Things to Do in Hoi An, Vietnam: The Ultimate, Best, Most Awesome Guide
There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, a line which I’m in danger of crossing. Is this really the ultimate, best most awesome list of things to do in Hoi An? Well, I did kind of live there for a few months earlier this year and I have visited this historic port city several times over the last few years. I’ve seen most of what Hoi An has to offer and I’m a massive fan. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the nicest town (technically a small city) in Southeast Asia. Are you wondering what to do in Hoi An? Keep reading to find out!
Walk the Streets of Hoi An Ancient Town
Hoi An Ancient Town is the name given to the historic area of Hoi An, one of the most popular tourist destinations in central Vietnam. The uniform yellow buildings spread themselves out over several streets close to the river. Many of the old structures now house boutique clothing stores, cafes and souvenir shops. Some of them have been turned into living museums, showing what life was like in centuries past. I love walking around the old town — the architecture, combined with the buzz of street hawkers and tourists make the streets come to life. On the other hand, some of the side streets and areas further away from the Japanese Bridge are extremely peaceful — it’s definitely not hard to get away from the tourist action as the historic part of Hoi An is quite spread out.
Visit the Meeting Halls, Temples, Museums and Old Houses
A ticket allowing for entry to five historic Hoi An attractions will set you back 120,000 dong and it’s well worth it. There are several meeting halls (basically big temples) and ancient houses to look through. The highlights for me were the Fukian Assembly Hall, the Cantonese Assembly Hall and the Museum of Folklore, which is located inside one of Hoi An’s best preserved old houses. Many of these houses are well over 200 years old and the descendants of their early inhabitants still live in some of them today. There are some ancient houses that are free to enter (without the ticket) but be warned — the person showing you around will try very hard to get you to buy some of their jewelry, lanterns or other souvenirs.
See the Japanese Bridge
The most iconic piece of history in Hoi An is the Japanese Bridge. You’ll need a ticket to cross it (they don’t always check though) — look out for the small shrine inside. The original Japanese Bridge was built in the late 1500s (it has changed a bit since then I’m sure) and admiring it (both during the day and at night when it’s lit up) is one of the best things to do in Hoi An.
Explore the Old Town at Night
Hoi An really comes alive at night, especially during the monthly lunar full moon festival. The lights go out (well, most of them do) and are replaced by lanterns. There are also lots of old women selling small cardboard lanterns to tourists. The theory is that if you make a wish and then send your lantern floating down the river that wish will come true. I have no idea what happens to all the lanterns at the end of the night — it can’t be very eco-friendly though. Even if you’re not lucky enough to visit Hoi An during the full moon festival it is still a fun place to explore at night. Lanterns still dominate most of the old town and there is always a lively atmosphere.
Visit a Beach
There are two beaches just outside of Hoi An. An Bang is definitely the best one and it makes for a relaxing day trip (Cua Dai has been all but destroyed by coastal erosion). You can buy some reasonably priced food and drink out there which will allow you to relax on the provided beach loungers. In general I wouldn’t say Vietnam is a great country for beach lovers, but An Bang is just a nice as some of the more popular ones in Mui Ne and Nha Trang. An Bang Beach is a short bike ride from downtown Hoi An — it’s easy to find and is a popular excursion, especially for backpackers.
Cycle through the Countryside
The rice fields and riverside trails outside of Hoi An make for some excellent cycling. Rent a bike for a dollar, grab a map and go exploring. The road towards An Bang beach is the best place to start. You’ll pass by peaceful rural scenes and plenty of palm trees reflecting in the calm river water. It gets very hot during the summer months so you’ll probably want to get going early in the morning or in the late afternoon.
Watch the Sunset
One of the best places to see the sunset in Hoi An is the bridge connecting the main part of Hoi An with a small island across the river (located right in the middle of the tourist action). The river is the perfect foreground for sunset photos but it does get very busy — watch where you’re walking because people often ride their bikes through the crowds and I’ve seen a few collisions!
Go for a Sunset Cruise Down the River
While walking by the river you’ll be pestered to take a boat trip. There are many options, from large boats which serve dinner to small wooden row boats. We went on one of the small boats and it only cost us 50,000 dong (around $2) for a half hour trip down the river for two people.
Explore the My Son ruins
One of the most popular things to do in Hoi An is visit the nearby My Son ruins. Tours cost around $5 (not including the entrance ticket) or you can rent a car and driver. These ancient Cham ruins, dating back to the 8th century, aren’t quite as impressive as Angkor Wat or Ayutthaya, but a trip to the temples is still a nice way to spend half a day.
Hike the Marble Mountains
This group of limestone hills between Hoi An and Da Nang makes for the perfect day trip from Hoi An. Catch a bus from Hoi An, which takes around 40 minutes, and then hike between the cave shrines and viewpoints. Some people have described it as kitchy but I really enjoyed it. It gets pretty busy in the late morning so try and get there early. After visiting the Marble Mountains you can continue on to Da Nang, where you can ride a motorbike over the Hai Van Pass or relax at the beach.
Eat Local Food in Hoi An
I don’t often write about food on this blog but since I spent so long in Hoi An I’ll a few culinary highlights with you, seeing as eating local food is one of the most enjoyable things to do in Hoi An. Cau Lau is the local noodle dish in Hoi An. It’s a mix of thick noodles, pork, crispy pork fat and local greens – it’s the nicest noodle dish that I’ve tried in Vietnam, so much better than pho! White rose (a kind of steamed dumpling) is another local favourite and of course you can find tasty Vietnamese spring rolls in most restaurants. There’s a small restaurant on Hai Ba Trang (which is a street) about seven minutes walk from the old town which serves BBQ pork and “broken rice” – I probably ate that around 20 times! Also, make sure to try the best banh mi (sandwich) in Vietnam at Ban Mi Phuong. If you’re looking for high quality Indian food head to Ganesh — the butter chicken there is world class.
Relax at a Cafe
There are countless cafes spread throughout Hoi An and they are great places to escape the midday heat. My favourite cafe in Hoi An is Faifo Coffee, not because of the food or the coffee but because of the views. The rooftop area looks out over one of the old town streets as well as a sea of brown roofs. It gets pretty full with photographers but it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Hoi An.
Sometimes referred to as shopping, buying stuff is one of the most popular things to do in Hoi An. There are dozens of tailor shops in Hoi An — most of them don’t actually make their own clothes though (they outsource it) so quality does vary.
You can find pretty much anything in the shops of the old town, from movie memorabilia to lanterns. If you want to shop like the the locals head to the market. We bought heaps of fruits and vegetables there while living in Hoi An, but we had to bargain pretty hard even when people realised that we were living in town!
A Brief History of Hoi An
Hoi An was founded in (or close to) 1595 by the Nguyễn lords and flourished as an important trading port well into the 18th Century. An exotic mix of Chinese, Japanese (who believed the dragon, AKA the heart of Asia, lived under Hoi An), Vietnamese, Portuguese and French influences have shaped the history and architecture of Hoi An and made it into one of the best preserved and most beautiful old towns in Southeast Asia. The collapse of the Nguyễn lords in the late 18th Century led to the decline of Hoi An. Today it is thriving as a magnet for all sorts of tourists, from wealthy Chinese tour groups to budget backpackers making their way through Vietnam.
FURTHER READING: Find out why Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
A Hoi An Travel Tip
If you’re travelling in Vietnam you’ll eventually get frustrated by the ridiculously low withdrawal limits at most ATMs. These machines will often only allow you to get out the equivalent of $100 or $200, which means you’re wasting a lot of money on bank fees. MB (Military Bank) doesn’t seem to have any withdrawal limit. I was able to withdraw 12,000,000 dong, which is over $500 USD. I’m pretty sure you could get more; it might depend on your withdrawal limit back home though. There is an MB ATM on Hai Ba Trang, around a five minute walk from the broken rice restaurant.
FURTHER READING: Two Weeks in Vietnam: The Ultimate Holiday Itinerary
I spent around four months in Hoi An and really enjoyed my time there. It’s an awesome little city and it’s retained it’s heritage and old world atmosphere better than most places in Asia. There are so many things to do in Hoi An and you’ll need at least a few days to do them — try and spend as long as you can there!
What do you think about my list of things to do in Hoi An? Is it as good as the title suggests? Let me know in the comments below!