectural and cultural heritage. Its labyrinthine streets are lined with well-preserved merchant houses, assembly halls, temples, and the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge. Each corner of Hoi An seems to whisper stories of international trade, cultural exchange, and the convergence of East and West. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!

The town's status as a UNESCO site is a testament to its commitment to safeguarding this unique heritage. Preservation efforts, strict building regulations, and a genuine respect for tradition have all contributed to Hoi An's remarkable state of preservation. You can meander through its streets and experience a slice of history, marveling at the blending of architectural styles from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and European influences. But Hoi An is more than just a historical relic; it's a vibrant and welcoming town that beckons travellers with open arms. While its heritage is the jewel in its crown, Hoi An offers a kaleidoscope of experiences that make it an unforgettable destination.

© Unsplash/ Hieu Tran

The UNESCO-listed Ancient Town of Hoi An is replete with historical landmarks that transport you back in time. The first thing that is absolutely major for history and architecture admirers is the  Japanese Covered Bridge (Chùa Cầu). This iconic 17th-century bridge is a symbol of Hoi An and one of its most recognised landmarks. The bridge features intricate carvings and a small temple, making it both a functional bridge and a cultural monument. There are other notable places dotted around, such as the Phung Hung House and Tan Ky Ancient House which both dates back over 200 years. Tan Ky is one of the most well-preserved ancient houses in Hoi An, showcasing a blend of architectural styles, including Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese influences. 

One cannot miss out on Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, as this ornate assembly hall is a testament to Hoi An's multicultural heritage. It was built by the Fujian Chinese community in the late 17th century and features intricate carvings, sculptures, and an atmospheric courtyard. Another impressive assembly hall in Hoi An is the Cantonese Assembly Hall (Quang Trieu Assembly Hall), built by the Cantonese Chinese community in the late 18th century. The hall is known for its vibrant colors, intricate artwork, and serene courtyards - a treat for any architecture lover. 

Museum of Folk Culture, located in a traditional wooden house, offers insights into the daily life and culture of Hoi An's residents over the centuries and features exhibits related to customs, rituals, and traditional crafts. There’s also the Museum of Trade Ceramics, housed in a beautifully preserved ancient building, showcasing a remarkable collection of ceramics from Vietnam's trading history. One more place to make time for is the Ong Pagoda. Also known as Quan Cong Temple, this Chinese temple was built in the 17th century and is dedicated to Quan Cong, a revered general from Chinese history.

© Unsplash/ Kiril Dobrev

Nature's beauty is at its finest in this region of Vietnam. Simply rent a bicycle and venture into the serene countryside surrounding Hoi An where you will get a genuine peek into Vietnam’s rural life. It is an idyllic adventure as you pedal through emerald-green rice paddies, encounter water buffalo lazily grazing, and immerse yourself in the simple beauty of rural Vietnam - a complete 180 from city life. There are a lot of local tour operators which also offer guided cycling tours that provide a deeper understanding of life outside the bustling town.

© Unsplash/ Le Porcs

Escape the bustling town and venture into the lush oasis of Cam Thanh Coconut Village. Just a short bike ride or boat trip from Hoi An's Ancient Town, this hidden gem offers a serene retreat into nature. Explore the verdant coconut groves and mangrove forests, where traditional fishing techniques are still practised by local villagers. Take a guided bamboo basket boat tour through the waterways, where you can try your hand at paddling or crab fishing. This eco-friendly village showcases the harmonious coexistence between nature and local livelihoods, providing a refreshing contrast to the urban hustle and bustle of Hoi An. It's a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the natural beauty and cultural traditions of Vietnam's countryside, making Cam Thanh Coconut Village a must-visit destination for nature enthusiasts and cultural explorers alike.

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Hoi An is renowned as a tailoring haven, and no visit to this town is complete without experiencing its world-class custom tailoring services. With a myriad of skilled tailors and a tradition dating back centuries, Hoi An is the perfect place to have clothing made to measure. Whether you are looking for a tailored suit, a traditional Vietnamese ao dai, a casual dress, or even shoes, the local tailors have got you covered. 

Visit the local markets or fabric shops to select the materials you want. You will find a wide range of options, from luxurious silks to high-quality linens and more. You can bring your fashion inspirations, Pinterest posts,, or select from the tailor's catalog of designs. The skilled tailors will help you create the perfect outfit that fits you like a glove.

Expect to have several fittings during your time in Hoi An to ensure your clothing is tailored to perfection. The tailors take precise measurements and make adjustments to guarantee the best fit. Most tailors in Hoi An can complete your tailored clothing within a few days to a week, depending on the complexity of the garment and the number of fittings required - so if you have a long trip in Vietnam, you can swing back in Hoi to pick it up. Or, get your tailoring done the first thing in Hoi An, and on your third or last day, pick it up. Hoi An tailors are known for their craftsmanship and attention to detail, offering high-quality clothing at a fraction of the price you'd pay in Western countries - and compared to fast fashion stores like Zara or Mango, your pieces made here will go a long way. Not only do you get to walk away with custom-made clothing that suits your style, but you also have the satisfaction of knowing you've supported local artisans and contributed to the town's rich tailoring heritage. 

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As the sun sets over Hoi An, a different kind of magic awakens at the Hoi An Night Market. Located along the bustling Nguyen Hoang Street, just a stone's throw from the Ancient Town, this vibrant market is a shopper's paradise and a delightful cultural experience that you cannot miss out on. The market is a treasure trove of souvenirs, local handicrafts, clothing, jewellery, and artwork but more importantly, for us foodies, the food stalls at the night market offer a tantalizing array of Vietnamese street food and local specialities. There are the classic mouthwatering dishes like banh mi, pho, fresh spring rolls as well as the must-eat local favourite delicacy, "Banh Trang Nuong," a Vietnamese “pizza” made from rice paper. Also on the weekends, you can enjoy the live music and traditional Vietnamese performances which adds to the vibrant atmosphere of the market. 

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Hoi An is a food lover's paradise, offering a delectable array of Vietnamese cuisine. Try the town's signature dish, Cao Lau, a mouthwatering combination of noodles, roasted pork, fresh herbs, and crispy rice croutons. You can have your pick of which bowl you want, inside Hoi An’s Central Market. While you can definitely get Cao Lau in other parts of the country, since it originates from Hoi An, it makes it that much more special to eat the dish here.

That’s also because the traditional method of making Cao Lau requires a specific type of water that is drawn from a well in the town of Hoi An, known as Ba Le Well. Ba Le Well water is known for its mineral-rich properties, which are believed to be essential for giving Cao Lau its distinctive taste and texture. The water's mineral content affects the way the rice noodles are prepared and how they absorb other flavours during cooking. Ba Le Well water is slightly alkaline, and that alkalinity of the water affects the texture and chewiness of the noodles, giving them their unique and slightly firm consistency. The use of water from Ba Le Well is deeply ingrained in the traditional preparation of Cao Lau in Hoi An. Local chefs and noodle makers consider it an essential ingredient in maintaining the authenticity and flavour of the dish. 

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Banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich typically consisting of a twist on the French baguette filled with various ingredients like grilled meats, fresh herbs, and flavorful sauces. Two banh mi shops in Hoi An have gained international recognition and are known for serving exceptional banh mi sandwiches - now they have been duking it out amongst their loyal customers for the crown of the best banh mi in all of Vietnam. These shops are Banh Mi Phuong and Madam Khanh - The Banh Mi Queen. 

Banh Mi Phuong rose to fame after being featured on the television show "No Reservations" with Anthony Bourdain. While The Banh Mi Queen, run by Madam Khanh, is a more low-key and also a locally cherished spot. But nevertheless, both offer exceptional banh mi sandwiches, each with its own unique character and flavours.

© Unsplash/ Ferdinand Stöhr

One of the most immersive and enjoyable ways to experience Hoi An's rich culinary heritage is by participating in a cooking class. These classes provide a hands-on opportunity to learn how to prepare some of Vietnam's most beloved dishes while gaining insight into the country's culinary traditions. Most cooking classes in Hoi An offer a menu of dishes that you can choose to prepare. These menus typically include Vietnamese classics such as pho, spring rolls, banh mi, and Cao Lau. Some classes may also include local specialties like White Rose Dumplings.

What I love about this is that many cooking classes start with a visit to the local market, where you will have the chance to explore the vibrant stalls, learn about essential ingredients, and even participate in selecting fresh produce and spices for your dishes. You will be guided by experienced chefs or skilled home cooks who will walk you through the cooking process step by step. Learn how to chop, slice, stir-fry, and roll ingredients, mastering the art of Vietnamese cooking. Classes are often conducted in small groups, which creates an intimate and interactive learning environment, which allows for personalized instruction and ample opportunities to ask questions. After you have prepared the dishes, comes the best part - the pleasure of tasting the fruits of your labour! 

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Cyclos are a popular mode of traditional transportation and a unique cultural experience in Hoi An. These three-wheeled bicycle taxis offer visitors a leisurely and nostalgic ride through the charming streets of the Ancient Town and the surrounding areas,  allowing you to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of Hoi An at a gentle pace. It's an ideal way to appreciate the town's picturesque architecture and vibrant street life. What is also great about it is that Cyclo drivers in Hoi An are often long-time residents who are knowledgeable about the town's history and culture. They can serve as informal guides, offering insights into the significance of various landmarks and attractions you pass by. 

Depending on your preferences, cyclo rides can take you on various routes. You can explore the quaint lanes of the Ancient Town, cruise along the riverside to enjoy the sunset, or even venture into the nearby countryside for a taste of rural life. Also, cyclo rides are an eco-friendly mode of transportation that aligns with Hoi An's commitment to sustainability. They produce no emissions and allow you to explore the town in a green and responsible way! 

© Unsplash/ Ha Jang

The river in Hoi An, particularly the Thu Bon River, plays a central role in the town's culture, history, and daily life. The river is not just a geographical feature in Hoi An; it's an integral part of the town's identity and a source of livelihood for many locals. Exploring and experiencing the river in various ways provides a deeper connection to the town's heritage and culture while offering a peaceful and picturesque backdrop for your Hoi An journey - from lantern-lit boat ride, traditional fishing trips, or an eco-tour that includes activities like kayaking, bird-watching, and exploring the mangrove forests along the river. 

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Out of all of Vietnam, Hoi An is renowned for its exquisite lanterns, which add a touch of magic and charm to the town, particularly when the sun sets. Lantern shops in Hoi An offer a wide variety of lanterns in different shapes, sizes, and colors, making them a sought-after souvenir and a unique piece of local craftsmanship. Many lantern shops offer the option to customize lanterns according to your preferences. You can choose the color, size, and design, making it a personalized and meaningful keepsake.

Some lantern shops also offer lantern-making workshops, where you can try your hand at creating your own lantern under the guidance of skilled artisans. These workshops provide a fun and educational experience for all ages. Skilled lantern artisans will guide you through the lantern-making process, from selecting materials to assembling and decorating your lantern. It is super fun, as you will have the opportunity to choose your lantern's design, colors, and patterns, allowing you to create a unique piece of art.

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Us Vietnamese are obsessed with our coffee - we are after all the second top producers of coffee, after Brazil. And in Hoi An, this town no less boasts a vibrant coffee culture, where you can enjoy a cup of Vietnamese coffee in a variety of atmospheric settings. Coffee shops in Hoi An offer a delightful way to relax, intertwined with the town's unique ambience, while giving you a chance to experience local coffee traditions. That’s why many coffee shops in Hoi An are strategically located to offer stunning views of the river, rice fields, or the Ancient Town. But here’s a secret! For panoramic views of Hoi An, consider visiting one of the rooftop cafes. These elevated spots provide a unique perspective of the town's historic architecture.

In addition to coffee, many cafes serve local delicacies, such as coconut coffee, egg coffee, or various traditional Vietnamese snacks that pair perfectly with your beverage. Some coffee shops in Hoi An double as art galleries or cultural spaces, featuring exhibitions by local artists or live performances, which of course adds an extra layer of cultural immersion to your coffee experience. Exploring Hoi An's coffee scene is not just about the coffee itself; it's also about embracing the town's laid-back lifestyle, enjoying its scenic beauty, and immersing yourself in the local culture.

© Unsplash/ 호이안 사진 촬영

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