Nestled on the banks of the Thu Bon River, 30km south of Danang, is the ancient town of Hoi An. A small town with a rich history, and one that people flock to in droves. Despite having a population of just 120,000, the town caters to upwards of three million tourists per year, and there are no signs of its popularity slowing down. From ancient buildings to enticing beaches to the surrounding highlands, Hoi An has a lot to offer. We spent a couple of weeks wandering the red hot streets and thought we should share our two cents on the town in 2018.
Hoi An is best accessed via the city of Danang, just 30km north. Danang has an airport, a train station and buses that run day and night. The journey from Danang to Hoi An takes about 45 minutes in a car, and you will find taxis are plentiful. If you’ve got a phone to hand you can order yourself a Grab (Vietnamese Uber).
We travelled up from Ho Chi Minh City on an overnight train – a journey that took 17 hours. We had then organised a private car through our guesthouse to pick us up at the station. Taxis/Grab/Private car should cost you around 350,000 – 450,000 VND ($15 – $20USD). Alternatively you can get a direct bus from Danang which will set you back about 25,000 VND ($1USD). This will take a bit longer, 70 to 80 minutes. Bus services start at 5:30 in the morning and stop operating at 18:00, with about 1 bus every 20 minutes.
From mopeds to bicycles to converted army jeeps, there are plenty of ways you can see Hoi An and its surroundings. The ancient town is best tackled on foot though, as it is closed to motorcycles for large parts of the day. During the evening it is much too crowded to attempt to explore on anything but your own two feet.
Bicycles can be rented from your guesthouse or nearby for as little as a dollar a day, with mopeds costing a little more. Check out the tours section for details on more unique modes of transport.
The Ancient Town
The ancient town dates back to the 16th Century, when the town was one of South East Asia’s major trading centres. More than 800 buildings have been preserved by UNESCO, and eighteen of these are open to visitors. A ticket to visit these sites costs 120,000 ($5USD) per person, and is valid for five days. Well worth a visit if you’re keen to find out the history behind the buildings. Our only reccomendation would be to go early, as tour buses arrive for the day by 11 and the charm can be lost when you’re sharing a small space with 40 other curious sightseers.
If, like us, you’re not a fan of the big crowds, then I would suggest getting up a little earlier (5:30-7:30) to catch the sunrise in the old town. If you’re there during the summer months its usually too hot to be wandering the streets in the afternoon, so you can head back for a siesta when the heat kicks in.
Hoi An is a town on Vietnamese central coast, and the beaches nearby have become big business. Taxi, Grab, cycle or moped just 4km from the ancient town and you will find a number of beaches where you can unwind after a big day of exploring. Unfortunately, you won’t be the only one doing so. Even the most recommended spot – An Bang Beach – is crowded with sun lounges, umbrellas and souvenir-sellers.
Having not been near the ocean in a while, us salt-seekers loved staying on the beach. But a word of advice to those visiting An Bang, don’t get sucked in to the sun bed trap. Restaurants charge big money for beds near the main entrance, and they can sometimes get quite aggressive. There are plenty of places just down the beach away from the main road (in either direction) that offer sun beds for free. Our favourite spot was The Fisherman – a vegan restaurant offering phenomenal cocktails, free water refills and no single-use plastic! While you’re there you can even buy yourself a bamboo straw for your trip.
Where to stay
We spent a week on the outskirts of the ancient town, and another week on An Bang Beach. Neither was better than the other; it is really just a matter of preference. While being near the old town means you are closer to the ‘action’ (action being the history, shops, restaurants and bars), we found there to be limited places to stay actually in (or close to) the town on a budget.
Most places offer pushbikes and/or mopeds to rent. These are great when you want to get somewhere fast, or take a trip to one of the beaches. But bare in mind, due to the dense crowds and tour busses, it is incredibly difficult to ride through the old town past 4pm in the afternoon. And during the months of February to July it can be incredibly hot to be out during the day.
Hoi An’s signature dish is Cao Lầu. A meal comprised of thick rice noodles, pork, crackling and local greens. Unlike Pho (Vietnam’s traditional noodle dish), Cao Lầu has very little broth. And if you’re wondering why this dish is exclusive to one town, the secret lies in the water; authentic Cao Lầu is prepared only with water drawn from ancient Cham wells hidden around Hoi An and Quang Nam Province. The noodles are pre-soaked in the water and lye made from wood ash brought from one of the eight Cham Islands around 10 miles outside of Hoi An. The combination may seem obscure, but locals can tell the difference in the taste and texture!
It would be a sin not to mention Madam Kahn, the Bahn Mi Queen. Arguably (or rather, absolutely) the best Bahn Mi’s we have had in Vietnam (and we have had a few).
Other Hoi An specialties include White Rose (banh bao banh vac). These light & tasty shrimp dumplings are rumoured to be made exclusively by one family who supplies all the restaurants in town! And finally, the local fried wonton dumplings (Hoành thánh chiên), a crispy base covered with a salsa-like topping of vegetables and sweet and sour shrimp.
It’s not just the yellow walls and the lanterns that stand out in Hoi An. You cannot miss the hoards of mannequins lining the streets just outside the ancient town. More often than not draped in unique (albeit sometime garsish) outfits. The town has long been coined the Tailoring Capital of the World, and not without good reason.
If you’re on a short trip and looking to get something specific made, it’s good to provide as much information as you can. A friend of ours brought his favourite shirt and had it flawlessly replicated in 5 different colours.
Its a little tricky to choose a tailor as there are so many, and they’re all completing for your business. Our best advise would be to wander round and get a feel for yourself. Check out recent Trip Advisor reviews and if you’re short for time you can always count on Bebe. Slightly more expensive than other street shops but guaranteed quality and service, and highly rated. This was the one place we didn’t feel pressured to purchase anything, so we would recommend it.
As we were on a pretty modest budget, we kept our tours to a bare minimum. But there is plenty to see and some pretty interesting ways to see them. Most guesthouses and hotels provide ample lists of things to do, but bare in mind they can be a pushy if you haven’t worked out your itinerary.
Cooking classes, handicraft workshops, motorbike tours or island visits. This website had some good suggestions if you’re looking to get off the beaten track.
We went with a tour agency called Road Trippers Vietnam. They offer unique transfers from Hoi An to Hue in old converted Jeeps. With stops at the famous Marble Mountain and a ride over the top of the spectacular Hải Vân Pass, before traveling along the coast through some small and charming fishing villages. With many local beaches to stop at you can cool off in the East Sea before jumping back into the jeeps to travel through the City of Ghosts. If you don’t fancy a transfer they are more than happy to accomodate round trips from either town.