Located to the south of the major city of Da Nang is Hội An, a favorite travel destination that has fully earned its great reputation. Hội An is considered one of the most atmospheric and unique cities in all of Asia. The entire city is a museum in which every house has a history of several hundred years. Hội An displays a mix of strong cultural influences from France, China, and Japan. UNESCO also declared the perfectly preserved ancient Chinese architecture a World Heritage Site. From the tranquil river to the lively little streets whose appearance has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, to the cute yellow houses illuminated by dozens of Chinese lanterns – all this creates a unique atmosphere.
From Mũi Né, we continued by train to Da Nang and then on with a taxi to Hội An for about $17. A lot of tourists travel by bus or plane. We chose the train since we really wanted to try out the train just once during our trip. You can make good use of the travel time by doing an overnight train ride, and it’s still inexpensive.
On arriving at our hotel, we received a very warm welcome from the staff. The employees memorized our names relatively fast and took good care of us througout our stay.
Things We Recommend in Hội An
In Hội An, you’ll want to explore the Old Town and ride through the rice paddies to the beach. The hotels on the eastern edge of the Old Town are best suited for that. Most of the hotels will lend you a bike for free. Otherwise, you can rent both bicycles and motorbikes everywhere.
You can rent a motorbike for as little as $7 a day, and you don’t need a driver’s license to do it. But drive carefully, especially if you’re not used to Asian traffic. Neither the bikes, cars, motorcycles, or pedestrians seem to follow any rules, and they cross in front of each other in the most inconceivable patterns. The fact that there are only a few accidents is probably because of the slow driving speeds. From what I can see, people drive slowly enough to to avoid the vehicles that come around every corner.
The Old Town is closed to cars and motorcycles. But even with a bike, it still takes a while to make your way through the crowds of people. Your best bet is to ride your bike to the entrance of the Old Town and then walk from there.
To explore Hội An’s Old Town, you’ll need to pay a one-time entrance fee of about $7. Since admission to the Old Town isn’t monitored all over, you can also get in without a ticket. You just won’t be able to enter the beautiful houses and museums.
There are lots of cute cafes and shops that reminded us somewhat of Bali. But you won’t find the best restaurants on the tourist-infested promenades. Instead, they’re hidden away in narrow little alleyways that are easy to miss. Our favorites were Rosie’s Café for breakfast and Nu Eatery for supper.
Hội An is famous for its dressmakers, where nimble Vietnamse women will sew up a dream dress in one night. In my case, the dress needed four further adjustments to fit right. This process got drawn out over a period of three days.
The city is a popular destination for wedding pictures. Wedding photos are very important to the Vietnamese, and they’re ready to travel far and wide and pay a lot of money for a beautiful backdrop. It supposedly costs about $1000. With its charming little houses and colorful lanterns, Hội An is the perfect spot for this. Whether in the Old Town, on the old Japanese bridge, or at the night market, there are definitely plenty of suitable settings. And don’t miss the evening boat ride with floating candles.
Be sure to do the following while in Hội An
- Explore the historic Old Town, and slip into the atmospheric coffee houses whenever possible
- Walk down the narrow lanes, since that’s where the best restaurants are hidden away.
- Have a custom-tailored garment made for you. You can choose a pattern while there, or you can stop by with a picture of your ideal design.
- Admire the colorful lanterns by night, and buy a few at the night market. There’s always a discount for more than two. ; )
- Make a wish and place a floating candle in the river. You can obviously buy the candles there.
- Ride through the rice paddies to the beach, and spend a relaxing day in the water, or just walk along the beach.
The World’s Largest Cave System in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park
From Hội An we continued north – and off to a real jungle adventure in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. This time, for the trip there we tried taking the night bus, which brought us to Phong Nha village, the starting point for a lot of the Oxalis Adventure Tours treks and expeditions.
Every region presented a new side of the variety that is Vietnam. Who would have imagined such a vast jungle after the dollhouse-like town of Hội An? But the world’s largest cave systems are found in Vietnam and are nowhere near to being fully explored. It was only a few years ago that the region became known because of these large caves, which had been hidden for millennia and never yet lit up by a tourist’s pocket flashlight.
We opted for the two-day tour. The tour was explained in detail at the base camp, where we were able to collect our gear. Along with shoes, there were helmets with headlamps, and a backpack that included a waterproof inner bag.
After we had all changed, it was already off to the jungle, where the first cave awaited us for our lunchtime meal. But before we could eat, we still had to work a bit to earn it. That meant crossing the first river, which just reached up to our hips and gave us a chance to get used to the cold water. From the river, we had a good view of King Kong’s home, because it was right here in this area that the latest Hollywood version was shot, and the ape lived in one of the largest caves – or why the locals still only refer to it as King Kong Cave. About an hour later, we had already arrived at our rest stop. For lunch we made our own summer rolls, like the ones we’d made in the Mekong Delta, which are not fried, like spring rolls. Our guide informed us that we’d be coming out of this cave on the way back to the base camp.
After lunch, we made our way to the night camp, where there was coffee and tea already waiting for us. The two-person kitchen crew had already set up camp and was preparing the evening meal. Tonight we would be eating like true locals.
After coffee, it was off to the first cave in our rowboats and swim vests. There was a large river flowing through the cave. We could already see it from the camp since, in addition to a small waterfall, it also formed a lake. The cave itself was pitch black, and it was only thanks to our decent headlamps that we could see anything at all.
After we’d taken our rowboat through the cave for a while, we got out and went on foot through the small passageways. What you see there is truly breathtaking! The limestone region was formed by wind and water over the course of the world’s history, and enormous stalactites and stalagmites emerged and then grew together into columns. Those naturally developed into passageways, halls, and pools, creating subterranean palaces embellished with wonderful, luminous limestone works of art.
The presence of our headlamps awoke the insect world in the cave and brought it to life, which was evident from the bats flying around our heads. What’s impressive is when everyone turns off their flashlights and all you can see is a tiny light in the distance marking the entrance to the cave. Those who hadn’t yet had their fill of cold water could now drift over to this entrance while the rest of us rode back in the boat.
Now back at the night camp, we still had time to swim in the lake and settle into our tents. After we’d pulled on something dry, and before going to dinner, we all took a moment alone to enjoy the quiet of the jungle.
At dinner, in addition to the classic soup, there was meat and vegetables, and we were also able to make our own summer rolls again. For cuisine cooked over a fire in the forest, the food was as good as in any restaurant. Since our tour took place over New Year’s, the dinner included red wine and firewater (rice liquor) as well.
The next morning, along with omelets, we ate the remainder of our dinner and then packed our things. The goal was to stay as warm as possible without overdressing, since we’d be spending practically the whole day swimming in the caves or the jungle.
After we’d taken the boat into another cave, it got to the point where we all had to swim upstream on the other side. We did this a few times before exiting the cave. After that, there were several river crossings in the jungle before we had a chance to enjoy coffee and sweets while warming ourselves by the fire.
Without really having warmed up, it was on to the next cave, which we traversed almost entirely in the water. When swimming, we had to be careful not to bump into any stalagmites, which were all over. According to our guide, there were apparently also a lot of dead worms on the floor of the sandy riverbed. Good thing it was dark.
After a good hour and a half, we arrived at our destination and were able to pull on some warm clothing. We were now in a large cave with a lot of big and small balls. Our guide explained that they were formed by grains of sand that had been dislodged by dripping water.
An hour later, we suddenly found ourselves back in the space where he had eaten lunch the day before. From there, we continued home to the base camp, where we were welcomed by a warm shower and a beer.
Nature still has this region in its grip. The rainy season brings with it a great deal of water, filling the caves with thundering waves. It’s at its worst between September and November, when the valleys are completely flooded. At that point, the farmers pull out, and there are no tours in the region.
Because the caves were discovered only a few years ago, we lucked out and only met one other group aside from our own group of six. But the tours are very popular, and each year the number of visitors grows.
We can absolutely recommend this trip in spite of the fact that we were there during a colder season. At the time, I saw it almost as survival training. But once it’s over, stepping outside your comfort zone can make you feel incredibly proud! The Oxalis tour agency was commendable, the food was always well prepared, and the tents held their own against the cold and wet.
I can only imagine how gorgeous it must be when the thermometer goes above 18 degrees!
And the region is great not only for cave tours but also for lengthy treks. For nature lovers, it’s well worth it to spend an extra few days here. And for the adventurers among you, the caves are an absolute must.