Visiting Hoi An, Vietnam: Delightfully Touristy (No, Really!)

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Unlike Phu Quoc, Hoi An is a town that has figured out their tourism industry — to the max. The golden-hued UNESCO city is atmospheric, and charming, and in ways reminded me of Italy; particularly the towns on the Amalfi Coast.

There’s a tacit understanding that as a visitor you will stroll the streets (maybe eating gelato) while shopping for kitschy souvenirs, have slightly over-priced coffee or cocktails overlooking the historic stone buildings, meander the countryside on a bicycle or scooter, and join every other tourist on a scenic boat ride through town.

The locals assume you want to do these things, because that’s what people go there to do, and so they make it easy for you to do them. Thus regardless of your original intentions, you yourself will probably end up doing those things.

And you’re going to have a great time doing so.

Like, I am NOT a “buy a painted hat and then take a sunset canal cruise with all the other tourists” kind of gal. You guys know that.

But you know what? We did, and it was awesome.

Now, keep in mind we were there over the peakiest of peak tourist season, so that definitely is a factor. Like so many places, a visit during the shoulder or off seasons would likely be much more atmospheric and tranquil.

Exploring Hoi An

The historic center of Hoi An is absolutely covered in charm.

The golden-hued buildings are striking in the sun (though I imagine they glimmer beautifully on rainy days as well), and silk lanterns are everywhere.

We enjoyed walking through the town (with our painted hats, because why not?), visiting old merchant houses, and doing some shopping.

The main streets of Hoi An had a good mix of tchotchkes and fine art, without many high-pressure sales people, which made for a pleasant experience. Our moms found some postcards and scarves and such, while Heather picked up a really cool piece of enameled egg-shell artwork:

As the sun dropped everyone headed towards the river, where we did find a lot of high-pressure sales people.

If you look like a tourist, and are anywhere near the river in the evening, you’re going to be asked to go for a boat ride.

I’d recommend just embracing it, and negotiating a price you feel is fair. We paid ~$15 for a 30-minute trip for all four of us, as a reference point.

The historic area is closed to motorbikes in the evening, which was a nice reprieve, and made it easier to enjoy all the illuminated lanterns.

Granted, the sheer volume of lanterns made the whole place feel a little fake at times, but…they are pretty.

Hoi An wet market

I love markets, particularly in areas where part of the local culture is to pick up your fresh produce every day or so. There’s something about the sense of community in the routine that resonates with me, and it was probably my favorite part of living in Sicily.

So I rarely turn down an opportunity for an early-morning street market visit, and Hoi An’s did not disappoint.

We also visited the market as part of our cooking class (more on that below), and I didn’t love the experience in that context. The market streets are just too bustling for tours or explanations, but of course that authenticity is what I love about local markets.

So I’d recommend strolling through on your own time, ideally without any particular aspirations, rather than trying to keep up with a group.

Thuan Tinh Island Cooking Class

I’ve taken a few cooking classes on other overseas trips, but they’ve all been more low-key (and usually in someone’s home). Hoi An has several cooking schools, both in town and in the countryside, and several people recommended making time for a class.

Heather chose the Thuan Tinh Island class, which is a very organized operation on the outskirts of Hoi An. We were picked up at our Airbnb in the morning, went to the market to pick up supplies for class, then took a boat along the river to their property.

There were quite a few people attending the morning class (about 16), but after learning how to make rice milk we split into two groups, so the effective class size was only eight people.

Each class was set up in a “U” with the instructor in the center, and then four stations on either side.

And each station had an apron, cooking tools, and a bunsen burner ready to go, along with an assortment of spices and condiments.

The format of the class was very consistent. We’d all gather around the instructor’s station, see her prepare a dish, then go back to our areas where the prepped ingredients would magically appear, then we’d get a chance to make our own.

There were a few staff members walking around in addition to the instructor, and we were able to prepare everything without too much difficulty. I’m actually somewhat shocked at how attractively some of these dishes turned out!

So what did we make?

Pork and shrimp spring rolls (Goi Cuon):

Tasty Bahn Xeo, which if you haven’t had it is almost like a taco made by frying a rice-milk batter:

Then we spent a ridiculous amount of time decorating plates for Bun Bo Nam Bo — a noodle and beef salad dish (I was not great at the plate decorating, meanwhile my mom made butterflies out of her cucumber slices):

Then finished off with a Pho Bo Ha Noi (well, obviously we started the beef broth at the beginning of the class):

Heather and I have since made all these dishes at home, which I suppose is the best endorsement of a cooking school. The hardest part is obviously sourcing the ingredients in Spokane, but the recipes themselves have been easy to follow.

The main bit of feedback I have is that they should really be making the beef broth in a pressure cooker, or having a system where the previous day’s classes provide the bone stock for the Pho on the following day. A two-hour simmer just isn’t long enough for a bone broth to have any flavor, so the version we had in class was very bland compared to what I made at home with a longer cooking window.

But overall, this was a fun morning, and I’d recommend the class even for less proficient chefs, as everything was pretty approachable. The classes that include the market visit are $39/person, or there’s a shorter evening class for $26/person. Even though I didn’t love the market portion, I don’t think I’d want to miss the opportunity to have a fun dinner elsewhere, so would probably opt for one of the day classes.

Lantern-making class

Heather gets full credit for finding and booking what might be the best $30 we spent on the entire trip — a traditional lantern-making class that we dropped our moms off at while we went for coffees.

There are several of these classes in Hoi An, though we chose the one run by Hoi An Handicraft Tours. Two brothers have started offering classes in what used to be their grandfather’s lantern shop, and at $15/person it seemed like the perfect alternative to spending hours shopping for a lantern as a souvenir.

The shop is tucked away on a side street just outside the historic center, and had tons of lanterns on display, in addition to all the materials.

The owners welcomed our moms, sat them down at a table where their frame pieces and supplies were ready to go, and started explaining the history of the lanterns and giving an overview of the process before having them choose their fabric.

We had a lovely time elsewhere, then came back two hours later to a bustling shop with several in-progress lanterns.

As a final touch, the staff hooked the newly-made lanterns to a strand of lights so they could see how they looked when illuminated.

So this was a fun cultural activity, our moms loved getting to make their own lantern after seeing thousands around town, and it was a nice change of pace for them after all the standing and walking. Well worth the $15 each.

As a side note, I don’t know if all Hoi An-style lanterns are collapsible, but one of the nice things about the lanterns you make here is that they fold down for travel, if that’s a concern.

Hoi An cafes and restaurants

Given that we were there over Tet, many of the restaurants that we had on our shortlist were closed for the holiday. But the ones we were able to get into were all very good — I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the top-rated restaurants in Hoi An based on that.

We very much enjoyed Morning Glory, where in addition to the eponymous sautéed morning glory we just ordered everything on the menu with “Hoi An” in the name or description to share.

That led to a delightful al-fresco meal of white rose dumplings, a pomelo salad, tasty chicken rice, and cao lao noodles with pork.

Tasty, tasty, tasty, and each dish was ~$5 or under.

We liked the upper patio at Cargo Club for drinks and views, and everyone else enjoyed the famous Banh Mi Phuong (delicious and under $1!). The Hoi An Moneybags at White Marble were a group favorite as well.

Really, for a smaller town, Hoi An had a solid assortment of restaurants, and while they were all touristy, because Hoi An is touristy, it didn’t feel like getting an English menu was a direct pathway to poor cuisine like it can be in some places (looking at you, Dubrovnik).

Overall thoughts

We really enjoyed Hoi An, and our moms found it especially approachable, which was a nice contrast to bustling Saigon. The town has a ton of history, and has done an excellent job of marketing the heritage, so it is touristy, but in a way that I found pleasant (even when crowded).

I would definitely return — I’m intrigued by the tailor shop culture in Hoi An, which we weren’t able to fully experience. I would say it’s well worth visiting Hoi An for at least a day and an evening, even if you are staying elsewhere in the area.

Any tips for Hoi An you’d like to share with other readers?

READ MORE FROM THIS TRIP

Planning A Trip To Vietnam (And Maybe Beyond)
Introduction: Vietnam, Laos, & Cambodia
Park Hyatt Saigon Review
Cu Chi Tunnels
Nam Nghi Phu Quoc Island Review
Orchid House Hoi An, Vietnam
Visiting Hoi An, Vietnam: Delightfully Touristy (No, Really!)
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Lao Airlines ATR 72 Hanoi To Luang Prabang
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Comments
  1. Loved this report. Brought back fantastic *sense* memories of our time in Hoi An. Totally forgot about Morning Glory (we visited several times) until reading your post. Thanks!

  2. I had a great visit there before, but I don’t know whether I would go back on a future trip to Vietnam. I think for someone’s first time in Vietnam it’s worth going.

  3. It was roughly a billion degrees outside (okay, the heat index was126) when my wife and I visited Hoi An, but we still loved it. My only regret was only buying two custom suits instead of ten.

  4. I think calling the city “Saigon” is not correct, even though it’s still very much widely used.
    It’s like calling Saint Petersburg “Leningrad” – people still use it, but it is just wrong.

  5. @PE – So true. Even standing directly in front of an AC unit, it felt like death. Incredibly stylish and high quality, yet affordable death.

  6. Going back to Vietnam in June and I intend to make a stop here, just is not looking forward to the heat. Just saw a report earlier today it was 110 in Hanoi couple days ago. Yikes. Any tips or tricks to stay cool lol.

  7. “It’s like calling Saint Petersburg “Leningrad”

    Au contraire. Calling Sai Gon “Ho Chi Minh City” is in fact like calling Saint Petersburg “Leningrad”. Both names were imposed by force to honor Communist dictators responsible for the deaths of millions. Sai Gon is the traditional name, unless you want to go back to the 11th Century, when it was called Baigaur. 😉

    According to Wikipedia:
    “Even today, however, the informal name of Sài Gòn/Saigon remains in daily speech both domestically and internationally’.

    But then I’m old fashioned, and still say Burma, rather than “Myanmar”. Names changed by military juntas somehow don’t appeal to me.

  8. @Vanya: There’s no right or wrong here. From the true Vietnamese who grew up in Saigon, that name carries a lot of love. We use Ho Chi Minh city on paperwork and other formal speech, not when we talk about our hometown. We also refer Saigon as the main central districts of Ho Chi Minh city.

  9. @Tiffany

    I wanted to see if I could get your 2 cents on a trip my wife and I have planned. All we have booked is the long haul segments to and from SE Asia.

    We arrive in Phuket Friday Nov 8 at 1 AM.
    We depart Hanoi Wed 20th very late that night.

    We want to spend some time in Phuket, fly to BKK and explore a bit, maybe a day trip to the elephant place you reviewed a while back, then fly to Siem Riep on Bangkok Air (are they alright?) Explore Siem Riep and go to Hanoi where we would like to do a multi-night cruise in Ha Long Bay and explore Hanoi before returning. How would you advise we split our time. We are young and can travel at a quick pace. Appreciate any insight you can provide and look forward to the rest of your reviews in this series!

  10. @ Vanya — @ Robert Hanson and @ Suzino have it right, I think. The river through town is still the Sai Gon River, and anyone from the south (especially, it seems, the South Vietnamese community in the U.S.) refers to it as Saigon. Only in the north did we hear it referred to as HCMC.

  11. Banh Mi Phuong is definitely worth all the hype.

    I had an amazing street food tour with Phuoc from Eat Hoi An Culinary Tours. One of the best I’ve had globally. Super highly recommended.

  12. Hoi An tour is one of our favorite places – so much that we’ve returned the past three winters for a total of almost 4 months. Glad to hear the tourism didn’t bother you! Highly recommend Leaf Homestay for friendly, affordable private suite accommodations outside the touristy area. We actually started hosting in-tours there for folks who want a cultural orientation and off the beaten path experience.

  13. @DB re Phuket, we were just there Dec/January. Even the “pretty beach areas” like Nai Harn are kind of a zoo with thousands of (Russian) tourists on cheap holidays. However, Phuket Town was charming. Or, if you’re a plane nerd like Lucky and many others here, you could spend a night near the airport and watch some of these planes fly in from the beach at the very head of the runway. Best viewing for us was around 10am to noon. The town by the airport’s not all that great but you can walk to that beach.

  14. Tiffany those pictures were amazing again. The food as well looked spectacular.
    Loving the Instagram hashtags also #window 🙂

  15. Yes, Hoi An is very touristy and usually that is the sort of thing I run from, but I absolutely loved it. Just a really beautiful town with lovely people, great food, and a lot to see just walking around.

  16. @pez

    Any hotel recommendations? Don’t mind spending more for something great on the beach that isn’t filled with degenerate partiers. I’d like to see that plane beach but I heard they want to murder tourists that get on that beach to watch the planes land.

  17. @DB no the beach is fine, normal number of tourists either hanging out on the beach or taking pictures or video of planes. No hotels on that beach that I’m aware of.

    We stayed in an AirBnB in Nai Harn. The place was huge and fine (slept 14; we originally had a big party). When we left there we waited out a tropical storm in Phuket Town at the Besavana Hotel. Right on the edge of the main part of town, lovely mid-range hotel, nothing fancy, but just clean and pleasant. Around $50/room/night. Also, get a cab to the restaurant on top of the hill near town for a nice meal and sunset view. And monkeys.

  18. @ DB — Sounds super fun! I haven’t been to Ha Long Bay yet, but definitely check out the comments in the first post of this series for recommendations from other people on boats and such.

    Bangkok Air is great, no concerns there. The amount of time you spend in Siem Reap really depends on how much you like ruins (and whether you’re going to have a guide or just a book). Some people can spend a week at a time there, I’m personally good after a day or two, but it’s a highly personalized decision.

    And I’ll explain more when we get to this part of the report, but if you like seeing cities on the cusp, I’d try and add in Phnom Penh, even if only for a night or two.

  19. @pez

    Thanks for the tips! Will definitely look into the restaurant if/when we visit Phuket town!

    @Tiffany

    There is a wealth of knowledge in that first post, I have already taken some notes on the Junket boats from what I learned in that thread.

    Would you make the swing to PP over say Luang Prabang?

  20. Glad you enjoyed! We live in Melbourne and this July will be our 10th trip to Hoi An, seen a lot of changes over the last 15 years but still love it.

  21. I just returned from a month-long tour of Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Hoi An was one of my favorite stops along the way. Highly recommend the Hoi An Silk Village Resort! Beautiful grounds, comfortable view villas, great shops, restaurants and services, and outstanding customer service. Though not as close to the old and new riverfront shopping area, the resort does provide s convenient shuttle service.

    Don’t leave Hoi An without custom made clothing! Visit Blue Chic Tailors in the old town for an amazing selection of fabrics and clothing designs. Custom shirts, dresses, shirts, pants or a traditional ao dai can be yours at a reasonable price within a day or less. Customer service is the best!

  22. It’s always interesting reading about people’s opinions about a certain place. I was in Hoi An probably 13 years ago and it was by far my least favorite place I visited in the country. Two of my friends took off early for Hoi An and I spent an extra day in Hue. I was glad I did. But, I did manage to get a lot of poorly made clothes. Except I got a jacket I’ll probably wear forever. Weather could’ve been a factor too. I always remember the tailors always gave us sour cream Pringle’s

  23. I am returning to Hoi An in September, so your report is timely. The last time we were there my sons got a lot of clothes made (suits for first jobs etc). This time it’s my turn. We also enjoyed Morning Glory. In fact, pretty much everything we ate in Vietnam was great. We stayed at the Hyatt in Da Nang and it was easy by shuttle to Hoi An (and free if you are a globalist). At New Year’s when were there it was only 19-22C, so we didn’t do the boats, but this time I will try.

  24. @Tiffany — Wow, I’ve never seen someone recommend an improvement to a cooking class (your beef-broth suggestion makes perfect sense). Such is the quality of this blog!

  25. Was there in November, suprised to see how many koreans were there. First time I’ve seen chinese tourists be a minority in a SEA country.
    Hoi An is pretty beautiful and there aren’t enough words to describe to feeling of wonder when you turn the corner and arrive infront of the lantern lit river with the bridge and all.

  26. I was there in May 2005 and had a great time, it was quite similar to what it is now but in a much lower scale. I agree with another reader that Hue is much better than Hoi An and a much (at least back then) more authentic experience. We went on a cruise on the perfume river by renting a boat of a small family that spent some time with us. Beautiful memories.

  27. Tiffany – Superfantabulous review and thanks for sharing this. I’m sold (except will find a time to go when it isn’t sweltering) and while Vietnam was high on our list already, it just moved up a few notches!

    And, can appreciate finding a good Asian market in Spokane. Grew up there and my Dad still lives there. Not a cultural culinary hotbed, though its still good to see you could make some of those dishes at home!

  28. Nice review! Just wondering if you ask people their permission before taking photos? I will usually avoid poking a camera into a stranger’s face (like in a market) because it seems intrusive and somewhat dehumanizing.

  29. @ James H — If I’m taking a portrait I do, but never get close regardless. That’s what the crop and zoom features are for!

  30. Enjoying this WONDERFUL Vietnam series of reviews, definitely want to visit with my wife, we just loved the activities highlighted in this review. And also found your gem of IG account, now following you there too!.

  31. Vietnam place arrangement are amazing and high on our rundown as of now. Hoi An is quite delightful and there aren’t sufficient words to portray to feeling of miracle pictures .its paint cap and potrate is incredible and it look extraordinary

  32. Just back from Vietnam. It really is full of American tourists. I do agree however that Hoi An is a nice place to visit. Super-touristy as you say. Didn’t particularly rate “Morning Glory” although everyone recommended it to us.

    @DB Don’t worry about Phuket there are still beautiful places – just be prepared to spend a decent amount to avoid the hoards. Look at The Surin which has access to a “private” beach next door to the Aman.

  33. Going in July. Thank you for sharing such detail – need to start planning our activities soon. Did you consider day tripping to Hue, mountains, or such? Or just not enough time on this itinerary.

  34. We should really mention the fact that in between every restaurant and gift shop were foot massage stands, outside, along the river, in front of everyone. Complete with recliners, cozy pillows and really friendly people, the experience is a “must”! I’ve lost count of how many times we partook, but I think it was 3 times in 2 days. Since there were 4 of us the establishment might not have had the staff at the moment. But, not to be concerned, because the “manager” just called down the street, and a friend/family member from another stall would rush over to help out. It was a glorious little town…and I’m still craving the sauteed morning glory from (you guessed it), The Morning Glory restaurant.

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