We only knew a little bit of what to expect here as it wasn’t as well known as the other Vietnamese attractions. By the end of the trip, we were blown away with the surprises and it actually was one of the highlights of the trips.
It is a small historic town with a small canal passing by, a number of cafes, local spas and a tradition of lighting up lamps. All the large branded hotels and the airport are left for the nearby city of Danang and Hoi An boasts more of small boutique hotels on the riverside. There are cute little bridges that cross these small canals and some temples and shrines. I could spend days wandering these streets and whenever I got tired, there would be a $4 an hour massage and if hunger troubled, there would be street vendors selling sandwiches of grilled chicken, fresh greens and butter in a freshly baked bread. What more can one want in life – maybe some Christmas cheer. There was some of that too.
We landed in Danang from Hanoi in the evening and then took an hour long cab ride to our lovely small hotel just by the river in Hoi An. It was a small bridge away from the main old town and all the good stuff. We had two dinners that night because just one could not have done justice to the flavors and tastes. The room had a view of the river and while the water was more brown than blue, it blended well with the lanterns and the bridges on it.
While the city has a lantern festival every full moon night, those dates did not work for our schedule. So we just enjoyed the sight of all the streets being lit up by colorful lamps and the numerous stores selling the traditional design lanterns that could be put around electric bulbs. There were many such stores in the night markets which also sold clothes, souvenirs and of course food.
The next day was spent walking around the city and finding many cafes and pretty angles for photography around the narrow lanes. It’s not a very large town, but it has quite a few cafes worth the food and the ambience. We found a French one for lunch with great outdoor seating. We did walk around some of the highlights like a Japanese bridge built in the 1700s and the bridge of lights. An afternoon massage helped refresh us for more walks in the evening followed by a boat ride after dark. The tradition is to float a candle in the river on a small paper boat as a sign of respect for your ancestors. We did that too! There is a ticket for even walking around in the area, small amount but seemed out of place. There is again a small ticket that allows access to 5 shrines and the Japanese bridge.
We had a evening flight out of Danang on the third day and we looked around for options to do something on the way to the airport. Someone recommended the Marble Mountain which is closer to Danang than Hoi An. This, based on the description, seemed a bit like a tourist trap. It was anything but! It was probably one of the highlights of the trip. You start with an elevator ride up to roughly the midpoint of the mountain. Stairs and walkways then connect to a series of caves with stunning sculpted statues of the Buddha. There are many caves and each is unique where some have very tiny entrances and others have some very narrow areas to explore inside. The highlight though is the main cave that is huge and has a hole in the roof that illuminates the chamber and makes for a magical appearance – fit for some Indiana Jones action. There is a lot of walking around that can be done, so better so be prepared, but it is super fun. The place has a very explorer feel with small walkways connecting the many caves. Some of the stairs are broken, others too narrow – everything is a small adventure.
On the way to the airport, we stopped at one of those sea side places with huge aquariums where you could pick your meal from. It had crabs so large that we could see them from the parking lot. The king crabs were too large for our small group, but we did have a beautiful looking (and delicious) crab. The place was right on the beach and while the sea was too rough to venture in, it made for a lovely breeze and a great view.
HCMC was going to be the last stop on the tour and while there was lot to be excited about with Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong River delta, Hoi An had been a fascinating adventure.