If you want to see the best locations in and around Hoi An you don’t need a tour guide. These three do-it-yourself tours can be done on foot or by bike — I’d definitely recommend a bicycle or motorbike for the last two, as 14 kilometres is a long hike in the searing heat or constant rain of the flood season. Bicycles can be hired either at your hotel or just outside from a vendor for 20,000 VND per day. These routes are all flat back roads and you won’t have to compete with traffic, except for the odd water buffalo or duck.
The old town by night
If you’ve tackled the old town by day and wondered where it left its old world charm, you might want to take a different approach. This little adventure is best done on foot, but there’s an amazing sense of freedom in jumping on a bike for this one once you’ve got over the initial shock of dragging yourself out of bed at 03:00. The most magical time to hit the streets is when the rest of the town is sleeping and the streets are completely deserted — you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back 100 years.
Throw away your map and weave in and out of the alleys, take the bridge over to An Hoi and take a moment to enjoy the town from a different perspective. Then meander back to the dock by the central market between 04:00 and 05:00 for a steaming bowl of pho as the fishing boats dock, the sun rises and the traders descend.
Don’t forget your camera — the shots you take here will be the best you get of Hoi An. As you limp back to your hotel for a little siesta, you’ll probably get another glimpse into local life as the Vietnamese all go a bit Jane Fonda in their PJs doing their early morning exercises. It’ll take you back to the 1980s — three centuries in one tour, beat that!
Pagodas and paddy
This 14 kilometre-long loop takes you through farming and fishing villages, with a quick stop for a chat with the monks at the Van Duc Pagoda and a cup of sweet green tea at Tra Que vegetable village.
Your start point for this tour is the traffic intersection at Hai Ba Trung and Ly Thuong Kiet. Take a left — you can fill up with petrol at the station along here. Follow the road and you will pass the war memorial grave site — worthy of a stop off — and at the first set of traffic lights turn right following the signs for the Van Duc Pagoda. Keep on this road following it to the right at the pagoda — time it right and you will get to see the monks in action. They welcome everyone and a few speak very good English — the rest like the chance to practise. Do make sure you show respect by covering up shoulders and knees.
Van Duc is the largest and most active pagoda in Hoi An and is rather wonderfully not on the tourist map, which gives you a real insight in to the gentle Buddhist beliefs behind much of Vietnamese culture.
When you are rested and ready to move on, turn right out of the pagoda, passing by paddy and riverside fishing villages, to the unmissable and busy-in-comparison Hai Ba Trung Road. Go straight across for Tra Que Village to see the local farmers tending the most famous herb gardens in Central Vietnam. Turn left for An Bang beach, or turn right back to your start point, which is two kilometres down the road.
River coconut palms & coracle makers
Another easy 14 kilometre-long loop, this route takes you along river paths edged with coconut palms far more spectacular and unspoilt than the Mekong Delta, through villages of craftspeople, fishing families and a friendly old coracle boat-maker — as far removed from the bustling old town and tourism as you could imagine.
To get there, take a right at the traffic lights on Cua Dai Road, straight past the Cua Dai market, where you might want to stop off for a nuoc mia (sugar cane juice) and watch the locals stocking up on essentials from a miniature plastic stool. You’ll also find a great secondhand clothes stall here: look for the rows of Hawaiian shirts next to the cockfighting ring, where you can stock up on $4 Levis and ex-military jackets, all in Western sizes. Hop back on your bike and follow the road over the bridge until it becomes a single track between shrimp farms and coconut palms and you will come to a small village of carpenters building structures from bamboo and coconut palms.
The roads leading off the main path will take you back to the same road a little further towards town from the start point of your loop on the Cua Dai Road. You can’t possibly get lost on the tiny island of Cam Tanh and every detour off the main path is rewarded with friendly smiles and local life, with the Cam Tanh villagers rarely if ever stepping into the old town — a Western face is still very much a novelty and if you fancy trying your hand at fishing with a bamboo stick or a quick lesson in manoeuvring a coracle boat through the palms, the locals love it so don’t be afraid to ask.
You will need a hat and sunscreen if it’s a hot day, but there’s no need to stock up on water and food as plenty of tiny shops lie en route. Prices are cheaper than town and your money will go back into the local community, helping the poorer areas of the province. These routes should be foolproof, but if somehow you do manage to get lost you will always find a local who can point you in the right direction if you just ask for Hoi An — don’t be surprised if the whole village comes out to help you find your way home.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 12th December, 2014.