Hoi An once known as Faifo, with more than 2,000 years history, was the principal port of the Cham Kingdom, which controlled the strategic spice trade with Indonesia from the 7th to the 10th century and was a major international port in the 16th and 17th centuries – and the foreign influences are discernible to this day.
The culture & heritage is mostly from the Cham people whose kingdom originally stretched from Hue South to Phan Tiet (South of Nha Trang) – the Champa’s most likely originally from Java. The original Cham political capital was Tra Kieu, the commercial capital was Hoi An and the spiritual capital was My Son (Hindu). The Cham people were Hindu, and by the 10th century the influence of Arab traders to Hoi An resulted in some converting to become Muslims.
The second major influence was from the Chinese, firstly from traders but especially the escaping Ming Dynasty armies who after settling in Hoi An for some years moved further south and created Saigon as a major trading port.
The third and last major influence of culture & heritage was from the Vietnamese and is fairly recent and only came after the Cham lost control of this area. For a tourist wanting Vietnamese culture & heritage, Hue is a much better destination than Hoi An (but the weather is much rougher too!).
While the serious shipping business has long since moved to Da Nang, the heart of the city is still the Old Town, full of winding lanes and Chinese-styled shophouses, which is particularly atmospheric in the evening as the sun goes down. While almost all shops now cater to the tourist trade, the area has been largely preserved as is, which is unusual in Vietnam, and renovation has proceeded slowly and carefully – it’s mercifully absent of towering concrete blocks and karaoke parlours.
The culture & heritage that UNESCO World Heritage Site status for Hoi An Ancient Town was trying to preserve has long since gone because these things happen. Since 1999, when UNESCO WHS status was awarded, there has been a massive increase in “mass” tourism – with the result that most houses have been sold by the community to speculators and shop owners to be used for commercial purposes. The community, and with it their culture and heritage, has gone and in their place are shops, restaurants, art galleries, etc. There are literally hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An all selling similar low value products to ever reducing numbers of Western foreign tourists.
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status also applies for Hoi An Ancient Town, but in reality this status, like many other UNESCO statuses, is not being cherished by site management.
The main thoroughfare in the Old Town is Tran Phu. Just south of the Old Town, across the Thu Bon River, are the islands of An Hoi to the west, reachable via Hai Ba Trung, and Cam Nam to the east, reachable via Hoang Dieu.
The nearest airport is in Da Nang which has domestic connections to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hue with Vietnam Airlines and VietJet Air and some international flights toBangkok, Singapore Siem Reap, Cambodia (for Angkor Wat) and charter flights to China.
A taxi from Danang airport to Hoi An costs about US$22 using a taxi with a meter. This is one occasion where haggling to set a fixed price is cheaper than going by the meter, but good luck with this – despite clear signs everywhere listing fixed price fares to destinations including Hoi An (should be 400,000 dong) most drivers seem unwilling to discuss a fixed price. Meters will typically run to around 450,000 dong. The Hoi An airport transfer is highly recommended, the cost is fair with taxi ( about $20) but better car and prof service. A word of caution about flying Jetstar: they are frequently up to 8 hours late, many times arriving at Danang from Saigon at 02:00.
There is no railway station in Hoi An. The nearest is in Da Nang, which receives several trains a day from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Nha Trang etc. Most travel agents and hotels can book a train ticket for you.
There are two different bus stations in Hoi An now (older guide books just show the one on D Hung Vuong)and the public buses to Da Nang leave from the station about 2 km north west of the centre on Le Hong Phong.
A xe om from Hoi An bus station to the old town should be around 30,000 dong.
There is a public bus (#1) from Da Nang bus station to Hoi An bus station that costs 18,000 dong and takes c. 45 min. There seems to be no fare written on the side of the bus, but the Ohh La La Socola cafe (14 Thai Phien Da Nang) provides anti-scam maps dated 25 Feb 2013. On the bus they try to charge foreigners 50,000 dong, close to the price of private vans from a hotel in Hoi An to the airport in Da Nang, close to the cost of a bus from Da Nang to Nha Trang (3.5/4h versus a 45 min trip). Locals support the scam by pretending they are also paying 50.000 dong, insist on the fare and they will lower it to 30,000, insist and pay the official one. Expect no change if you have a 20,000 dong note. Beware of bus drivers putting your luggage at the front and sparing you the nicest front seat, likely they want you to pay 50,000 dong and threaten to kick you off. As soon as they see other foreigners to pick up they kick you off in their favour. Buses are frequent – every 20 or 30 min pick time, else every hour – so you can simply sit down, have a coffee, enjoy air-con while talking to nicer locals and then jump on the next bus. Same goes for Hoi An – Da Nang. The bus passes through downtown Da Nang and near the train station as well. If you come from Da Nangairport, the closest bus stop of the same route to Hoi An is at the roundabout where the streets Nguyễn Tri Phương and Điện Biên Phủ meet (a nice 10-15 min walk, since you can walk along the lake). This bus stop is clearly marked with a road sign. Google Maps also shows the locations of bus stops for this route in Da Nang.
There are no shortage of travel companies and private buses travelling to and from from Hoi An to destinations such as Hue, Hanoi, Saigon, Dalat and Nha Trang.
Open-tour buses like Sinh cafe, Hanh Cafe, An Phu run daily up and down the coast fromDa Nang, Hue (3.5-4 hr, 60,000-100,000 dong as of Mar 2012) and Nha Trang (9-10 hours overnight, US$10-15 as of April 2013).
By motorbike or taxi
It is easy to take a motorbike or taxi to and from Da Nang via the Marble Mountains, from where you can catch a train onwards. This trip cost 460,000 dong from Da Nang bus station, by the meter. Da Nang Airport Transfer ,Mai Linh taxi in Jan 2013.
Traditional “ghe nang”
Hoi An has a river system stretching hundreds of kilometres inland – this was the ancient transport network of the Cham Kingdom as they moved goods between the highlands and then via Hoi An and on to China. Speedboats or traditional ghe nang still sail on the river or sea.
The centre of Hoi An is very small and pedestrianised, so you will be walking around most of the time. Motorbikes are only banned from the centre of town during certain times of day, so keep an eye out for them; even in the most narrow alleys. Evenings are especially busy with motorbikes two, or even three abreast competing with pedestrians for even the smallest space on the street!
The city’s government does not allow motorbikes to enter the Old Town on the 14th and 15th of each lunar month. On those evenings, a lot of activities, including traditional games such as bai choi, trong quan, and dap nieu are held in all over the town.
You can easily get around on a bicycle to most of Hoi An’s attractions, go to the beach or reach some of the more remote hotels. It is easy and cheap to hire a bicycle (c. 20,000 dong per day in Jan 2013). For mountain bikes, head to Anh Cuoc shop, at 635 Hai Ba Trung.
Traffic in the area of Hoi An is minimal, so if you’ve been avoiding getting on a bike in the big cities, small towns and the surrounding countryside like Hoi An are ideal to get used to the road rules.
Taxis can be found in the middle of Le Loi St, over the river on An Hoi or called by phone. When busy, taxis may refuse your fare back to your hotel from town if it is too close, opting for larger fares. Arranging a shuttle from your hotel may be a better option although prices can be higher. A local 15 minute taxi fare is around 60,000 dong.
Cost of motorbike rentals in Hoi An town as of Feb 2013: 120,000 – 150,000 dong. You get a step-thru with auto clutch. These will take two porky Americans or Australians easily enough! There are any numbers of small shops renting them, you will be offered a helmet usually. Take it every time – there are plenty of roadside helmet checks. Failure to wear one results in the bike being confiscated and a US$75 fine. Worse, you probably haven’t got a Vietnamese driving license and there are no papers to sign, no agreements made so you are on your own legally.
Ride to the outskirts of Danang to visit the stunning Marble Mountains. If you look left from An Ban beach, you can see the Marble Mountains ( 3 prominent lumpy hills) clearly – the high rises further on are Da Nang. Bear in mind the total lack of signposts, and just keep looking left at the flat terrain until it isn’t flat any more! You are on a dual carriageway road all the way. It’s standard practice for the bike to have only enough gas to make it a few metres to the next gas station.
In addition to gas stations, there are also little hand-operated roadside pumps everywhere; these can be convenient, but they’re more expensive. The proprietor may show you a sign with a few calculations for non-Vietnamese speakers such as 3 litres is 90,000 dong. You actually see the gas draining through a calibrated sight glass. In a commercial gas station they can, and do bang in half a tank then shut the machine off to serve someone else. The amount in money has gone from the display, and he tells you a totally made up figure. All this makes the roadside hand pump with sight glass a lot more foreigner friendly. Gas costs around 25,000 dong/litre and one litre is enough for sightseeing to the beach and back and zipping around town. If you take a trip – lets say you ride to My Son 2-up – then you will use about 4 L. It’s inevitable that you will get lost 5 times between Hoi An and and My Son! Luckily fuel is cheaper out in the countryside.
Important: foreign International Driving Licences are NOT valid in Vietnam and in case of accident, a foreigner driving a motorcycle without a valid licence is at fault and will pay! Also personal insurance may not be valid for someone riding on a motorcycle with a driver who does not have a valid license.
The old Champa way was to travel by the river system. The rivers of Hoi An cover hundreds of km and offer an interesting & adventurous alternative to travelling by road. Get on a boat and you’ll begin to see a whole lot more of Hoi An and the Delta.