Hoi An (also known as Fai-Foo or Fai Fo) in the center of Vietnam has become a mainstay of most backpackers’ routes through the country. The city’s name translates to “peaceful meeting place,” a reference to the global merchants that flocked to the coastal town to trade silk, spices, and other goods. The architecture in the old quarter found its main influences from the 16th-century Japanese and 18th-century Chinese settlers, but through the centuries there were also Portuguese trading posts, English settlements, and Dutch colonies – all the great seafaring nations in history wanted to be represented in Hoi An.
I recently stayed in Hoi An for a month. Despite the masses of travelers from Vietnam and the rest of the world, it felt like a relaxed city: traditional houses with their distinct yellow exteriors, lanes covered with copious amounts of colorful lanterns, ornate temples, and bridges to move between the islands in the Thu Bon River.
The following list is less made to be ticked off in a day or two, and more an invitation to linger and enjoy the Hoi An lifestyle.
The best time to enjoy the Old Town of Hoi An is the early morning hours when most tourists are still sleeping. Go for a stroll at sunrise, and you will share the Japanese Bridge with elderly Hoi An couples going for a morning walk, citizens doing their daily exercise routines of running, stretching or playing badminton by the riverfront, and school children lining up for a Cao Lao noodle soup breakfast.
If you’re awake anyway, head on over to the fish market on the Eastern end of central Old Town. The fishermen (and fisherwomen) bring in their catch; on sale are lush fruits and vegetables, and herbs from the surrounding villages along with the usual souvenirs.
I don’t know what made Hoi An the “Lantern City” because many cities in Vietnam have those light bringers, but in Hoi An they’re like a running gag – everywhere, once you start looking. In some of the smaller shops, like on Hai Ba Trung, you can even watch the delicate art of turning bamboo, silk (or thin paper), and lots of glue into colorful lanterns. If you are looking for a few cute instagrammable pics, come in the early morning hours (for rows of colorful designs) or around ten at night (for lanterns in action – they do get switched off later at night) to avoid too many tourists crowding your shots.
I don’t like cycling, but the bicycle was without a doubt my means of transport of choice in Hoi An. The city is sprawling but largely flat. I stayed at the Hoian Succulent Homestay, about 1.5 km from the center of Old Town, so the free bike I got from my landlady because I rented a room for a few weeks, was a breezy way of getting anywhere quickly and without much effort.
Note, that parts of the central Old Town are a pedestrian zone in the evening. You are allowed to enter with your bicycle but not with a scooter/motorcycle.
Combine bicycles with knowledgeable guides, and you get bike tours. There is a host of providers and themes to chose from, and of course, there is always the option of creating your own tour.
I did a culinary tour with Hoi An Cycling that took us through Hoi An and some of the surrounding villages in search of typical local food.
One destination of my bike tour was Tra Que village, about three-quarters of the way from Hoi An town to the beach. Tra Que is also dubbed “the organic village” for the herbs and vegetables (along with some flowers) grown on this island. Cumquat and Baby Mustard restaurants are two great options for a special meal taking Vietnamese cooking to the modern age. Make sure you try their “Special Drinks” – both are very different but equally delicious.
There are more villages in/around Hoi An worth a visit. They are neighborhoods of the city, but they seem so tranquil that they might as well be far outside of Hoi An. Each has their individual handcraft: one focuses on woodwork, one specializes in mat weaving, one rice wine brewing,…
If not for the lanterns, Hoi An is legendary for its tailors. And the city lives up to the hype. Not only are the streets lined with dozens of tailor shops, but they are also outstandingly skilled at their craft! While most have thick catalogs you can browse – the fancy ones on iPads, the old-fashioned ones in binders – you can also bring a photo or just an idea of what you would like to have made. But bring ideas. Otherwise, you’ll drown in the sea of options.
In addition to clothes, you can also have shoes, jeans, or bags made to measure. Your imagination is the limit.
After arriving in Hoi An without a plan of what to have tailored, I eventually opted for two blouses, a skort (shorts that look like a skirt), and a maxi dress. I paid a total of $120 (2,500,000 Dong) – about the same I would have paid at H&M, but for a perfect fit and fabrics hand picked by me.
And is it worth it?
Yes! The fit is on point; I would have only wished for a hook to close the zipper in the back of my skort more quickly. I have worn my linen skort and the cotton blouses almost daily for the past three months, and I wash them in the shower – they are still flawless.
Which tailor you choose – small family business or large enterprise – depends on your preferences. The prices are similar (and mostly determined by the fabric you choose), and you’ll be able to come for your fitting 24 h after you have placed your order, taking home the finished garment or returning another 24 h later.
The Hoi An beach(es) is (are) about 4 km from the Old Town. Since the land is flat here, it’s best to get a bike and cycle.
The beaches are soft sand beaches with rental umbrellas/loungers available. For the active ones, there is parasailing and jet skiing.
Locals will not bake in the sun during the day. They’ll arrive around four or five in the afternoon, armed with a picnic and often large kites. They’ll also tend to flock to a small part of the beach (and water). I’m guessing it’s because most can’t swim, and being in the lifeguard zone offers additional safety. Avoid the crowds by going a few meters South.
The beach is also great to watch fishers in their traditional small round bamboo boats on their way to work.
You’ll find plenty of restaurants – more or less touristy – plus food stalls selling snacks in the vicinity of the beach. You have to pay for parking your bike near the Hoi An beaches (10,000 Dong is the standard price). However, most smaller restaurants/shops will guard your wheels for free, if you buy a drink (bottle of water, etc.) from them.
Vietnam equals excellent food. Local delicacies include Cao Lao noodle soup, seafood, and Banh Xeo. My favorite dinner spot is – for the perfect combination of quality, choice, and price – the row of restaurants on the eastern end of An Hoi island. Mr. Son, Miss Tien,… they all consist of only one table. They all offer cooking courses. They all advertise their excellent TripAdvisor rating. They all have an almost identical menu. We’d often go to Mr. Son’s, the red table on the left side of the row. Two Bia Lao (fresh beer) and two courses rarely cost me more than 100,000 Dong ($5).
If that’s too rustic for you, consider the sumptuous burgers at Jim’s Burger or the White Rose with its eponymous Hoi An dumplings.
Even though there is no coffee farming around Hoi An, the city is a haven for specialty coffee lovers. There are some larger coffee shops along the main streets of the Old Town. They serve all your barista favorites and home made cakes. You can stay and let the day go by just like at your local Starbucks (the price tag is similar).
But I would like to recommend the smaller cafés in the side streets.
My favorite is Phin Coffee near Le Loi Street. It’s a tiny place with seats for maybe ten people (you can get your coffee to go or just sit outside, though) offering the largest selection of brews I’ve ever seen: from the traditional Vietnamese Phin brewing technique to Italian Latte to hyper-modern cold brews. The owner is a coffee enthusiast. He recently started roasting his coffee himself. The barista went through a two-year training in Saigon. If you can’t find a good coffee here, you won’t find it anywhere.
There is nothing wrong with sitting in one of the bars around the old town or even letting the Tiger Tiger Bar touts lure you into their party place with the promise of a free cocktail. But be warned: It will turn out to be cheap liquor in a plastic mug with a waiter pressing you to finally finish it so you can buy one of their overpriced drinks.
I recommend getting on your scooter or bike and going along the Thu Bon River to the Western end of An Hoi Island. Here, you can sit by the water, and you wouldn’t even believe Hoi An is a tourist magnet. You sit on plastic chairs, staring out onto the black water (make sure you have your mozzie repellent). People are chatting quietly. There is no music or effort to get you drunk. The bar owner will simply put a bucket with ice and a few beers next to your table, and at the end, you pay for whatever you have consumed – be it just one beer or five.
Pro tip for Vietnam: “Fresh Beer” (Bia Hoi) is a lot cheaper than cans or bottles but just as refreshingly tasty.
Can you believe it? I was in Hoi An for four weeks, and I didn’t visit these touristic highlights that helped to secure the city a spot on the list of UNESCO Heritage Sites. I bought the 120,000-Dong ticket that gives you access to your choice of five assembly halls and ancient houses from one of the booths by the bridge, only to sell it a few weeks later to another backpacker in Hue. So here’s instead the official UNESCO video to give you an impression.
Rehan is a French travel photographer, who has found his muse and a new home in Vietnam. His passion is the dozens of ethnic minorities in the country. He has ventured into the remote mountainous regions on several excursions attempting to photograph them all in their traditional attire. Some of his portraits along with costumes that his models gifted him are on display in Hoi An at the Rehahn Gallery. Entrance is free.
Da Nang is about 30 km from Hoi An. To get there, you simply follow the road along the shoreline. While I stayed in both cities, you can also make Hoi An your base and head over to Da Nang for a day trip (or two). My highlight was Monkey Mountain (Son Tra), a peninsula on the northern end of Da Nang. The peninsula is a nature reserve. But with a scooter/motorcycle, you can cruise along the narrow concrete slab roads (note, some of them are dead ends) and discover views and sights along the way like the 800-year old Banyan tree or Monkey Peak itself. You might even meet some monkeys.
My Son Sanctuary is a complex of Hindu temples erected between the 4th and 13th century by the Champa people. They are in parts reminiscent of the Angkor temples but mix these foreign influences with local traditions.
This UNESCO Heritage Site makes for another relaxing day trip from Hoi An. I rented a scooter for 100,000 Dongs ($5, including helmet, excluding gas) from the Succulent Homestay. The ride is roughly 70 km one-way and took me through a few smaller villages with rice fields and temples and all the romantic imagery you’d expect to see in rural Vietnam.
The location of My Son Sanctuary was consciously chosen to be slightly hilly and less suitable for urban development. You can park your scooter in a shaded parking lot (fee payable) and visit a small museum before hopping on the oversized golf cart to the main site (included in the 150,000 dong entrance fee). Once at the temples, exploration takes about an hour (less if it’s a hot day – bring water and a hat). Excavations and restorations are still in full swing, and it will be a few years before visitors can truly appreciate the size and grandeur of the ancient spiritual site.
While some stalls are selling cold drinks and snacks, I recommend stopping in the villages en route for lunch (and my personal favorite, sugar cane juice).
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