Hoi An is a magical place with endless things to do. Try to pull yourself away from the lantern-lined alleys, picturesque Ancient Town, serene rice terraces, and gorgeous beaches for a half-day adventure so that you can immerse yourself in local history, culture, and arts. These are the very best day trips from Hoi An around central Vietnam.
LEARN ABOUT ANCIENT CHAM CIVILIZATION
Tucked away discretely within the dense jungle lay the remains of houses of worships once erected by the Champa Kings as a sacred space for honoring and praying to Hindu deities. The ruins, named My Son, were used by members of the royal family wishing to communicate with the Gods from the 4th to 13th century.
The Hindu monuments are considered to be the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indochina, but no one ever actually lived there, not even the Hindu monks who tended to the grounds. In fact, My Son was strictly a place for the royal family to worship and be interred. The kingdom of Champapura, which is Sanskrit for City of the Cham people, where the royals and commoners lived, was about 20 km away from the My Son religious complex.
It’s about an hours drive from the Hoi An Ancient Town to My Son. I visited on a sunny morning with a local guide organized for me by responsible tourism operator, Urban Adventures. It’s possible to explore the temples on your own but there aren’t many signs so you’ll miss out on learning about the history of the complex if you don’t hire a guide. The route can be a bit rocky so it’s not the best idea to take a motorbike unless you’re an expert driver. Either way, make sure you have insurance from World Nomads in case of any unfortunate accidents.
The overgrown ruins remain today as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the My Son Sanctuary. It astonishes architects and historians alike that the Cham people were able to build these remarkable temples with no machinery. The ancient bricks look newer than those placed during modern times, which continues to baffle professionals.
Over ten centuries various Champa monarchs built temples in honor of their Shivite Hinduism beliefs. Each temple has influence from other Asian civilizations, there are temples designed similarly to those in India, Cambodia, and Indonesia. The influence of various cultures alludes that Champa Kings must have been well traveled and adapted design elements from the cultures they visited.
The contrast between the restored and crippled structures is amazing. They are beautiful worn in every single way. As you stroll through the grounds you’ll notice intricately carved facades. Representations of the Shiva are prominent in both his human form and symbolically as a Lingam. Many of the images around My Son have been decapitated as French colonizers sent the heads of the ancient structures, some of which are still on display at the Louvre. This is a disgrace and they should be returned to where they rightfully belong in Vietnam.
Several of the My Son structures have lasted the test of time, but barely. The sacred structures have faced many hardships over the last 2,000 years or so. Cham people had many tensions with the Vietnamese and the Chinese. Fighting often occurred and fire was used as a weapon. A fire destroyed the valley in the 6th century, historians aren’t able to determine if the fire was started intentionally or naturally.
My Son Sanctuary was bombarded by the southern Vietnamese and American troops in 1969 as the communist Viet Cong soldiers had set up a military station at the site. The Viet Cong had selected the location tactically with the hope that their enemies wouldn’t bomb a religious site due to My Son’s historical and cultural significance. Today, it’s a war crime to bomb temples.
The attacks devastated many of the ancient Hindu structures. I stood amongst massive craters and debris from the bombs that still remain over fifty years after the fighting ceased. Don’t wander off the path at My Son as demining work is still underway to remove unexploded ordinances. Conjunctively, massive restoration of the monuments has been ongoing for 20 years although many of the remains are still in states of disrepair.
Despite its hostile history, the atmosphere early in the morning is incredibly serene due to the lush setting in the mountainous rainforest. When you visit My Son remember that these structures are places of worship and should be treated with respect. Wear conservative clothing and don’t touch any artifacts or structures.
The Urban Adventures My Son Discovery tour finished with a traditional Apsara dance show, which takes place at 9:30, 10:30, and 2:30. I was mesmerized as I watched the talented dancers moving to the beat of the rhythmic music from pan pipes and drums, with both musicians and dancers wearing colorful traditional costumes.
BE INSPIRED BY STREET ART AT TAN THANH MURAL VILLAGE
Vietnam’s first street art village is located in a tiny fishing village about an hour south of Hoi An in Tam Thanh. The project was launched by Korean volunteers with the mission of creating ‘art for better community.’ There are many murals around the village, most of which take up the entire sides of buildings and depict daily life.
Street art is one of my favorite things to seek out as I travel and Tam Thanh, while it’s small, was no disappointment. The vibrant art shows portraits of local villagers going about their daily life, some appear to be in a bit of a dream world that’s enhanced with a bit of magical paint that turns a woman’s locks into the ocean or traditional fishing boats into artful masterpieces.
For now, this gem is a bit hidden and off-the-beaten-path. It’s easiest to visit with a tour group, I went with Hoi An Food Tour, but you could also motorbike here and wander around to admire the art gallery. Part of the mission of the project was to help bring tourism to this locale so be sure to support some local businesses as you admire their neighborhood.
As Tam Thanh is a fishing village it should be no surprise that it’s located by the sea. Don’t miss the chance to walk down to the pristine beach where not a single swimmer was in sight during my visit. The sandy shore was dotted with traditional basket boats in an oblong shape that I’d never seen before.
I went on the day trip with Where Goes Rose, who was a champ and took these photos for me. The tour makes several other historic stops along the way which you could fold into a DIY itinerary too. I was excited to see the Vietnamese Heroic Mother Statue as it was so over-the-top that I just had to know more about this beautiful woman forever memorialized in stone. The mega statue is about 400 feet long and 60 feet tall. It was erected to honor a local woman who cared for Vietnamese soldiers and honor all of the mothers who lost children during the war. Inside is a small museum with handicrafts, artwork, and information.
TAKE A DAY TRIP TO DA NANG
Da Nang is a must-do day trip from Hoi An. There are so many things to experience in Vietnam’s fastest growing city. You can get in touch with ancient culture at the Marble Mountains, pay respects to the sea gods at the gigantic white Lady Buddha, dodge being scorned from the fire-breathing dragon bridge, or indulge in fantastic vegan eats. The best way to reach Da Nang from Hoi An is hopping on the back of a Grab motorbike taxi for a few bucks. For more ideas about what to do there read the Da Nang travel guide.
I was a guest on the Urban Adventures and Hoi An Food Tours. This post contains affiliate links. All opinions and photos are my own. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.