Hoi An. I had heard mixed reviews about this city in Vietnam. It seemed that everybody loved it but many people didn’t like its Disneyfied atmosphere: so I went to find out for myself what the truth was about Hoi An and what there was to do there.
This is what I discovered:
Love is in the air. Everywhere!
Hoi An is a totally photogenic town and it has marketed itself well. It attracts hordes of newly-weds on their honeymoon and couples who want to pose for their wedding albums. Dodging the tripods and the professional photographers can prove quite difficult. Shop keepers are more than happy for lovers to pose in exchange for a small fee in front of their colourful lanterns and in some places it can be difficult to walk along the canal bank without wandering into somebody’s photo shoot.
- In Hoi An the tourism is orchestrated and managed at a highly professional level.
- There will be a zillion people crowding onto the bridges for the best photo shot.
- They will use elbows to move in front of you!
- The food and drink prices are inflated
- And yes, the touts will hassle you on every corner….
…..but after the brashness of Hue and Danang I have to admit that I did like Hoi An.
Things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam
My friend Gosia and I arrived on the local bus from Danang without accommodation and we wandered around the streets to find the best hostel for our money. As it was the shoulder season there was plenty of choices and we could bargain for a discount. We soon found a reasonably priced hostel and Gosia and I quickly dumped our bags and went out to explore and find out what we could do in Hoi An.
If you want to check your accommodation in advance, you can search for hostels here with Hostelz.com or you can look for hotels and other accommodation with Agoda.com. I use both sites when I am travelling – even if I don’t book in advance.
Hoi An old town
The heart of Hoi An as far as visitors will be concerned is the compact old town area which is focused around the canal.
Hoi An gained special importance in the 15th century when it grew and thrived as one of the major South East Asia trading ports. You will find a mixture of authentic housing styles and luckily the authorities have recognised the attraction of these. Unlike in much of Vietnam where the old is getting ripped out at speed, here in Hoi An it is being repaired and repainted.
The brightly painted houses are festooned with flowers and in the evening the trademark silk lanterns light the streets with warm colourful glows and attract hordes of people like bees around a honeypot.
Ancient temples offer tantalising glimpses into a mysterious past and you can jostle for a picture on the old wooden Japanese covered bridge (for a price). You can browse among the hundreds of tiny shops which sell artisan products and where you will find a whole host of things made out of silk and made-in-a-day clothes or you can relax and sip mojitos on a roof terrace overlooking the canal.
One of the best things that Hoi An has done has been to ban motor vehicles from the old town for much of the daytime and for all of the evening. Whilst the streets are packed with visiors at least you don’t have the eye-watering pollution and traffic fumes that plague the other towns in Vietnam and while the noise levels are intense, they are at least not the exhaust drones of cars and lorries.
One of the downsides is that you have to purchase a book of tourist tickets in order to gain access to the Japanese Bridge and to many of the temples and places of interest. I only had time to visit one or two of the attractions but it wasn’t possible to pay at the individual sites. Why not offer the book at a discounted rate? I would willingly have paid slightly over the odds to see the one or two choice places that appealed ot me.
Beware of this trick
The touts do a pretty good job of leading you to think that you need to purchase a ticket to simply enter the old town area. This is NOT true. The book of tickets will give you access to many of the temples and the Japanese Covered Bridge but ANYBODY is free to wander around the old town area without a ticket. We saw a lot of tourists hesitantly parting with their cash, believing that they had to do this so that they could enter the narrow streets.
The old town of Hoi An is a gem and whilst outside of the UNESCO listed district is a new town; it’s still worth a wander around. Here life goes on as normal away from the tourists. Coffee shops and markets are filled with the local Vietnamese residents. Small family run businesses trade as they have done for years and you can find the best Banh Mi stalls in Vietnam.
A long straight road leads you away from the city to one of the beaches. I hired a bicycle and I cycled along this road one morning whilst heavy lorries honked and swerved around me as I tinkled my bell and I in turn swerved around clusters of school children on their bikes and I avoided herds of cows that were being led through the traffic.
Ho An’s Beach
Once away from the town, the terrifying road thankfully quietened down and I pedalled alongside the vegetable garden area of this region. Irrigated fields stretch for miles, where many of Vietnam’s green vegetables were growing and people worked in the fields shaded from the sun in their conical hats. The road became dustier and sandier and eventually I reached the beach.
After the tourist bubble of Hoi An old town the beach was a welcome relief. Yes, it was busy and yes, it was lined with beach bars, but the overwhelming noise level that had accompanied everything that I had done in Vietnam to date was toned right down.
I treated myself to a cocktail and I settled down on a sun-bed on the sand. I watched the fishermen surfing the waves in their little bouncy round coracles and I relaxed. It was lovely to escape the chaos that was all I knew of Vietnam to date.
I would soon discover the interior beauty of Vietnam away from the tourists, but for now, with my cocktail, my book and my thoughts I was very happy.
Night time in Hoi An
The old town is always busy but it REALLY comes alive at night. The silk lanterns swing in the breeze, glowing with warm, colourful lights and the street food market sets up on the canal side. The air is filled with the smell of barbequed food and stir fried noodles and you will be spoilt for choice with places to eat.
For me, the best place was down by the canal where among the tiny little plastic tables, you squat on a low stool and eat traditional dishes from the region while ladies run to and fro encouraging you to eat more. Like everything else in Hoi An, this is street food manufactured and repackaged for the masses but it was fun, tasty and much cheaper than the restaurants.
When you are eating street food or in a smaller cafe in Vietnam it is often normal to simply toss your chewed bones, serviettes and rubbish under your table as you eat (obviously check what the local people are doing first!)
If you are lucky there will be a small bin or a bucket there for the bits, but more often than not the debris simply collects around your ankles until the evening winds down and the street traders sweep everything away. To begin with, it felt quite naughty to throw my chicken bones onto the floor, but after a while, like everything else, it soon becomes the norm.
I met up with my friend and fellow blogger Donna Wanderlust from Haute Culture Fashion and together we hired one of the totally over-the-top tourist boats that silently glide around the canal at night. Surrounded by young couples who were gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, Donna and myself roared with laughter as our lady pushed us around on the water in the dark with her long pole and she encouraged us to launch the little paper and candle boat that we had bought. She told is that this would bring us good luck and enduring love (this concept is similar to the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand).
I also met Nam in Hoi An and a few days later I did finally escape from the cacophony of noise when I took a motorbike through the Central Highlands. Read about that trip here.
Would I return to Hoi An?
Yes I would return.
I didn’t have time to go to the water puppet theatre (although I did catch a show in Saigon) and I didn’t have time to explore some of the Chinese and Buddhist temples and shrines in the town, but I would definitely return to Hoi An if I go back to Vietnam.
Whilst most things in the town are overpriced, you can buy ‘fresh’ beer for about 30 pence a pint, silk sleeping bag liners for $5 and you can drink mojitos as you watch the sunset from a roof terrace above the canal.
If you can’t get to Hoi An and you fancy one of the silk sleep sacks (great for travelling) you can get one at this link: Silk sleep sack
You WILL get pestered by touts (be firm but polite if you don’t want to buy), you could pay over the odds for bicycle hire, a hotel room, food and tours (bargain hard), but you will get the most beautiful photo opportunities and you will get a glimpse into another era (albeit freshly painted) from the past.
If you have enjoyed this article and you would like to know more about my adventures in South East Asia, click here for more articles.
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*Banh Mi – a French style baguette stuffed with a variety of things. You can choose from belly pork, pate, grilled chicken, fish or meatballs, cucumber, cilantro, onions and then there are the salsas. This very basic meal is food heaven.
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