HOI AN ANCIENT TOWN
The Hoi An Old Town or Hoi An Ancient Town, as it is often called, is Hoi An’s most prominent attraction. Historically it was a trading port dating back to the fifteenth century: an important stop on the Silk Road and the most popular place to trade in Asia. Today, it has morphed into a retailing center that draws heavily from the traditional artisanship of the past, especially with clothes and leather goods.
At its center you’ll find the poetic Thu Bon River peppered with little rustic boats and colorful lanterns edged by a variety of charming restaurants, cafes, shops and stalls. Make sure you go for an afternoon wander along its ‘walking’ streets and narrow lanes at some point during your stay. Drop by early in the morning (around 6am) to skip the hustle and bustle and steady stream of tourists.
Hoi An boasts many heritage sites of Chinese and Japanese origin as well as Vietnamese (see ‘Heritage Sites’ below) but these days it’s primarily a retail and cafe environment in the quaintest possible ‘ancient’ setting imaginable with 19th century structures common.
Bespoke tailors and clothing stores loom large, as do leather goods and gift shops while cafes have sprouted every few meters it seems. Restaurants and bars make up most of the rest. Especially after dark a fairytale mood prevails with thousands of lanterns of every hue lining the alleyways and streets luring masses of awestruck visitors. The Full Moon Lantern Festival is a wondrous, magical evening with the lantern light replaced by candlelight – it’s on the 14th night of each lunar month (see full details below).
Day or night it’s great to hire a boat for 30 minutes or more and take in Hoi An Ancient Town’s glory from the water. When the town’s in flood you can actually boat up and down the streets! Another relaxing option is to hire a cyclo and check out what’s on offer at close quarters from the comfort of your pedal-powered cabin.
Japanese Covered Bridge
The Japanese Covered Bridge is a great place to begin your exploration of Hoi An Ancient Town. Constructed in the 1590s, it was originally built to link the Japanese and Chinese quarters of this once thriving merchant town. This iconic landmark is Hoi An’s most famous and, if visiting at night, keep an eye out for couples in traditional clothing posing for photos – don’t be shy about snapping a pic of them beside this brightly-lit, scenic backdrop.
The bridge is guarded by a pair of dogs on the Chinese side and by monkeys on the other. See ‘Getting Tickets’ below for access to the bridge itself.
Hoi An Ancient Town Heritage Sites
For most the Chinese Assembly Halls are the outstanding historical and cultural sites in Hoi An Ancient Town. Part temple and part meeting place, the best of them also feature extensive grounds impressively displaying the polytheism and mythological creatures of ancient Chinese tradition.
First the Japanese, then the Chinese were the dominant merchant groups in Hoi An going back 500 years or so. Chinese trade dominance became clear after the Japanese fell away – forbidden to operate outside Japan by Imperial decree in the early 1600s. The standout Chinese Assembly Halls are the Fujian and Cantonese Halls but they’re all worth a visit. If you start at the Japanese Bridge and work your way down Tran Phu you can gather them all in in a gentle stroll. For those interested in multinational splendour of the flourishing, medieval port of Hoi An and the pivotal role of China’s southern, maritime provinces see Chinese Assembly Halls in Hoi An’s Ancient Town for a complete guide.
Quan Cong Temple and its adjacent pagoda (founded 1653) is only a short walk from Phuc Kien Assembly Hall and should be included in all itineraries. Dedicated to the Chinese General Quan Cong – a symbol of loyalty – it includes life-size statues of the general’s horses Bach tho (white horse) and Xich tho (red horse). The most minute details of the temple/pagoda complex have significance, from the calligraphy poems adorning its wooden beams to the carp-shaped rain spouts on the roof that are symbolic of patience.
Several ‘Old Houses’ and museums are also on the official heritage ticketed list. Specialists and enthusiasts aside, these tend to be a little disappointing.
The Old Houses feel cramped and one feels part of an invisible conveyor belt of tourists shuffling through them in a steady stream. Tan Ky House, a fascinating fusion of Japanese and Chinese, is the pick of the crop. Go early to avoid the crush.
The museums are: Trade Ceramics, Hoi An, Sa Huynh Culture and Folk Culture. For non-specialists the Museum of Folk Culture is the most visually impactive reflecting local life in costume, tools and artefacts.
Technically to just enter Hoi An Ancient Town you need to buy tickets. Fear not, it is rarely policed but if challenged, just buy them. You will need tickets anyway to enter the listed heritage sites described above and that is well worth the effort.
There are ticket offices with English-speaking staff at all of the major entryways to Hoi An Ancient Town. Five passes to historic sites come as a batch along with a small map for 120,000vnd – for Vietnamese tourists 80,000vnd – and guarantee Old Town access for the rest of your stay. But if you want to visit more than 5 sites you’ll need to buy extra tickets.
If you are not sure about the ticket booths two prominent ones are: 78 Le Loi Street (Hoi An Office of Tourist Services) and by the Lantern Bridge (An Hoi Side).
Motorbikes are not permitted to enter Hoi An Old Town from 9.00am – 11am / 3pm – 10pm (1 May – 30 Sept) and 9.00am – 11am / 3pm – 9.30am (1 Oct- 30 April). Bicycles can enter anytime but cars and taxis are banned completely.
Full Moon Lantern Festival
If you want an extra special night in Hoi An Old Town, try and visit during the Hoi An Full Moon Lantern Festival which occurs every month on the 14th day of the Lunar calendar. For the Vietnamese this is a time to pay respects to ancestors by burning fake money and making offerings of fruit and flowers in return for good luck, health and wealth. For tourists it’s a trip back in time, a night when Hoi An Old Town shuts down the lights and lanterns and shimmering candlelight takes over.
See our Lunar calendar for dates.
Traditional Art Performance (Xu Dang Trong)
Every day at 10:15 and 15:15 Xu Dang Trong hosts a traditional performance of talented musicians and dancers – an Ancient Town ticket is the entry fee. It’s a visual and musical treat showcasing colorful costumes, melancholy folk songs, and oddly hypnotic operatic crooning. The half-hour performance and chance to win a raffled gift – the bizarre singing bingo is a whacky highlight – are well worth an entry pass.
Mask Painting at Traditional Art Performance House
Head down Bach Dang Street, along the scenic waterway, to the Traditional Art Performance House (not to be confused with Xu Dang Trong). The staff is very friendly and visitors are encouraged to come in and observe the artists as they bring traditional masks to life with vibrant colors and expressive features, free of charge. You can also do one of their 75-minute workshops and learn all aspects of mask making or simply paint your own. The center also offers a paid performance every evening at 17:00 (around $5) that’s a mixture of traditional music and dance in an intimate setting where the audience is up close to the action.
Spectacular Performance Outside the Ancient Town
The most spectacular shows in Hoi An are on the fringes of the Ancient Town. Lune Production leads the way with a Vietnamese cirque that is genuinely world class – right up there with Cirque du Soleil. The new Hoi An Impression Theme Park includes a Hoi An Memories Show which is a knock out with a cast of 500 in Vietnam’s largest theatrical arena and, if you haven’t seen traditional Vietnamese Water Puppets before, Hoi An has one of the best productions in the country – great family entertainment that’s easy on the pocket too.
After a couple of hours in the sun exploring Hoi An Ancient Town, the market offers a wealth of inexpensive food and beverage options where you can sit back, relax and recharge before taking in more attractions. Here you can sample Hoi An specialties such as Banh Xeo and Cau Lau alongside the locals.
The market also offer a massive range of fresh food and myriad shops selling everything under the sun from raincoats to fishing rods. This is a bartering world so check out our guide to bartering before you take it on.
The same applies in the nearby cloth market of course. For a complete guide to the Cloth Market see our Hoi An Cloth Market.