Hoi An: The Vietnamese City You Don’t Want to Miss
Some cities have rich history and others have good food and cultural activities. Seldom do they have both. Unless, of course, that city is Hoi An.
In the midst of a long, full day journey to Hoi An, we grew eager with anticipation for what we were going to see and do in the place everyone we knew had talked so highly of in the past. Out of all of Vietnam, it was everyone’s favourite for so many reasons and we wanted to discover why for ourselves. After a painful six hour layover in Ho Chi Minh, we landed in Da Nang and began the next leg of our trip.
From Da Nang airport, you have to barter for the price of a taxi to get to Hoi An. Simply walk outside the arrivals area and negotiate with a cab driver. It should cost you no more than 350k dong and you should aim for 300k. The journey takes 45 min (depending on the time of day and week), and it will be cheaper to barter for 300 than to ask the driver to use the meter. Expect to also pay an added 10k toll fee on top of the negotiated price.
Where to stay:
We stayed at a hostel called “Sunflower Hotel“. Although the ratings are only okay on Hostelworld, this is actually quite a great place to stay. There’s a fun bar that gets decently busy at night, they have a pool, the rooms are clean, and their free continental buffet breakfast was the best we had our entire trip. If you can deal with a hard mattress and a bit of construction, then this is a great place to stay. Private rooms are approximately $22 CAD per night per room and dorm beds are about $6-8 CAD depending on the season.
If you have more money to spend, I would opt to stay at DK’s House or Backpacker’s Homestay.
Rent bikes or motorbikes for the day:
On your first day in Hoi An, it’s a smart idea to rent a motorbike or bicycle to explore the city and get your bearings down. I would opt for a bicycle if you’re not experienced with scooters. Both are easy to use on the roads, which aren’t too busy (until you hit rush hour at 5 p.m.). Down the road from Sunflower Hotel (about 500 meters left down the road) is a booking agent/shop called Thao Minh. We happened to stumble across this place while looking for cheap bikes to rent and we ended up booking pretty much everything through the woman there. Our bicycles cost 20k dong a day, which is the cheapest price we found after 20 minutes of walking around.
Do a private Vietnamese cooking class:
There are many cooking classes offered in Hoi An, all by different companies and restaurants. I honestly don’t think you can go wrong booking one, but if your budget is a bit tight, I recommend booking through the same place we did. We did a 4-hour cooking class called Bong Hoi An and it was 20 USD per person. It was private and the woman teaching it, My, picked us up at 10 a.m. and took us to the market. She showed us around there and we picked up a couple of ingredients for the class.
Afterward, we walked to the river where her husband was waiting to take us in a circular bamboo boat down the river to their restaurant. We cooked three Vietnamese meals, which were all made vegan/chay by our request (tell them ahead of time to ensure they have everything ready). We were also able to purchase cheap mixed drinks from the bar even though it was only 11 a.m. at the time. Their passion fruit cocktail is to die for!
I really enjoyed our time at the cooking class. It was such a neat experience to be able to visit the local market, see how the dishes are prepared and actually get to attempt to make everything ourselves. Considering we saw many other classes that were closer to 40 USD or more, I think we lucked out with our experience.
Go Shopping in Old Town:
Hoi An Old Town is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is well deserving of this prestigious title. Riddled with vibrant lanterns and multi coloured buildings, old town is situated along a river and is just as picturesque as it is culturally dynamic.
Walk or bike through the old town and shop for souvenirs or timeless art. Be forewarned though, you’ll want to stop and take many pictures along the way so leave yourself lots of time to explore.
Travel tip: Some entrances to the old town are blocked by booths where the locals will try and make you pay to enter. We were honestly quite confused by this, as we entered Old Town for free one day and the next day, we were told we needed to pay to enter. We discovered that if you take the bridge closest to Tiger Tiger Bar to enter, you won’t have to pay.
Visit Old Town market for lunch or dinner:
I usually don’t pick favourites, because it’s often too difficult to choose, but I have to say, the meal I had in the Old Town market was definitely the best meal I had in all of SE Asia. The food was not only fresh, but you could tell that the women working hard behind the counter were masters at cooking and put a lot of labour and love into the dishes they served.
If you enter the market from the entrance with the large cement well outside, the food stall you want to go to is the second in on the left hand side. They happen to have a large vegetarian section on their menu, and they will understand both “An Chay” and “I eat vegetarian”. My advice would be to share a variety of dishes because they are all cheap (20-30k dong).
Between three of us we shared morning glory (a local vegetable sautéed in garlic), papaya salad, Cau Lou (brown rice noodles with vegetables, typically served with pork, but served with marinated tofu instead) and pumpkin with peanut sauce. The food did not disappoint.
Get clothes handmade by a tailor:
Hoi An is the tailor capital of Vietnam and the best place to visit if you’ve been dying to get a suit, dress, or special outfit made. Simply show the tailor a picture of what you want and do your best to describe the details of the outfit. Choose your material, barter your price, get measured and voila—your outfit will be ready the next day.
Outfits generally start around 15 USD for cheaper materials, and 20 USD for thicker materials. Suits cost around 90 USD. The tailor we went to was named “Violet” and Violet herself runs the shop. My sister went to her a year ago, which is why I went to her as well to get my clothes made. She speaks English very well, her prices are fair and she’s an incredibly kind woman. If you’re not sure who to go to to get your clothes made (there are over 1,000 tailors just in Hoi An), Violet is a safe choice. Her shop is located 500 meters down the road from Sunflower Hotel (turn left down the road from the hotel).
Get “chay” (vegan) donuts at the market:
If you plan to travel in SE Asia for a while, you’ll quickly realize that sweet treats just aren’t the same—or as easy to find—as they are back home. So after a couple of months of eating Oreos as our vegan “dessert” you can probably imagine our excitement when we found out that many of the doughnuts at the market food carts are vegan!
We visited the woman whose stall is just to the right of the cement well outside the market. She confirmed for us that yes, her donuts are in fact dairy free. We bargained and got ours for 10k dong each. Your options will be large, circular, sugar coated donuts or less sweet ones, filled with ingredients like coconut.
Spend the day at Marble Mountain:
Located a short 30 minute drive from Hoi An, Marble Mountain is a must see for anyone visiting the area. Climb the hundred some odd stairs to the top and you’ll find stunning temples, beautiful lookout points and large, looming caves to explore.
To get there, either hire a car for 450k round trip, or drive your motorbike if you’ve already rented one for the day in Hoi An. The entrance fee is only 15k dong per person if you take the stairs up and a bit more if you want to take the elevator. Pack water, wear runners, and bring your walking legs because there are many more stairs once you get to what you think is the top!
Watch the lanterns at the river in old town:
Venture to Old Town at night (around 7 p.m.) and watch as locals and tourists release candle lit lanterns into the river. Locals will be selling basic paper lanterns near the river for 10-15k dong. If you’re lucky enough to be in Hoi An during a lantern festival you’ll have the chance to be a part of one of Vietnam’s most picturesque events.
Sunflower Hotel is a 1.8km walk from Old Town, so if you want to get their faster, take a taxi there and back. Depending on where you get dropped off/picked up, it will cost you about 20-40k one way.
Splurge on coffee or a smoothie at Cocobox:
Unlike at home, it can feel near impossible to find non-dairy milk at your average coffee shop in Vietnam. We scoped out this coffee shop in Old Town specifically for the reason that they offer soy and coconut milk in their drinks. Their coffee isn’t cheap, but it is great quality. If you’re not a coffee person like me, try one of their descendant smoothies or their coconut milk chocolate milk (50k dong). You can thank me later. Coffee price: 55k dong for lattes.
Fall in love with Indian food at at Baba’s Kitchen:
We went to Baba’s Kitchen with a big group one night and two of the girls were from the States. As an ode to their missed Thanksgiving dinner, they decided they wanted to splurge a bit and picked Baba’s Kitchen as their restaurant of choice. It may not have been a traditional thanksgiving meal, but it was some of the best Indian food I’ve ever tasted.
They have a wide selection of curries and other vegetable/meat dishes to choose from as well as all the classics like naan bread, chutney, a few different kinds of rice, etc. Pick and choose a few different dishes and share with everyone at the table. That way you’ll get a taste of everything. Vegetarian curries: 75k Rice: 22k Naan bread: 32-45k
Hoi An is one of those rare finds that will immerse you in all aspects of Vietnamese culture. If you’re making your way down the coast by motorbike and even if you’re flying, it’s not a destination you’ll want to miss. Spend at least 3-4 nights and you’ll leave feeling like you accomplished everything on this list.