After travelling around Southeast Asia for a long time, and spending a healthy amount of time across Vietnam, I received a lot of this question: “What is your favorite city in Vietnam?”. Though each experience is different, Hoi An is perhaps my favourite. It offers the old world charm of an ancient town, amazing food, and rich cultural imagery within a stones throw of idyllic rice paddies, serene river banks, and stunning beaches. With so much to do it can be overwhelming for first time travellers looking to maximize their time, so here’s my recommended first time Hoi An travel places.
If Hoi An is not the definition of vacation perfection, I don’t know what is.
EXPLORE THE ANCIENT 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.
Entrance into the Ancient Town is ticketed. In fact, 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 into the Ancient Town of Hoi An cost 120,000 VND (around $5 USD, children under 16 are free) and can be purchased from official ticket booths located at most major entrances into town. The booth at the intersection of Tran Phu and Le Loi is a particularly convenient spot to buy tickets, as is the booth on Tran Phu and Bach Dang near the Japanese Bridge.
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 Market, we arrived at ~ 12PM (when the above photo was taken) and found the whole experience a little underwhelming. The market was of course big.
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. That’s how Vietnamese markets are. And it also smells like 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.
TOUR THE RICE FIELDS IN HOI AN
The rice fields in Hoi An are beautifully scenic and relatively easy to get to from the main part of town.
Reaching the rice fields for us was simple as we booked at a nearby hotel. 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 across the city 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.
You might want to skip the bike tour if it’s rained 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Source: thewanderblogger, departful and flickr