29 Oct What to Do and Where to Stay in Hoi An, Vietnam on a Budget
Hoi An has become our favorite destination in Central Vietnam. Its old world charm – recognized with a UNESCO World Heritage designation, variety of restaurant options, and full moon lantern festivals draw visitors from around the world to this unique port town. While the dependence on tourism does taint certain aspects of the experience in Hoi An, we still found it very worthwhile to visit. We stayed 11 nights in October, just outside the touristy Old Town (keep reading for more about our wonderful homestay).
In this post we’ll share:
- Map of places to visit
- List of things to do on a budget
- Local dishes to try
- Reviews of restaurants and cafes
- Where to stay in Hoi An
- How to get around
Map of Places to Eat and Things to See in Hoi An
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Things to Do in Hoi An
Hoi An’s lantern festivals, celebrating the full moon each month, are one of the biggest draws to this town. Colorful lanterns adorn the streets of the Old Town year-round, so you can always get those picturesque photos any time you go. But on the 14th day of each lunar month, Old Town becomes pedestrian-only (bicycle and motorbike parking is available along the outskirts for a small fee) and the crowds flock to the river. Floating lanterns are sold for about 25 cents, the idea being that you make a wish and release it into the river. When we were there, it was quite a commercial event, where tourists were the only ones really participating in the tradition. There was some live music on the streets and many visitors found restaurants with patios where they could watch all the activity while enjoying dinner or drinks.
Tailor shops are another popular draw to Hoi An. Nearly every street corner has at least one tailor shop – if not three or four. If you’re in the market for made-to-order, custom clothing, then Hoi An is the place to get it quickly and affordably. Not all tailors provide equal quality or choice, and some outsource the work. We heard of people getting full custom suits made for $60 to $100, but when we got a quote for a fitted jacket only, one shop was asking $180.
Hoi An Ancient Town has earned its UNESCO World Heritage designation for its well-preserved trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings reflect influences from China, Japan, and Europe – such as the Japanese Bridge pictured above.
The Ancient Town area north of the Thu Bon River has adopted an entrance fee of 120,000 VND for foreign visitors, which includes entrance to any five heritage sites and apparently doesn’t expire. There is some controversy about the entrance fee from both tourists and local business people, according to online forums. In actuality, the entrance ticket is not enforced consistently, as you can often walk by the ticket booths without being stopped or simply go over to the next street to get in.
Exploring the market tends to be one of our favorite activities in places like this. Hoi An’s market is on the east end of the Old Town, bordered to the south by the river. One of our homestay family members took us the first time as part of our cooking class, and we returned frequently to buy one of our new favorite fruits: bon bon (a.k.a langsat; 35-40,000 VND per kilo). There is bicycle parking next to the market for a small fee.
Souvenirs are, of course, plentiful in the Old Town. Most shops don’t display prices because you are meant to bargain. We picked up some hand-stitched garlands of elephants for my new niece for a couple dollars. There are also a number of art galleries.
The beach is just a bike ride away from Hoi An. There are actually two beaches – An Bang and Cua Dai – but the latter has become quite eroded and several locals advised us to just go to An Bang. We did a morning bike ride out to the coast, parked a block away from the entrance for 5,000 VND each (about 20 cents), and walked along the soft sand beach. Many locals come to exercise and swim in the mornings and you can see the basket-like boats that are used for fishing in the ocean. There are also many beach chairs, palapas, places to get massages, and restaurants nearby.
Exploring by bicycle is another budget option since many homestays and hotels provide bikes for free, and rentals are usually just a dollar or two for the day. We’ll talk more about getting around by bicycle later on, but we often chose biking over walking because of the heat – on a bike you get a nice breeze and it takes little effort because Hoi An is fairly flat.
The Kim Bong wood carving village is accessible by bicycle. There, you can find some local wood shops and handmade souvenirs. We also took a leisurely ride on Cam Nam island, starting from the market. There aren’t any big attractions but it was nice to explore and relatively quiet in the middle of the day. Of course, the beach is another destination to visit by bike.
My Son, while not in Hoi An, is about half an hour away by motorcycle. We got a ride from our homestay family on the back of their motorcycles. Entrance to the site was 150,000 VND (about $6.75 US). There is a small museum with English translations and then little shuttles that drive you out a mile or two to the ruins (it’s also a nice walk as long as it’s cool out).
There are a number of different plots with temples and you can walk through all of them within an hour. Sadly, many of the temples were heavily affected by the Vietnam-American war, and you can even see craters from the places where bombs landed, but several areas have been preserved. Hiring a guide or joining a group tour would be a good idea to add more context when you visit My Son.
What to Eat in Hoi An
Central Vietnam, and Hoi An itself, have some unique regional cuisine that can’t be found (at least not widely) in other parts of the country.
Cao Lau is perhaps the most quintessentially Hoi An because the fat yellow noodles are exclusively made with water from local wells. You can see the fresh noodles being sold at the market. When served, it comes with a sweet pork broth, slices of pork on top, and a couple fried noodles for crunch. This was definitely one of our favorites – especially because it’s not typically spicy!
White Rose, or delicate rice paper dumplings with shrimp and pork inside, are all sourced from one producer in Hoi An. It’s served in the shape of a rose with crispy, fried shallots on top and a spicy and sweet shrimp broth dipping sauce. This was another favorite of ours, which we tried as an appetizer at a few different restaurants.
Mi Quang is a rice noodle dish with just a bit of broth. It comes with shrimp, pork, vegetables, roasted peanuts, fresh herbs, and sesame rice crackers on top. Definitely worth a try but, personally, the flavor was not as delightful to our palettes as some of these other dishes.
Banh Xeo is a savory, rice flour pancake. Ingredients include tumeric, pork, shrimp, and green onion with bean sprouts folded into the center. In this area of Vietnam, it is usually served with rice paper and greens. You wet the paper to soften it, wrap up a piece of the pancake with your greens, and then dip the roll into a peanut sauce.
Bánh mì is not necessarily regional cuisine, but there are at least three shops selling these Vietnamese sandwiches that are super popular in Hoi An. Sandwich ingredients vary but it starts with a crispy baguette and usually includes mayo, cilantro, cucumber, and pickled carrots and daikon. We’ll talk more about individual restaurants in the next section.
With eleven days and so much affordable food, we had the opportunity to eat out every day for lunch and dinner, so we tried quite a few restaurants. Not all of those restaurants made the cut, but many of these we returned to a second or third time by the end of our stay.
A note about Trip Advisor: We typically don’t use Trip Advisor to find restaurants in other situations because the reviews tend to be heavily weighted by foreigners rather than the local perspective. That being said, Trip Advisor is king in Hoi An and the logo is plastered on pretty much every establishment. I used it to research restaurants but really had to scrutinize the reviews because ratings don’t tell the whole story. For example, everyone has their own definition of “cheap” and “reasonably priced” so I had to ignore these comments and find where people mentioned specific prices. User photos can also be helpful when they share pictures of the menu.
Mr. Son’s is one of several open-air, covered cookshops on the little island just across from the main center of Old Town. Each section of the “food court” displays the owner’s name so just look for Mr. Son’s sign. Sometimes the other vendors will try to entice you to their own tables, but we watched time and again as people (mostly foreigners) headed straight for Mr. Son, thanks largely to his reputation on Trip Advisor. Check out these two reviews from a Canadian and a Brit, which may explain why he’s become somewhat of a legend:
He and (we’re assuming it’s) his wife both have gentle spirits. Their food is pretty good, with an extensive menu of local dishes at good prices. Spring roll appetizer, noodle dish, banh xeo, and water was 120,000 VND (about $5.40 US).
Cao Lau Restaurant is conveniently located close to the Japanese Bridge, just past one of the fee booths to enter Old Town. They have a small menu of local dishes. Cao lau plus a tasty bun thit nuong (pictured above) was 60,000 VND (about $2.70 total).
Long Com Ga can be found down a corner alley but there’s a big space for bike parking, and seating both inside and out. Jedd’s favorite dish was “steamed chicken with drumstick,” served over rice. It comes with a rich chicken-parts soup and papaya salad (a really good flavor combo with the rice and chicken). The owner and his family seemed very kind. The plain com ga is just 30,000 VND (about $1.35 US) but it’s a very simple dish so you might consider adding the papaya salad or upgrading to Jedd’s recommendation for 90,000 VND.
Bon Restaurant was one we found through another blogger. Since it’s outside the center, it wasn’t usually busy and the couple who runs it seemed very sweet. A white rose appetizer, cao lau, com ga, and water came to 117,000 VND (about $5.27). They also had some Western items like pizza on the menu, which we didn’t try.
Hoàng Local Foods was pretty close to where we stayed and had a long menu of Vietnamese dishes. It’s another family-run place with cute little girls and sometimes puppies hanging out. The food was pretty good and reasonable and we saw both locals and foreigners there.
From our research, there are three popular shops in Hoi An for bahn mi, and everyone has their own opinion about which is best. We couldn’t really decide, so we’ll just share our observations.
Madame Kanh Bánh Mì Queen is a no nonsense lady who gives you just one option: with or without chilis. From what we can tell, it comes with egg, pate, pork, and pickled veggies. It’s slightly sweet, truly scrumptious, filling and definitely worth the 20,000 VND.
Phi Bánh Mì is probably the most approachable, partly because the owner has good English, seems the most welcoming to visitors, and there is more of a selection on the menu. Hence, there were always foreigners eating here. Jedd especially appreciated the sandwiches with the addition of creamy cheese. Sandwiches start at 20,000 VND and go up.
Bánh Mì Phượng is perhaps the most famous of the three shops because it was featured on an Anthony Bourdain show. There is a wide variety of options on the menu, at different prices, and a sizable staff that cranks out sandwiches at the lunch rush. (Sorry about the dark picture – our camera was fogged up going from air conditioning to humidity!)
Other Food and Cafes
Cargo is a patisserie within one of several restaurants started by Miss Vy in the Old Town area. Their beautiful desserts were pleasing to the eye and our tastebuds, so we tried several over the 11 days that we were in town. Out of the various chocolate options, we found the Chocolate Louvre Cake to be the most amazing (about $2.15). A great place to treat yourself, although we suggest getting it to go or finding an outside table since the cafe seems to be pretty warm inside.
U Cafe is a hidden gem along the river, a bit outside of the town center. Run by a Japanese expat, the interior and the small food selection are a beautiful Japanese-Vietnamese fusion. Come here for smoothies, small bites, wifi, and a peaceful view. The prices are a bit higher than most Vietnamese coffee shops, but it supports ecological and social projects.
Cocobox and Hoi An Roastery are a series of more “high-end” hang outs in Hoi An’s Old Town. You’ll pay quite a bit more for your smoothies or coffees in any of the locations, but service is great and the atmosphere is also very nice. Cocobox focuses on local, healthy ingredients. They also serve single origin, locally sourced Vietnamese chocolate by Marou for about $7 per bar.
Cafe Da Nguyet might be a new place since I couldn’t find any reviews for it online. We passed it often and finally decided to stop and do some work. Although the waitress didn’t know any English, their menu had translations. The space was nice and open with a stage for live music. Our coffee and mango smoothie was 32,000 total (about $1.44 US).
Le Croissant Bakery There are a few bakeries in Hoi An but this one was closest to us. Croissants were decent and the prices were reasonable.
Where to Stay in Hoi An
Hoi An has an abundance of choices when it comes to accommodations. From fancy boutique hotels to family-run homestays to backpacker hostels, you’ll find it all. Just maybe not a Marriott or a Hilton.
Many accommodations can be found around the Old Town area or within walking distance. Others will be in the “mini suburbs” out by the rice paddies or the beach – these may be more peaceful but would require a bike or taxi to get around. Staying closer to Old Town (the area in yellow on our map above) is recommended if you have only one or two days to stay. However, we prefer to stay just outside of this touristy area because the constant beckoning of vendors trying to win our tourism dollars can get tiring.
In our opinion, a family-run homestay is the perfect choice for intentional travelers. There is quite a variety even among homestay options, and reading reviews is critical for finding something that’s right for you. Some so-called homestays are actually run more like a hotel with a hired staff, while others run by local families give a more personal experience. We looked primarily on Airbnb, messaged with a few hosts about their wifi, and found a winner.
We chose Leaf Homestay because of the great reviews on Airbnb and the family’s emphasis on sharing culture with their guests. The owner, Mr. Ty (pronounced “tee”) and his wife, Vy, started the homestay a year ago in a house designed by their son who is an architect. Mr. Ty, an agricultural engineer who works for the government, has decorated the entryway and balconies with potted plants, orchids, and cool fish tanks. The private bedrooms are appointed like nice hotel rooms and each has its own bathroom and mini fridge.
Leaf Homestay is on Ly Thai To road, a short bike ride into Old Town and with easy access to the main road that leads out to An Bang beach (about 10-15 minutes by bike). Across the street are fields of rice paddies. Bicycles are included and they can arrange a motorcycle rental as well, so you’re free to explore independently.
The wifi was pretty strong and, for the most part, consistent. Another great benefit is that breakfast is included. Each night we let them know our breakfast and drink choice for the following morning – options included local specialties like pho, cao lau, and mi quang or you could get a baguette with egg, omelette, or cheese and jam. We’re not coffee people but we loved their Vietnamese “white coffee” with sweetened condensed milk.
Mr. Ty is a big advocate for cross-cultural exchange and the family offers a number of activities you can participate in with them throughout the week. On two evenings, we did a cooking class and dinner with the family ($5 each), including a visit to the market. During our first dinner, Mr. Ty shared several beers with Jedd and gave us both a really useful language lesson in counting in Vietnamese. The next dinner we got to enjoy with other guests, a nice Polish couple who had just gotten engaged. You can see the plates and plates of food in the photo above.
Two of Mr. Ty’s sister-in-laws, Thuong and Thao, do most of the cooking and cleaning for guests. They’re the ones who taught us how to make cao lau and bahn xeo in the kitchen and served our delicious breakfasts every day. Thuong told us that working for the family homestay gives her freedom to take care of her daughter, which she really appreciates. Although they are all still working to improve their English, they were always super attentive and helpful whenever we needed anything.
For visitors who stay over the weekend, Mr. Ty likes to give rides out to the wood carving village where his family originated and still has a wood working shop. There are also a number of special things that we enjoyed with the family which may be because we stayed longer than most guests (11 nights) – or maybe they were just feeling generous. Mr. Ty and Thao gave us a free ride out to the My Son ruins and to the bus park when we had to go to Da Nang. They also brought us a special rice paper dumpling and cake for breakfast one time, which was “off menu.” And when it was Vietnamese Women’s Day, they brought me a bouquet of flowers!
Other Guest Houses and Hotels
Try searching for a hotel or hostel by clicking on the images above (we will get a commission on your booking, at no additional cost to you). Or find a cool apartment to rent on Airbnb.com (sign up for a new Airbnb account with this link and for a limited time, you can get up to $35 off your first booking).
Getting Around in Hoi An
Biking and walking are the best methods of transportation for most purposes. We happened to be in Hoi An in October, during the rainy season, so we quickly learned the value of carrying umbrellas and ponchos with us. When the rain comes, it pours. You can get completely drenched in a matter of seconds, and roads can flood quickly as well.
Motorcycles or moped rentals are another option, if that’s what you prefer. I believe helmets are required for motorized vehicles in Vietnam. Regardless of which vehicle you take, it’s important to observe the rules of the road carefully before jumping in, because they are different in Vietnam.
For example, right of way is usually determined by the size of the vehicle. Trucks beat cars, cars beat motorcycles, motorcycles beat bicycles, etc. You must be very attentive and alert while driving or biking, but you can trust that others will be doing the same. Be aware the people will not look when backing up a bike into the road, so you are responsible for slowing down and avoiding them. (In a way, everyone is responsible for not hitting anyone in front of them, so people don’t worry about what’s going on behind them because that’s someone else’s job.) People will also drive on the opposite side of the road for short periods and will take left turns before oncoming traffic has passed, so keep an eye out for people coming from every direction – not just the directions you might expect. If you can handle that and stay calm, you’ll be good to go. Traffic tends to move relatively slowly, so stay calm, stay alert, and enjoy the ride!
There are a number of places in Hoi An where paid bike parking is required – for example, to enjoy An Bang beach or to enter the Lantern Festival which turns Old Town into a “no bike zone” once a month. These spaces are watched over by an attendant, so they will charge a small fee. Otherwise, when you’re on any other street and parking at a restaurant, we found it was best to ask the restaurant staff where to park our bikes because certain spaces can be off limits.
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