For anyone who has taken an interest in Hoi An, even ever so slightly, I surmise it’ll have something to do with the colourful lit lanterns, or the candles that are lit in the river come night. Not that many visitors end up taking them home (though I’m a firm supporter of supporting local tourism), there is more to take back than intricately painted colourful lanterns.
A 5-day visit to Hoi An (as part of our Da Nang and Hue trip) has piqued my interest about the history of Vietnam (does watching The Quiet American film count?), and reminded me how fun it is to cook together with your friends and family.
Don’t take my word for it – let the below attractions and pictures speak for itself. They are a brief collection of what to do in Hoi An when you’re there, and the experiences you shouldn’t miss out on (especially tailoring your own clothes!).
- Where to stay in Hoi An, Vietnam
- Where to stay in Tra Que Village, Hoi An, Vietnam
- Things to Do in Hoi An, Vietnam
- Getting to Hoi An, Vietnam
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Where to stay in Hoi An, Vietnam
While visiting the town centre, we stayed in Hoi An Town, a massive property a little out of the way from the Old Town. Getting to and from the Old Town requires a taxi/ Grab ride, but it doesn’t cost more than a few dollars.
The upside to this is, you’re housed in an ancient-yet-modern property, complete with lit lanterns in the garden and picturesque wooden pole structures holding the roofs. The property looks new, rooms are spacious and everything is clean, except that we weren’t able to escape from the mosquitoes even in our rooms.
Breakfast is buffet-style and open air. Usually you’ll be able to enjoy your breakfast in peace, but when they are hosting large Vietnamese tour groups, you have to be prepared to vie for your food as queueing is not part of their culture.
Where to stay in Tra Que Village, Hoi An, Vietnam
While in Tra Que Village (which you’ll read more about below!), we stayed at Cilantro Villa, surrounded by the Tra Que River. If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the Ancient Town in exchange for some peace and quiet, this is it. Given that it is family-owned, it almost feels like we were living in their homes, and we were met with really hospitable treatment by owner Bui Van Phuoc. Surrounded by local families and rice fields, it is so secluded that some Grab drivers didn’t even know where the property is located at. Come night, the temperature gets nice and cooling.
Here’s a bonus – unlike most hotels that are tightly woven within the Hoi An centre, this property is spacious enough that it has a pool for you to relax in too.
Things to Do in Hoi An, Vietnam
1. My Son Sanctuary
While most would start their list of things to do in Hoi An with Hoi An Old Town, I find there’s no better way to start off the introduction to the town with its history, and there’s no way better to do that than in My Son Sanctuary.
My Son Sanctuary, which translates to beautiful mountains, used to be the religious capital of the Champa people, who lived in the region 1300 years ago. Unfortunately, up to 90% of the original development was destroyed by bombing during the Vietnam War. The remaining 10% we see today is still a sight to wonder at and attracts tourists daily.
It’s a good alternative to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, given that both were constructed by similar ancient Hindu civilisations. The Vietnamese government has worked with experts from all over the world in order to restore and preserve the original construction for future generations to marvel at.
It takes about 1 hour to arrive at the sanctuary, 54km away from the main town. If you do make the trip down, try to time it such that you can catch the free cultural show performed daily that presents traditional music and dance forms.
My Son Sanctuary is rather crowded year round, which is no surprise as it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1999.
If you book this through a tour, it usually includes a bus pick up from your hotel to My Son Sanctuary, a dedicated tour guide while you’re here, and a 40-minute river ride back to the Old Town again, including a simple lunch onboard the boat. The tour costs around USD10.
Make sure to apply sunblock and bring water, as there’s hardly any shade around the site and it can get really sunny here!
2. Explore Hoi An Ancient Town
Hoi An Ancient Town, or Hoi An Old Town, while photogenic, is rather small so that you can cover most of it in an afternoon or evening.
The streets lined with the iconic lanterns light up around 6pm as the sun sets, until 10pm. During this period of time, a section of the Old Town is also converted into a pedestrian street, which makes for a pleasurable stroll along the riverside.
If you want to catch the clustered lit lamps that you so often see in pictures, Hoi An Night Market (location) is where you’ll want to be. The stall owners sometimes charge you for posing with the pictures, so be mindful of that.
Unfortunately, it also gets extremely crowded during the evening as locals and tourists alike come here for a night out and lantern-watching. If you want to get the best pictures, I personally recommend coming as early as 6am to 8am in the morning before the crowd comes. While not totally devoid of people (you’ll see the occasional hardworking photographers and models), the crowd doesn’t get as intense as at night.
Japanese Covered Bridge
This is one of the most popular points of interest in the city that you won’t miss. It used to connect the Japanese and Chinese quarters of the city back in the day, and its elegant Japanese stone design still captures the attention of tourists to this day.
An interesting design feature of the bridge you might notice are the sculptures of a dog and a monkey on either side of the bridge. With reference to the Chinese Zodiac, the two sculptures are symbolic of the years which construction commenced and ended.
The bridge gets really crowded during the afternoon and evenings. If you want a shot of it without people, I noticed that the bridge was totally empty around 9pm!
Cantonese Assembly Hall
There are five assembly halls in the Old Town, where each dialect group would gather and socialize. Today, these intricate temples embody traditional Chinese design features and are open to visitors, which is worth a visit, especially if you pass by one while walking around the Old Town.
3. Go on a Secret Cocktail Experience
For a more unique experience, sign up for a Secret Cocktail Experience, organized by my friends from SecretEats.
How the concept works is, you will visit five secret locations around the Old Town with a specially curated, handcrafted cocktail served at each location. The locations are all carefully chosen so that regular visitors won’t even know about them or be able to find them without embarking on this tour.
This includes sitting on a rooftop of a Spanish retail shop, indulging in the movie set of The Quiet American movie, making your own DIY cocktail in a wine bar, sit in 1 of the last 2 houses made of original wooden structures in Hoi An left and sipping a cocktail in a Cuban-inspired lounge. Who would have thought such exotic locations existed within the old quarter?!
The cocktail recipes are exclusive to the tour and cannot be found on the menu, so you definitely wouldn’t want to skip on this if you’re a cocktail aficionado.
It’s a good way to see the Old Town as Natalya, our guide, went out of her way to share her experiences living in Hoi An, as well as special historical blurbs about each location we wouldn’t otherwise have known.
4. Drop by the Silk Village
Silk Village Resort in Hoi An offers an attractive two-in-one package where not only will you be able to stay in relative luxurious comfort in their resort, you’ll also be a few minutes walk away from experiencing traditional silk-making first-hand.
Assigned to a local guide, you’ll get to learn about how silkworms are raised, and how their cocoons are harvested and spun by hand to make intricate silk designs. We saw the silkworms as an egg, transform into fat white worms, and then spinning in their own cocoons.
I was really amazed at the skill and effort required to arrange the dyed threads in the silk room to create even a single garment. It helps to put the everyday items we might take for granted into perspective.
There is an option for you to organize a buffet dinner after your visit as well.
5. Tailor your clothes
Little did I know, Hoi An is a mecca for tailored clothes! No one leaves Hoi An without tailoring some clothes from here. You’ll see rows of shophouses with their mannequins advertising tailor services. Even the Hoi An Market (location) has tons of stalls selling fabric! You can thus see why Hoi An has some of the best tailors around.
I did my tailored dress at Blue Gecko, and I love twirling so much in it. It’s impressive how fast they finish your clothes, almost within half a day! You can contact them at [email protected] If you do pop by, tell them Isabel said hi!
6. Hoi An Memories Show
The Hoi An Memories Show is one for every visiting tourist. Set on a 25,000 sqm stage on the Thu Bon River – the biggest outdoor stage in Vietnam – it involves over 500 performers, bringing you through one of the most spectacular musical performance you’ll see in awhile. The venue can seat up to 3000 spectators.
The show takes you on a journey through the historical lens, from Hoi An’s rich past as a small farming trading port between the East and West, to the culturally-rich tourist destination that you see today.
All these are shown through mesmerizing cultural dances, impressive props and expert choreography. You won’t believe the sheer magnificence of the whole performance until you take in everyone and everything that is involved to make up such an extravaganza.
On top of the show, you’ll get to also experience the Impression Theme Park. I highly advise coming an hour or so earlier to enjoy the perks of the theme park and have some fun. The theme park is complete with cute themed villages, props to take photos with and ad hoc shows that all share the history of Hoi An.
7. Cooking class at Sabirama, Palm Water Village
We started off with an introduction to local Hoi An ingredients through a tour with our chef at Hoi An’s local market.
Following which, we sat on a motor boat to arrive 30 minutes later at the village where the restaurant is, with a fun transfer to a coconut-looking basket boat from the boat to the pier of the restaurant, Sabirama, at Cam Thanh village.
The owner of the restaurant took it upon himself to promote local tourism, and hence, to spice up the cooking class tour for tourists, included a water buffalo cart transfer from the pier to the restaurant. We got to play with the water buffalo, and I got cajoled into sitting on top of Mr Water Buffalo for a picture.
On arrival, we were greeted with a relaxing foot and shoulder massage, as well as a complimentary drink prior to our cooking class.
No cooking demonstration starts without a chef’s hat and apron. With that, we began to cook up 4 dishes.
- Sauteed chicken with lemongrass and chilli – I absolutely loved how cooking the chili and chopped lemongrass prior to adding the seasoned chicken allowed for the flavours to fully develop – you’ll appreciate the extra effort when the chili is imparted with a toasty, slightly burnt flavour, and when the punchy lemongrass is allowed to mellow. The chef also added turmeric, which gave a nice yellow hue to the whole dish – and enhanced the natural sweetness of the tender and juicy chicken!
- Rolled wet rice paper with minced pork and vegetable – DIY food is not only fun to make, but it allowed me to have full control of the ingredients I wanted inside my rice paper roll. (This is particularly important since most of us might not be accustomed to the pungent “fish herb” that is an ingredient in this dish.) Fresh spring rolls like these might be one of my favourite dishes in Vietnamese cuisine, being able to pack in freshness of the greens and the sweetness of the minced pork in an unobtrusive and edible package.
- Vietnamese pancake – You might see Banh Xeo being made and sold along the streets, and I’m glad I learnt how to make this popular street food for myself. The pancake was crispy on the outside yet slightly airy on the inside, and tasted amazing with the inclusion of greens, seafood and pork. I’ll definitely want to eat more of this – except for the fact that it’s a little on the oily side.
Fun fact: the name of this dish comes from the sizzling sound the batter makes when it comes in contact with the hot oil in the pan.
- Mango salad with seafood – I like how the chef taught us to “season” our salad with a little fish sauce, which is a flavour profile common in many Vietnamese dishes. His trick was to balance the saltiness of the sauce with sugar and lemon. Crunchy and sour mangoes, carrots and cucumbers really shone when paired with the sauce I made. I loved how it tasted so light and refreshing!
I also had quite a bit of fun learning how to make the decorations for the dish. Admittedly, I wasn’t really good at recreating the intricate designs, but I’ll definitely appreciate the skill it took to decorate my food platter next time.
Fret not if you think you can’t remember all the ingredients. The guys at Sabirama were thoughtful enough to give a copy of the recipes to every guest!
The tour ended off with a car ride to your hotel, which turned out to only be 15 minutes away from Hoi An Ancient Town.
For booking enquiries, you can direct them to: [email protected]
8. Cook your lunch at Tra Que Culinary Village
Another day, another cooking class. What makes one cooking class so different from the other is not only the dishes that you learn. The village, atmosphere and setting all play a part in enhancing the entire cooking experience!
We started off this day to Tra Que Culinary Village starting with a short bike tour from Hoi An centre.
I know what you’re thinking. Exposing yourself to the harsh sun and terrible traffic pollution, on top of the merciless traffic congestion don’t seem to be such a good idea. Still, the scenes and the sights you’ll get to see on a slower and smaller mode of transportation beats sitting all morning in your car.
We got to see local citizens doing their marketing at the Hoi An Market early in the morning. We drove into a narrow road where the rice fields are to watch farmers tending to their crops – plowing, scattering seeds and flattening the soil, water buffaloes plowing the fields, and even a dead snake. It is here where I learned more about the livelihoods of rice farmers.
They earn approximately USD140 during each harvest, which lasts his family for 6 months. Compare that to the USD200 monthly salary that a typical administrative job holder gets. Farmland is given by the government, depending on the size of one’s family. It is about 300-400 sqm per family of 4, which isn’t large at all.
I’d recommend going for this if you’re comfortable with cycling – the traffic isn’t too much of a concern as the scooters here don’t go very fast, and they’ll usually give way to you. The bike tour allows you to see much of the city in a relatively short period of time, so even if you have only a day or two in Hoi An, this is something you can consider doing.
We concluded our cycling passing through a vegetable garden and into Tra Que Culinary Village.
Tra Que Culinary Village in itself sits on 7,000 sqm of farmland. Their vegetable garden itself grows more than 20 types of vegetables and fruits, including basil, morning glory, pumpkin, zucchini, jackfruit, passion fruit and bananas.
You’ll get to see how they plant seeds and harvest crops, and try your hand at watering them old-school style, from the pails (it’s not as easy as it looks – I know because I tried!)
Prior to our cooking class, we were led to a pond under a pavilion and told to fish for our lunch. Were they kidding? I mused. They took out some rods and bait and I realized they weren’t. Equipped with a rod and bait, we set out our task of fishing the biggest fish for our lunch. I hope you get a big catch because you’ll likely be having that fish for your lunch!
As part of the cooking class, we learnt how to prepare traditional Banh Xeo, fresh spring rolls as well as vegetable wraps, all of which we had for lunch on top of rice, noodles, crab, a vegetable dish and the huge fish we caught! What a treat.
As if that’s not enough to pamper us, we were treated with a foot massage when we finished lunch. Soaking our feet in lemongrass water, the locals gave a quick 10 minute soothing foot massage for us, with one of them serenading us with her singing.
Getting to Hoi An, Vietnam
As a small town, Hoi An has no airport and no train station. The only way to get there is by road.
The closest airport to Hoi An is Da Nang International Airport (DAD), located in Da Nang. 30 kilometres from Hoi An, they run daily flights from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other major Vietnamese cities. From the airport, you can take a transfer by bus or car.
The nearest train station is in Da Nang, which is an option. From there, you’ll have to take a transfer by car.
Bus companies or private buses direct to Hoi An are usually the best option, saving you from the extra step in the journey. A private shuttle bus is an efficient way to get to Hoi An and it only sets you up at about USD6.
You can hire a taxi from Da Nang especially if you’re travelling with company, with the whole trip taking about USD20 – quick and fuss-free! Allocate about an hour of drive, because traffic congestion can get pretty bad at certain timing.
P.S. I use the Grab app to book a taxi everywhere I go. It’s usually cheaper than being touted by the street taxis and there’s no need to worry if they’re overcharging you just because you’re a tourist.
Hoi An has a bit of everything to offer to everyone. If you’re a culture buff, you’ll enjoy the lessons gleaned from the temples, bridges, sanctuaries and the Old Town itself. If you’re a photo buff, the Old Town is so picturesque at every corner – the only struggle is beating the crowd. Already, there is an eclectic mix of different cultures assimilating into this little town, a result of expats visiting, falling in love, and settling here.
The SecretEATS tour exposed me to the hidden alleys and secret pubs sprouting around the dense Old Town, which makes me conclude that it takes more than a couple of days of sightseeing and cooking tours to fully take in what Hoi An has to offer.
Special thanks to Quang Nam tourism for making this experience possible. All opinions expressed are my own.
1-4 June 2019, Sat – Tue