Hoi An shimmers on full moon nights by the light of candles and lamps, and shadows lie heavy upon her narrow streets and alleys. The once-prosperous trading town is part of Vietnam's south central coast, and lies only about 30 kilometres from the bustling metropolis of Da Nang. There are no grand palaces in Hoi An, nor did anything happen here to change the fortunes of a kingdom. Yet, tourists arrive in droves, attracted by that most amorphous of all qualities – charm.
It is on full moon nights that this charm of Hoi An is on full view. Row upon row of old yet well-preserved timber-framed homes, temples and congregation halls are lit only by candle and lamplight. For on the 14th day of every lunar cycle, the residents of Hoi An honour their ancestors by switching off electric lights, banishing motorised vehicles, and setting up altars laden with offerings outside their low, sloping-roofed homes. Snatches of haunting folk songs can be heard from some of them. Hundreds of lotus-shaped lanterns are floated down the Thu Bon river, which lazily meanders through the town, lanterns released on such nights with a prayer for good luck by residents and visitors alike. Old men gather on street corners and play Chinese chess, strum fiddles or read poetry to their grandchildren. Others play folk games like bai choi, a kind of song-based bingo, and watch street opera.
It is easy to be transported, especially on such nights, to the town's heyday many moons ago, between the 15th and 19th centuries. Under the Nguyen lords who ruled the region back then, Hoi An was a thriving port with Japanese, Chinese and European traders calling it their home. Ships from Japan, China, India, the Philippines, France, Britain and other countries came up the Thu Bon to purchase ceramics, silk, lacquer, molasses, tea and sugar. Many of the merchants stayed for months, while others put down roots more permanently, leaving behind the timber-framed buildings I mentioned earlier.
But by the late-19th century, with the silting of the river, the collapse of Nguyen rule, and nearby Da Nang's rise, Hoi An went into quiet decline. It was inhabited but forgotten for almost a century, till 1999, when Unesco declared it a World Heritage site.
Today, the hustle and bustle is back. It's true that most of the over 1,100 yellow-hued buildings in the old town, which stand in almost unbroken lines along the streets, have been converted into cafes and souvenir shops, and there are many tourists. But Hoi An itself is perpetually laidback. It's not difficult to roam unhindered, even find some solitude.
The monument most identified with Hoi An is the graceful Japanese Covered Bridge. You should make it a point to view this photogenic bridge early in the morning, when it's lit up by the sun's rays, and later in the evening, when you can click pictures of the (artificially lit) monument and its reflection in the waters below. The original bridge was built in the 1590s by the Japanese to connect their side of town to that of the Chinese. Over the years, the design and ornamentation have mostly remained untouched. A Japanese myth goes that a dragon lay beneath the earth's surface, with its head in India and tail in Japan. Earthquakes occurred in Japan, or so the Japanese believed, when the tail moved. To prevent such mishaps, the bridge was built right atop the dragon's heart.
The bridge, in fact, lies at the start of the old town's central artery, the Tran Phu street, home to many of Hoi An's best-preserved buildings. Festivities of ethnic Chinese residents still happen around the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, parts of which date back to the 1700s, with sanctuaries dedicated to the goddesses of the sea, and six Chinese generals whose children fled to Hoi An after their rebellion against the Ming Dynasty was crushed. Also on Tran Phu is the less prominent yet beautiful Cantonese Assembly Hall with its dragon fountain.
Stroll further down the lane to the Museum of Trade Ceramics, another lovely wooden building that houses over 400 ceramic artefacts dating from the town's erstwhile sea trade. Like them, the Tran Family Home and Chapel, on Le Loi just off Tran Phu, offers a glimpse of life in the past, in this case the early 1800s, when the structure was constructed. Part shrine and part residence, this amalgam of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese styles was built by a mandarin sent by the Vietnamese king Gia Long as an envoy to China.
Viewing extraordinary heritage architecture is but one part of the Hoi An experience. By noon, when the sun truly begins to blaze, identify a riverside restaurant and sit back to enjoy delicacies unique to the region – there's cau lao, a dish made with pork, noodles and greens; white rose, which are shrimp or pork dumplings shaped like white roses; and my personal favourite, the com ga or the humble chicken rice. The local take on the famous Hainanese dish comes with rice cooked in a flavoursome broth and shredded chicken served with some garnish. Ask for salt, chopped chillies and lemon, and mix it up for the best dipping sauce you can find. There are literally hundreds of restaurants and food stalls in Hoi An and it's best to follow the crowd.
Hoi An is prettiest in the evenings. Have a leisurely late afternoon tea or drink, and then just roam every single street in the old town, as I did. If you are lucky to have timed your visit with the bimonthly full moon festivals, you are in for a treat of a lifetime. Sure, there are throngs of Vietnamese and foreign tourists, but Hoi An is so charming that the crowds are but mild irritants. You must also cross over to the An Hoi side of the river for a spot of dinner, a turn around the night market where you can buy gorgeous silk lanterns, and get a great view of the Old Town across the river.
On my last evening, I rented a sampan – the little boats manned by toothless grandmothers on Bach Dang Street that fronts the river. A late-afternoon boat ride gave me a peek into rural Vietnamese life. But the best sight was saved for last, when at sunset the boat returned to the Old Town, just as the lamps were being lit. This is how it must have been for a Chinese mandarin who, after a successful trading expedition, came back home to beautiful Hoi An.
Getting there: Multiple carriers fly to Da Nang (about 30km from Hoi An), though there are no direct flights from India. China Southern Airlines and Vietnam Airlines offer connecting flights from New Delhi to Da Nang via Guangzhou and Hanoi for approximately Rs 41,000 one way. You can hire a car for about $20 or you can book a pick up with hoianprivatecar.com. If travelling from Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, you should take the scenic train ride to Da Nang. Tickets (from $28) can be booked at the railway station or via an agency like www.vietnamimpressive.com.
Visa: Indian passport holders can get a visa on arrival at Vietnam. You can also apply for a visa online at www.vietnam-visa.in. A one-month single entry visa costs $73.
Re1 = 347 Vietnamese dong
Where to stay: The Vinh Hung 1 Heritage Hotel (from $77 doubles; www.vinhhungheritagehotel.com), where scenes of the Michael Caine starrer The Quiet American was filmed, is the only true heritage option within the old town. The group has other hotels in the area, though the riverside resorts are quite far from the old town. The Anantara Hoi An Resort (from $220; www.anantara.com) on the riverside at the edge of the Old Town is a great but expensive option. Nearby is the much cheaper Ha An Hotel (from $60 doubles; www.haanhotel.com), which has a lovely garden. You’ll have to go further afield for more budget options, but there are a number of small hotels and homestays that are about a 10-minute walk away from the old town. The Hoang Trinh Hotel (from $22 doubles; www.hoianhoangtrinhhotel.com) is among the better budget hotels.
When to go: The wet season from October to December causes flooding in the Old Town areas. The rest of the year is warm, but it’s best to not travel in the peak summer months of June and July.
What to see & do: You need a ticket (under $6), which can be bought from the many ticket counters at the various points of entry, to visit the Old Town. This ticket also lets visitors tour five of the over 20 places of interest like ancient homes and congregation halls. Apart from walking around the Old Town, a treat in itself, spend time at Japanese Covered Bridge; well-preserved timber homes like the Phung Hung House on the other side of the covered bridge on Nguyen Thi Minh Khain Street; the Tan Ki House on Nguyen Thi Hoc Street; the Tran Family Home and Chapel; congregation halls of the Fujian and Cantonese communities; and museums like those on ceramics and Sa Huynh culture.
Try cooking and lantern making classes. A day can be set aside to visit the former imperial capital of Hue, a four-hour drive from Hoi An, or to the even older Cham site of My Son (also a Unesco site), about an hour away. You could also pack a picnic basket, rent an electric bike and drive to the white sand beach of Cua Dai, about 4km from the old town, for a day of sun, sand and sea.
Where to shop: Hoi An is a great place to shop and there are the usual stores selling souvenirs, jewellery, paintings and lacquerware. But it is best known for its custom tailors, who stitch all manner of western wear. Yaly Couture on Nguyen Duy Hieu Street is among the older and larger of the shops. Whichever tailor you go to, never pay in advance — and ensure you have enough time for alterations. Place your orders on the afternoon of the first day of your stay and they’ll be executed in a day or two. Another must-do is getting bespoke footwear stitched, also best ordered early on. A must-buy are the Hoi An silk lanterns. They come in different shapes, sizes and colours and they are all lovely. The night market at An Hoi, across the river from Hoi An Old Town, is the best place to get these lamps. Whatever you buy, be sure to haggle.
Where to eat: Mango Mango and Morning Glory are some of the better upscale restaurants. For a more down-to-earth eating experience, the covered Central Market on Tran Quy Cap Street has numerous food stalls offering very good and inexpensive food.