Hoi An, Vietnam is a well-preserved historic town of narrow streets decorated with lanterns and flowering bushes. The Thu Bồn River flows right through town, so there are boats everywhere trying to catch fish or tourists. It’s a relatively small and quiet town, though it is quite touristy. It’s known for tailor shops where you can get an extremely inexpensive hand-made wardrobe, if that’s something you’re into.
Hoi An is also a perfect spot for eating, biking, and going to the beach. It’s also a great place for street food tours and cooking classes. If that’s not enough adventure for you, you can take a boat ride to nearby Cham Island for snorkeling or diving or visit the nearby My Son temple. We loved our stay here despite the fact that we became a little vampiric and didn’t venture out much during the hot parts of the day. Fortunately it was only really hot any time the sun was out. Even with the heat, I am going to go out on a limb early and say that I expect it to be one of our favorite spots of the trip. We’ll see if that holds!
After a week of sight-seeing and sight-eating, I have a lot of pictures, thoughts, and pointers about Hoi An, so the post is split up into general things to do, including eating, cooking classes and food tours, and biking and beaches. I also have a few more bits about our adventures, mostly in photos. And finally, there’s a few comments on getting to Hoi An.
Here’s a map of our favorites in town for eating, cooking classes, biking, and going to the beach. I think in most versions of google maps you can click on the little icon in the left corner of the top title bar to see the names of places and my comments. If you zoom out, you can see the bicycle icon where we rode to the beaches and the Pottery Village (more on that later in the post.)
One of the biggest surprises for us so far on this trip is how consistently delicious the food is here. On one food tour, I learned that good Vietnamese cooking not only incorporates balance between flavors, like sweet with salty, but also has balance between the five textures, which are crispy, crunchy, chewy, silky and soft. Most food is incredibly fresh, and full of vegetables and herbs, so it’s very healthy. I are eating a lot more carbs and a lot more protein than my historical averages, but the food is so satisfying that I don’t feel deprived. Now, if only I could stop sweating while enjoying my hot phở outside on a hot day, life would be perfect.
I don’t think it will be interesting for me to go into detail on all our favorite restaurants, plus it will only make everyone hungry, so just check out that map above for when you eventually visit Hoi An.
During our stay, we also did two great eating activities – Neville Dean’s Food Tour and a cooking class at the Vy’s Market. Since this is such a foodie place, there were classes and tours advertised everywhere, and many smaller restaurants and hotels will give you a quick “class” anytime behind the scenes while they’re making your lunch or dinner. Both these experiences were highlights of our trip because we ate so many new foods and heard a lot more about the town and the local culture.
On our first day in the city, we did Neville Dean’s street food tour, The Last Great Taste of Hoi An. We walked through the Tan An market with local guide Ms. Sen, enjoying a number of traditional and tasty Vietnamese foods, and then spent another two hours in a restaurant space eating more things, chugging bottled water, and hearing more about the food culture from Neville. We learned that good food balances the five main textures and the five main flavors: salty, bitter, spicy, sweet and sour. Like other Asian food cultures, the Vietnamese make visually attractive dishes with a balance of colors and decorations so you can enjoy with your eyes first.
While Neville’s tour was a bit pricey, you could definitely get your money’s worth if you were planning to do any shopping while you were in town. He recommended tailors, jewelers, massage places, stores and even a dentist, and said that you could get a discount by dropping his name there. I can’t speak to those recommendations because I’m still in my small backpack and I do not have room for any more accessories!
Neville and his wife Colleen also recommended a number of restaurants, many of which are included in my map above. We noticed after the tour that he seemed to be recommending some of the lesser known places in town, and avoiding some of the bigger establishments. I appreciated that he was supporting the little guys, but we found a lot of those larger and well known places were fantastic spots as well.
The other deliciously educational food event we did was Vy’s Market cooking school. It’s only $30 a person if you show up in person to sign up at Morning Glory restaurant. We started that class with a boat ride down the river to a tour of the Central Market, where we awkwardly wandered through the various types of stalls and probably annoyed all the locals.
After that, we went back to Vy’s Market, which is essentially a food court filled with Vietnamese street food. At each of about a dozen stations, you could see how many dishes were prepared. We tasted some odd foods (chili roasted snails, duck embryo, silkworms) and also some more standard items like the traditional cao lao noodle of Hoi An. There were over a dozen dishes we could try as we walked around the courtyard, making for a great snack. We even had an opportunity to try making rice noodles.
The final part of the morning, we went upstairs and made a few dishes ourselves, including cabbage soup, crispy pancakes, marinated chicken skewers and a mango salad. While we had good instruction, most of the prep was already done and the recipes were simple and would’ve been hard to screw up. From that perspective, I think Adam would’ve appreciated a more advanced class, but it was still fun. Our class teacher, Hung, told a few jokes and talked a lot about Vietnamese culture and traditions as we were working. If only I could’ve stopped sweating momentarily, I think I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more. After the class, I found an old article about Vy in the New York Times, and how successful she’s been as a business owner in Hoi An.
In Hoi An, as with most of the other places we’ve visited so far in Vietnam, you should never walk anywhere more than a few hundred yards. It’s too hot to walk and sidewalks are inconsistent. We hardly ever saw a Vietnamese person on foot. We made the mistake of walking to the pottery village. It’s a hot, slow, dusty walk, usually on the shoulder of the road, without much to see, and we would’ve been much happier on bikes or even a scooter. Most hotels and guest houses in the city will have free bikes or rent them to you for a small fee.
More happily, there are two beaches within a short bike ride from downtown, Cui Dai and An Bang. We had heard that An Bang was the more “local” beach, but it didn’t really seem that way to us. When you ride up to the beach, you have to pay 10,000 VND to park your bike with an attendant. Some of the cafes on the road right before the parking area will let you park if you buy a drink instead We were excited when we figured this out on the second day.
An Bang is a little further away, but the road was a little less crowded, while Cui Dai was closer but had more traffic when we first visited during the lunchtime rush hour.
At either beach, our strategy was the same. We camped out in front of a restaurant, where you can pay for a chair or just buy lunch at some point. The nice ladies running the place will bring you beers or fruity drinks when you need them. The ocean was so warm it felt like bathwater. I had no idea the ocean could be so pleasant. One bummer is that the sun comes up incredibly early here, and then it’s dark by about 6:30 at night, so we found ourselves heading back from the beach earlier than we would’ve liked.
As I mentioned before, the other stop we meandered to was the Thanh Ha Pottery Village. It’s just 2 km from downtown Hoi An, but it is too far to walk in the sun. Once you get there, it’s about what you might expect for a pottery village. There’s some cool city replica statues, and you can try your hand making horrible pottery at some of the potters shops. You do have to purchase a ticket to get into the museum and make the pottery, so unless you are really into pottery, I would probably skip this spot.
When we visited, in September 2015, we hit the annual mid-Autumn harvest festival, which is celebrated in Vietnam and China. On the days leading up to the full moon, young boys dress up like dragons and are accompanied by more boys with drums and cymbals. The dragons roam around town dancing in and out of stores and restaurants to bring good luck. It’s a real party. The streets are packed with people and I was told it’s like Halloween for the children there.
I think I’ve already covered a lot of the highlights of our adventure in my recommendations above, but I did have a few other photos that I thought were worth sharing.
To get to Hoi An, in the middle of the country, from Ho Chi Minh City, at the southern end, we headed north via plane to Da Nang and then took a 45-minute and 110,000 VND per person shuttle to our hotel. The Reunification Express Train runs all the way up and down the country but the flights were cheaper and also a lot quicker. If we had wanted to visit more of the towns along the way, which are also known for beautiful beaches and great food, we could’ve taken the bus or the train instead.
It seems lots of the people we run into follow the more traditional backpacking route of moving short distances every few days, while we are tending to visit fewer spots, stay longer, and then jump further along to our next place.
So, if you are going to be anywhere near the area of Hoi An and you like food, I strongly recommend you make it a point to get here. It was a fantastic long stop to really start our trip off right and I hope we make it back sometime. After Hoi An, we headed through Hanoi to Halong Bay, and from there we’re heading to the north of the country to see Sapa. We’ll see if any of those stack up!