First time traveling to Vietnam? Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City can be a little—make that a lot—overwhelming when you initially arrive. This Southeast Asian country’s two largest cities are crowded and chaotic. So why not ease into this trip a slower? Start in Hội An instead.
While traveling south from Da Nang International Airport, you learn that Hội An means “peaceful meeting place.” So far so good. The city, slightly inland from the South China Sea, sits along the Thu Bồn River. It was built by the Chams as a trading port and became one of Southeast Asia’s largest harbors within a few centuries. Today, Hội An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The beautiful Ancient Town is filled with winding lanes, open shophouses, and colorful lanterns. Deteriorating buildings have tile roofs, louvered windows, and cascading flowers. Plus terraced cafés overlook the Japanese Covered Bridge and the greenish river, where women are paddling wooden canoes.
Your first stop is your hotel, of course. The Anantara Hoi An Resort looks like a graceful mansion along the riverbank. Its three-story, French Colonial buildings surround a lush garden full of palm trees, lily ponds, and a peaceful pool. Your split-level room is a bit more contemporary, though. The bedroom and the bathroom sit on the upper level. While a lounge area, decorated with silk pillows, leads to the porch on the lower level.
You’re tempted to take a quick nap—or at least pretend you’re not going to take a nap by the pool—but you know a nap will turn into a deep sleep after many hours of traveling. Besides, you’re ready to immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture. Walk through the Ancient Town to see suits being made by hand, exotic foods in the market, and French cafés serving strong coffee. Cross the Japanese Covered Bridge, which is guarded by monkey statues on one side and dog statues on the other. Visit the museums to learn about the city’s early history (the Museum of History and Culture), city life (the Museum of Folklore), and trade (the Museum of Trade Ceramics). Then eat cao lầu (rice noodles) and white roses (shrimp dumplings) while you drink a Bia Hoi beer.
Once you start to feel comfortable in Hội An, it’s time to dig deeper into Vietnamese culture. Join a cooking class to learn how to use new ingredients or a lantern-making class to see how those gorgeous silk lanterns are made. Ride a bike past rice paddies and Casuarina trees to find a sandy beach and warm water just a few kilometers east of the city. Return to your hotel in time for a romantic cruise as the sun sets, since the city looks even more enchanting after dark. There’s a good chance that your first stop in Vietnam will end up being your favorite spot.