During our first trip to Vietnam we stayed in the country for a month, and had 2 weeks to spend somewhere in the middle of the country. We asked for recommendations from our buddies and they all said we should head for a beach location, either Nha Trang or Da Nang, followed by a few days in either Hue or Hoi An for some small town charm. We decided to skip the beach and booked 5 nights in Hoi An. We wanted to leave the rest of the 2 weeks unbooked so we could practice being spontaneous after that, because for planners like us being spontaneous takes a lot of practice!
From what we had heard from others and read online, people tend to visit Hoi An for just a couple nights rather than longer stays. People love the historic architecture, custom tailoring, and outstanding local food. There’s nothing we hate more than shopping for clothes so the custom tailoring was not appealing to us, but great food and interesting architecture are some of our favorite things. So we ended up loving Hoi An and spent 2 weeks there.
We visited Hoi An in April during the cooler and dryer season. High temps during the day were between 70’F and 80’F, though the average humidity was around 80% on top of that. It definitely felt hot, but very manageable if we stayed out of the direct sun during the hottest part of the day.
Walking everywhere is relatively easy here. Though the further we went outside of the ancient town area the more cars and scooters we had to dodge. But of the places we visited in Vietnam, Hoi An had the least amount of traffic and was the most walkable and pedestrian friendly.
Where We Spent Our Time
Most of the places we visited repeatedly during our trip are included on the map below. I have to confess that I couldn’t figure out the name or exact location of one of our favorite restaurants on the little island in Hoi An so that’s missing. I included our walking route on the little island. I also included the general route of our bike tour on Cam Kim and Duy Vinh islands which we got to by boat, along with the addition of how we would walk or bike across the Cau Cam Kim metal bridge to do more biking or walking over there because that area is fun and easy to visit on your own (but we recommend the Heaven and Earth tour for your first trip!).https://drive.google.com/open?id=17T3SeuuW8qFA8G3PAuFnjpEUHP_lkxZu&usp=sharing
Before we arrived I compared the cost of living in Hoi An with two other locations we had just visited. The first comparison was Ho Chi Minh City which was our first stop in Vietnam, and the second comparison was George Town in Malaysia since it’s a smaller city in the region. The data set for Hoi An was a little less than complete like a lot of other rural locations with small populations, but there is enough data to get a general idea. Those comparisons from numbeo.com are included below.
What We Spent
When we left Alison did her Money Crush math and we found that our total spending during our 14 night stay in Hoi An was $25.18 per person per day (PPPD). This was our lowest cost stay during our entire 4 months in SE Asia for places where we paid for our housing in dollars instead of using points or free house sits.
Before arriving we booked our first 5 nights at the Vinh Hung Library Hotel. We really enjoyed the location, food, and staff at the hotel and would definitely recommend it. We decided we wanted to stay in Hoi An longer, and we really want to be away from hotels and staying in real homes whenever possible. I searched online for apartment options close to the ancient town area, but I didn’t find anything available since there aren’t many full apartment options there and we didn’t try to book anything in advance. There were a few places out on the edges of town that looked great, but they were too far from the area we wanted to be in. There were also a few high priced options that we weren’t interested in considering. So we decided the best option for us to try next was a homestay, which is essentially a bed and breakfast. So I booked 5 nights in one of those on the little island south of ancient town. We loved that homestay experience, but it was only 2 streets off of the main tourist area and it was noisy at night. After that I picked another homestay just a few more streets towards the backside of the island where it was completely quiet at night. The best part of those two homestay experiences was spending time with the families that lived there.
Because of where we were staying we had wonderful free breakfasts every morning. We had the best Cao Lau at one of our homestays, and when we asked our host where we could find the best Pho she recommended a lady who sold her Pho from a corner in ancient town between about 7 and 10 am every day. We were looking for lunch or dinner, but she said pho should be breakfast, and her pho was seriously the best we’ve ever had. There was another little place we found on the island that had my all time favorite Chicken Rice, and Alison’s all time favorite Cashew Chicken (and shame on me I can’t figure out what that place was called). We found fresh fruit vendors all over the place, and we also loved the street food and restaurants we tried. I could do an entire post on food in Hoi An!!
Madam Khanh – The Banh Mi Queen
Our favorite Banh Mi experience was Madam Khanh. This little place had lots of locals eating there enjoying the same recipes for two generations now, just like mama made them. They were also really busy with people dropping in to get their sandwiches to go as well. I swear the sauce at this place had more zing and the rolls had more crunch compared to other places we tried, and we went back there many times. We also loved that we were always able to go right in and get a table immediately, and within a couple of minutes we had amazing food in our hands. This family is serving fabulous food with no chaos.
Banh Mi Phuong
If you’re open to some chaos with your meal, this place is just what you need. Is all the hype really worth it? In our opinion, yes it is. The place is ridiculously crowded, which we do not love. And we initially thought the ordering process was confusing and complicated, but they are doing their best to manage the chaos in their tiny place. And we never stood in line for more than 15 minutes even when it was crazy busy. We tried a few different types of sandwiches there and loved them all. Most of the time there were no tables or chairs available so we just took our sandwiches to go. This is what happens when a travel food show features a tiny local restaurant! They really are amazing Banh Mi though, so we were happy to be patient and get some. Over and over!
Khu Am Thuc Food Court
During our stay on the little island we found this series of individual cooks functioning as a food court at the east end of the island, and that became our favorite dinner spot. No matter what we decided to order, one of the cooks in the group was able to make what we were craving. This was the perfect place to try everyone’s Cao Lau and find the best one! That was also the best place for us to get plenty of vegetables and fresh fruit with our meals.
We had a lot of visits to the night market on the island, since we probably went there for dinner every other night for 2 weeks. After trying lots of different things, we decided our favorite street food dinner at the night market was to get a pair of rice paper tacos and then for desert we shared either banana pancakes hot off the griddle, or bananas and coconut in sticky rice hot off the BBQ.
Our favorite “fancy” restaurant in Hoi An was Morning Glory. Their menu is fabulous. We went there three times and tried a bunch of their dishes. Our favorites were included their lacy spring rolls, crab wontons, and any of their black pepper claypots.
We didn’t pay for old town tickets and site admissions, since we were more focused on walking loops around town. So instead of entering assembly halls and actually crossing the Japanese Bridge we saw some historic sites from the outside. If we return to Hoi An we will definitely seek out those old town tickets and go inside a few of their museums and historic buildings, the tickets only cost $5!
Heaven and Earth Bike Tour
The bicycle tour around the islands was definitely our favorite activity in Hoi An. The day was full of cultural experiences with introductions to local people that we really enjoyed. Our two guides were wonderful, and our group also included two solo women travelers. We started and ended the day with river boat rides, and had lots of exercise and fresh air along with a lovely home cooked meal. We really enjoyed getting away from the tourist zone and visiting a few smaller villages in the area. We were also really into learning about some traditional trades including boat building, fishing, weaving, and other skilled work people have been doing for generations. That little excursion was amazing and tons of fun!
Walk a Full Loop Around the Old Town Island
Once we moved over to the little island in the south end of old town we took walks in the morning and at night. Doing a full loop of the island was only about 2 miles max, but it was a great way to see things outside of the main tourist streets. The island is mostly pedestrian compared to other parts of town, so we could walk the loop along the water very easily. There is one spot at the southwest corner of the island with more scooter traffic at the steel bridge (Cầu) that connects to Cẩm Kim island. But even that was pretty simple to walk around. What we were mostly enjoying was seeing people working on their boats on land, and other people working in their boats on the water. We loved strolling around the island every day!
Visit a Rice Liquor Distillery
We were told to check out the local “rice vodka” and we did! The place we went to is just a neighborhood distiller making enough for themselves plus family and friends, so nothing we could purchase there. Darn it. It was fun to see their pot stills and fermentation process, and especially to try the drink ourselves. A little goes a long way! We are happy to try almost anything, and I actually really enjoyed tasting this local small batch spirit. Alison liked it a little less than me but was still a fan. But when we saw the jars full of this brew that had snakes in them we were properly horrified. Though the owners told us we didn’t need to worry since those snake spirits are not for people, they’re only for chickens because it calms them down. Huh?
Walk Around Ancient Town
We loved seeing the historic buildings and structures all over ancient town. The town is full of tourists, but it’s also just a small town full of local people doing their normal thing. For us the pace and vibe of this historic town is fascinating. And it’s incredibly pretty with so much water, cool bridges, historic architecture, bougainvillea and other plants growing everywhere. And of course all of the wildly colorful lanterns are fun to see, especially after sunset. If you keep wandering past the main streets there are all sorts of interesting views to enjoy.
Money Crush Score: Great, well within our budget
We certainly did not have any trouble with our spending in Hoi An. This is another place where we can overpay and be generous while staying within our budget. Since our first visit was for two weeks using a hotel and two homestays, but no apartments, we always had free breakfast and we ate out everyday for lunch and dinner. We would be very interested in seeing if we could find an apartment for a full month where we could do some cooking next time.
Travel Score: We loved it and plan to return
Even though this little village is very touristy, we loved Hoi An. We met so many interesting people and learned so much about the area that we would be very interested in returning for another stay in the future. This place is a gem!
LGBTQ Score: Great for tourists, lots of room to improve for locals
Vietnam is very open to gay travelers, and we have certainly enjoyed our experiences in Vietnam. We appreciate that Vietnam has never had anti-gay laws because that is something many countries can’t claim. But it’s not easy for all Vietnamese LGBTQ people to find the acceptance and support they deserve. And our big city Vietnamese friends told us that smaller towns like Hoi An might have more locals that had not been exposed to LGBTQ people before, so beware, but we never noticed any side glances or awkward behavior during our stay. Everyone we met in Hoi An was very friendly and welcoming.
Other stuff we think is interesting
Historic Hoi An
Hoi An has been an active trading port since the 15th century, so this community has been living and working with a mix of different people and cultures for a really long time. Tourism is definitely not new for Hoi An. We saw a mix of influences from Vietnam as well as China, Japan, France, India and other nations and cultures in the historic buildings and food we enjoyed.
Hoi An Ancient Town is classified as a National Cultural Heritage Site and as a Special National Cultural Heritage Site. The town is also held as State property and protected by national laws. There’s also a plan to link Hoi An more effectively with the Cu Lao Cham Biosphere Reserve. Some of the complications they are dealing with are how to improve living conditions for local residents as tourism increases, climate conditions change, and historic conditions need to be maintained. Talk about complicated! This is one of the few places we have visited where there’s a visible ongoing effort to integrate ecology, culture and tourism.
The American War in Hoi An
Being in Vietnam made us really curious to hear the local experiences from the American War in Vietnam. We asked some of the locals we got to know about the impacts from the war in this area, and then we were invited to see some relics at her family’s house. It sounded like Hoi An didn’t experience major impacts like bombings from the US. But they did have fighting in the area, and they also had to cope with a military base camp built by the US in 1968 just north of the old town, which housed foreign military forces until 1975. The base was occupied mostly by the US’s Korean allies with some US and South Vietnamese advisors and officers for those 7 years. There were obviously some significant challenges for the peaceful rural communities in Hoi An and the surrounding areas at that time, and apparently one of the impacts other than physical violence was a large amount of war related junk left behind for locals to deal with once the base was abandoned. It was interesting to see the way those found objects were incorporated into this one family shrine. Those were the most interesting and personal war related stories we heard during our month in Vietnam.
Feminism vs Tradition
We had some really intense conversations with a couple of young women we met in Hoi An, one in her early 20s and one in her early 30s. They were proud to tell us they are feminists! We had a lot of questions for them, and they had a lot of questions for us too. Some of the things we talked about include relationships between men and women as well as fathers and daughters, ancestor worship, fortune tellers and superstition, inheritance, and concepts of beauty. We have never met anyone like these women before and we were completely fascinated talking with them. Their openness and generosity had a big impact on us!
The simplest topic we discussed (which seemed very complicated to us) was the practice of staying covered up in the sun, and concerns about skin color impacting perceptions of beauty and equality. They said they never spend time outside without long sleeves, pants, and hats. Even though it’s generally blazing hot outside. These gals even wore scarves over their faces and gloves on their hands when we were outside together. I said as a feminist myself I wouldn’t want any woman to worry about their skin color. Their concerns were clearly very intense and deep rooted!
Their stories about superstitions were fascinating. A lot of the ones they mentioned seemed subtly related to fear of dying and concerns about disease and cleanliness, and those are things I can totally relate to! Both of these women said their parents use fortune tellers to decide everything in their lives – from who they should marry, when they should marry, what their kid’s names should be, when funerals should be held, and even things like how their furniture should be arranged in the house. When we asked if they plan to continue using fortune tellers themselves one said yes and the other said, “hell no!”
The topic they seemed the most frustrated with was inheritance. One of these women said she has a younger brother who will inherit everything, and as the only son he will have complete responsibility for the ongoing worship and management of their ancestors’ afterlives. Both property inheritance and also the idea that she would not be responsible for her ancestors and parents afterlives was really upsetting for her. The other woman said she’s an only child so her family will pass their property and responsibilities on to her older male cousin. She seemed matter of fact about that but I’m sure that situation was difficult for her.
When we were in Vietnam I had a hard time choosing books to read because there were so many good options. I could have picked history books or novels or food related books and been very happy. With a million options to choose from the two books I chose for our month long stay were:
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen: During French occupation of Vietnam, there was a period of Japanese occupation during WWII. That double whammy experience is part of what made Ho Chi Minh the person he became, with his need to free Vietnam both from Japanese occupiers and the French colonial occupiers who had been holding Vietnam for ages by that point. This book tells its story from the perspective of a communist double agent, who later moves to the US as a refugee after the American War in Vietnam. This book is very intense and complicated, and I loved it!
The Beauty of Humanity Movement, by Camilla Gibb: This book is written from the perspective of a woman born in Vietnam but raised in the US. The story includes the complications of the American War in Vietnam and politics, and then adds a wonderful dose of art and creativity. The main character eventually travels back to Hanoi to find out what happened to her father who disappeared during the war. If you’re looking for something wonderful and inspiring with a little love story too, this is a great book.