Hoi An is often dubbed as the best shopping destination of Vietnam. It definitely stands up to this tag, but it is not just shopping that draws hoards of tourists here. The old quarter of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that used to be a thriving South East Asian trading port between the 15th and the 19th century. Then there are the beautiful beaches located a short ride away and the white coral islands about a 30 minute boat ride away. Then, there is the relaxed atmosphere of the ancient town with its river side, good night life and museums.
Hoi An, located about 35 kilometers south of Danang in Central Vietnam was a port and trading center of the local Sa Huynh people along the Thu Bon river as early as the 2nd century BC. This continued to expand, and by the 15th century, Hoi An was already the most important port of the powerful Champa kingdom. It continued after the Vietnamese absorption of the Champa kingdom in the same capacity, becoming one of the most important centers of mercantile, and hence cultural, exchange in South-East Asia.
It was through Hoi An that Christianity penetrated in the 17th century. It retained its role as the main port of the central region throughout the 19th century, when the Nguyen dynasty kings operated a ‘closed trade policy’. By the end of the century, the rise of other ports on the coast of Vietnam, in particular Da Nang, and silting of its harbor, led to the final eclipse of Hoi An. As a result of this economic stagnation, Hoi An has preserved its early appearance in a remarkably intact state.
In this intact state of Hoi An, one can see ancient houses, community houses, pagodas from the 19th century, a fine wooden bridge reminiscent of Japanese examples and many ancient tombs built in Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese styles. This architecture of Hoi An, which is built entirely of wood, if of considerable interest as it combines traditional Vietnamese designs and techniques with those from other countries, above all China and Japan, whose citizens settled there to trade and built houses and community centers to all their designs.
This Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one has to pay USD 5 or 90,000 VND as entrance fee to enter the key buildings of interest. However, walking by these buildings and in the town is free of cost. Since Hoi An is a small town, it retains some of the original country side charm of Vietnam with its lively markets, busy river side business center, lush green paddy fields and a very easy lifestyle.
In the last few decades from the time tourism really picked up here, the people of Hoi An have started renouncing traditional lifestyles to get into the tourism market. This has led to a whole bunch of shopping areas in Hoi An where one can buy all sorts of goods in Hoi An, especially clothes and shoes. The tailoring in Hoi An is supposed to be one of the best in Vietnam. A lot of tourists come here to get their suits done for a decent price, but more importantly within 24 hours. You will get a flavor of it as soon as you arrive in Hoi An as a lot of young to middle aged women will attempt to interact with you and then finally ask you if you are interested in getting some clothes custom fitted for you.
As a town, Hoi An is very small and hence most of its charms, restaurants, river sides and countryside can either be explored on foot (I prefer walking) or on a bicycle (this is the what a lot of tourists prefer). Hoi An is best explored on either of these two as it allows you to soak in the easy and yet very cultural side of Hoi An. It is also a good way of slowly exploring the entire old quarter of Hoi An, which turns into a no-vehicle zone in the evening.
In terms of places to visit nearby, there are the Cua Dai and Aang Bang beaches. Cua Dai is more a local beach that is busy every evening, while the Aang Bang is slightly more quiet with great waters for swimming and a long beach for sun bathing. Then, there is the ‘Marble Mountains’ between Hoi An and Danang. The caves systems, the line of marble shops selling up to 50 tons of carved marble and the aerial views of the azure coastline are the highlights of the ‘Marble Mountains’.
On the other side of Hoi An is the UNESCO World Heritage Site and Hindu kingdom of My Son that was the headquarters of the Champa kingdom in the 8th century. Today, the place exists in ruins (thanks to the bombings during the Vietnam-America war), but the ruins located within thick forests has a lot of archaeological importance as this is where an entire Hindu empire used to prosper. It also depicts the power India used to have in those times.
Apart from these places of interest, Hoi An has a long river system, waves of green rice paddies, beautiful country side life, swaying coconut palms and more that can be explored at leisure. The town has enough in it to keep you interested at least for a week if not more. I stayed here for 1 week and wished I could stay longer. May be, I will go fulfill that dream by returning here some time soon and stay longer.
If you love shopping, I doubt you will ever get time to explore places around Hoi An. Such is the depth of street shopping here. You might find the fancy bags and the designer labels, but Hoi An has its own sweet way of keeping the female mind very interested.