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Oh Hoi An, you little heart-breaker. It’s been 8 weeks since I left your colourful streets behind and I’m still pining for you.
Where to even begin trying to convey the magical charm and atmosphere of Vietnam’s most beautiful ancient town? From the bright yellow streets and lantern-dotted skies to the bustling food markets and rolling green countryside, every single thing about this historic town is completely mesmerising. I’ve never visited anywhere quite like it and for 4 days, I felt like I’d been transported back into a mystical, ancient fairy-tale land (well, an ancient fairy-tale land with surprisingly exceptional free Wifi everywhere…and I mean EVERYWHERE)
There’s so much I could say about Hoi An but it really is true that a picture speaks a thousand words. So I’m going to let my photos do most of the talking and show you how to spend 4 magical and fun-filled days in beautiful Hoi An.
Hoi An is located on the central coast of Vietnam, making it an essential stop on any North-to-South or South-to-North travel itinerary. If you’re coming from Ho Chi Minh City and are short on time, then the quickest way is to fly into Da Nang International Airport. We picked up flights for £49, in advance, with Vietnam Airlines, which took just over an hour, compared to a gruelling 20 hour train and bus ride. (Top tip: Book directly through the Vietnam Airlines website – flights were nearly half the price compared to price comparison sights like Skyscanner or Google Flights!)
Once at Da Nang airport, it’s a 40-minute journey by road to Hoi An. You can grab a taxi at the airport or arrange a pick-up with your hotel for approximately £10-12. This is your best option if there’s more than one of you travelling.
If you’re travelling the other way, from Hue to Hoi An, then this is an excellent excuse to journey along the iconic Hai Van Pass on your way, stopping at the many beautiful coastal villages on route. We hopped on the back of motorbikes to experience this once-in-a-lifetime trip with local company, Le Family Riders, and this turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of our whole Vietnam vacation. But more on that here…
Where to stay
There’s a huge range of accommodation in Hoi An to suit all budgets and tastes. If you want to stay within the ancient town itself, there are plenty of great boutique options available – many with excellent spas and facilities attached.
We wanted something a bit more peaceful, after the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, and so opted for the Vinh Hung Emerald Resort. I can’t rave enough about this beautiful hotel – its location overlooking the scenic Thu Bon River is spectacular and only a 5-minute walk from all the activities and attractions of the Old Town.
Prices start from about £39 per night, which may seem a little pricey by South East Asian standards but this includes an excellent breakfast, as well as free freshly-cooked street food every afternoon (which was DELICIOUS). The hotel also offered free daily boat rides along the river, a spa on-site and a stunning infinity pool overlooking the river. Hearing the chug of the boats as they went past and watching the fishermen waiting for their catch at sunset was truly unforgettable.
Day 1 – Explore the Ancient Town
Spend your first day exploring the ancient streets of Hoi An’s Old Town – impeccably preserved from the 15th century and now a famous UNESCO world heritage site. No cars or motorcycles are allowed through the Old Town, so it’s the perfect place to explore either on foot or by bicycle.
There are several famous landmarks, museums and temples to look out for – such as the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge and Quan Cong Temple – but honestly, the real magic of Hoi An can be found simply by exploring the myriad of colourful streets, stopping for a traditional iced Vietnamese coffee (check out Faifo – a gorgeous coffee shop with unbeatable rooftop views across the Old Town) or haggling over colourful art in one of the many quaint galleries.
The whole town is a photographer’s dream with the yellow-washed walls and colourful lanterns strung from every corner, so be sure to have your camera handy at every opportunity!
Hoi An is fast becoming known as the food capital of Vietnam and there is a never-ending choice of excellent restaurants and bars along the river-banks and tucked along the colourful streets.
My absolute favourite for both taste and value was MOT – a tiny herbal tea cafe with a small but delicious food menu. The seating is cramped, and you’ll be joined by more than a few friendly geckos as you eat, but the signature cau lao – a pork-based noodle dish, only found in Hoi An – is to die for. A meal for two, with beers and herbal teas, will only set you back by about a fiver!
As night falls, the whole city lights up with colourful lanterns. Pretty floating lanterns bob along the river and the streets are illuminated in the most magical and enchanting way. It’s no wonder Hoi An has become affectionately known worldwide as “the lantern city”.
You can even bring a little slice of Hoi An home with you and buy your own hand-made lanterns from one of the many street vendors.
Day 2 – Take a cookery class
Hoi An is well known for its wide selection of cookery classes and food tours and it can be overwhelming trying to decide which one to sign up to.
First, decide how long you want to spend – some restaurants and companies offer all-day tours, whilst others may only last a few hours. You’ll also need to consider whether you’re happy with demonstration classes rather than a full-on cookery experience.
Finally, check what is included in the tour itself – after some careful research, we opted for the Red Bridge cookery school ($33), as this also included a guided visit to Hoi An’s Central Food Market and a boat ride to their remote riverside location.
Wandering around the bustling food market was the absolute highlight of this tour and it was fascinating to see the locals going about their normal business and to experience all the sights, sounds and smells of this wonderful place. For any photography nerds out there, this also made for some excellent photo opportunities!
You certainly don’t need to join a cookery class to experience the food market – you can just head on down and experience it for yourself, but it was great to have a local guide explaining everything to us. (Top tip: Be sure to bring some cash with you, so that you can make a purchase if you see something you fancy. We stocked up on some delicious Vietnamese coffee at a great price!)
Once you’ve toured the market, you’ll then board a boat for a short ride down the river to the Red Bridge Restaurant. This is a good way to view local river life and another great opportunity to capture some unique shots.
On arrival at the restaurant, your guides will show you around the herb garden before taking you to an outdoor demonstration area with individual cooking stations. The location really is amazing and it feels like you’re in the middle of the jungle and miles away from anywhere!
You will learn to prepare 5-6 dishes in total, as well as learning the craft of food preparation and vegetable decoration. At the end, you’ll get to sit down and enjoy a delicious feast of your own making within this stunning setting.
If you have time, you can even choose to relax in the outdoor swimming pool for the rest of the afternoon or else you can board the boat back to the Old Town.
Day 3 – Cycle through the countryside
There is much to discover beyond the ancient town of Hoi An and you don’t have to travel far to see a more local and authentic side to Vietnam. Cycling is one of the best ways to explore and there are plenty of local companies offering guided tours of the surrounding countryside.
After reading countless glowing reviews, we booked the Traditional Countryside bicycle tour with Heaven & Earth tours – a fantastic locally-run company, who take you off the beaten track to discover the real Vietnam.
This turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip, thanks to our exceptional tour guides, who led us around the picturesque islets of Hoi An, introducing us to the local customs, traditions and everyday ways of life in Central Vietnam. The price of the tour is only $22 and this includes your bike hire and a delicious freshly-cooked lunch in a local village.
You’ll be guided through rolling, green countryside, passing over rickety bamboo bridges and stopping at quaint villages to observe some of the local traditions – such as boat-building and mat-weaving. You’ll even get to swig some of Vietnam’s famous intoxicating rice wine and see how it’s made!
I’m always conscious to avoid tours that feel intrusive into local life but this one was just right – the guides knew most of the villagers well and were able to give us a real insight into everyday life, without another tourist in sight!
Day 4 – Relax at An Bang Beach
After all that cycling, you’ll want a well-earned rest on your last day in Hoi An, so head to beautiful An Bang Beach, just a short cycle (if you can handle a few more miles!) or taxi ride away.
As you approach the beach, you’ll spot rows and rows of the iconic Vietnamese basket boats lining the shore. Grab a sunbed or head to one of the overlooking beach bars to relax with a drink and a sea-view.
Soul Kitchen is your typical barefoot beach bar with a great laid-back vibe and panoramic views across the South China Sea. Grab yourself a cold beer or a traditional, refreshing coconut drink.
There is an increasingly popular and trendy food scene emerging around the An Bang area – if you can tear yourself away from the bright lights of Hoi An Ancient Town for a night, then this is the place to be for sunsets, sea-views and seafood.
And so there you have it – my guide to spending 4 blissful days in this little slice of Vietnamese paradise. Hoi An really does have a bit of everything, from countryside to culture and from beach vibes to a budding food scene. This little fairytale town completely captured my heart and I would recommend at least 4 days to properly soak up the atmosphere and take it all in.
If you’ve been to Hoi An, I’d love to hear your comments below!