Set along the coast in Vietnam, the historical centres of Hoi An and Hue offer a unique look into Vietnam’s past. From its ties to the spice trade to the Imperial City, this is a fascinating part of Vietnam.
Hoi An was once one of the most important trading posts in the spice trade. It’s located on the coast in a large estuary of the Thu Bồn River. As early as the 15th century Hoi An was trading with merchant ships from China, Portugal, Holland and India. Its Old Town’s streets and buildings reflect the influences from this multi-cultural past. This UNESCO World Heritage site, Old Town is now mostly a pedestrian-only area making it a very pleasant area to wander around on foot. The tree-lined streets are bordered by bright, low roofed buildings and decorated with Chinese lanterns. The restored buildings are shops, restaurants and many are family homes, still lived in today.
Old Town also has many old temples for Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The architecture and interior design of these temples is very charming. They are brightly painted buildings with low terracotta roofs decorated with dragons or gargoyles and turned up at the corners. Inside are bright paintings, golden vases and colourful columns.
One of the most popular sites in Hoi An is the 16th century Japanese bridge. It’s a gorgeous old stone bridge with a wooden cover. The decorated roof, curved shape and stone arches make it a photographer’s dream.
The old trading port has been replaced by a tourist port. Instead of trade boats, the shore is lined with wooden canoes offering boat rides on the Thu Bồn River. Tiny, local women paddle the canoes as tourists enjoy a view of the shore, passing local homes and docked boats. We felt so guilty that we were so large compared to our tiny paddler that we slipped her extra money without her boss noticing. She deserved it. She took us by her house where she said she had a new baby. We’re not sure if it was her baby or her grandchild, but we could see people waving to us from in front of the house. She was very proud to show us her family.
There are quite a few museums in Hoi An, most are small museums held inside families’ historical homes. We went to one where you can see how people lived here centuries ago. The most memorable part was the hard, wooden bed and even harder looking pillow. Hoi An’s Old Town is built on low ground and is very prone to flooding during monsoon season. There was a mark on the museum wall indicated how high the flood waters have been over the years. Some marks were near shoulder height and one of those was dated within the last few years.
The best beach around is An Bang. On our short bike ride to the beach, we passed rice paddies and green fields. Men and women were working hard in the fields by hand or with buffalo. The beach is a beautiful spot with golden sand and a gentle surf. There are many restaurants and shops where you can rent a sun bed with umbrella; free if you buy lunch or snacks. We were told it would be crowded, but even during peak season, it was fairly quiet.
The food in Hoi An reflects its multicultural history. Meals are often rice, noodles, soup or dumplings but the combined flavours of turmeric, mustard leaves, peanuts, lemongrass, mint and hot chili peppers make them uniquely Hoi An.
Getting to Hoi An – There is no airport or train station in Hoi An. The only way to get to Hoi An is by road. The nearby city of Da Nang has an airport, train and bus stations. From Da Nang, hire a taxi to Hoi An.
Tickets – Old City requires tickets for general entry as well as access to several museums and sites. Ticket booths are located at one of the many entrances. Tickets are 120,000 VND per person which includes general entrance and admission to five sightseeing sites. You can purchase additional tickets if you use up the five.
One hundred and twenty km north of Hoi An is the former Vietnamese capital, Hue. Emperor Nguyen made it the capital when he unified Vietnam in the 18th century. The capital was moved to Hanoi in 1945, when the emperor abdicated to the DRV government. The Citadel complex in Hue housed government buildings in the Imperial City and the emperor’s home in the Forbidden Purple City. The complex is surrounded by a tall, stone wall and a large moat. A lot of the buildings were damaged in the Vietnam war, especially those in the Forbidden Purple City. Even though many structures were damaged, there is still a lot to see. You can walk through much of the vast complex where there are dozens of colourful gates with vaulted, arched entrances.
The stone buildings of the Imperial City have beautiful marble windows and low, terracotta roofs decorated with dragons. Inside many of the buildings have golden decorations and bright wooden shutters. One of our favourite pictures is of a row of nine tripod cauldrons which were built to honour the first emperors of the Nguyen dynasty.
There are seven elaborate emperor tombs in the Hue region. The tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh, built in the 1920s, is one of the most ornate. To enter the tomb, first there is a tall stone staircase covered in carvings of dragons and mythical beings. At the top of the stairs are 12 life size statues of guards and two horses, followed by another decorated stone staircase. Inside the tomb, the walls are extravagantly decorated with porcelain, gold and glass designs. It’s very stunning.
Getting to Hue – Hue has a train station and an international airport with limited flights, and is two hours from the larger Da Nang Airport. Or do as we did and hire a taxi for the day from Hoi An. One full day is long enough to see the sites in Hue.
Tickets – Entry tickets to the Citadel are sold at South Gate and are 150,000 VND per person. Entry fee to each tomb is between 40,000 and 100,000 VND per person.
Coming up: Cai Rang Floating Market
For more pictures go to Gallery at Monkey’s Tale.
For more stories from our other adventures, go to Destinations.
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