Hoi An is an unbelievably atmospheric town. Dripping in culture and wrapped up in rice paper, a stop-off during a jaunt to Viet Nam is well worth it. Once a major shipping port, today Hoi An is today known for its meandering lantern-lit streets and its beguiling riverside restaurants (a beer in one of these costs just £0.75/$1).
Locals get around on long-boats which are often piled high with produce for the markets. Tourists flock to the area to empty their pockets in one of the town’s high quality shops, many of which offer tailor-made outfits for rock bottom prices (I got two dresses for £28/$37, yo). Add to the mix the colourful French-colonial buildings, Japanese pagodas and Chinese temples and you’ve got a cultural melting pot of Asian opulence that commands your attention at every turn.
Two or three days in Hoi An is enough time to see and do everything the town has to offer. And although I’m neither an expert or a local, here’s my brief guide on what to check out if you’re pushed for time.
Food is, quite obviously, the nucleus of my world so I’ll start off with this. I went with the amazing Topdeck Travel who paired me with a group of like-minded millennials for my tailor-made, adventurous Asian experience. We were introduced to some of the most authentic places to eat and the entire trip was so well organised it’s making me question if I ever want to be a solo backpacker again, because who’s got time to hunt out all the delicious food on their own? Having the expertise of a local guide certainly made things easier and I could definitely get used to travelling this way. Anyway, overall eating in Hoi An is super cheap and Topdeck made sure we ate in top-notch places.
The first night we ate veggies and noodles at a cute spot called ‘Dao Tien’, near the riverside, which was filled with locals (always a good sign) and really cute. For very the reasonable price of $12 you can get a set menu with several light, vegetable-laden Vietnamese courses – and a gorgeous view.
We also found a beautiful rooftop restaurant on our second night, that was both delicious and wallet-friendly, but because I was so busy stuffing my face, I didn’t actually get the name of it (#sorrynotsorry). But I wrote down how much we paid for everything for reference. So £0.75 or $1 is worth around 22,000 Vietnamese Dong VND and boy does it goe faaar. We ordered; eggplant and herbs (which was under $3), spring rolls ($2.50 for six mini ones) and a selection of cocktails (each one was no more than $4 and they were strong).
A trip to Hoi An wouldn’t be complete without a wander around the impressive Old Quarter and the frenetic food market. For some unknown reason, sometimes you may have to pay for entry into the Old Quarter (£4.60/$6) – other times it’s free. A guide told us it kind of depends on how many tourists there are at the time, and once you have your ticket you’re guaranteed entry into a certain number of the 22 Unesco protected sites.
When it comes to the markets however, all you need for a stroll around there is a strong nose and a ready camera.
The Old Quarter boasts plenty of double-take sights, each bathed in the warm glow of Hoi An’s delicate lanterns. The first thing you’ll see when you enter the Old Quarter is the ‘Japanese Covered Bridge’ which was constructed by the Japanese in the 1590s and which is your first big photo op. Then it’s temples aplenty and hundreds of old Chinese timber buildings as you walk further into the area. Don’t miss the colourful architecture of the Fujian Assembly Hall (built by the Chinese) and be sure to stroll along the busy riverside at nighttime as it’s full of floating lanterns that light up the town.
You’ll notice when you’re walking that every building seems to be a nod to Viet Nam’s colourful (and colonial) past; you’ll see the mixture of Asian and European influence in all the enchantingly-aged architecture. Basically every building has the potential to be your new iphone backdrop and it’s easy to get lost amongst it all. (I got separated from my group about 4 times in half an hour because…selfies).
I stayed in the stunning Emm Hotel (below) which came courtesy of my tailor-made experience with Topdeck Travel and I finally *get* the whole hotel thing. As in, I’m usually such a backpacker, but as the hotels here are so cheap and luxurious, why not spend a little extra for a lot more? Althoug locals have told me that the country is starting to get more expensive, if you want affordable accommodation in Viet Nam you don’t have to search too hard. A night in the gorgeous Emm Hotel comes in at just under £34/$45. And in comparison, a night in a good Hoi An hostel is still under under £6.50/$8.
You can rent bikes at various shops in Hoi An and it’s a great way to explore the town. In 2013 I did this with mates and we cycled from the centre of town to the local beach in under 30 mins (ask for directions). But this year, the highlight of my trip to Hoi An with Topdeck Travel was a 30-minute scenic cycle to a local farm. We were shown how the farmers grew local plants and herbs sustainably, before having a go at watering the agriculture and ‘working’ the land under the guise of one 54-year old local who shared all his methods with us.
Another activity I loved because again, it was centred around food, was a day of cooking lessons at the well-run Red Bridge Cooking School. We spent 30 minutes having a tour around Hoi An’s markets before spending three hours leisurely cooking (and eating) rice cakes, peanut satay sauce, pineapple salad and other Vietnamese delicacies. And, we got to keep the recipe books for future cooking plans. (So worth it).
No trip to Hoi An would be complete without dropping some serious coin on a hand-made leather tote or floral print tailor-made dress, AM I RIGHT? If I sound excited it’s only because I got two outfits, custom-made, for £28.50 ($37.50) in a clothes shop in Hoi An. (One of the outfits takes pride of place in my Halong Bay photos, below). If you are looking for what I like to call ‘an investment piece’ which is basically anything fancy and with a price tag that isn’t justifiable to your parents, then Hoi An is your destination. The town is known for its selection of high quality handmade, leather jackets, bags, shoes, clothes and jewelry. Just be sure to haggle everything; the price you hear is almost never the price you should pay.
To get to to our day at the cooking school we had to take a scenic boat cruise which I’d recommend doing even if you don’t have anywhere to go; there are several tour operators who can arrange boat trips just for the fun of it and it’s a nice way to see Hoi An.
Overall, Hoi An really is an enchanting place. If you’re planning a trip to Asia or Viet Nam, a stop-off in this town for shopping, sight-seeing or relaxing is a must-do. And everything moves a little slower there than in the big cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, so you can ease yourself into the Asian experience, one pagoda at a time. Just be sure to get to Hoi An before everyone else discovers it.
Been to Hoi An? Or want to go now? Let me know in the comments below