The hype is real
If there was one city in Vietnam that I was looking forward to seeing, it was Hoi An. Hoi An is a city that attracts plenty of hype. “You must visit Hoi An” were the first words uttered by anyone I mentioned my impending Vietnam trip to, whether they had been or not! Searches on the internet as part of my travel planning were flooded with reasons to go.
Sometimes, this over-excitement about a city turns people off. Frightened of it being overcrowded with people who have read the same brochures and flocked there like sheep, or that it simply has been over-hyped and won’t reach the heady heights you were expecting. I’ve had this happen before, and it’s not a nice feeling, although at least it’s still your own experience. After all, that’s why we travel. Not everyone likes the same place, the same adventure, the same food.
Thankfully, Hoi An met our expectations on all levels, and I can truly attest to it being a city that should definitely be on your “must-visit” list if you are visiting Vietnam.
I love it because it’s different
In a country where historical preservation isn’t always actively pursued, Hoi An stands out from the crowd. With a past steeped in trade due to its operation as a trading port, the rivers and buildings today still reflect those times back in the 15th-19th centuries.
The first thing I notice, seriously, is the lack of smog. Smog is the scourge of Vietnam and its big cities, but there’s not a sign of it here. There’s all very sensible reasons for that of course, but I’m still going to savour its absence. There’s also not a high rise in sight, and motorbikes have mostly been replaced with the old fashioned pedal variety.
The river that divides the old and new town is barely below the river bank, seemingly coming level to the road we walk on many times. Later during our visit, we saw the river actually take over the town. The impact on this town during floods and other weather events is significant and always seemingly imminent.
The buildings are different in this town. A mix of Asian influence, especially Japanese and Chinese, is easily identifiable. European, particularly French architecture sits alongside it all. Wooden and concrete buildings line the narrow streets, hugging each other, and sometimes appearing as though they might be doing each other a favour by holding each other up.
In the main part of the city, many are now businesses and many back onto the river, a feature than can be both a blessing for business and an albatross around their neck in times of high water. Still, the Vietnamese are nothing if not resilient, and I was constantly amazed at how they just got on with life, regardless of what was thrown at them.
Where is it?
Located roughly halfway between Ho Chi Minh City in the south and the capital Hanoi in the north, there are several options for getting here. Those who are on no particular timeline, or are operating on a budget usually prefer to utilise the bus and train networks. This form of transport though is not like taking the Rocky Mountaineer through the snow covered mountains of Canada. As I understand it, they are basic at best, and take in excess of 10 hours to get into the Hoi An vicinity. They also aren’t necessarily as inexpensive as you might think.
With flights out of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi taking just over an hour, this was the best option for us. At AUD$60 per person one way flights were also cheaper than many of the train fares I looked at (for research purposes). And in terms of my sanity, 1 hour over 12 will win any day.
Vietnam is an inexpensive country at the best of times, but there is so much to do in Hoi An especially that won’t have your hand in your wallet for anything.
Explore the old and new town
There are two very distinctive parts to Hoi An, known simply as the New and the Old Town. To be honest, the UNESCO protected Old Town is the reason you come here, but for completeness and comparison, you should check out both if you have the time.
Tip: On the perimeter of the Old Town is a ticket booth. Don’t do what we did and keep walking, thinking they were trying to sell us something! The Vietnamese ask for very little when it comes to tourism sites, and here the ask is very small. For 120,000 VND (AUD$7), you get entrance to the Old Town and five of the 21 noted tourist sites (including the Japanese Bridge and several museums and historic houses)
Traffic is limited within the confines of the old town, with only a few motorbikes moving around. Everything else is done on bike, the three-wheelers, boats and foot. It’s an incredibly easy city to walk in.
Explore the small laneways
It’s interesting talking about laneways when sometimes the main streets feel like lanes themselves. But, if you look closely, many of the buildings have very thin laneways in between them. Sometimes, they will take you away from the main area down to the river, sometimes further back into more buildings. It’s also the people you meet and the things you see along the way that make for interesting diversions.
Spend time near the river
This city is built on the river, so make the most of it. Walk along it, take a ride on it, or do what we always love to do and have a drink by it, whilst people watching. The rivers in Vietnam are always a place of vibrant activity.
If you find yourself in Hoi An at the right time, on the right day, you might also see how the river has a mind of its own. During our visit, we watched the river, covertly encroach on the cities streets, until eventually, the river had breached the main banks, joining up with the buildings.
In the images below you can see the river starting to enter the city. The image with the women in the boats is actually a normal street that has been covered. We had walked on this part of the road earlier.
Eat and drink
Hoi An is a foodie’s dream. Well known local chefs create a food frenzy at many of their established restaurants. They compete with local family businesses, who ladle hot broth and noodles out into a plastic bowl, whilst you sit in a plastic chair….as they have done for generations.
A plethora of cooking schools have popped up to satisfy the visitors insatiable appetite to learn how to make Vietnamese spring rolls or Pho.
Markets offer quick meals and street vendors always have something yummy cooking.
Hoi An is also the home of several dishes not found anywhere else in Vietnam. Cau Lau and White Rose Dumplings have quite the reputation here, and are a must try! If you haven’t had Banh Mi by the time you come to Hoi An, then a visit to the Banh Mi Queen will ensure you get the best experience.
Let’s talk about Cau Lau. Never has a dish evoked such mystique. As legend has it, the noodles are made with a little known ash from a tree found only in the area, and the water used for the broth comes from underground wells. Perhaps once it did, who knows, but today, the recipe has a more modern origin. That being said, it is still a dish that holds its recipe close to its chest.
The Central Market is flush with vendors selling it. Take a sneaky look at a customer eating it as you walk around and very soon you’ll have someone screaming at you to come and join them. My ears still ring from the noise of the Vietnamese markets! Searching for the perfect Cau Lau becomes a form of competition and we hold out, hoping to see one that looks better than the others. But, there’s really no point. I’m sure if you were here for a long period of time you could grade them satisfactorily, but I’m happy to give any a go.
We find ours at the Citronella Cafe on the riverside of the Old Town. We had earlier tried to eat at the family business next door, but arriving after 2pm means all their Cau Lau has gone and a cranky Grandma will wave you away with her hand. No self respecting Cau Lau can be washed down on its own, so some Vietnamese beer is refreshing after walking around in the heat.
With layers of soft pork, crispy pork crackling, noodles, Vietnamese mint, the polarising coriander, a good hit of chilli and an amazing broth, its quite a meal. Extra chilli is always provided which is great because the Vietnamese don’t apply chilli in the way the Thai’s do. It’s a messy dish and my chopstick skills sometimes wax and wane, making it more of a challenge. Slurping is the order of the day as well.
White Rose Dumplings
Bahn Bao, or White Rose Dumplings, is another dish native to Hoi An. The pork filled, steamed dumplings, so called because they are shaped like a rose, are great without being fantastic. Without the rose design, they are really like any other dumping you will find in an Asian country. Similarly, there will be good ones and bad ones. Pleasingly, we had a dish that was very delicious, with a moist filling and crunchy fried shallots on top.
Restaurants to try
Rice Drum – 75 Nguyen Thai Hoc St – Old Town
Red Gecko – 23 Nguyen Hoang – An Hoi Island
Mango Mango – Owned by Chef Duc, it serves modern Vietnamese. 45 Nguyen Phuc Chu
Ms Ly’s Restaurant. Here Ms Ly cooks all the food herself, in traditional Vietnamese style. 22 Nguyen Hue
Morning glory at 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc and The Market at 3 Nguyen Hoang are both owned by Ms Vy. Ms Vy, born and bred in Hoi An, also runs a market within her restaurant. along with a popular cooking school. She is also the author of best selling cook book “Taste Vietnam“
Visit the markets
In the streets surrounding the Central Market, street vendors cover the footpath with their fresh vegetables.
The Central Market is the original town’s market, backing onto the river where wholesale food was offloaded from the boats. Today, it remains a bustling trading place, with the early hours of the morning filled with the shrieks of locals vying for the best price for their seafood.
At night, the city comes alive with markets. Whilst you can buy all kinds of trinkets here, it’s the lanterns that draw me in, like a moth to a flame. I look at them all, imagining where they might go in my house once I’m back home. But the whole issue of differences in electrical plugs and voltage mean that none of them will find their way into my luggage!
Take some photos of iconic locations
The Japanese Covered Bridge
This bridge was built by the Japanese to enable access to the Chinese side of town. With a temple at one end and monkey and dog statues representing different parts of the Japanese history and spirituality, inside, it’s worth a visit.
Bridge across the Thu Bon River
There’s always a queue here to take a photo, so you need to get in quick, but it’s just one of those fun things to do.
Visit Historic Tan Ky House
Tan Ky House is a great example of houses in Hoi An that have survived the testaments of time. A former merchant’s house, it has seen the lives of seven generations unfold here. It has endured countless floods. but today still remains, full of history and amazing artefacts. It’s a little squeezy inside, so on busy days, a queue will form outside, waiting for those already inside to exit. It was here that I really understood the fusion of Asian influences in the city.
Enjoy a cocktail at sunset
There are many bars in the city, but my recommendation is to find a rooftop bar along the river, so that you can drink your cocktail whilst watching the sun go down, and the lights start to twinkle. My pick is the Rice Drum located at 75 Nguyen Thai Hoc St in the Old Town. The staff won’t tell you it’s there so you have to ask to go upstairs.
A set of spiral stairs and some very unstable feeling floorboards separate you, an outdoor seating area, and a magnificent view. Order the “Passion Dacquiri” and some of their house spring rolls and you can’t go wrong. Despite it being a rooftop bar, the prices are low, as we’ve come to expect in Vietnam.
Tip: Go early to ensure you get a good seat. Happy hour from 3pm – 10pm makes this easy!
Walk through the town after dark
Don’t leave the city before dark! This beautiful city becomes even more beautiful as the lights go down. As light gives way to darkness, the city becomes awash with the coloured lights of the lanterns. It’s spectacular to watch the streetscape change, as the neon colours become bolder.
Other things to do
- If fashion is your thing and you are looking for cheap, custom made clothes, Hoi An is the place. With over 400 tailors, there is a piece of material here just waiting for you. To be even more prepared, if you have a favourite item of clothing that you want replicated, bring it with you.
- Take a ride on a river boat
- Visit the beach
- Go to the beaches and town of Da Nang
- Check out nearby Marble Mountain
- Play golf at one of the many international golf courses
- Do a food or market tour
- Hire a bike
How to get there
Planes, trains and automobiles will get you here but flying is the fastest if you are coming from a major city.
We flew with VietJet Air, a low cost carrier, operating many flights in and out of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi everyday. Flights land at the Da Nang International Airport. The city of Da Nang is five minutes away, and the nearby resorts are approximately 10-15 minutes, depending on the time of day.
Tip: Hoi An is approximately 45 minutes from the airport. If you are planning on staying in Hoi An, try and book a flight that arrives during the day to give yourself enough time to transit during daylight hours.
Taxis operate from the airport or you can arrange a private driver. As a general rule, use the Vinasun or Mailinh taxis. If you are staying at a resort in Da Nang, many of them operate hotel shuttles.
Where to stay
Da Nang is a small city but it is starting to garner interest. Don’t rule out a quick stay here before moving onto Hoi An. Click here for a list of hotels in Da Nang.
To be closer to the action in Hoi An, there are endless choices here.
A complete list of what to do in Hoi An in 24 hours
This gives you a complete list of what to do in Hoi An in 24 hours. However, whilst Hoi An can be done in a day, allowing a few more days would be my recommendation. Activities such as river cruises, cooking classes and even getting items tailored, can take up more time. Hoi An needs to be seen at all times of the day as well, meaning that if you only see it for a few hours, you won’t have seen it at all.
However long you stay, I’m quite sure you will agree with the hype and note it down as one of the country’s best cities.