Hoi An: Culture, Color, & Crowds

Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited! 

Hoi An was, by far, the most charming of the places I visited in Vietnam. And by charming, I mean “highly Instagrammable”. And by that I mean it was full of tourists taking photos.

I stayed in Hoi An for four nights which was more than enough time – I had originally only planned to stay for 3 nights but flights to Nha Trang were cheapest on Christmas Day so I extended my stay in Hoi An to take advantage of the cheap flight ($30 one way from Danang!). The weather was so-so while I was in Hoi An so I felt myself getting a little bored or unsure of how to plan my time – most days it was forecasted to storm all day, but then turned out to be totally clear and sunny. But this began my time of just chilling out in Vietnam and I was totally fine with having some low-key travel.

But back to those tourists.

Hoi An’s old town is very beautiful. Like Luang Prabang, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site so there is a lot of uniformity in the buildings and a lot of rules for motorized vehicles in the area. During certain hours of the day and evening, no motorized vehicles can come through the old town which makes it quite pleasant for pedestrians (by this point in Vietnam I was really sick of the motorbike traffic). There are lovely boutiques where you can have clothes custom made (this is a big deal in Hoi An and actually worth doing if you have the time/money/interest), nice restaurants, and some cafes and bars. There is a river running through the old town which is a very popular site at night – you can take boat rides while lanterns float past you along the water. And there is also a night market serving street food, drinks, and more. BUT IT’S SO CROWDED.

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After my first night walking around the old town and having dinner at the night market, I was over it. I couldn’t really enjoy anything because there were so many people everywhere taking pictures. After downing a beer and some delicious (yet overpriced) grilled octopus, I made my back to my guesthouse which was a bit further out from the old town. Though there was a 20-minute walk, it was nice to be staying a bit away from this tourist madness.

The next morning, however, I borrowed a bike from my guesthouse and cycled down to the old town around 9am, before the crowds had arrived. It was perfect – not many people were around which meant I could just ride around without bumping into anyone and get some photos without tons of people all over the place.

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I filled the rest of my days in Hoi An with beach time (way overdue), a yummy cooking class, spa time, and just generally relaxing. And I ate a bunch of food of course. I was even surprised by a special Christmas Eve dinner that my guesthouse prepared for me complete with a few of the local specialties of Hoi An and a video playing images of people walking through snow somewhere in Europe. I was grateful to not be in that weather.

Things to Do

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Take a bike ride – There are bike tours available in Hoi An that will take you out of the city and around the surrounding fields. Because the weather was a bit unpredictable, I didn’t take one of these tours but wish I had. I did borrow a bike from my guesthouse one day which was really nice – going up to the old town early in the morning and then out to the beach for the rest of the day. Just be aware of the crazy motorbike traffic in Vietnam while navigating around!

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Go to An Bang beach – Yes, there is a beach in Hoi An and it’s not too far if you are on a bike. There are plenty of restaurants along the beach where you can grab a lounge chair/umbrella as long as you spend some money at the restaurant. It was my first real beach day of my Asia trip and I was thrilled to just veg out in the sun all day. Just know that you don’t have to pay to park your bike there – just walk your bike down the side road, to the right, just before you get to the beach (you can’t bring the bike on the beach). There are places to park your bike at different beach restaurants for free. Though it’s not really expensive to park the bike (10K VND), it’s just annoying.

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Bun cha and spring rolls we made!

Take a cooking class – I hadn’t planned to take a cooking class in Vietnam, but I wasn’t sure what to do in Hoi An if it was raining (spoiler: It didn’t rain). So I signed up for a cooking class at Herbs & Spices where I could learn to make a few of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. The chef of the restaurant teaches the class which includes a trip to the local food market before making the dishes. Unlike my cooking class in Chiang Mai, we did a lot of the prepping (cutting veggies, meat, etc), but then the chef did most of the actual cooking (aside from the spring rolls which we did ourselves). I was mostly just excited to learn how to make bun cha!

 

Get a massage – When it did finally rain, I was glad to have made a spa appointment at Pandanus Spa near my guesthouse. This place was really nice and not too expensive. They had quite a few different types of spa packages and I was really tempted to spend a bit more money and indulge for a few hours. Instead, I just went for the hot stone massage (506K VND).

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My awesome custom robe!

Buy some custom clothing – I kept hearing about all of the tailor shops in Hoi An and that this was something to do when visiting. But I had NO IDEA of what type of custom clothing I would want or need, especially when I would still be traveling for a few more months. But then I saw all of the kimonos! The owner of my guesthouse owned a tailor shop as well so it was pretty much a given that I would be buying a custom kimono from her. For only $30, I was able to get a beautiful silk kimono in just an afternoon!

Do some shopping – Lots of great little shops in the old town, not just tailor shops and souvenir places! Check out Metiseko for some beautiful clothing or Sunday in Hoi An for some great home goods and gifts. I wish I had more room in my bag to take home things from these shops!

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There are also many museums and sights (like the covered bridge) in the old town, but I skipped all of these places!

Eating & Drinking (The Best part of Hoi An)

Of course, I also spent a lot of time wandering around and eating. Because it’s in Central Vietnam, Hoi An’s cuisine is similar to that of Hue but there are a few special local dishes worth trying.

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Cao Lau for breakfast!

Cao Lau – One of my favorite noodle dishes in Vietnam, maybe in SE Asia overall. And you can only get it in Hoi An! It doesn’t taste like anything else you will try in Vietnam – that is reason enough to try it at least once! The dish includes rice noodles, meat (usually pork), greens, and herbs. You may also have dried, crunchy noodles served on top. The noodles are made from rice but are soaked in lye water which gives them a very distinct taste versus other Vietnamese noodles (they are a bit firmer/chewier). I had this at my homestay for breakfast a few times, but also tried it at Morning Glory in the middle of the old town (which is a really lovely restaurant). It is a really excellent dish for breakfast 🙂

 

Com Ga – Broken rice with chicken. This is a very simple meal, but it’s really tasty. You can find this at many of the food stalls around town, but I would suggest Huongs in the middle of the old town (just down a little alley).

 

Banh Mi – There are a lot of sandwich shops in Hoi An and some are considered the best in Vietnam. Try a few or just pick one. These are such a great cheap lunch option. I chose to go to Phi Banh Mi and just order the traditional sandwich (15K VND), but they also have a few other choices. Good and cheap.

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Quang Noodles (and beer)

Quang Noodles – After discovering Cao Lau, I was excited to try Hoi An’s other noodle dish. These are white or yellow rice noodles mixed with shrimp, pork, and veggies. But I was pretty disappointed. While the dish was okay, it was just nowhere near as good as Cao Lau.

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White rose dumplings

White Rose dumplings – Shrimp filled dumplings that are quite popular in Hoi An. I tried them once at a random restaurant in the old town and wasn’t impressed, but I think it was the restaurant!

There are also so many coffee shops in Hoi An! Definitely suggest trying the coconut coffee (iced) if you have a chance.

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Surprise Christmas Eve dinner at my guesthouse!

Check out Culture Trip for more recos on where to eat in Hoi An (and elsewhere in Vietnam). This was one of my go-to resources and rarely failed me!

Getting There

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I’d highly recommend taking a motorbike ride on the Hai Van Pass if you are coming from Hue. Otherwise, you can take a bus or train from Northern Vietnam to Hoi An, though the train will only take you to Danang and you will have to transfer to another bus from there. You can also fly into Danang and take a shuttle to Hoi An pretty easily. I actually took the airport shuttle when I left Hoi An as I flew from Danang to Nha Trang and it was very easy (110K VND). There are also buses coming from Southern Vietnam, but it’s also an option to fly if you want to skip a long bus ride.

Where to Stay

I stayed at Gia Vien Homestay which was a bit further from the old town and closer to the beach. I actually liked staying in this area because it was further from a lot of the touristy parts of town, but I did end up having to walk or bike to the old town a bit when I did want to go there for food or sightseeing or shopping. The restaurants are definitely cheaper as you get out of the town center though!

This homestay was really nice and I felt very well taken care of. The family who owns the homestay are always around and make you feel very welcome. The breakfast offered every morning is delicious and I quickly started ordering the Cao Lau because it was so, so good. 

 

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