Coming into Vietnam, I’d been on a breakneck pace tour of SE Asia seeing Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos in two months.
I hadn’t planned my time in Vietnam prior to leaving. I’d secured a visa with specific entry dates, and decided to leave the rest up to chance while in Asia.
I’m so glad I didn’t plan anything before starting my travels. After two months of jam packed schedules, and after leaving a high energy job in the advertising world, I felt like I needed an actual holiday.
I could have done a lot more than I managed during my month in the country, but I decided to only stay in three cities (Hanoi, Hoi An, Sai Gon) because I wanted to travel a bit slower, and really see and appreciate the places I was in, instead of rushing from one to the next.
It was the best decision, and started a budding love for slow travel.
I spent seven days in Hoi An, which everyone told me was way too many.
I’d argue it wasn’t enough.
My days in Hoi An were so chill and lovely, I wished I could have stayed another week or two.
By moving at a slower pace, I had time to catch up on work, travel plan for where I’d head after Vietnam, and still enjoy the best Hoi An had to offer.
Hoi An’s History in Less Than 150 Words
Located along the coast in the central region of Vietnam, Hoi An is a quaint, historic city characterized by its unique blend of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and French architecture.
Hoi An used to be a major trading port between the 15th and 19th century, but has now become one of Vietnam’s most beautiful towns.
Dreamy yellow buildings.
When its usefulness as a port declined in the 19th century, the once-flourishing city was all but forgotten as Vietnam’s other major cities began to modernize. Because of this, what remains in Hoi An today is a charming, well-preserved time capsule to an influential period in Vietnam’s past.
Comparing it with all the other cities in Vietnam is impossible. In the evening, the town’s center is traffic free, and is oft described as the most romantic place in Southeast Asia.
Is Hoi An Worth the Hype?
Hoi An gets a lot of flak from travellers who think it’s become the Disney of Vietnam. Hailed as too touristy, I understand where these travellers are coming from.
It does feel commercial. But, as with any place, to really experience it, you have to be willing to go beyond the main tourist experiences.
Many people come to Hoi An, wander the historic Old Town, complain about the crowds and move onto another place in Vietnam.
I realise I had the luxury of time to explore, but seeing the city early in the morning – before others were even awake – meant I had a relaxed time exploring its lantern-clad nooks and crannies.
And, in the midday heat, when the crowds were the most intense and the sun the harshest, I sought cover in cafes off the beaten path to read or work. At night, I’d re-emerge for dinner and some more wandering before heading home to Netflix and chill.
If you’ve only got one or two days in Hoi An, and try to spend the entirety of each one sightseeing, I understand how you’d leave thinking it was too much.
People come to Hoi An with expectations of empty streets with colorful lanterns swaying overhead. That’s simply not the case.
Yes, there are beautiful, historic buildings painted shades of fading yellow.
Yes, there are gorgeous swaying lanterns.
But, there are also tons of street sellers looking to commercialise off Hoi An’s popularity- ignore them, and you’ll be fine.
Same goes for the big brand stores (hi, Baskin Robbins).
Seek out more local experiences and I’d be hard pressed to believe you won’t leave even a tiny bit infatuated with Hoi An.
A perfect example: One evening, I walked past a street full of roaring bars covered in neon and belting out popular American songs. All of these bars had bucket specials and boisterous patrons.
Decidedly not my scene.
A bit further down the river, I found a sugarcane juice stand serving locals who were huddled around small tables on the river’s edge. Chatting with the owner, a few others came up and struck up conversation.
Although their English wasn’t great, we had a fun time drinking sugarcane juice and watching tourists float paper lanterns in the river. It was nothing short of magic.
There’s nothing wrong with drinking cheap beers at a Western bar if that’s your thing, but don’t leave Hoi An and say it’s too touristy. You’re contributing to that demand and image.
What’s There to Do in Hoi An?
As much or as little as you’d like. A few things I believe you should try and work into any visit-
Stroll the Old Town: I enjoyed wandering Old Town early morning before the shops were open and tourists descended. Walk at leisure, there are so many streets to see, but it’s fairly compact so it won’t take you hours. If you’re up early, check out the fruit and veg market- it’s packed with locals on their daily grocery runs.
Admire the Japanese covered bridge: Best done in the morning, this small bridge is truly an architectural work of art.
Take a free bike tour, offered by students who need to practice their English.
Meander the Thu Bon River at night to see lanterns from the other side of town: While you’re on this side of the river, check out the Central Food night market- open every night from 5-11 pm. It’s a great place to stop for traditional Vietnamese dessert or a sugarcane juice.
Get clothes custom made by any of the city’s talented tailors: I can’t recommend the women at Sewing Bee enough, and wrote a detailed review of my experience, as well as a guide for having clothes made in Hoi An here.
Have a relaxing, silent tea tasting in the garden at Reaching Out Teahouse:As soon as I stepped inside this teahouse, something felt different. The first thing I noticed was the silence. It was eerily quiet. In front of me, I noticed a sign that explained the teahouse employs deaf and hard of hearing employees, as well as those who may have speech impediments.
Because of this, they ask their guests to keep conversations low to create a calming atmosphere, and instead, communicate with service staff via writing down their order/request. Loving the mission of this teahouse was one thing, but then sitting in a tranquil garden and sipping green tea from the mountains of Vietnam? Late afternoon perfection.
Kick back with a cup of Vietnamese coffee in any of the city’s excellent cafes:
- Hoi An Roastery: There are over seven of Hoi An’s namesake roastery cafe locations in town, so chances are you won’t have any trouble finding one. My favourite two are the ones with a terrace that overlooks the busy street below. An excellent place to kick back, sip caphe sua dua and watch the city come alive in the morning
- The Espresso Station: Tucked down a sidestreet right outside the historic centre, you’ll find this chill, airy outdoor cafe. Why did I love it so much? Well, the coconut coffee is ace, and exactly what you’ll need to cool down after walking here. And, if you come in the morning, you can order cold brew coffee that’s been frozen into ice cubes. It arrives with hot coconut milk (regular and soy options are available) for you to pour over
- The Hill Station: Wonderfully traditional, The Hill Station is just past the Cloth Market, inside an old building. There’s a wide variety of food and drink on offer, even cheese plates. I stuck to simple caphe sua dua here and didn’t regret it
- Faifo Coffee: Everyone’s pick for that classic ‘above Hoi An’ shot, the rooftop here is legendary. When it opens and at sunset, the roof is most crowded. Mid-day, it wasn’t too bad. Luckily, there are also two other floors with plenty of seating. I came here twice, trying fruit smoothies and coconut coffee on another occasion
- Rosie’s Cafe: My favourite place in Hoi An for breakfast, Rosie’s is a relaxed, airy cafe with multiple rooms and beautiful details to observe. The food is mostly Western, but healthy and delicious
- Mon Coffee: Nondescript, it’s easy to walk past Mon. Unless it’s a hot day. Then, you may be drawn in by their lure of air-conditioning (a rarity at cafes in Hoi An). Mon isn’t charming in the way some of the other cafes on this list are. But, their coconut coffee is seriously excellent
- Cong Caphe: Wherever there’s a Cong Caphe, I’ll find it. This Vietnamese coffee chain, oft compared to Starbucks for its relative scale in Vietnam, quickly stole my heart in Hanoi. Travelling south, I was determined to keep seeking them out, in need of my coconut coffee fix
Spend a day at the beach: Cua Dai is a popular choice with An Bang being a quieter vibe.
Go shopping: There are plenty of cute boutiques and market stalls to pick up souvenirs to remember your trip to Hoi An. I quite enjoyed the upmarket vibe of Sunday on Tran Phu Street.
Treat yourself to incredible banh mi: Yes, there’s good veg banh mi in Hoi An- a true revelation. Two places you can’t miss:
- Banh Mi Phuong: Hailed as Anthony Bourdain’s favourite, there are usually queues down the street. I came late one night (~ 8 pm) and was glad to see the line wasn’t too long. Here, I tried a banh mi with cheese and egg, and it was, as you’d expect, excellent. And, if you eat meat, the real draw here, of course, is the pate banh mi.
- Banh Mi Queen: Ah, my favourite banh mi in Hoi An. The crusty banh mi at Madame Khanh are packed with egg (in my case), veggies and sauce. There was just the right amount of everything to make it deliciously messy.The banh mi queen herself helps make the sandwiches. Even though she’s 80, you’ll spot her serving what I believe is the best banh mi in Hoi An
Cool off from the heat with fresh fruit juice: With fruit smoothies being a must-order item across SE Asia, I was delighted to discover Chu Chu (small stand with the freshest juices) and Cocobox (local chain, great smoothies).
Get your fill of delectable Vietnamese eats: I’m a vegetarian with food allergies, so I haven’t got ace street food recos for all your meat eaters. But, if you’re down to live the veg life, these places blew me away-
- Minh Hiên – Quán Chay: A must visit for vegetarians. Here, I had banh xeo (my favourite Vietnamese dish- aside from summer rolls), and cao lau noodles, a speciality in central Vietnam. Highly recommend trying both, and everything else on the menu- it all looked delish!
- Central Food Night Market: Local to the Quang Nam province, ‘mango cake’ (aka banh xoai) are little balls of sticky rice with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds inside. A savoury, lovely dessert
- Nữ Eatery: Tofu spring rolls and lemongrass ice cream, just drooling thinking about how great both were at this cute eatery tucked down a side street
- Morning Glory: With a few locations in Hoi An, this is a great place to sample traditional cooking. I had the tofu coated in young sticky rice and sauteed pumpkin with basil, garlic and peanuts. Both were excellent
- And, one non-Vietnamese reco if you’re craving Western food- Hola! Taco is excellent. Very good tacos, dips and margaritas
Slow down, chill out: Spent an afternoon people watching at any of Hoi An’s cafes, or reading a good book. This part of Vietnam is easy to relax in, if you let yourself.
Extra Travel Tips
- Language: Vietnamese. Conversational English is spoken in cafes and upmarket restaurants. In my month traveling Vietnam, I had no issue communicating with street food vendors or Grab drivers- have Google Translate ready to help assist if it’s needed
- Currency: Vietnamese dong. Carry cash, some upmarket places take card, but there are often minimums to spend, which are hard to meet if you’re not in a group because of how cheap things are
- Getting There: The easiest and fastest way to travel Vietnam, albeit not the most eco-conscious, is to fly into Da Nang’s international airport. From there, it’s about an hour drive to Hoi An. I called a Grab once I landed, which was super easy
- Getting Around: Walk around downtown, or take Grab (motorbike ride share) for longer distances
- When to Visit: I visited in early May and had beautiful, days – hot and full of sunshine. February to May are said to be the best months for little to no rain
- Tipping: Tipping isn’t necessary in Hoi An
- Wifi Access: Every cafe and restaurant I visited offered wifi, just ask for the password
Have you ever been to Hoi An? Is Vietnam on your list of places to visit one day?