Hoi An, Vietnam: Visiting this beautiful city on the cheap
Hoi An is a magical place in Vietnam and I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t enjoy their time there. It has a much more laid back vibe that the bigger cities like Saigon and Hanoi, and being along the coast means you can spend days relaxing on the beach.
But it’s the old town that truly steals the show in Hoi An. Its beautiful lantern-lined streets make it feel as though you are walking in a movie set at night time, with the old buildings lit up around you and local women punting their small wooden boats down the river that flows through the town.
Hoi An became a UNESCO world heritage listed city nearly twenty years ago and has grown in popularity since then. As the town gets busier, it’s best to visit before it turns into the Venice of South East Asia.
Although a UNESCO listed town, Hoi An is still a cheap place to visit and accommodation options are more inexpensive than those found in the center of Saigon. With street food on every corner and free walking tours to enjoy, a visit to Hoi An can be very inexpensive.
When to visit Hoi An
Because Hoi An has beautiful beaches, you’ll want to go when the weather is sunny so that you can make the most of your beach time. Although the weather is warm all year round, averaging about 29˚C, there is a rainy and dry season.
June to August are the hottest months when temperatures can soar to 40˚C, but more relentless than the heat is the monsoon like weather that comes between September and January. There can occasionally be typhoons during these months and sometimes this can cause flooding in the town and surrounding area – so avoid this time of year if you can.
It’s best to visit Hoi An during the dry season between February and May before the weather gets too hot and after the rains have stopped.
Accommodation within Hoi An
Finding budget accommodation in Hoi An is very easy as there are plenty of homestays to choose from.
In terms of location, we found that the best place to stay was in between the beach and the old town. This means both the town and the beach will be a 2km bike ride away from you, making getting around easy.
Our favorite homestay in Hoi An is in this location, and is called Charming Homestay. Run by Nhi, an indeed charming lady in her 30s, and her sweet mother, Charming Homestay will make you feel welcome and so comfortable that you won’t want to leave.
If you stay long term – more than two weeks – you can expect to pay around $20 a night. Otherwise a double room here is $30 a night. For the deluxe rooms, expect to pay about $10 more. Your room comes with breakfast included with a choice of traditional Vietnamese beef pho or a western breakfast of scrambled eggs and baguette. All breakfasts come with fresh fruit.
There are also a number of backpackers around Hoi An and if you’re up for sharing a dorm, you can expect to pay as little as $8 a night.
A popular hostel in Hoi An is DK’s House which is known for its laidback vibe and friendly staff. Breakfast is included and there’s a pool. You pay around $12.50 for a four person dorm.
Another hostel with a pool, and one that is slightly cheaper, is the Sunflower Hotel where a bed in a six person dorm is $8.50. This hostel is next to a number of cheap restaurants and is about a ten minute walk from the center of the old town.
If you’re after long term accommodation in Hoi An, it can be found for a very reasonable price. You can pay just $300 a month for a two bedroomed house. Bargain!
The best restaurants in Hoi An
Top quality food in Hoi An, and even dishes in the fancier restaurants are very reasonably priced.
A favourite for many, and a label that is well deserved, is the Morning Glory restaurant in the center of the Old Town. Run by Miss Vy, who is one of Vietnam’s most successful restauranteurs, the food from Morning Glory is traditional Vietnamese and is of a very high standard. Even so, a meal here will only set you back at about $20 for two people. (Not including alcohol.)
Morning Glory also has a few sister restaurants dotted around town. There’s Cargo which is well known for its cakes, Mermaid Restaurant which also serves traditional Vietnamese home cooking, and the Market Restaurant.
The Market Restaurant is a unique dining experience. It’s similar to a food hall, in that there are many different food stations dotted around the restaurant. You can browse all the different foods at your leisure and then choose whatever tickles your fancy.
If you are only in Hoi An for a short amount of time, the Market Restaurant is a good place to go because they have all the different types of Vietnamese dishes in one place.
Another popular restaurant at similar prices is Son Restaurant, located about 2km out of the old town, on the way to the beach. The food here is of superb quality and the presentation is gourmet. The dishes are large enough to share between two, saving you some money.
Nearby there is Dingo Deli – the place to come if you’re over Vietnamese food (although seriously, how could you be?) as it serves western style sandwiches, burgers and desserts. It also has a deli shop where you can buy fresh bread, meats and expat food like Vegemite.
For seafood, there are many restaurants lining An Bang beach – although some are certainly better than others. If you’re after a local scene, head to Sau. The owner’s husband is a fisherman, ensuring the seafood served here is both fresh and cheap. Skip the menu and just pick your dishes from pointing at the live fish they’ve caught that day. It’s a favorite spot with the locals.
If you’re more in to the expat scene, relax at Soul Kitchen where you can easily spend a day lazily on one of the many beanbags they have scattered along the beach. The food here is certainly a lot pricier though – you pay more when there are foreign owners! Sundays are the most popular day when there is live music in the early evenings.
Street food stalls to enjoy
There are so many tasty street foods in Hoi An – virtually on every corner – that you won’t struggle to find cheap eats. Don’t fear the street food – because there is such a high turnover of people at these stalls, the food is always fresh. Plus, the meals are cooked in front of you so you can watch what goes in to them and see how hygienic they are.
Some must try Vietnamese street food stalls in Hoi An
One of the best banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) stalls in town is called Lanh and can be found on the corner Cua Dai and Tran Nhan Tong streets. The stall is open from 3pm and a banh mi here will set you back 20,000 dong (90 cents).
Enjoy the best soup in the whole of Vietnam, pho, in the street food stall opposite the banh mi place. This little restaurant is called Muoi. It’s only open for breakfast though, so get there early. A bowl of tasty pho will cost you about 45,000 dong ($2).
Hen Xuc Banh Trang is a baby clam dish traditionally served with rice crackers and mainly eaten as a snack. Quan So 9, a street food restaurant located along the river, serves tasty Hen Xuc Banh Trang. Like most street food stalls, the chairs and tables are more suited to small children, but the food will be worth the discomfort. If you come here during the day you have a nice view over the river. A meal here cost us about 45,000 dong ($2) each, including a beer.
Cao Lau is a traditional Hoi An dish that comes with noodles, barbecue sliced pork, pork crackling, bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs. To ensure the dish isn’t too dry, a spoonful of stock is ladled over the top. One of the best places to try Cao Lau is the Thuy food stall on the corner of Tran Phu and Hoang Dieu Streets, in the center of the old town. The stall is open early in the morning until 2pm. The dish will cost about 20,000 dong (90 cents).
The central market in the old town is a great place to come for a variety of street food options. There are numerous stalls and they all have menus, most of them with photos, so it makes it easy to order a tasty dish. You can get a fresh juice here for about 20,000 dong (90 cents) and a meal will set you back about 60,000 dong ($2.70).
Zen out at a spa
Vietnam is one of the cheapest places in South East Asia for spa treatments and it’d be a shame to miss out on a massage while you’re in Hoi An.
Avoid the spas at the hotels, as these are overpriced and the money is often going into the hands of big corporations rather than small businesses within the community.
One of the best places to relax is at the Ginger Spa on Cua Dai Street, about halfway between the old town and the beach. The owner Anh is a lovely, softly-spoken lady who’ll make sure you are floating on air by the time your treatments are finished.
The facilities are very clean and the massages are outstanding. The pedicures and manicures could be improved a little though. When we went, the staff were training so we got all our treatments for free and just left a tip – bargain! Normally the treatments are very reasonably priced regardless of training days.
The main street for spas is Ba Triu, where there are a number of establishments. Some of the more popular ones are Hoi An Day Spa, where the massages are meant to be great but the eyelash extensions not so wonderful, and Palmarosa Spa, where the massages are a little more pricey at about $20 for an hour but well-worth it.
Shop fair trade
It can be difficult to know who is making your clothes in Hoi An, and with many tailoring shops dotted throughout the town it can be overwhelming. Some of these stores are known to be fronts for sweat shops so it’s important to shop fair trade where you can so you can be sure the workers are being fairly treated.
Bebe, which has two locations on both 11 Hoang Dieu St and 40 Tran Hung Dao, is known to make clothes is good conditions and of high quality. Our friends got their wedding clothes made there, with the groom paying about $120 for a three piece suit and the bride paying $180 for her dress. Both looked great.
Another fair trade store, which sells beautiful pottery and ceramics such as teapots, is Reaching Out on Nguyen Thai Học. All the items in the store are made locally and with high standards, and are also fair trade so you know your money is going to a good place.
The Lifestart Foundation is a beautiful gift shop located on Nguyen Thai Học in the old town. This is a not-for-profit organization where all the money made from purchases go straight to the charity that runs the place. The charity’s money pays the women who make the products, many of whom are disabled from polio in their youth or from stepping on landmines. Some of the charity’s funds also go towards more than 80 education scholarships for children in the Hoi An area.
The objects in the store are all handmade and you can purchase a whole range of things including lanterns, toys, scarves and vases.
Things to do in Hoi An
Although some visitors may consider Hoi An to be a sleepy town, there are certainly a lot of things to do. However, it’s far from a party town and it gets quite quiet after about 10:30pm. But don’t let this put you off from venturing out in the evenings – the old town is spectacular with its brightly colored lanterns lit by lights, bobbing in the breeze overhead as you walk adjacent to the river.
The night markets are located opposite the main bridge leading out of the old town. Here you can find about a dozen lantern stores and the markets are a lovely place to stroll in the evenings. If you want to do a spot of souvenir shopping, come here but make sure you bargain for a deal.
Art class with the Lifestart Foundation
If you want to take home a more meaningful souvenir, spend some time at the Lifestart Foundation where they offer lantern making and Vietnamese painting classes. The three hour class will leave you with a beautifully painted card and a small silk lantern to take home. The class costs $30 and includes all materials. The profits go directly to the charity, so it’s for a good cause.
Tra Que Vegetable Village
A 20 minute bike ride from the old town lands you at Tra Que Vegetable Village, where you can experience the rural side to Hoi An. Here you will see more than 40 farmers tending their plots, which are located side by side to each other.
Over the years, some of the wealthier farmers have been able to modernize their farming methods by installing reticulation, but many farmers still strap giant watering cans to their bodies and walk up and down their plots to water their vegetables and herbs.
You can go on a walking tour with staff from one of the neighboring restaurants and then enjoy the fresh produce for lunch.
It’s a sin not to partake in the food culture really makes Vietnam the country it is. One of the best ways to do this is to go to a cooking class. We chose the Ms Vy Cooking Class at the Market Restaurant, where there are eight or so classes to choose from.
The one we chose was more like a tasting class which led us around ten tasting stations, eating everything from duck fetuses (!) to pig’s brains (!). Never fear, there were also more tasty Vietnamese items on the menu, such as fresh Vietnamese rolls, crispy pork and shrimp pancakes and lemongrass ice cream for dessert. You certainly won’t leave feeling hungry. A two and a half hour class here costs $25.
If you’d rather learn the art of Vietnamese cooking rather than tasting, Vina Ngon restaurant on Cua Dai Street next to the Sunflower Hotel does cooking classes for the same price. You can order what you want to cook from their menu and then they’ll teach you how to make it.
One of the best ways to see Hoi An on a budget is to join a free walking tour. These are run by students who want to practice their English, and they will take you to see the local side of Hoi An. You will go biking around villages surrounding Hoi An during this four hour tour, exploring the fishing villages and rice paddy fields. It’s a great cultural exchange and you only have to pay a few dollars for the bike hire, the ferry trip and towards the local communities you visit.
The beach shouldn’t be missed during a trip to Hoi An. One of the more popular spots is An Bang beach which is also home to a dozen restaurants. If you buy lunch from one of the eateries then you can sit on the sun loungers all day for free.
Make sure you only pay the parking guys 5,000 dong – they will try and get 50,000 dong out of you if they can!
Transport in and around Hoi An
One of the easiest ways to get around town is by bicycle. Hoi An is very flat, so even in the heat of the day cycling the streets aren’t too much of a workout.
Most accommodations, even the budget ones, will lend you bicycles for free making it easy to explore the town.
If you want to go to the beach every day, but are staying in the center of the old town then you might get tired of cycling. Scooter rental is fairly reasonable and you can expect to pay about $5 a day. To fill a tank it costs about $5 and this will last you about a week. If you plan to rent for a week or more you can get yourself a good deal.
Riding a scooter in Hoi An is one of the best places to do it in Vietnam. The traffic isn’t congested like it is in bigger cities like Hanoi and Saigon, and the pace is relatively slow.
Keep in mind that the old town is closed to motorized transport between 8:30am and 11am, 2pm – 4:30pm and 6:30pm – 9pm every day.
Don’t ride around in a bikini, or with your shirt off, as this is very offensive to the Vietnamese, not to mention dangerous if you have a crash. You will also need to wear a helmet – you risk being fined if you don’t.
To get to and from the airport, which is located in Da Nang, you can pay about $6 for the shuttle, which will pick you up from your accommodation. It also takes you to the train station in Da Nang if that’s where you need to go. But if there’s two or more of you, it might be worth getting a taxi, which costs about $18 one way and can be organized for you by your homestay before you leave.
Happy travels around Hoi An
And there you have it – my tips for a budget visit to Hoi An! It really is one of my favorite places in South East Asia and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. If you have any questions, please comment below or drop me an email at Carmen(at)double-barrelledtravel(dot)com and I’ll be happy to help.