Xin chào! Following my days of solo backpacking in Ninh Binh, I arrived by night bus to a beautiful Unesco World Heritage Site, the ancient town of Hoi An!
This old trading port town dates from the 15th century and it’s remarkably well preserved for a country that got many sites bombed during the Vietnam war.
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The town is a mixture of cultures, with Chinese, Japanese and European influences in its architecture.
I stayed at two different hostels in Hoi An, first I spent two nights at Royal Homestay which is a 5 minute bike ride away from the old town.
Days 1 Wandering around Hoi An
The ancient town is full of beautiful architecture, with temples and residences having almost an equal share of charm, and its streets are simply really cool to walk around.
It’s a perfect destination for wanderers as you can walk for a long time discovering fascinating little places, hidden gems that scape the tourist guides.
To enter the Unesco-protected ancient town you need to buy an entrance ticket which as Feb ’19 was of 120k VND (less than US $5).
However, this is not enforced and although there are ticket boots you can simply walk-in.
I heard they’re more on top of large groups with guides. The ticket gives you access to 5 attractions around town though so it’s not really expensive and hopefully the money is actually used for maintenance of this heritage site. In any case,
I didn’t have to pay for it as I went when it was Tết, aka Vietnamese New Year, and those days they were simply not charging the fee and entrance to the temples was free of charge, lucky me! 🙂
As on the homestay they provided free bikes I was riding one, although in the more crowded places I was simply walking it.
You can also find some “bike parkings” which will charge you about 5000 VND (US $0.25) in case you don’t have a padlock to park it somewhere else.
During the day it’s colourful buildings are as vibrant as all the chaos among the hordes of tourists and locals.
At night the colours are replaced by all the beautiful lanterns lit up. The chaos remains at night.
I spent the day just going up and down all the streets without any destination in mind, I didn’t bother to check any maps to see where the attractions were and simply enjoyed the day.
There’s a lot to see everywhere.
One of the most famous things in Hoi An is its food scene. From lots of street food stalls to more fancy restaurants.
As I travel on a budget, and I also think it’s more authentic, I tend to eat almost exclusively street food and Hoi An is paradise for this!
Among the many typical dishes in Hoi An, the most famous are Cau Lau (Noodles made with water from the Ba Le Well and topped with crispy pork crackling or fried wontons), Com Ga (Chicken rice) and Bahn Xeo (DIY crispy pancake rolls with lettuce and mint)
All over town you will find lots of local restaurants with the dishes starting at just over US $1, bargain!
Every day there’s a night market and you will have the chance to try a few other things, from the ever-present in Vietnam Banh Mi (Sandwich filled with a variety of fillings) to Hoi An Pizzas (not really pizzas) and seafood on a stick.
There are also sweet options although is mainly the stuff that you find all over SE Asia such as crepes and ice cream rolls.
Day 2 A ride to the beach and beyond, plus Tết celebrations at night!
My second day backpacking in Hoi An was supposed to be a long one so I started a little bit later than usual.
At around mid-morning I took one of the free bikes at the homestay and rode towards the rice fields, An Bang Beach, Cua Dai Beach, and up to the end of the road at Cua Dai Pier as I wanted to find out more about the boat going towards Cham Island.
The ride was quite nice through the rice fields, with not much traffic, when arriving to the beach you already feel again in a very touristy place, full of bars and a bit crowded so I didn’t stay a long time but kept riding.
The way towards Cua Dai Pier is a bit desolated, not much charm and it goes next to some large resorts, not many options to buy water or snacks so make sure to bring some with you.
As it was already afternoon, on Tết day, when I got to the pier there was not a single person to ask anything about the boats to Cham Island so I had to rely on the little info I found online for the following day…but this changed…keep reading for more!
Later in the evening I headed towards the ancient town for dinner and join the new lunar year celebrations, not really knowing what was planned apart from the fireworks.
If on a normal day Hoi An is busy, you can imagine how it was for Tết when everyone takes time off, there were some really packed areas and we were there with our bikes! we decided to park them next to a tree and hope they will stay there all night…
Once we had some great food we walked around the night market area which is where there was a stage and the party area.
After a while it was finally the time for the fireworks as midnight was approaching.
The thing that surprised me the most was that at midnight, instead of the rush of excitement and “Happy New Year” shouts that are common in the western countries, literally everyone (the locals I mean. Us, the western tourist were all in party mood) stayed quiet waiting for the fireworks that started immediately after the clock marked 00:00.
The show itself was pretty good and as soon as it ended many people started making their way out of there, I can only imagine back home but I really hope they were going to start celebrating somewhere else as otherwise it was a pretty boring way to start the year of the pig.
After I while I returned to my homestay (the bike was still by the tree!) and the owner was still celebrating, he invited all the backpackers to beers for the rest of the night. It was great!
Day 3 Camping in Cham Island
Not many hours later, I had to wake up really early.
To go to Cham Island you have two options, to take a speed boat which can cost quite a bit or to take the slow wooden boat which is a provisions boat.
If you take this one, you know that you will stay at least one night in the island as there’s only one boat which returns to Hoi An as soon as it arrives to Cham Island.
It leaves from the ancient town at 8:00am and from the Cua Dai Pier about half an hour later.
I planned to take a Grab mototaxi to get me to the ancient town “pier” from Royal Homestay at around 7:00…after lots and lots of tries, there was simply not a single taxi available (remember, post-Tết celebrations day), luckily at around 7:45 I saw the owner of the homestay and asked if he knew of any taxi that could come urgently as there was no time to walk.
Wonderful man he is, he took me on his motorbike and refused to take any money for the ride.
I’m so grateful to him as otherwise I would have had to spend another day in town waiting for the boat on the following day.
Ask in your hostel the exact location to get the wooden boat as there are no signs anywhere.
The price should be 100k VND, as I arrived almost on departure time and there were already 3 other backpackers on the boat which had already paid 150k VND so I couldn’t bring this price down in front of everyone.
The good thing was that the “captain” was still on Tết celebrations mood and he invited us all to a beer (at 8am yes, it was great!)
The boat ride takes about 2 hours so you have plenty of time to enjoy the views, take pictures and even a good nap. Not many people takes this boat so you will have plenty of space.
When approaching Cham Island I could already see its beauty, the island is part of the Cu Lau Cham Biosphere Reserve which is recognised by Unesco, and because of this there’s an entry fee that is paid at the Cua Dai Pier as of Feb ’19 this was 70k VND (less than US $4).
Cham Islands are actually a complex of 8 islands, and the boat will take you to the largest one which is Hon Lao and will leave you at the village of Bai Lang.
In Bai Lang you can find plenty of accommodation (some of them not too expensive for island standards) and restaurants.
Do keep an eye on the menus as I found in one restaurant a menu with local prices and a different one with tourist prices, after a short discussion I payed the local prices.
Upon arrival I started walking south as I saw some beaches when I was on the boat that were looking like awesome spots to spend the night camping.
After about 5 minutes walk from the pier you will already be leaving the village and a short but steep climb will take you to the “highway” there’s pretty much no traffic at all except for a few scooters so it’s completely safe to walk there.
MY CAMPING ESSENTIALS
Quickly I started finding beaches, but kept walking as I didn’t want to stay too close to the village. At 1.7Km from Bai Lang village I arrived to Chong Beach.
There’s a short downhill trail to reach the beach and even that there are a few restaurants there to cater the day tours coming from Hoi An, I instantly knew that I wanted to spend the night camping there!
The beach is a refreshment spot for the tours, the boats come for half an hour with about 20 people and then keep visiting the rest of the island.
I may have counted about 10-15 of these tour boats, but then after 14:00 all of them were on their way back to Hoi An, only 4 people left at the beach which were staying at the hostels in Bai Lang, after sunset they left and I had the beach for myself…well almost!
I had this friendly visit!
This little doggy stayed with me all night long! with such a great company I started digging a hole to make a small fire and cooking dinner, later it was time to cover it up again with sand (please never leave an open fire when camping!) and enjoy the view of the stars, got to love a starry night!
When I went to sleep in my tent the doggy stayed sleeping right outside it and didn’t move until I woke up!
Day 4 Walk around Cham Island and back to Hoi An
Early on next morning I packed my tent and started walking around the island as I had until 11:00 to discover a little bit more before taking the boat back to Hoi An.
I walked back to the village and then followed the road towards the other side of the island, this was all uphill but there were good views.
At the top of the hill there’s a military post so I feared the military man was just going to send me back to town.
I greeted him with a polite “Xin chào!” and made signs of walking a little bit more just to take a photo, he seemed to understand or simply saw no threat on a backpacker wandering around a peaceful island.
The other side of the island (facing East, away from the mainland) was really pretty, but there were no beaches there as far as I could see, it’s mostly rugged rocky landscape with no clear ways to go down.
As I was with my rucksack and with not much time before taking the boat I turned back to town after enjoying a bit the scenery.
Back in town I still had time to walk to the beach of Bai Ong, this one is a bit more developed as there were more restaurants than in the beach I camped.
To go back to Hoi An, you can ignore the people in the village selling speed boat tickets, just go to the pier at 11:00 for the slow boat.
If you’re by the pier/beach you will see the boat slowly approaching in the distance at around 10:00. You don’t need to buy a ticket, just pay when getting on the boat.
Back into Hoi An, the boat will first stop by the Cua Dai Pier and then will continue towards the ancient town.
For my final night staying in Hoi An, I went to another hostel that got recommended when I was at Cham Island, so I walked-in to Hoa Binh Hostel.
I went there instead of to the first homestay as the guys that recommended it told me the price was pretty much the same and included breakfast and cocktails in the evening!
The rest of the day was just spent wandering around town, at any point I got tired of this beautiful place even after walking a few times the same places.
This famous route between Hoi An and Hue got its celebrity status when Top Gear named it one of the best coast roads in the world.
You can start in either direction and you have different options to do it: go by train, rent a motorbike with a driver (called Easy Rider) or just rent a motorbike and drop it at your destination which is what I did.
It’s important to shop around as the rental prices can vary significantly. I ended up paying 250k VND (US $11) but my hostel was asking me for double the price. The rental guys will even transfer your rucksack to Hue for no extra fee! For petrol you can count about US $5 more.
Day 5 My Son Sanctuary tour and Hai Van Pass
One popular attraction near Hoi An is the My Son Sanctuary.
This religious complex was built by the Champa Kingdom between 4-14th AD and had a refined building technique where the mortar is almost invisible to see and the temples seem to be made of stacked bricks.
This is an Unesco World Heritage Site that unfortunately was badly destroyed during the Vietnam War.
I liked the place, but it doesn’t tend to get much credit as people compares it to the more famous Angkor Wat and Ayutthaya ruins in Cambodia and Thailand which are more spectacular in scale.
My Son Sanctuary is about 40 km from Hoi An. As of Feb ’19 the entrance fee is 150k VND (less than US $7).
The visitor’s area is not huge, is mainly 4 sectors and you can do the entire site in about an hour. There’s a museum explaining a bit of the history of the place and even some typical dancing performances in a small theatre.
If you’re confident riding a scooter, you will have plenty of time to visit the complex and go back to Hoi An to start the road trip to Hue via the Hai Van Pass.
To go to My Son I had to check a couple of times the route on maps.me as sometimes you find some signs showing where to go but many times it’s not the case. All in all is actually pretty straight forward to get there.
On the way back to start the trip to Hue, you just need to keep going straight until you reach the coast and then it’s just a matter of stay by the beach almost at all times, the trip from Hoi An to Hue will be of about 120 Km, calculate at least 4-5 hours to complete it as you will stop many times to take photos.
Again, check maps.me every now and then as when you’re in the city of Da Nang you will have to take a left turn towards Da Nang Bay. This bay is a good area to top up the petrol in the scooter.
Once you leave the city of Da Nang, you will start climbing through stunning scenery.
It’s a twisty road so make sure to stay well on the right hand side of the road as you can have trucks and buses overtaking on the opposite direction without caring too much on who or what comes ahead.
All over the Hai Van Pass you will have plenty of viewpoints, I kept stopping all the time as each turn I took was rewarding with an even better view.
Even that on the day was cloudy and at the very top of the mountain you couldn’t see more than a few meters ahead due to heavy fog/clouds it was absolutely brilliant!
When you finally go down at the other side of the mountain the road will be pretty much a straight line to Hue.
There are a couple of places such as the Marble Mountain or the Elephant Spring where you can deviate a bit for more sightseeing, the scooter rental people even provides maps showing the routes.
I didn’t go to any of them because I already spent quite some time with the earlier visit to My Son and had to be at a certain time to return the scooter in Hue.
If you only do the Hai Van Pass without My Son you will have plenty of time to visit them.
These were some pretty awesome days of adventures in Hoi An. With lots of stuff to do, you could even stay a bit longer if you have the time.
I normally tend to avoid crowded places, which is what surprises me on how much I liked Hoi An as its anything but remote.
The camping night in Cham Island certainly compensated as I had the beach for myself (plus a dog!) and the Hai Van Pass was simply incredible.
What a fantastic place to go solo backpacking in Vietnam!
Feel free to drop any questions or comments if you’re planning some adventures in Vietnam 🙂