Hoi An was by far our favorite town in Vietnam. A trading port dating back to the 17th-century, it has been shaped by the cultures that passed through its ports—Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, Indian and Vietnamese. With its well-preserved homes, shops, and temples, the whole town center has been deemed a UNESCO world-heritage site but it still bustles beyond the museum-goers. We were lucky enough to be in Hoi An on the night of the Full Moon Lantern Festival, the time when the locals celebrate their ancestors with music, food, games, and lots of candlelight. It’s a magical night but even if your trip can’t coincide with the festivities, the charming town and nearby Cham ruins, Marble Mountains, and beaches would give you plenty to write home about.
Being a UNESCO site, Hoi An’s biggest attractions require a ticket (kind of annoying but worth it). An essential visit is the “Bridge for Travelers from Afar.” Built in 1593, this bridge connected the Japanese settlement to the rest of town. Today, its beauty and ethnic roots have become the symbol of Hoi An.
We went into a number of the historic homes and loved seeing the blend of architectural styles. One of our favorite stops was the 19th-century Tran Ancestor Worship House. The gorgeous space was built as a shrine for the deceased members of a wealthy family which was largely Chinese in style but very Vietnamese in concept. It’s customary in Vietnam to annually commemorate relatives’ lives with offerings and prayers but in Hoi An…it’s monthly. We saw mini altars set up all over town with burning incense, tea, flowers, bananas, family photos and even bonfires of fake $100 bills to carry luck and prosperity to the heavens.
In preparation for the night’s ceremony, the market was overflowing with flowers and goodies to adorn the family altars and celebrate the night.
When night fell, the first thing we noticed was the force of votive candle sellers. It is tradition to light a lotus votive for good luck, love, and happiness and send it out to sea. Thousands of people partake, leaving the water twinkling with lit flowers and positive vibes.
Hoi An Full Moon Festival
The energy and beauty of the Lantern Festival is too hard to capture with just words and photographs so we took this quick video to give you a feeling for the night.
Another essential part of the festivities is bia hoi or fresh beer. This is actually available for any occasion all over Vietnam but this was our first taste. It is brewed daily creating a very light refreshing lager at a fraction of the cost of bottled beer…as in 3000 Vietnam dong or 20 U.S. cents. The whole process and pricing sounds impossible but it is true and it is awesome (anyone want to learn this brewing process with us and open a Bia Hoi bar in NYC?).
In true Honey Trek fashion we spent two nights of our Hoi An stay at a $10 guest house and two nights in a five-star resort (for Honeymoons.com). The amazing Nam Hai is just a little north of town on the beach and a total oasis of luxury. With 100 rooms and 568 people on staff, the service was amazing and the attention to detail was incredible…everything from sugar-encrusted cinnamon sticks with your morning coffee to the sculptures nestled into the impeccably manicured landscape.
We spent one of our days at the hotel vegging by the pools, taking walks on the beach, playing tennis, savoring three delectable meals, and soaking up our suite. The 861-square foot space contained a canopy bed, two seating areas, a sun deck, and a private courtyard that served as quiet possibly the largest outdoor shower ever. If at all possible, stay at the Nam Hai!
The next day we woke up early and went to the neighboring UNESCO site My Son. This Champa kingdom complex was built over the course of the 4th-14th centuries and has many of its Hindu temples and royal structures still intact.
On the way home, we went to the impressive Marble Mountains. Using existing caves and grottoes, Buddhist and Hindu worshipers carved temples right into the mountains. We were hiking up the natural marble stairs and ducking into caves, often to find that a simple crack in the rock could open up to a massive and ornately decorated sanctuary. We explored the area for hours discovering unsuspecting spaces and artwork.
From Hoi An onward, we started to get into the Vietnam swing of things. We still kept our guard up a bit but finally figured out how to let the beauty in.