Home » Hoi An – Asia’s prettiest town?

Hoi An – Asia’s prettiest town?

Vietnamese boat

I covered my ears and hurried off the runway at Da Nang Airport. Beneath my feet lay the same tarmac US pilots had landed on after dropping their bombs on North Vietnam.

Fifty years on, Da Nang has changed tremendously. I was not stopping though. My destination was further south, a town which had supposedly escaped time’s ravages.

It was a place I’d wanted to visit for years, and I had a question which needed answering.

Hoi An. Is it Asia’s prettiest town?

Living history

Hoi An’s a surviving ancient trading port — a rare specimen. Designated UNESCO World Heritage status at the end of the millennium, Hoi An is living history. Parts of the town are five hundred years old, and you can feel the years that have passed here.

Hoi An from the river

Hoi An was once the most important trading port in Southeast Asia, visited by Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese traders. Its reach was global, with ceramics from Hoi An discovered in places as far-flung as Egypt.

Chinese temple in Hoi An

It’s ironic then that Hoi An’s economic demise is why it’s so well-preserved today. Political change meant Da Nang overtook Hoi An as the region’s major trading port. The silting-up of the river-mouth further reduced Hoi An’s stature. Hoi An was then ignored for 200-odd years, saving it from modernisation.

Thank God this happened.

Hoi An shops

The sights of Hoi An

Against this historical tapestry, Hoi An cast its spell. The narrow alleys and pastel-coloured buildings charmed me, and I ended up staying twice as long as I’d originally planned. It’s easy to see why.

A typical day started with coffee on the riverfront. From the terrace I’d watch the river coming to life, fishing boats breaking the still water.

Hoi An river from a cafe

Boat on the Hoi An river

I’d then wander through the morning-market, impressed by the array of colour on sale.

Vietnamese women at the Hoi An market

Produce at the Hoi An market

Lunch was just as relaxed. Hoi An has interesting regional cuisine like the cao lầu and mì quảng, which are dry noodle dishes. Bánh mì was sold everywhere; the start of a delicious addiction.

cao lau
Cao lầu

Banh mi being made

Banh mi
Bánh mì

In the late afternoon, Hoi An’s buildings would look most brilliant. The bright yellow walls were illuminated by the sun, vividly contrasting with the starched blue sky.

Hoi An riverfront

Yellow building in Hoi An

As night fell, Hoi An’s ubiquitous lamps came on, lighting the riverfront in soft reds and purples. The hum of people descending on the river for dinner produced a vibrant yet relaxed atmosphere.

Hoi An lanterns at night

Families would take photos at the the ancient Japanese bridge, admiring the structure which was built in the 1590s. Small crafts carried couples on romantic cruises, the only sound being the oarsman’s paddle tickling the water.

Hoi An lanterns

I sat and drank beer, watching kids float paper lanterns down the river, their ultimate fate unknown, but predictable.

Hoi An knew how to make itself difficult to leave.

Beach life

One boiling-hot day I hired a bike and rode out of town. My destination was An Bang beach, a few kilometres outside Hoi An.

Green fields outside Hoi An

My route took me through impossibly green fields being ploughed by water buffalo; past colourful cemeteries and criss-crossing rivers. I knew I’d arrived in Vietnam.

Field being ploughed by bull

Bulls at cemetery outside Hoi An

An Bang beach however, was another story. The water looked dirty, and sun-loungers were crammed along every inch of habitable beachfront. It was nigh impossible to sit without being hassled to buy a drink. Even worse was the terrible erosion, with the remedial work further blighting the beach.

An Bang beach

Erosion at An Bang beach

Hawker at An Bang beach

The consolation was seeing the traditional Vietnamese fishing boats in action. The round craft bobbed in the waves a few hundred metres offshore, lost in a simpler world.

Vietnamese fishing boats at An Bang beach

I rode back to Hoi An in the late afternoon, and spied a cafe on the outskirts of town. The coffee was delicious, and the view was even better. It was the perfect end to the day.

Hoi An river

Tourism’s woes

Despite loving Hoi An, I couldn’t help feeling that tourism has sucked some of its soul dry.

The ancient town is well preserved, but the majority of buildings have turned into shops and restaurants. Derivative souvenirs, ranging from lanterns to wooden ships, are sold in every store.

Hoi An is famous for its good quality tailors, and there must be at least one-hundred inundating the town, each hustling for business.  One tailor proudly told me, “our clothes are very cheap because we pay our workers so little!”

Tourists at Hoi An

Hoi An lacks authenticity, and doesn’t feel like a town lived in by Vietnamese. It can be contrasted with places like George Town, Malaysia, which is still occupied by locals, rather than becoming a theme-town for tourists.

Bridge at Hoi An

It made me wonder whether UNESCO World Heritage status is more of a curse than a blessing in some ways. It’s a complex issue, and as a tourist myself, I knew I was contributing to the problem.

And in saying all of that, Hoi An is still the most beautiful town I’ve visited in Asia.

Kids playing at Hoi An

Would you like to visit Hoi An? What’s the most beautiful town you’ve ever seen? Leave a comment below


  1. Himmy says:

    You’re right about UNESCO heritage sites like Hoi An – I always wonder what it must be like to be a local living there, being overrun by foreigners. It must be a blessing to get all the tourist dollars coming through, but it does feel like a living museum, with the “traditional” Vietnamese charm preserved now for tourists to see rather than for tradition itself. That said, as a tourist Hoi An must be my favourite place in Vietnam – if the locals are happy with how it’s become then I wouldn’t have it any other way!

    • youmustroam says:

      Yeah Hoi An was one of my favourite spots too, but I did feel that something had been lost. I’d love to see how it looked before the tourists started coming.

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