In an effort to fulfill our visa run duties while living in Thailand, I left it (mostly) up to Peter which nearby country we traveled to for our final foreign jaunt, as he spent the majority of our first couple of months living back in Asia working as a surf photographer in a remote area of Sumatra, missing out on my first trips to both Vietnam and Cambodia.
As a compromise for going back to Vietnam, however – I’d previously been to Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Phu Quoc and Saigon, and am a notorious fan of Things That Are New, except maybe when it comes to bras and seafood – and also because plane tickets from Bangkok to Da Nang were some of the cheapest available, we chose a few places neither of us had ever been to, nor ever heard much about: Da Nang, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, and the sweet little wonder of Hoi An, Vietnam.
Hoi An: Vietnam’s Most Charming Travel Spot
A Brief (and Hopefully Semi Interesting) History
Translated as ‘peaceful meeting place,‘ Hoi An, or at least the area now known as Hoi An, has been around a hell of a lot longer than I imagined. Maybe it’s because my brain still naturally refers back to the relative (documented) newness of the U.S., but it blows my mind to think of these traceable civilizations – in this case, the ancient Sa Huynh people who lived in this area of central Vietnam as far back as 1000 BC – and what exactly went on back then and just how different it must have looked, and felt, and likely smelled (thanks for existing now, plumbing).
Later utilized as a major Southeast Asia trading ground for ceramics, silks and spices under the Champa Kingdom, Hoi An was established as a commercial port in 1595. Home to a diverse mixture of Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Indian and Vietnamese merchants, it remained one of Asia’s top trading ports until the end of the 1700s, when political and geographical interests shifted to nearby Da Nang. Remaining mostly untouched for the following 200 years, Hoi An Ancient Town was officially named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 for the relatively intact preservation of its buildings, architectural monuments, religious structures and open market.
Weather Alert: Not Awesome
Before you drink too much Pinot Grigio on a Wednesday and book yourself a one way ticket to Hoi An, I recommend checking the weather forecast before you go, especially if you’re planning a trip anytime between mid October to mid December. Though major floods don’t happen every year, they do happen – including a typhoon in November 2017 – and usually cause super shit levels of damage to ground level hotels, restaurants, shops and businesses within the flood zone. Nothing would ruin your Hoi An experience quite like evacuating through thigh-high brown street juice, clutching your custom tailored suit and wet leather shoes. Hard pass.
Hoi An Accommodation: Cashew Tree Bungalows
While there are plenty of cute and cozy places to stay in Hoi An Ancient Town, we wanted something a bit more out of the crowded tourist zone and closer to the beach.
Located about a 10 minute scooter ride from town, Cashew Tree Bungalows is absolutely adorable and only a 3 minute walk to An Bang Beach and several nearby restaurants and bars. I love this spot! Luyến, the property manager and receptionist, is extremely helpful and even offered us a handwritten list of her favorite things to do, see and eat in and around Hoi An, which we used to find our tailor and our second favorite bahn mi place in Vietnam.
The bungalows are spacious and well-designed, and facilities like a fridge, gorgeous open shower, mini bar, TV, toiletries, cold A/C, onsite scooter rentals and free use of the property bicycles makes it even more lovely.
Like the majority of places in Hoi An, breakfast is included with the price of the room, and you can choose from traditional favorites like Cao Lầu – a type of local noodle soup with herbs and pork – and Pho Bo (beef pho), or something more western like scrambled eggs and a baguette. All of it was delicious, and you can also choose between several types of fruit juice and Vietnamese tea or coffee. Wearing your pajamas while eating a local-style breakfast on your bungalow porch is just about as rad a morning-time ritual as you can hope to enjoy.
Hoi An Activities & Local Recommendations
Keep in mind that since we spent the previous 4 nights in Da Nang and had 4 nights to spend in Hoi An, not to mention we weren’t particularly fussed to go on any guided tours (too lazy), cooking classes (too uninterested), or lengthy scooter excursions outside of the city (too hot), our main goal in Hoi An was to find the best bahn mi in Vietnam – challenge accepted, y’all – and drink beers while admiring the local landscape.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, however, head to the highly recommended My Son Sanctuary ancient Hindu temples (about an hour drive away), or go scuba diving off the nearby Cham Islands if the weather is cooperating. Otherwise, some of our top Hoi An travel recommendations include…
Hoi An Lantern Festival
If, like us, you plan your trip to coincide with the once monthly (minus February) Hoi An Lantern Festival, beware that while it is as beautiful and charming as most people say it is, it’s also extremely crowded, slightly chaotic, and the humidity (at least in August) is uncool levels of brutal. I’m talking back-of-the-knee sweat, people. Gross.
Supposedly there are entrance tickets to the most popular sightseeing attractions in and around the Ancient Town – 120,000 VND (~$5 USD) for entry to 5 of the 22 points of interest, which is valid for 24 hours – though we were never offered these tickets, asked to show them, or otherwise even knew they existed until after we left.
The Lantern Festival fell on our very first night in Hoi An, and I was thankful that every night after was much more relaxed, though seeing the town lit by thousands of brightly colored lanterns was admittedly very enchanting. I bought a couple of lanterns – colorful paper to-go boxes holding a tiny lit candle – and released them into the river, making idiotic wishes as I always do when a lit candle is near my face in exactly appropriate wishing situations such as this.
Stroll by the Japanese Covered Bridge (pictured above), which was built in 1590 to act as a link between the Chinese and Japanese areas of town. Apparently it’s the only known covered bridge in the world to be connected to a Buddhist temple, which is somehow both semi interesting and simultaneously mostly boring.
The Ancient Town is (wisely) closed off to street traffic in evening hours, and the assortment of bamboo and silk-lined lanterns dotting the streets, along with small boats gradually floating their way down the Thu Bon River, all look pretty magical after dark.
(We’re on a) Road to Nowhere
Thankfully, nighttime isn’t the only time Hoi An is considered to be scenic, as daytime hours highlight its signature yellow buildings – who some say signify prosperity, wealth and change – along with blossoming flowers and enough rooftop patios to encourage a (well-deserved) midday beer or three.
Take a scooter drive to the nearby An Bang and Cua Dai Beach, and get lost for a bit by veering off the standard tourist path. Make pit stops for coconut coffee and a beach dip, and enjoy the scenery while playing Oh No, My Nostrils through surprise wafts of nearby trash fires.
WARNING: After having ridden on the back of scooters in both Bali and Thailand, I find Vietnam to be by far the most terrifying. Instead of coming to a stop before a turn, cars and scooters just freaking go for it, sparing you the decency of even pretending to look in your direction. Drive slowly, be prepared to get cut off, and just assume you never have the right of way.
Two Ladies Custom Tailor
While it is well known for having some of the world’s best – and most inexpensive – tailors, we were originally not planning on buying any custom clothing or shoes while visiting Hoi An. Long story short, plans change.
After receiving a recommendation to visit Two Ladies Tailor, the relative underdog of the top tailors in Hoi An, we decided it would be absolutely ridiculous not to buy a custom suit and custom jumper from these ladies, despite living in Southeast Asia and it being decidedly too hot to wear any of this until we live somewhere else entirely. That’s how amazing and kind these two sisters are, and how excellent they are at their job. Even better, we left feeling 100% fly as hell in our new threads.
In a town where more than 200 tailor shops regularly compete for new business, we feel so fortunate we were able to find these gals. Located just outside of the Ancient Town, Peter got a rad blue custom suit – including slacks, a jacket and button-down shirt – for $180 USD, and I got a custom jumper made for $40 USD. They have cheaper options, but the quality of the material is definitely worth the extra $20 or so.
They let you choose everything – style, color, material, pattern, buttons, fit, whatever – and after 1-2 days you have an outfit designed specifically to your measurements and style. The sisters even showed me their favorite designs from Pinterest, explaining why some would fit me better than others. What a treat!
To top off the new flyness, Peter got made-to-order leather dress shoes from Tu-Chi Bags for $65 USD, ready in just under 24 hours. All I can say is, I would absolutely be in a river of deep financial – and most importantly, fashionable – shit if I lived in Hoi An. I would be paddling my way through wet season in a goddamn leather Catwoman costume, and you could simply not stop me (nor would you probably want to).
Madam Khanh: The Bahn Mi Queen of Hoi An
In a lifetime of traveling, I have NEVER eaten at the same place on vacation more than two days in a row. Never ever. And you know what happened in Hoi An, Vietnam, of all the places in all the world? I ate the exact same sandwich from the exact same place four days in a row. FOUR. Four. I ate 5 bahn mi sandwiches in less than 96 hours and the only thing I regret was ordering the 4th one from Bahn Mi Phuong, the Bahn Mi Queen’s ultimate – and lesser than, in my assuredly assured opinion – Hoi An competitor.
Made with cilantro, onion, chicken, pork pate, egg sauce (Vietnamese mayo), papaya, cucumber, fish sauce, chili sauce and some kind of local sandwich royalty magic, this place is home to the best sandwich(es) I’ve ever had in my life. Do you even understand what I just said?! Do you know how many quality sandwiches I have consumed in my life?! It’s way more than none.
Past 8pm Eats: Nostalife
One thing you should absolutely expect of Hoi An is not to dine out after 10pm. You might luck out with some half assed, saltless bar fries or yesterday’s spring rolls, but all the solid options close up pretty early.
We found this little gem of a restaurant – weirdly called Nostalife – just on the far side of the main bridge down an alleyway, in case you happen to find yourself hungry in an alleyway near the main bridge in Hoi An, Vietnam. Helpfulness at its finest, I know.
The local speciality of banh bao vac, or ‘white rose dumplings’ of shrimp and pork, are pretty delicious, as is the pho alongside the coldest beer available.
Hoi An is memorable and charming, and at the end of the day, what else are you really hoping for? Well, maybe besides mildly temperate, safe, reasonably inexpensive, entertaining and just the right level of busy … alright, I get it, we are spoiled turds. Go to Hoi An.