7 THINGS TO DO ON YOUR FIRST TRIP TO HOI AN + TRAVEL TIPS
Watching the sunrise over green fields of rice, drops of dew making every plant sparkle in the early morning light. Riding bikes through an ancient town painted almost entirely in yellow, its streets strung with colorful lanterns and heavy with the scent of flowers. Relaxing on an uncrowded beach, raindrops creating dimples in the sand just beyond the protection of our bamboo hut while we read books and feast on mouth-watering Vietnamese dishes.
If Hoi An is not the definition of vacation perfection, I don’t know what is.
HOI AN, VIETNAM
Located along the coast in the central region of Vietnam, Hoi An is a quaint, historic city characterized by its unique blend of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and French architecture, a throwback to the city’s past as an important commercial trading port from the 15th to 18th centuries.
When its usefulness as a port declined in the 19th century, the once-flourishing city was all but forgotten as Vietnam’s other major cities began to modernize. Because of this, what remains in Hoi An today is a charming, well-preserved time capsule to an influential period in Vietnam’s past.
Once welcoming traders from all corners of the globe, these days, it’s tourists that flock to Hoi An, keen to explore the city’s UNESCO-designated Ancient Town and take advantage of its sleepy, slower-paced lifestyle for a while.
We spent just under a week in Hoi An, sampling the region’s famously flavorful dishes, learning about the city’s history, and actually doing some relaxing on a trip for the first time in ages. Not surprisingly, we left wishing we could have stayed longer.
If this is your first visit to Hoi An, I have recommendations below for a few ways you might want to spend your time, as well as Hoi An travel tips to help you plan your own trip. I hope you’ll enjoy this surprisingly tranquil city as much as we did. (If you’ve ever visited Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, you’ll understand why I was so surprised to discover a quiet city in this country!)
7 THINGS TO DO IN HOI AN
EXPLORE THE ANCIENT TOWN
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a city with a more picturesque Old Town. Here in Hoi An, the streets of the Ancient Town are lined with shops and cafes all painted in cheerful shades of yellow. Multi-colored lanterns sway in the breeze over every shopfront and every street.
Instead of motorcycles which dominate the roads outside the Ancient Town, here you’re more likely to find people lazily peddling along on bicycles or simply walking from place to place. Add in the sporadic appearance of a number of ancient temples, pagodas, and old homes full of character, and you have yourself a place you could easily spend days wandering around in and taking photos.
Technically, entrance into the Ancient Town is ticketed. I say technically because we were never once asked to show our tickets at any point other than when entering the historic houses and temples, but just to be on the safe side, I recommend purchasing a ticket on your first day in Hoi An and keeping it on you for the duration of your visit.
Tickets cost 120,000 VND (around $5 USD) and children are free. With your ticket, you’ll also be allowed entrance into your choice of five different historic sights out of the 22 that are available. For tips on which sights to visit in the Ancient Town, check out the link below.
VISIT THE CENTRAL MARKET
Located at the eastern end of the Ancient Town, the earlier you can get to Hoi An’s Central Market, the better. Not only because you’ll avoid the tourist crowds, but because you’ll be able to witness all the exciting action that happens at this market during its prime period.
The first time we visited the Central Market, we arrived just before noon (when the above photo was taken) and found the whole experience a little underwhelming. I mean, the market was big, sure, but nothing to write home about.
Determined to give it another go, the next morning we forced ourselves to get up a little earlier and make the Central Market our first stop and were rewarded with a much more exhilarating, albeit absolutely chaotic experience.
Motorbikes zip through the narrow passages between market stalls carrying bundles of fresh produce to nearby restaurants. Everyone is shouting to be heard over the noise of the motorbikes as well as each other. If you linger for even a moment near someone’s pile of vegetables, they’ll latch onto you, determined to make a sale. And it smells like fish. Like, a lot of fish.
It’s definitely more fun to visit the Central Market in the morning if what you’re coming for is a cultural experience, but if you actually want to buy things and aren’t used to making purchases in such an intense environment, I suggest visiting the market later in the day when business has quieted down a bit. Also, don’t forget to haggle, it’s how things are done here.
- Find the Central Market on a map here.
TOUR THE RICE FIELDS IN HOI AN
Although not quite as dramatic as the rice paddies in Northern Vietnam, the rice fields in Hoi An are still beautifully scenic and relatively easy to get to from the main part of town.
We chose to stay in a hotel in the countryside, so reaching the rice fields for us was as simple as walking out our front door and crossing the street. But if you’re staying in the Ancient Town and aren’t sure how to reach the rice fields or where to go once you have, joining a half-day bike tour of Hoi An’s countryside is a great way to see the rice paddies.
If you can, I suggest visiting the rice fields just after sunrise. The light is gorgeous this time of day, plus the roads are less busy which makes biking or walking much easier. Morning is also when you’ll be able to spot more farmers working out in the fields, and even some water buffalo if you’re lucky.
All that said, if it’s rained recently, you might want to skip the bike tour and do some rice field exploring on foot instead. The roads in the countryside, and particularly the paths that wind through the paddies, get extremely muddy and soggy after a heavy rain making them quite difficult to cycle over. For best results, cross your fingers for a sunny day.
RELAX ON AN BANG BEACH
Of the two beaches in Hoi An, An Bang Beach is likely where you’ll most enjoy filling up your Vitamin D reserves and playing in the waves.
A pretty stretch of sand with a view of the mountains, An Bang Beach is wonderfully quiet and uncrowded. No loud music bumping out of bars, very few touts making the rounds, and a coastline you can walk without tripping over sunbathers every step of the way – this was definitely the most peaceful beach we’ve visited in Southeast Asia so far.
Several restaurants line the coast, all offering the use of their sun loungers and umbrellas for the day if you purchase a drink. I suggest choosing a place where the food looks great as well, so you won’t have to lose your spot to go in search of a lunch venue. We liked Wind and Moon Restaurant – the food was delicious and we were never pressured to keep ordering food or drinks on either day we used their loungers.
FYI: If you want to visit An Bang Beach when it’s a little livelier, come at sunset. That’s when all the locals come out since the sun isn’t as harsh and you’ll find parties and barbecues happening all up and down the beach.
CHECK OUT THE NIGHT MARKET
Even if you have no intention of shopping, you can’t miss the Night Market in Hoi An.
Located across the river in An Hoi, the lanterns are the star of the show here. Hanging overhead by the thousands and displayed in shops for sale, their colorful glow creates a delightful ambiance as you wander through the shops selling everything from silk products to tasty banh mi sandwiches.
Just like at the Central Market, bargaining is the name of the game here, so if you’re shopping and not just wandering through in awe of the glowing lanterns, be prepared to haggle for a decent price. I usually offer under half of whatever the original price was and work up from there until I hit my maximum. If you find someone who is unwilling to budge, just move on. There are plenty of vendors and many are offering the exact same products for sale.
The Night Market is open every day from 5pm until 11pm, but be sure to time your visit sometime after the sun has gone down to see the lanterns illuminated. Definitely take a walk along the Thu Bon River on this side of the city as well. There are lots of great restaurants to check out if you didn’t fill up on street food at the market.
- Find the Night Market on a map here.
RENT BICYCLES IN HOI AN
One of my favorite things we did in Hoi An was wake up early one morning and take a leisurely bike ride through the rice fields, the Ancient Town, and along the river while the rest of the city was just beginning to wake up.
This early in the day, we were the only tourists out and about and were able to witness many things you don’t get to see once the city really gets moving and grooving – fishermen getting their nets ready for the day, women hanging the washing on the line, an elderly couple enjoying the sunrise. We felt so much more connected to Hoi An after getting a peek behind the curtain into what daily life for its residents is like.
Your hotel will likely offer bicycle rentals on a first come first served basis, but if they don’t, bicycles can be rented for as little as $1 USD for the entire day from cycle hire businesses in the Ancient Town.
FYI: If you’re not completely confident in your bike-riding skills, try to stay off the main roads outside of the Ancient Town. Traffic moves fast and typical rules of the road don’t necessarily apply here.
Read More: Snapshots of Hoi An: A Photo Series
TRY AS MANY FOODS AS YOU CAN
And last, but certainly not least – you must take advantage of the food scene in Hoi An. Fresh seafood. Bowls of noodles served piping hot. Dumplings filled with juicy pork and shrimp. My stomach growls just thinking about it! You’ll have so many delicious local dishes at your disposal while you’re here.
Besides the usual Vietnamese fare (banh mi, pho), you’ll also have the opportunity to try several foods specific to central Vietnam and even Hoi An itself while you’re in the city. A few of our favorite were com ga (Vietnamese chicken rice), banh bao vac (shrimp dumplings), and cao lau (a pork dish unique to Hoi An), but truthfully everything was good.
You won’t have any trouble finding places to eat either. Hoi An is somewhat of a foodie destination in Vietnam, so the amount of cafes, coffee shops, and restaurants in the Ancient Town is almost equal to that of tailors and souvenir shops, which is to say there are plenty. For a few suggestions on where and what to eat, check out the post linked below.
HOI AN TRAVEL TIPS
BEST TIME TO VISIT HOI AN
When visiting Hoi An, the main thing you need to plan for is the monsoon season. Central Vietnam’s winter monsoons typically come during the months of September to December, but it wouldn’t be uncommon for the rainy season to extend into August and January either.
The Ancient Town is prone to flooding during the heaviest rains of the season which often occur in October and November, so unless you’re prepared to spend quite a bit of time indoors, I’d avoid those months.
The driest months in Hoi An are February through July. For the most comfortable temperatures, I’d suggest planning your trip in March, April, or May. By June, temperatures soar into the high 30’s Celsius/90’s Fahrenheit, and you just might find yourself doing a little rain dance in hopes of getting some relief. And it’s possible you could get it.
We visited in mid-July when temperatures were at their highest and, despite it not being rainy season, we still had rain almost every day, some showers even lasting the entire day. Which just goes to show, you can try to avoid rainy season in Southeast Asia, but you’re never guaranteed to stay dry!
HOW LONG TO STAY IN HOI AN
Technically, to do and see everything on this list, you’d only need to stay in Hoi An for three days, maybe even just two. However, if there is a place in Vietnam that is perfect for taking a breather on a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia, it would be here. So if you’ve got a couple extra days to spare, this city is a great place to take it easy for a while.
We chose to stay a full five days in Hoi An, which allowed us two for exploring the sights in the Ancient Town, two days at the beach, and an extra for wandering through the rice fields and taking photos in town. We don’t often take trips that would classify as vacations, but we did here and loved every minute of it.
WHERE TO STAY IN HOI AN
In Hoi An, you have the choice of staying in the Ancient Town, in a resort by the beach, or out in the countryside, and whichever location you pick should really come down to what you plan to spend the majority of your days doing.
If you have limited time in the city, I recommend staying within walking distance of the center of town so you can maximize the time you have in Hoi An seeing the sights and trying all the foods.
Because we had a little more freedom with our time, we chose to stay at Lasenta Boutique Hotel just outside of the city. The hotel’s idyllic setting in the rice fields was exactly what we were looking for, and as a bonus, they even offered free transportation to the city center and An Bang Beach which made getting everywhere we needed to go super easy.
We loved everything about our stay at Lasenta Boutique Hotel, from our beautiful room to the massive breakfast we enjoyed every morning. If you’re looking for a scenic place to stay in Hoi An, you can’t go wrong with this one.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN HOI AN
First things first, you’ve got to get to Hoi An. Da Nang International Airport is the closest airport, so that’s likely where you’ll be flying into.
If your hotel offers airport transfer, take advantage of it. Otherwise, you can book airport transfer ahead of time here for $6/person. The journey should take between 40 minutes to an hour depending on where you’re staying.
Another option is to take one of the cabs that queue up outside the airport, but they are notorious for trying to charge a different fee than what you originally agreed to pay, so be firm if this happens to you.
Once you’re in the city, it’s easy to get around in Hoi An via a combination of walking, biking, and taxis. Bicycles can be rented from cycle hire shops in the Ancient Town for around $1/day. You might have to pay a small deposit, but you’ll get it back when you return the bike before they close for the day.
Although you’ll probably only need them if you’re going to and from the Ancient Town and An Bang Beach, taxis are also an option. From the city center to the beach, a cab ride will run you around $5 USD. You’ll also see cyclos in the city center – these are a good way to get around the sights in town if you’re not up for walking. These shouldn’t cost more than $1-2 if you’re only going a short distance.
DAY TRIPS FROM HOI AN
If you’re staying a little longer in Hoi An, there are several easy day trips you can take outside the city.
A half-day exploring the temple ruins at My Son is one of the most popular. You can book a My Son day trip cheaply as part of a group tour, or you can hire a private driver and guide through your hotel. (If you’re visiting in the summer months, choose a sunrise tour. There is no shade anywhere and it gets hot!)
Another option is to head back towards Da Nang and pay a visit to the Marble Mountains which, let’s be honest, are more hills than mountains, but they do contain some pretty cool caves and temples.
If you’re up for diving or snorkeling, your best bet will be taking a day trip out to the beautiful turquoise waters of the Cham Islands, but be aware, tours are only available during the dry season since the seas get too choppy during the monsoons.
A FEW FINAL TIPS FOR FIRST-TIMERS
- Don’t forget to verify before your trip whether you’ll need a visa or not. If you hold an American passport, you’ll be required to either have completed the visa process beforehand or carry an approval letter for a visa on arrival. The second option is the cheapest. We used My Vietnam Visa for ours.
- Of the three major international airports in Vietnam, the visa on arrival process runs the smoothest at Da Nang. You’ll pay for your visa in USD, so wait to change any money into VND until you reach your hotel. I always use Oanda to check exchange rates.
- Though everyone likes to get a good deal and you’re expected to bargain for goods here, try to keep it in perspective. Haggling someone down until they’re not even making a profit is bad form. Remember to play fair – an extra dollar probably means a lot more to the seller than it does to you.
- The usual rules in regards to drinking water apply here. As in, if it’s not bottled, don’t drink it.
- As for food, we took a few more risks this time than we usually do and had fresh greens with some of our meals. Maybe we just got lucky, but no one got sick. If it’s your first time traveling in Southeast Asia, I recommend still sticking with fully cooked greens and veggies just to be on the safe side.