Handmade Paper Lanterns
Handmade paper lanterns dazzle young shoppers at an artisan’s store.

The paved lane along the north bank of Vietnam’s Thu Bon River, in the city of Hội An, is quaint by day, spectacular by night. Centuries-old houses, some built as long ago as the 1700s, welcome visitors to enjoy coffee, food, tailored clothing, and other merchandise. Their ochre-hued walls and tiled roofs are invariably brightened by colorful flowers and paper lanterns.

River at night
Colored lanterns hanging on tour boats illuminate the Thu Bon River at night.

When the sun disappears, those same lanterns illuminate the water, hanging as they do from small boats that carry passengers through the serene stream. They brighten the pedestrian bridge that crosses the waterway to mobile kitchens and a night market on the opposite shore and give this romantic city its nickname: “City of Lanterns.” 

Hoi An costumes at Cam Pho
Visitors to the Cam Pho Communal House, more than two centuries old, model imperial costumes from the pre-European era.

There are eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Vietnam. They include places of profound scenic beauty and destinations of remarkable historical and cultural importance. Of these, Hội An stands out as truly unique. That’s because this city of 140,000 is still living its heritage. 

As the premier tourist destination in Central Vietnam, Hội An (pronounced hoy-ann) is known for its marvelously preserved Ancient Town. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, Hội An was an international trading port famed throughout the western Pacific and even Europe, with a significant Chinese and Japanese population. Today it maintains more than 800 historic buildings, nearly two dozen of them open to visitors as places of worship, private homes, and small museums.

Hoi An rooftops
The tiled rooftops of Hoi An’s Ancient Town shelter a UNESCO World Heritage district of more than 800 historic buildings.

Chinese traders in particular made their presence known. They followed the monsoons south across the South China Sea in spring and returned north four months later when the winds turned. They came with silk, paper, spices, medicines, beeswax, and lacquer. They built assembly halls as places to gather and worship their Taoist and Confucianist deities, each congregation representing their specific home regions of China. 

A multi-headed dragon strains for release from a tiny pool in the back garden of the Cantonese Assembly Hall.

Several of these buildings are spectacular. The Fujian Assembly Hall, originally constructed of wood in 1697, was rebuilt with brick and tile in 1757. Its colorful architecture incorporates sculpture with potted plants, flowers, and other garden features. Modern Vietnamese and Chinese come to pray to Thiên Hậu, goddess of the sea, who protects fishermen and other maritime travelers.

The Cantonese Assembly Hall, built in 1885, is dedicated to Quan Cong, a Third Century general. Its highlight is a back-garden sculpture of a Medusa-like dragon, multiple heads straining for release from a tiny pool.

Fujian entry
South Chinese merchants built the colorful Fujian Assembly Hall in 1697. In its central pagoda, visitors offer prayers to Thien Hau, goddess of the sea.

One of the town’s most famous features is the Japanese Covered Bridge at the west end of the Ancient Town. Built over a stream in the 1590s, the arched bridge is guarded at either end by paired statues of dogs and monkeys. At its center is a shrine guarded day and night by human security.

Japanese bridge
Built over a stream in the 1590s, the Japanese covered bridge is guarded at either end by paired statues of dogs and monkeys.

Hội An is an easy town to find your way around, despite some nameless narrow alleys: They all lead somewhere, and there are numerous maps and directional signs (mostly in English) to help you out.

Suburban rooftops sunset
Sunset paints an artist’s glow on Thai Phien street in suburban Hoi An.

To pay for continued maintenance of historic buildings, all visitors are requested to purchase an entrance ticket. A fee of about US $2.60 entitles admission to five buildings; I needed two tickets, even though not every building was open during my visit. Still, it was money very well spent.

Hoi An street crossing
A woman in 18th-century costume crosses a Hoi An Street. Scores of ochre-colored buildings are home to shops, restaurants and coffee shops.

Apart from seven assembly halls and communal houses, and five small museums, the ticket allows entrance to a half-dozen traditional family homes. Of these, both the Tấn Ký House and the Quân Thắng House are in their seventh generation of continuous family ownership. Each features beautiful artisan tile and woodwork, numerous historic portraits, a central courtyard and an altar beneath the front eaves.

Traditional cultural shows and craft demonstrations are offered at several locations around the Ancient Town.

Even before Hội An was a recognized trading port, its location was embraced by the ancient Champa Empire — a medieval regional power — as a spiritual one. The Hindu ruins of My Son (pronounced mee sone) are some of the most memorable in Vietnam, and they are an inexpensive 45-minute taxi ride upriver from Hội An.

My Son sculpture work
Some of the Hindu sculptures at My Son were carved as long ago as the 7th Century, when the Champa Empire was a regional power.

Dating back more than 1,000 years, this sanctuary was lost in thick jungles for centuries, rediscovered by French colonists in the 1800s, then mercilessly bombed by Americans 50 years ago. Today it has several clusters of red-brick structures in various stages of collapse and restoration. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right.

My Son temple restoration
Dating back more than 1,000 years, the Champa Empire spiritual center of My Son is undergoing extensive restoration as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Hội An is about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Da Nang, the largest city in central Vietnam. Buses and taxis run frequently from the international airport, and scores of outstanding hotels and budget guest houses cater to visitors.

The town is famous for such local foods as mí quang (a noodle soup typically served with shrimp, pork, and crushed peanuts) and cao lâu (rice noodles in a sauce with marinated pork).  But because of international tourism, it’s easy to find a cosmopolitan variety of dishes, from steaks and pizza to Thai and Indian cuisine.

Cao lau meal
Cao lau, made of rice noodles in a sauce with marinated pork, shrimp and quail eggs, is a specialty dish of Hoi An.

John Gottberg Anderson, a resident of Vietnam since 2019, is the author of the weekly blog, www.travelsinvietnam.com.