When travelers talk about Hoi An, most say that they loved their visits. When I asked people why they loved Hoi An, they used generic descriptions (“lovely,” “relaxed”) and usually didn’t discuss specific sights. After hearing so many people rave about Hoi An, I started rolling my eyes whenever people talked about the city. I was looking forward to my stay but didn’t think it could live up to the hype.
You can roll your eyes at me now: I loved Hoi An. Yes, it’s touristy, and it feels cheesy to walk around Ancient Town at night, with lanterns hanging from every storefront and music playing softly over speakers. It also looks like a cattle call during the evenings since tour bus groups swarm the city from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM to see the lanterns and take boat rides down the river.
That said, it was wonderful to enjoy Hoi An at a relaxed pace. I packed in a lot of sights and cities during my first couple of weeks in Vietnam, so I used Hoi An as an excuse to take it easy. “Lovely” became my operative word for Hoi An, as the city, locals, and fellow travelers all fit that description.
As one of my activities, I took a class at Green Bamboo Cooking School. Our class consisted of seven students and our instructor Van. We each picked a dish to prepare, and I chose banh xeo, crispy pancakes with pork and shrimp.
Van took us to one of the markets in Hoi An to buy ingredients. Somehow, she was able to remember all the ingredients required for each dish. We then went to Van’s home, where we prepared our dishes. I’m not a skilled cook, so I lagged behind, especially when peeling shrimp. One of Van’s assistants seamlessly jumped in to help me.
Once we finished the prep work, Van asked each of us to cook our dishes. She demonstrated cooking techniques and then let us try them on our own. We feasted on fresh and fried spring rolls, beef salad, spicy squid, caramelized pork belly and beef, chicken, beef stir fry with noodles, and banh xeo.
All the food was tasty, but the banh xeo was my favorite. Admittedly, I might have been biased, but the rest of the group agreed that the banh xeo was the top dish. We certainly got our money’s worth of food, and everyone was struggling toward the end.
When we finished cooking, Van treated us to passion fruit and a couple of rounds of homemade macadamia wine. The wine was delicious and tasted similar to frangelico.
Van was very charming and had a sly sense of humor. I couldn’t believe it when she said she had an 18-year-old son. She looked at least ten years younger.
I also did two motorbike tours with I Love Hoi An. I did a couple of tours with I Love Hue, the sister company to I Love Hoi An, so I had high expectations. I was not disappointed. My first tour was in the countryside with Ms. Lien, the fierce founder of I Love Hue and Hoi An, and Thao, a lovely (there’s that word again) university student. The tour included a stop at a ceramics village, where I attempted to make pottery. I managed to make a bowl, largely thanks to the skillful instructor.
We then visited a house where rice noodles were made. I clumsily cut noodles under the watchful guidance of a rice noodle master. She showed off her precise cutting skills after I finished my batch.
We ended the day by taking a peaceful bamboo boat ride through a coconut village. We avoided the peak tourist time, so we spotted only a couple of other boats as we glided through the water. Our rower was so nice and made me a couple of rings and a cricket from coconut leaves.
Ms. Lien and Thao also taught me that “dep” is the Vietnamese word for “beautiful,” so everything became “dep.” Ms. Lien was dep. Thao was dep. The ceramics instructor was dep. The rice noodle master was dep. The bamboo boat rower was dep.
My second tour with I Love Hoi An was at My Son, a collection of Hindu temples made by the Cham people. Ms. Lien led the tour again, along with Ni, another wonderful university student. The day was scorching, but Ms. Lien and Ni kept their energy throughout the tour. Ms. Lien guided me through the ruins, while Ni looked after the motorbikes. Many of the ruins were bombed during the Vietnam War, but the temples were still majestic.
For lunch, Ms. Lien and Ni suggested I get my quang, a noodle dish with chicken and topped with rice crackers. I slurped down the entire bowl of thick noodles.
The guides for I Love Hoi An were just as fun and engaging as the I Love Hue guides. I enjoyed hanging out with them and exchanging information about Vietnamese and American cultures.
I walked through Hoi An’s Ancient Town several times on my own. All stores in Ancient Town are required to hang lanterns, so the town comes alive at night.
Hoi An is famous for banh mi, and there are two spots that compete for the best in town. Anthony Bourdain visited Banh Mi Phuong, so locals and travelers like to flock there. I went at an off-peak time, so I didn’t have to compete with any crowds. I got my sandwich to go and wolfed it down on the street.
Banh Mi Queen is another popular spot. I liked Banh Mi Queen better than Banh Mi Phuong (sorry, Anthony) since the filling was more flavorful. I ended up visiting Banh Mi Queen twice. Both Banh Mi Phuong and Banh Mi Queen sell sandwiches for 20,000 VND (less than $1), so they’re a steal.
I ended up staying in Hoi An for five nights, my longest stay at a single location in Vietnam. The staff at Tribee Cotu, my hostel, was stellar. The free breakfast was the best I had in Vietnam. It included an egg/savory dish, banana toast, fruit, and homemade peanut butter.
The staff remembered my name and asked about my day every time I returned to the hostel. At checkout, the receptionist gave me and my roommates clay figurines from the ceramics village. I chose a turtle.
While Tribee Cotu doesn’t organize its own social events, they do promote the events at Tribee Kinh, a sister hostel a couple of doors away. It was easy to meet people at the events and the daily happy hours. I was also lucky to have great roommates during my time in Hoi An.
Below are other notes about Hoi An:
- Hoi An was hot when I visited. The high was usually in the 90s. Ancient Town is compact, but it was sometimes a struggle to walk through it in the heat.
- Ancient Town seems to be popular for engagement photos. On a Sunday night, I saw at least five couples posing for photos.
- Forget about walking through Ancient Town from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM, when tour bus groups take over. After 8:00, you can enjoy the lanterns in relative peace.
- For 120,000 VND (less than $6), you can buy tickets to five sights in Ancient Town. You can choose among pagodas and museums. An attendant is supposed to collect a ticket at the entrance of each sight, but they aren’t always at their posts. Before I knew about the ticket system, I entered a pagoda without having to surrender a ticket because there wasn’t an attendant at the entrance. To be clear, I don’t support rule breaking; this was my mistake.
- Hoi An has an abundance of tailors who can make a suit in as little as two days. I decided to get a couple of rompers and a skirt from Kimmy Tailor to add variety to my wardrobe. These required three fittings over three days. The cost wasn’t cheap – I initially thought the price was 240,000 VND (about $10) for three pieces when it was actually $240 – but it’s still less expensive than custom-made clothing in the US.
- I didn’t visit any of the beaches in Hoi An, but plenty of other travelers did. Beaches weren’t a priority for me in Vietnam since I plan to visit more scenic beaches in other countries. Renting motorbikes or bicycles was the most popular way to get to An Bang or Cui Da, the closest beaches. Some travelers also chose to stay in accommodations by the beach. Under the Coconut Tree got good reviews from fellow travelers.
- Most restaurants and bars close by 10:00 PM, but there is one street called Nguyen Phuc Chu where bars stay open later. A lot of backpackers start at a bar called Tiger Tiger and then move to Tiger 2 when Tiger Tiger closes. There are also two bars called Mr. Bean and Mr. Bean 2 (Hoi An bars are really creative with names) devoted to the TV character.