In my research on what to do in Vietnam, the place that immediately grabbed my heart and exhilarated my imagination was Hoi An. Its location at the crossroads of the north and south, its small manageable size, its rich history and abundance in delicious cuisine and natural beauty all make it the perfect starting point to discovering the country. Here’s my perfect day in this perfectly quintessential Vietnamese town, but who knows, it might make you stay for two, three or more!
Due to its strategic position roughly midway along the coast of what is today’s Viet Nam, Hoi An became a trading post as far back as the 3rd century. Its importance as a port flourished from the 15-19th centuries with the influence of the Japanese, Chinese then Europeans. The immense wealth they brought to the town was displayed in refined half-timbered townhouses, opulent temples and efficient city planning. The downfall of its economic power in the 19th century helped preserve its magnificent cityscape, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A walk (or bike) through the Old Town is like taking a walk through time.
While it mightn’t seem to make geographic sense, I started my trip to Vietnam in Hoi An and can recommend doing the same. Vietnam can be an intense country to visit with zooming scooters, swindling taxi-drivers, pushy street-hawkers and overflowing sidewalk stalls. These are of course part of its charm, however, it can be nice to ease into the mayhem of the usual starting points of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Plus since travel within the country is so economical, it isn’t out of the question to zigzag around. That said, stopping by Hoi An in the middle can provide a possible well-needed break from the big city chaos.
I arrived late into Da Nang and went straight to Hoi An, only a 45-min taxi ride from the airport. This gave me a complete, full first day to explore Hoi An, while I did stay two days instead of one, you can enjoy the various aspects of the city in a day, like the suggested itinerary below.
7:30 am: The Early Bird Gets the … Mackerel? A Stroll at the Market
An amble around Hoi An’s morning market gives you an ideal and intriguing slice of daily Vietnamese life. Try to arrive early (it opens at 6:30 am) to find the locals out early bargaining over the morning’s catches from the river or sea, picking out the freshest fruit and vegetables or pulling up a stool for some breakfast Pho. The inside of the central market features more foodstuffs, dried goods … and some of the city’s famous fabric and silk vendors. More tourists arrive as the hours go on and the local nicknack and souvenir vendors come out in full force, beware, they are persistent!
8:30 am: A Stitch in Time at the Tailor
If you intend on having something made at a tailor and you only have one day, you may want to go early. While you can have items prepared at almost any hour, the quality of goods made in the evening might be a bit dodging. Putting in your order when you’re fresh in the morning can prevent you from making bad decisions (or agreeing to that 4th item you really don’t want) from fatigue. This will also provide you with a convenient excuse for the other insistent hawkers you pass throughout the day (my order’s already in!). That said, by going in the evening you can see if you spot any places that stand out for you and this creates a little evening activity. Most tailors can have your goods ready overnight.
I wasn’t necessarily planning to have anything made, but since I really did need a new pair of sandals, I got convinced to have some made by the friendly ladies of stall 32 in the shoe market next to the fish market. Okay, not just the one pair she’s holding in the photo… be sure to have your negotiating hat (or shoes) on before venturing into any shop (here’s a useful, more in-depth article on choosing a tailor in Hoi An).
9:30 am: (Iced) Coffee Break
By mid-morning you’ll definitely need a pick-me-up, so stop by a neighborhood café for some authentic Vietnamese coffee, or more suitable for the hot climate, an iced coffee (ca phe sue dah). The Vietnamese have been growing their own coffee since it was introduced by the French in the mid-19th century. Prepared in a small, metal drip press, the coffee is usually served with a slightly guilty dose of sweetened condensed milk. Delicious. Get your fix at many café terraces throughout town or for serious coffee drinkers track down Mai Coffee House (right next to the market at 20 Phan Boi Chau) or not far in the old quarter is the Hoi An Roastery (135 Tran Phu).
10:00 am: Culture Crawl
Hoi An boasts an amazing density of cultural sites. The good news is most of these historic treasures are small and within a few blocks of each other so you can cover a far amount in little time. There is a lot of outdated information around indicated that visitors need to pay an entrance ticket just to walk the streets of the Old Town, this is no longer the case (up-to-date info from October 2015). You can walk “freely” around, though there is an entrance ticket passport with coupons for 6 out of 22 historic sites. You can get it at kiosks in the Old Town, it costs 120,000 VND per person and is valid 24 hours so if you stay two days you can spread out your sightseeing over an afternoon and morning. It includes several museums, heritage houses, a variety of the Chinese Assembly Halls, handicraft demonstrations and music or dance performances. I decided to use the tickets for different sorts of sites, giving a greater range. I’d definitely recommend visiting one of the historic homes for a look back at traditional living customs (a full list of sites here).
Japanese Bridge Tip: There’s still some confusion over if the Japanese bridge requires a ticket, if should be free to cross from the main Old Town side to the other side, and the ticket is just required to enter the annexed pagoda on that side of the bridge’s interior. If you don’t want to use a ticket for it, you play it safe by crossing the non-covered bridge around 20 meters away by the river. You can visit this side of town and then cross the Japanese bridge from that side, no ticket is requested there.
12:30 pm: Local Fare or Flare for Lunch
There are plenty of fantastic dining options in Hoi An, from hole in the walls filled with locals to palate tantalizing fusion, air-conditioned abodes. You should try to experience at least one of each during your stay. Wolfing down a street-side bahn mi sandwich is a must at least once during any trip in Vietnam. A small “baguette” stuffed with meat and/or eggs and cucumber or carrots and laced with drippy sauces, I was more of a fan of these for breakfast, but lunch or a snack also hits the spot. Why not get initiated to them here in Hoi An at either of two places which have become institutions: Madam Khanh – The Banh Mi Queen or Banh Mi Phuong (declared the best banh mi by Anthony Bourdain – this video will make you drool!).
Alternatively, you can grab a more sophisticated table at one of the city’s excellent creative or fusion eateries. I was told to check out Morning Glory and I can say it was one of the best meals I had during my whole stay in Vietnam. It has a diverse menu of traditional Vietnamese dishes with a contemporary twist, including some gourmet examples of “Hoi An Street Food,” several notches in refinement up from the likes of bahn mi. If you are in town two days, join in on one of their cooking classes.
2:00 pm: Bike to the Beach
My friend Sarah of Best Coast Biking, who’s traveled (by bike) extensively in the region, said that one of the nicest things about Hoi An was that you could easily bike outside the city center to reach rice fields, villages… and the beach. I was interested in all three. I wasn’t so sure if it would be as “easy” as she claimed, but it actually was. Most hotels and hostels rent out bikes or very reasonable price (a few dollars) and condition. They can provide you with a little photocopied map of at least the town from which you can have them point you in the direction of the road to An Bang beach and you’ll be there in 15-20 minutes.
While it wasn’t the most gorgeous beach I’d ever seen (I’m still dreaming of the Gilis…), it’s very pleasant, and since it’s still under-developed, its wide, white sandy beach isn’t lined with tourist resorts. You have to park your bike at one of the “bike parking lots” bargain with them and pay no more than 5000 VND (about 25 cents) and it’ll be there on your return. You can either throw down your sarong or by purchasing a beer or fruit juice be able to use one of the lounge chairs lined in front of the handful of beachside restaurants. If you’re traveling alone, you might even make a friend here like I did with fellow traveler, South African Tarryn Liddell.
5:00 pm: Get Lost into the Sunset
On your way back to the center of Hoi An, don’t take the straight and narrow road. Take a turn down a laneway into the rice fields, or as I did, veer to the right on the small road just before crossing the Cau An Bang Bridge. Here you’ll stumble upon a tiny glance of country life, with small houses, moored fishing boats, playing children and barking dogs. As long as the weather is nice, you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular sunset on the lagoon.
7:00 pm: Night Lights and Lanterns
Hoi An’s light show doesn’t end with the sunset. The streets of the city-center dance in glowing atmospheric, colorful lights and lanterns, so a stroll in the evening should definitely be in your plans. I happened to be in town on the monthly Full Moon Lantern festival during which its residents (and admirative tourists) pay homage to their ancestors by sending out small, illuminated paper lanterns from dusk to 9-10 pm. If you can plan your trip around attending this, you may want to do so, it’s a magical experience.
The paper lanterns are abundantly available from makeshift vendors along the river, the usual asking price of 10,000 VND each can usually be reduced to 5,000. Almost all the lanterns are pretty much the same, however, you may want “shop” around and purchase one from someone you like, there are many children selling lanterns, I’m not sure if they get a cut from their parents for their cuteness… If you want to go all out, you can also hire out Hoi An’s answer to the Venetian gondola: sampan boats. A short ride in one of these private boats goes for about 100,000 VND.
8:00 pm: Lights, Camera… Dinner
Unless you stopped for a banh mi or other street food along your way, you’ll probably be getting peckish. Hoi An eats on the early side so don’t wait too late before finding some evening nourishment or you really will be stuck with banh mi as your only option. If you didn’t dig into the fusion dishes at one of the Old Quarter’s contemporary spots, this could be your chance (Besides Morning Glory, Culture Trip has put together their selection of top restaurants in Hoi An). Alternatively, you could kill two birds with one stone and take in the lantern show along with the river lights by grabbing a drink or dinner along one of the riverside restaurants (albeit a bit more of a touristy option).
If you’re feeling more adventurous, there are many great authentic restaurants on the narrow backstreets “above” the Old Town. Make sure you’ve located one on your smartphone before you escaped into the possibly unnamed streets and alleys, however, this little adventure will give you another window into local life. I had a delightful dinner down an obscure alley in a cool laidback environment encased by books, Minh Vien, which serves vegetarian regional cuisine including the highly coveted “White Rose,” delicate Hoi An dumplings (note: they also offer cooking classes). The Rustic Compass has compiled this comprehensive list of local eateries. Chúc ngon miệng! Or enjoy your meal and your stay in this beautiful town!