Where? Hoi An, Danang and the ancient city of My Son. Hoi An is an ancient port city on the Thu Bon River; Danang is the third largest city in Vietnam; and My Son is the ruined Cham Hindu city. All three lie on the east coast of Vietnam, about half way between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.
When? July 2014. Page last updated January 2015.
Why? We visited Hoi-An, Danang and My Son on our big 2015 adventure. On this trip we also visited Australia, East Timor and Indonesia.
In Vietnam we started our trip in Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon), from here we caught the train to Danang and stayed at Hoi An, then we travelled to the old imperial capital of Hue, before ending our trip in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.
Hoi An is a water city. Like Venice, Sydney and Hong Kong, it is a city lived around and on the water. Here it is the Thu Bon River delta that is the star of the show, and the city is based on and around the estuarine islands.
I loved Hoi An. There’s something very Disneyish about Hoi An: it is very gentrified, unreal and slightly fairy-taleish, but I liked this! I liked the candles floating on the river at night, the Chinese lanterns hanging from the trees, the pastel coloured shops and restaurants, the pedestrianised streets. It’s such a touristy place, the town today exists for tourists, but it does it well – and it’s a lot of fun. And there is a dirty side to the city which adds an element of realness to the place: we saw some huge rats in the deserted city, when we were wandering home from the pub.
Hoi An was once the major Vietnamese trading centre for silk, porcelain, pepper, cinnamon and medicinal plants. It used to be a spice-trade port and so the city has lots of foreign influences. Dotted around town today are temples, old bridges, ancient mercantile homes, Chinese meeting houses, and about 30km away is the ancient Hindu city of My Son.
But, true to its roots, Hoi An is still a mercantile city. This is a city for shopping. From the clothes stalls, to tailors, to tourist tat, to the food market, to the artist galleries, Hoi An is a place to come to buy stuff. Sometimes the hawkers did get a little persistent, especially around the market; but then away from the main market it wasn’t so bad.
Being a tourist place there were a wealth of good bars and restaurants in Hoi An. I had the best taco ever here, and there were loads of places serving 10p a glass beer.
Finally, a reason to linger in Hoi An, is that it is also a beach resort. The beach is on the coast about two miles from the centre of town. There’s palm trees and white sands, the sea was as warm as a bath and it was a beautiful place to go to to relax. I’d definitely head back here for a beach holiday.
Hoi An was probably my favourite place in Vietnam. We lingered there for four or five days and I would have quite happily have hid away here for a little while longer. Yes it was kind of fake, but sometimes it’s nice to stay in a fairy-tale.
Ho Chi Minh to Danang (sleeper train)
We travelled to Hoi An from Ho Chi Minh/Saigon. We caught the overnight sleeper train to Danang and then caught a local bus from Danang to Hoi An.
I love travelling by train, and I love sleepers, so I’d been dreaming of this journey. It sounded so romantic to get the re-unification express up the country, and as I had travelled extensively on sleepers in India and Thailand, I thought I knew what to expect and I was so looking forward to this journey.
Getting the tickets was pretty hard as this train is an extremely popular travel option. Jeff went to the ticket sales office at 275c Pham Ngo Road and he could only get us two upper sleepers for two days hence (we wanted Saturday night but had to travel Sunday night). I hate upper bunks because you have to disturb the people underneath, there’s usually nowhere to sit when not asleep and you can’t see out the window, but this was the only thing we could get for days so we went with it. The soft-sleeper, upper level ticket cost us 1,101,000 dong each (£33) + a 10% fee, so £36 in total.
Saigon station is located on the edge of the city centre, in District 1. The station was well equipped with shops, restaurants, seats etc, though it was very, very busy.
We caught train SE2 and we were able to board an hour early.
We shared our cabin with two ladies and their two children (there were a lot of children on this train). They were very friendly but there was no way we could sit on the lower bunks with them and the kids so we were soon confined to our upper bunks. On a European cabin train, I could have gone out to stand in the corridor, outside the cabins, but in Vietnam this was filled with extra-passengers, sleeping on the floor or sat on stools, so you couldn’t escape from the cabin very easily. It left me feeling very claustrophobic – especially as I couldn’t even see out the window. I was just trapped in my bunk. I much prefer the open plan style carriages that they have in India and Thailand, as they have so much more space and you’re much less enclosed. Also, you have to have a reservation and an assigned seat, so the carriages don’t get cramped with additional people – something which happened a lot on Vietnamese public transport.
Anyway, that night everyone went to sleep pretty fast and I slept okay. The bunk had a light for reading and we were provided with a pillow, sheets and blankets.
The next morning I woke up to the little girl screaming ‘Hello! I love you’ – which was sweet at first, even though it woke me up. And once I was up, there was no way I was getting back to sleep with those kids in the same cabin. To be fair to them, they were bored: they had nothing to play with, no books or toys, and the mums just ignored them and let them run around and do what they wanted. And what they wanted to do was swing on the door and open and close it constantly. In the end, I got up and wedged it open with my foot. I did it nicely, but I was persistent.
I tried to get up to move around but we were still trapped in our cabin, and there was nowhere to go. I tried to watch the scenery go by, but I couldn’t see out the window. I tried to read, but the kids were loud and bored. I couldn’t wait to get to Danang. Jeff slept through the whole thing, lucky him.
Although the reunification express sounds romantic, it’s not. The trains in Vietnam are dirty and overcrowded and not worth the hassle. I think the train could be worth it if you get lower bunks or there’s four of you together, otherwise it’s not fun. Internal, local flights are cheap and quick, and this is a much better way to get around the country. Knowing what I know now, I wish we’d flown between all of our destinations.
For more information on travelling by train in Vietnam, visit the Man at Seat 61 website.
Danang to Hoi An (local bus)
When we did get to Danang, the steward came to help us with our bags and to help us off the train. At the station we stopped for a snack, so that the touts could disperse a bit, and then we made our way to the bus stop to catch the local bus to Hoi An. The bus stop is in front of #287 Le Duan Street, which is the next major street over from the train station.
The bus is bus #1. This runs from Danang to Hoi An. It’s a bright yellow bus. Don’t be surprised if they don’t appear to want to stop – we saw people literally being dragged onto this bus. I’ve seen lots of prices quoted and people say that the prices are inflated for tourists. We paid 30,000 dong, which is 90p – which I think is a very fair fare for the distance we were travelling.
Hoi An bus station to Hoi An centre
The journey from Danang to Hoi An took us about an hour (which I slept through). The bus dropped us off at the bus station on Le Hong Phong Road, which is on the edge of town. To get to the centre, we walked along the main road, in the direction away from Danang, towards Hoi An, and then when we got away from the touts we flagged down a Mai Linh taxi to take us to our hotel. The taxi to Cam Nam island (where we were staying) cost us 15,000 dong (about 50p).
When we departed we did the above journey but in reverse.
Hoi An is mostly a pedestrianised city and it’s not huge, so most places we got to by walking. We took a taxi to the beach and the bus station, as these were a few km from our hotel. We flagged down Mai Linh taxi, as they’re pretty reputable. The taxi to the beach cost 10,000 dong (30p) and the taxi to the bus station was 15,000 dong (50p).
We took a tour to My Son, which we booked through a travel agent in the centre of town. We wandered around the travel agents to get a couple of prices and then went for the cheapest. Cheapest might not have been the best as we had to be collected by a man on a bike (the bus couldn’t get to our hotel on the island as the bridge was too small), so we had three of us on a moped; then when we did get on the bus it was falling apart.
You can also take boat trips, and there’s lots of touts on the harbour side trying to get you to take a tour with them. There’s also a local ferry which runs over to Cam Kim Island. This ferry had a really distinct sound, like a helicopter, and weirdly it’s this sound that reminds me of Hoi An, as this is what I could hear when I woke up or when I was eating breakfast in the hotel.
There were lots of travel agents in town who offered onward travel options. There were lots of shuttle services to Danang airport too.
What we did on our holiday
Explored Hoi An
Hoi An is beautiful. It’s so gorgeous and atmospheric that it seems to be fake. The town is spread across a couple of estuarine islands, with boats crowding around the harbours, hidden waterways, Chinese-lantern-lit, tight alleyways of wooden mercantile mansions, bright-red temples with dragons wrapped around them, market stalls, noise and bussle and sparkly sunshine. I loved it!
We spent a lot of time just wandering around and enjoying the city. The pedestrianized areas free of bikes are a welcome relief in this congested country, though the narrow streets could still get quite busy with crowds of people.
Hoi An offers a ticket system for its sights, and possibly also for the old-town too, though this is very confusing and the town are currently trying to clarify this. I was told by one guard I had to buy tickets to go into the old town, but then they only ever checked them at the sights I was visiting – and we wandered around freely when shopping and going for lunch etc. From what I have seen, this is something the town council is trying to clear up and clarify, so this may change. There’s lots of entrances into the city that don’t go past ticket booths, so if you don’t want to pay, just avoid the main roads in.
You definitely do need the tickets for the key sights. The tickets costs 120,000 dong (£4) for 5 tickets, and you can chose which of the sites you wish to use your tickets in. We only actually used three of our tickets, so we shall have to go back.
The sights you can visit are:
- Japanese Covered Bridge‘s Pagoda (Chua Cau or Lai Vien Kieu). This beautiful covered bridge was built by the Japanese in the early 1600s and it is a key site of Hoi An. It has monkey shrines at each end and a pagoda in the middle, over the river. You only need to use the ticket for the pagoda, otherwise this is a thoroughfare of the city and so you are free to cross it. Personally, I went into the pagoda, but it’s not really worth it. I’d save your ticket for one of the temples or museums.
- The Chaozhou Hall/ Chinese All-Community Meeting Hall (Trieu Chau) is bright red and is really cool. It’s located next to the Japanese covered bridge and it looks like a big temple. It has lots of open rooms and grounds to explore, and loads of interesting statues to look at. I particularly liked the happy horse and the miniature fountain/garden worlds.
- Hokien (Fujian) Meeting Hall (Phuc Kien) is a Chinese meeting hall, built in 1757. It has bright pink gates and dragons in the garden. Jeff went in here and he says it was pretty cool.
- Cantonese Assembly Hall (Quang Dong)
- Museum of Folk Culture
- Museum of Trade Ceramics
- Hoi An Museum of History and Culture
- Museum of Sa Huynh Culture
- Phung Hung House – traditional two-story wooden house, inhabited over 100 years by eight generations.
- Quan Thang House
- Tan Ky House
- Hoi An Handicraft Workshop.
- Folk music performances: 10:15 and 15:15 every day except Monday.
- Traditional Theatre
Drank cheap beer and ate delicious food
I could go back to Hoi An just to eat and drink. The town was full of gorgeous court-yard cafes, where you could while the afternoon away with a strong cocktail or a 10p beer. We spent a lot of time just chilling out, people watching, drinking a beer or two. It was like we were actually on holiday.
Relaxed on the beach
I could also go back to Hoi An for a beach holiday. Cua Dai beach is a beautiful stretch of soft, white sand, shaded by palm trees, overlooking the Cham islands. The sea was as warm as bath water, and was rough and fun to play in. There were a few restaurants and shops close to the beach for supplies. Relaxing here for a few hours in the glorious sunshine, it was like we were actually on holiday.
The taxi to/from the beach cost us 10,000 dong.
My Son (UNESCO)
My Son is an ancient ruined city of Hindu, imperial temples. It is located about 30km (1 hour’s drive) away from Hoi An.
You can visit My Son on a half day tour, or you can combine it with a boat trip back to Hoi An. This is what we did.
My Son was founded by Cham Hindus and was occupied from 200 to 1700 AD. After the Cham stopped using the temples, the jungle came back and took over the site. Later on, the Vietcong used it as a base, which was bombed by the Americans. So today it is a city of ruins, hidden in the jungle – but there is still quite a lot to see. It’s also located in a beautiful setting, in a lush green valley overlooked by Cat Tooth Mountain.
There used to be 68 structures, but now there are only 20 remaining, and most of these are in ruins. We wandered around and in the structures and admired the carved brickwork and giggled at the linga. You could go inside some of the ruins, and this is where they kept the statues etc. The buildings weren’t as stunning as Parambatan or Borubadur, which we had visited earlier on this trip, but the setting was lovely and we had an interesting time learning more about the Champa Kingdom.
We had a great guide for our My Son tour. He was really informative and kept a nice pace. Our tour of the ruins lasted about two hours, which I think is enough time to look at ruined brick buildings in the jungle, in the heat. We did a small amount of walking and saw most of the site.
There was a café with toilets at the entrance, which wasn’t too over-priced. It’s a good idea to make sure you take a bottle of water as the site is quite exposed and spread out.
The Champa museum is in Danang, and here you can see many of the smaller, more detailed relics from the site. (See What we didn’t do for more information and links).
You can find out more about the history of My Son on wikipedia.
After we visited the site, our bus took us to the river where we caught a boat ride back to Hoi An. The boat ride was only for about an hour, and we stopped to see the wood-workers of Cam Kim island on the way back, but it was a nice, relaxed way to return to Hoi An (much better than the over-crowded bus).
We paid 100,000 dong (£3.20) for the My Son tour and boat ride, including a light lunch.
What we didn’t do
We didn’t do a private boat trip along the river. Lots of boat-people offer these tours which usually last an hour or so.
We didn’t go to a cookery school, unfortunately, though a lot of places in Hoi An offer this.
We didn’t go on a motorbike tour (though we did get three of us on a scooter to transfer to our My Son tour bus), but there are lots offered around town. Top Gear did a very famous ride from Hoi An to Hue, over the mountains. I’ve heard from someone who did this tour that the views in the mountains are amazing, but if you’re not used to biking it’s a long tour and it can be very cold and boring in places.
In between Hoi An and Danang are the Marble Mountains. These strange limestone pinnacles are very distinctive looking and there are many hidden shrines dotted around them. Bus number 1 goes straight past if you fancy a visit and Phat Tire Ventures offer rock climbing and cave rappelling in the mountains: www.ptv-vietnam.com.
The Cham Museum in Danang is where many of the relics from My Son are located: www.chammuseum.danang.vn.
Finally, we didn’t shop – which is the one thing that many people come to Hoi An to do. Hoi An is a merchants city of markets and stalls. I bought one gift here and that was it, though I was tempted. This is the sort of place that you can visit a tailor and they can make up a whole wardrobe for you for a few pounds and pence. I was tempted to get my wedding dress here, though as I wasn’t sure about the quality of the workmanship, I decided to wait.
Where we ate and drank
I would go back to Hoi An just for the food and drink. It’s not so much the quality of the food, but the sheer range of choices: from Bahn Mi to Tacos, from French gourmet to French fries, there were so many amazing places to eat at. We had Vietnamese, Italian, bahn mi, ice cream, a cheese platter and wine, and some of the best tacos that I have ever eaten.
Hola Taco serves some of the best tacos in the world! They had marinated-meat roasting on a barbecue outside, chilled beers and a nice, cosy set up – with tables on the window-sills. The tacos were a delicious, meat-dribbly taste sensation. The ingredients were a flavour explosion and were so fresh and delicious. We liked it so much that we went there twice and it’s the one place that we recommend to our friends heading to Hoi An. www.facebook.com/holataco.
Yellow River Restaurant
The Yellow River Restaurant is located in an old, wooden Chinese mansion house, with paper screens, paper lanterns, old posters and gorgeous decorations. I can’t remember much about the food, but the staff were kind, the drinks were cheap and eating here we felt like we were in a movie. The restaurant also offers a cookery school: hoian-food.com.
We ate at Red Sails (Canh Buom Do) twice as we liked the location, the low prices and the good food. Red Sails is located on the river front, close to the main market. It’s just a normal cafe bar, but the staff were friendly, the food was cheap and good (especially the set menu) and the cold beer was 15p a glass. The menu was quite wide ranging with Vietnamese basics to Western staples. The Red Sails was a great place to just while away a few hours, whilst reading, chilling and watching the world go by.
Red Sails is located at 40 Bach Dang, which is the road that runs along the north bank of the river.
White Marble Wine Bar
Finally, White Marble Wine Bar was a posh place that we visited for wine and a cheese platter. It was a bit more pricey than other places, but was nice for a treat. It’s located in the centre of town and it has wide open windows where you can watch the crowds go by. It also has a nice upstairs area. visithoian.com/whitemarble.
It’s a bit of a cliché but Hoi An came alive at nigh. Beautiful as it was in the day time, it was the magic of the candles floating on the river, the Chinese lantern lit alleys, the boats drifting about, the crowds, the market and the music that got me. After the afternoon storms had cleaned the dust from the town, and the vibrant, stormy sunset had dazzled us into the evening, the streets were full hussle and bussle, people and parties.
We liked the rave peninsular (the ravesninsular), where the night market and the late night bars seemed to be. Unfortunately for research purposes, we were very sensible and went to bed early most night so unfortunately, I can’t recommend any bars myself. However, Lonely Planet has a list of good bars and nightclubs.
Where we stayed
The Van Loi hotel is located on Cam Nam island, which is an island in the centre of the river, right next to the main part of town. The island itself is pretty quiet, slightly rural residential and a little bit away from everything – whilst also being within five minutes walk of the main area. Even though it was right by the centre of town, life on the island seemed slower some how. A few times whilst we were there, the whole island had power cuts, which were quite exciting and atmospheric. Can Nam is connected to the centre of the town by a single lane bridge which large vehicles can’t cross. This bridge is a great place to get views of Hoi An and the river, a good place to get your bearings and to see the lay of the land and the river.
The Van Loi was a good value hotel that was slightly dated, but which did the job. They had a lovely pool in the centre, a nice roof top breakfast room overlooking the estuary and the surrounding mountains, and a cafe bar. The buffet breakfasts were substantial and good (a bit too substantial and good for my waist-line).
The hotel had really strange wooden decorations, with elaborately carved chairs and tables. These were very impressive but also quite intimidating. Although I can appreciate their craftwork (I think they were made locally on Cam Kim Island), I’m not sure that I’d want them in my room. Our large room had a lovely balcony overlooking the surrounding fields and the bed was comfy.
There were one or two downsides to the Van Loi: the rooms were quite noisy and the staff seemed to try to hold our passports hostage and they were a little pushy with transfers and tours, but overall it was a great value place to stay and a good base within Hoi An.
We booked our stay through booking.com and we paid about £20 per night, bed and breakfast.
Normally, I recommend that you take a look at Wikitravel for useful information. The Wikitravel pages for Hoi An, Danang, My Son and the Cham Islands do contain lots of useful information, but some idiot has also gone on there and written loads of prejudiced stuff about tourists, scams and UNESCO etc. It’s so opinionated that I stopped using Wikitravel for Vietnam. You may wish to however.
Please note, some of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.