In an instant alleys and buildings, bridges and rivers, merged into a black canvas until the soft glow of candlelit lanterns began to illuminate their surroundings.
I made laps around Hoi An’s Old Town in search of a hotel for nearly an hour when every light was replaced by an encompassing darkness as the town paid homage to the full moon.
Children lined the bridge selling colorful lit paper lotuses. Tourists released the precious parcels along the dark river.
Women grilled cakes made of sweet potato and grated coconut over an open flame. Banana pancakes were submerged into deep vats of golden oil.
Despite the bustle the sound of silence rang as soft as a town blanketed in a fresh sheet of snow. At least for a moment.
Lights returned, traffic commenced, tourists dined and I took my first scan of the reason why I was still in Vietnam.
However my desire to see Hoi An, and likely my extreme stubbornness, sent me on the overnight train headed south against the typhoon instead.
Hoi An’s perfect facade stirred the skeptic in me.
Was this town guised with charm the ultimate tourist trap?
Shops lined every street and “you buy something” are the words I heard most.
Westerners filled restaurants that served overpriced pizza with a side of Vietnamese.
Unkempt expats passed out fliers advertising empty clubs blasting Pit Bull across the river.
But before long Hoi An found its way into my apprehensive heart.
Because for the first time since I arrived in Vietnam
I saw beauty everywhere I looked.
I saw a world that had not been devastated by war
with old houses washed in yellow on picturesque alleys
preserved pagodas painted in bright hues
and wooden boats rocking gently beside a lantern covered bridge.
I dined on local specialties
shrimp dumplings pinched into a perfect white rose
hand cut noodles steamed in spices in hidden courtyards
crispy pancakes wrapped in rice paper smothered with fresh herbs
I dined in local markets
or from a plastic chair on the street.
I chatted with the tailors
and window shopped.
Sat in silence in traditional teahouses
paid my respects to temples
witnessed traditional music and dance.
I escaped to an island with the old way of life
where artisans and craftsmen
make rice paper for spring rolls
carve elaborate decorative sculptures
and repair classic wooden boats.
I rode my bicycle through rice fields
passing sheep, cows, and water buffalo
with fishermen and distant islands
there with the sound of the surf
I felt complete.
All this beauty I discovered
though stunning still could not hold a candle to
the people I met on the journey
whose love, generosity, and kindness
radiated more brilliantly
than the hundreds of lanterns
that light Hoi An each night.
How to Get to Hoi An
Flights to nearby Danang run daily from Saigon and Hanoi and last about an hour. Check out Air Asia and VietJet for deals starting at $20. Shuttles go nearly every hour between Danang and Hoi An, last 45 minutes, and cost around $5.
Trains go several times per day all the way from Saigon or Hanoi. You can pick up in the trains at the popular stops along the way like Hue or Nha Trang. Many people claim the train ride from Hue to Hoi An is one of the most gorgeous rides in the country. Keep in mind the train station does not go to Hoi An, rather to Danang so you will need to arrange transport from there.
The Sinh Hop on Hop off bus connects Hoi An with Hue and Nha Trang. It’s about four hours from Hue and twelve from Nha Trang. Many people complain about the safety and comfort of these sleeping buses, but I had a blast laying out on the bed-like seat and staring out the window for the short trip from Hue.
Plenty of shops in Hue rent motorbikes for those who want to take the gorgeous highway that leads to Hoi An. If you don’t feel so bold, there are also tour operators who will take you on the back of their bike. As with any tour in Vietnam, do your research and go with a company that is well rated on Trip Advisor.
Where to Stay in Hoi An
Accommodations in Hoi An are more expensive than many other parts of Vietnam. There are many beautiful resorts at the nearby beaches if you’re looking to splurge. Budget options tend to lie between the Old Town and the beach.
$9 for dorm, $20 for private includes a huge buffet breakfast
The Sunflower Hotel is the only place in Hoi An with dorm beds, a must for budget solo travelers. I shared a private room here with my lovely friend Lisa from Amsterdam. This hotel has a backpacker scene with free computer use, a swimming pool, and a huge breakfast that includes made to order eggs, stir fries, salads, fruit, and fresh juice.
$170 for a double room with breakfast
The location of Anatara Hoi An Resort could not be more ideal. It is on a small, beautiful street in the Old Town close to shops, spas, tailors, restaurants, and cafes. The grounds have a tropical setting with a swimming pool. If you prefer being in town rather than on the beach, this is the place to splurge.
$75 for a double room with breakfast
The Ha An Hotel is located right next to the Anatara Hoi An Resort, but at a much lower price point. They offer free bicycle rentals, great if you want to explore the nearby beaches, and have outdoor areas for relaxing for a drink in the evening or enjoying the buffet breakfast.
Beach cabins start at $50
If you prefer to be at the sea than in the town, An Bang Seaside Village Homestay is the place to be. It’s next to a secluded strip of beach but a short walk over the lovely beachfront bar and restaurant Le Banyan. The cabins feel more like a home than a hotel as each is detached and has a private terrace. If you’re a family or traveling with a group the larger villas are a great deal and come equipped with outdoor kitchens. If you plan to stay in Hoi An for more than a few days I highly recommend this option.
Where to Eat in Hoi An
Hoi An has some of the best food in the entire country with tons of local specialties and hundreds of restaurants that cater to locals and tourists. Here are a few of my favorite places to eat, though with so many to choose from I’m sure there are many gems not on this list.
On the Street
Like the rest of Vietnam, street food is everywhere. Follow your nose and look for places that are busy with locals. The classic dishes here include cau lau (special rice noodles cooked with broth, sliced pork, fresh herbs, and crispy rice crackers), white rose (steamed shrimp dumplings), com ga (rice fried with chicken, turmeric, and other spices), and bahn xeo (fried crispy pancake stuffed with shrimp and pork wrapped in rice paper with bean sprouts and herbs). The indoor street food market directly across from the outdoor fruit and vegetable market is a great place to sample all different street food. They have tons of local dishes for you to try in addition to what I’ve already listed like grilled pork spring rolls and chicken soup.
$2-10 for entrees
Mermaid was the first restaurant opened for tourists in Hoi An by the famous Ms. Vy. Its interior may be simple but the food is outstanding and less expensive than her other restaurants. The menu has pages of classic dishes but my favorite include the prawns served in a young coconut, the crispy won tons stuffed with shrimp and topped with tomatoes and crab, and the green papaya salad.
$1-5 for entrees
This simple eatery across the bridge next to the night market has excellent local food and an incredibly sweet staff. The fried shrimp spring rolls were probably the best I’ve had in Vietnam and the seafood we had here was inexpensive and delicious.
$2-10 for entrees
Blue Dragon has a lively atmosphere at night with outdoor seating and the best fish steamed in banana leaf. My other favorite dishes were the fresh shrimp spring rolls and the eggplant cooked in claypot.
$1-$8 for pastries, salads, and sandwiches
If you’re craving something Western, Cargo Cafe has an excellent selection of international salads, sandwiches, and pastries. They even had a beet salad and multigrain bread.
$5-$15 for entrees
Ms. Vy’s most famous restaurant, Morning Glory is the place to eat local dishes prepared by the master. The setting is beautiful and upscale and serves local specialties like the famous white rose. They also offer cooking classes daily.
$3-$5 for entrees
It may not be Vietnamese, but Ganesh serves some of the best food in Hoi An. In fact, they cook some of the best Indian food I’ve ever tasted. Break your diet and gorge on the crispy naan with buttery curries and fried samosas. Can you tell I’m craving this right now?
$2-$5 for entrees, $3 for fresh juice
Wherever I go I make sure to find at least one healthy restaurant where I can detox from all my culinary adventures. Karma Waters strives to be as organic as possible, uses no MSG or sugar, and has a 100% vegan menu. I drank their carrot, apple, ginger juice daily. They have an excellent selection of salads to make you feel cleansed and ready for some fried spring rolls. They are also the only place I found in Hoi An that will refill your plastic water bottle.
$5-$15 for entrees
Le Banyan is the place to be when you’re at An Bang beach. The staff is incredibly friendly, they play great music, and its one of the few places I’ve found in Vietnam where you can meet expats. The have a big selection of salads and they even serve French wine. Come on Saturday nights when the bar becomes a disco with international DJs drowning out the sound of the waves.
Where to Drink in Hoi An
$2-3 for a pot of tea, $3 for a cookie sampler for two
This is hands down one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the honor of frequenting. Reaching Out originally began as a workshop selling handmade Vietnamese earthenware in the style of Hue. From the shop they developed a tea house which serves their drinks and snacks on the special handcrafted dishes they make. The entire staff is speech and hearing impaired and have created an unbelievably beautiful space of silence. Go here, go here, seriously go here. Afterwards you can visit their shop and take the experience home with you.
$1-3 for tea, coffee, and smoothies
Mia Coffee became my “office” during my time in Hoi An. The breezy space, wrap around porch, expat scene, European cappuccinos, and friendly staff made me feel right at home. They also had no problem with me hanging out for hours on my laptop. Come for espresso or a smoothie and sit and watch the world go by.
$2 for cocktails
You might laugh at the name but Meet Market has a fun traveller scene and live music. It’s located on the main strip across the bridge along the river. Sit outside, enjoy two for one gin and tonics, do some people watching, and mingle.
On a Boat
$2 for cocktails
Albeit touristy, sipping on a cocktail aboard a boat docked on the river is a wonderfully atmospheric experience. They have twinkling lights and live music and make for a romantic experience or a silly girls’ night out.
Where to Shop in Hoi An
Hoi An is famous for its many tailor shops, and believe me they are everywhere. These tailors can make basically anything within a day tailored to your body. Be aware that they are not designers. Your best bet is to come in with an actual piece of clothing you want replicated and bring your own fabric as well. The quality of work can vary, I’d recommend starting with one inexpensive piece and deciding whether to proceed with that shop. I had leather shoes made for $10. Time will tell if they fall apart but I loved the design and ahem, they cost $10.
The Outdoor Market
The market lining the river in Hoi An Old Town is a bustling scene of fish, herbs, fruit, bracelets, traveler pants, and kitchen supplies. It’s worth exploring for the photos if nothing else.
This new shop opened just a couple of months ago, but I could not be more excited about what it plans to bring to Hoi An. All of their products are sourced from Vietnam and are artfully displayed in this high end boutique. They sell beautiful clothing, cute souvenirs, and local liquors, coffee, and chocolate. The top floor will house a tasting room where patrons can sample local vietnamese cacao and coffee.
Avan’na brings high end fashion to Hoi An’s predictable tailoring scene. Owned by two expat friends with a fashion background, the clothing is stunning and very international. Each garment feels truly special. Beautiful silks and linen are imported from Nepal and crafted into luxurious garments. Even if you’re not in the market stop into the shop simply to see their incredible displays.
Gemstones Art Museum
The Gemstones Art Museum, affectionately called GAM, houses a collection of unique gemstones originating in Vietnam. Their boutique has beautifully designed pieces incorporating these gemstones for shockingly reasonable prices. Had my budget allowed I would have bought half of the things in there. They also have a lovely courtyard in the bar for cooling off with a drink.
Tra My Aroma House
A small local shop offering reasonably priced teas, a large selection of essential oils, and one of my dietary staples: goji berries.
If you are self catering in Hoi An this is an excellent place to purchase specialty items. I found unprocessed oats, local unsweetened farm yogurt, chia seeds, and other health food here. They also have deli sandwiches, cheese, wine, and brownies for a more decadent experience. If you’re interested in an extended stay in Hoi An, their website is an incredible resource for expats.
What to Do in Hoi An
Days in Hoi An can be spent simply wandering the streets, popping into history Old Houses and temples, and dining in lovely cafes and restaurants. However there are plenty of activities in and around Hoi An for a bit more excitement and culture.
As a self proclaimed beach bum, Hoi An’s proximity to long stretches of golden sand beach is a big reason why I stuck around for so long. My first day I rode my bicycle to Cua Dai beach, just a couple of miles from the Sunflower Hotel, but was turned off by the development and high concentration of hawkers. An Bang beach is a little further out on Hai Bai Trung road past town but the ride is scenic and the chill vibes are worth it. Read my post on An Bang Beach for more information.
If you are in Hoi An during the dry season (February – September) there are some nearby islands with calm water for snorkeling and diving. The islands themselves are said to be beautiful, but don’t expect the diving to compare to places like Thailand and Indonesia.
Hoi An Yoga offers Hatha, Yin, and Restorative classes nearly every day and occasionally beach yoga at An Bang. It’s a rare treat to find yoga, especially with this variety, in Vietnam. She also offers private classes and reiki sessions.
This completely free day tour of the An Hoi Peninsula on the Hoi An Free Bicycle Tour was one of my favorite experiences during my time in Hoi An. The organization is operated by University students in Danang who use the tour to both practice their English, which is excellent, and teach tourists about village life around Hoi An. We visited a family making rice paper and rice noodles, watched the men repair boats, learned about the amazing artisans and artists who work on the island, visited a family chapel, learned to make grass mats, and road our bicycle down scenic country roads. The guides are fun, friendly, and very knowledgeable. Afterwards our tour guides, Tina and Sophie, took us to an authentic restaurant and taught us about local food. Hard to believe such a wonderful experience was free.
$27 for a trip to the market, cooking instruction, and enjoyment of four local dishes
Ms. Vy or her adept assistant teach you how to craft local Hoi An specialties. This is a delicious cultural experience to take home with you. Restaurants all over town offer lessons, but if you want the best head to Morning Glory.
My Son Cham Ruins
I did not make it to My Son, but these ancient ruins are even older than Ankor Wat. Unfortunately we (Americans) dropped bombs on their grandeur so the sight is not as impressive as it could be. Still I hear it is worth a trip!
My second day in Hoi An, walking down the street with huge piece of gauze taped to my leg, I stopped to ask a woman for directions. She asked if she could take a look at my leg. In no time she sent her brother to the pharmacy, cleaned and dressed my wound, and refused to accept payment for the supplies. Her name is Lily and she became a true friend during my time in Hoi An. If you find yourself in the area, pay her a visit at her spa Calla Lily, where I received the best massage of my life. The massage begins with a lemongrass foot soak and a cup of fresh tamarind juice. I can’t explain what happened during my massage, but afterwards I felt like a different person. The anxiety and tension I held onto since before I even arrived in Vietnam was gone. I think that’s the moment I let go and fell for Hoi An.