Hoi An is one of Vietnam’s most visited and loved cities. Its glowing lanterns, canals twisting between ancient golden buildings and vibrant, happy locals melt your heart as soon as you arrive.
However, during our pre-visit research we noticed that every blog post, tourist site and promotional pamphlet we saw seemed to advertised the same, westerner-friendly tours and selfie-inducing attractions to see in Hoi An. We couldn’t help but doubt the authenticity of these experiences and so searched harder for unique and local things to do that would allow us to get to know the real charm and culture of this town.
After hours on Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet and independent blogs we still couldn’t find much information on anything that went further than having a suit tailor-made, visiting My Son Holy Land or doing a cooking class at a touristy restaurant.
So we decided to take things into our own hands and be as adventurous and creative as we could during our 5 day stay in Hoi An in order to write and share with you a more authentic, less touristy and overall more enjoyable list of things to do in this beautiful part of Vietnam.
So without any further ado, heres our list:
Visit the last remaining ancient Vietnamese house in Hoi An
This house, located at 104 Thai Phien Street, is the only home in the area still standing that was built and remains decorated in the traditional Vietnamese way. Eight generations of one family have lived here and continue to provide free, in-depth tours for those interested in seeing original, richly carved and decorated Vietnamese architecture and furniture.
The tour takes you through the many pavilions of the home and explains the formation of the house, the meaning of the wood carvings (different symbols for luck, prosperity, happiness etc.) and you can even inspect the original tools that were used to build and carve the home 250 years ago.
The family are full of local knowledge and super friendly; offering you tea, fresh fruit and mung bean pork fat biscuits after the tour (they’re surprisingly tasty). In return for opening their home they will take you to their little shop where they sell family-made jewellery and crafts. You are not required to buy anything if you don’t want to, but any profits made at the shop go to maintaining the unique home and preserving it for generations to come.
Get adventurous and take a bike ride through the peaceful farmlands nearby
Bikes are the perfect way to explore both inner and outer Hoi An (which is thankfully a lot calmer than other Vietnamese cities). The town is surprisingly small and therefore close to the rice fields, coconut farms, fishermen’s village and communal vegetable patches that supply Hoi An with its wonderfully fresh produce.
So hire a bike or, even better, book a hotel or home stay that gives you a bike to use while you’re there. Head out on your ride in the early morning so you avoid the hot sun and be careful while on main roads – although the traffic is less hectic here, its still a little chaotic at times.
Once on your bike you’ll pass water buffalo lazing in the muddy rice fields, locals tending to their veggie patches and fisherman dragging in nets from their hand-woven coconut fibre boats. You’ll also ride past many cafes and restaurants so stop whenever you’re tired for a refreshing drink, some breakfast and a rest.
Along your way you’ll more than likely see locals drying rice on every spare surface they can find; including the roads! Sometimes you’ll find the entire road covered in drying rice but don’t stress – just ride over the top slowly (so you don’t slip) – the locals won’t mind.
Visit one of Hoi An’s beaches
Once the day starts getting warmer, why not continue on your bike ride past the farmlands and towards either An Bang or Cua Dai beaches? Both beaches are less than 5kms from Hoi An’s town centre and provide the perfect opportunity to chill out on a sun-bed and take in the wonderful views across the bay towards hazy mountains and even Da Nang city.
For those visiting An Bang on an empty stomach, there’s a fantastic French-Vietnamese fusion bakery on the main road heading to the beach that you can’t miss (unfortunately we didn’t record the name). We treated ourselves to the best croissant we’ve ever tried and a delicious eggy coconut pastry here and couldn’t recommend it enough.
To avoid paying bike parking or if you’re not after an umbrella or sun-bed, then head to the so called Hidden Beach which is less well known and untouched compared to Hoi An’s other two beaches.
Try Cao Lau – a dish you’ll only find in Hoi An
Cao Lau is a delicious mix of chewy noodles, crispy fried wontons, barbecued pork, chilli jam and fresh herbs. The unique smokiness and chewiness of the noodles actually comes from steaming them in water drawn from one of only five wells in the Hoi An area. According to locals, if the noodles aren’t steamed in this special water, the dish isn’t the same and cannot be called cao lau.
You can find cao lau at many different street stalls and local restaurants (where you’ll pay around 25,000 dong or $US 1.20) or at the more touristy restaurants in the old town where you’ll pay a little more.
Watch on as groups of local boys rehearse their Chinese dragon dance
When you wonder through the old town of Hoi An you will notice packs of boys wondering around dressed in colourful, furry pants, beating their drums like crazy and carrying around a big dragon head. They spend their days drumming and dragon dancing for tourists at restaurants and on touristy streets asking for money.
But if you wander around the rest of the town you’ll notice, usually at night, groups of boys and men practicing this dance and having their own parties on street corners, pulled behind scooters on carts or in open walled homes. Its usually quite a show and attracts an audience of locals that sit on their parked scooters to watch the performance. The best spot to see one of these shows is at the park to the north of the Hoi An Museum.
Forget a hotel – become part of the family at a local home stay
What better way to really get to know the locals than by staying with them for a few nights? We stayed with the family at Flame Flowers Homestay in the residential area of Hoi An and really felt welcomed and comfortable. We spent nights chatting together about Vietnam, its culture and history and got some great tips on what to do around town (many of them on this list).
We were even able to repair our mobile phone and get some chores done around town we couldn’t have managed without having a local to help us.
Visit Madam Khanh for the best Banh Mi of your life
Madame Khanh is famous all over Hoi An (and, according to Trip Advisor, the whole world too) for her delicious Vietnamese meat and herb sandwiches. Her little shop on Tran Cao Van street only serves this amazing dish two ways – with or without chilli.
The rest, a combination of pate, marinated barbecued pork, mayonnaise, fresh herbs, green mango and cucumbers, is stuffed into a crumbly french baguette and toasted over a charcoal grill for the amazingly low cost of 20,000 dong (thats just under US $1)! It leaves all other Banh Mi you may have tried previously grovelling around in the dirt by comparison. Definitely a must try!
Stroll through the evening lantern market in the old town centre
In the evenings Hoi An’s old town is magically lit up by thousands of glowing, colourful lanterns. Stroll through the historical streets under the cheerful light of string lanterns, pay 10,000 dong (US $0.50) to release a candle lantern onto the canal or head to the lantern market on Nguyen Hoang Street for some unique shopping and photo opportunities.
Visit a local coffee house for a cheap icy drink and free tea
You’ll find these coffee houses on the outskirts of the old town and can’t miss them – they’re normally packed with locals and booming an interesting playlist of Asian or dance music. You’ll find drinks like fresh juices, Vietnamese coffee, bubble tea, beer, smoothies, icy coconuts, frappuccinos and everything in between at the relatively low cost of 15,000 – 50,000 dong (thats US $0.85 – $2.40). You’ll even get a free glass of local ice tea when you sit down!
Just sitting among the locals and watching them play cards or gossip over a refreshing drink is the perfect way to start or finish your day in Hoi An. Our favourite coffee shop of all was Cafe Ngam.