At the mouth of the Thu Bon River sits the town of Hoi An. Since the first century the city and its adjacent estuary has served as a central port along important trade routes. lt grew in scale and significance as the spice trade expanded under the Cham people. By the 16th and 17th century, merchants from Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, Indian and Portuguese fleets came here to trade with the Vietnamese. Towards the end of the 18th century, the port’s importance declined with the fall of the Nguyen dynasty, followed by Emperor Gia Long giving the French exclusive trading privileges with Da Nang. Since that time many parts of Hoi An, specifically its Ancient Town, have gone virtually unchanged, preserving it as a time capsule of Vietnamese history.
Hoi An’s multicultural history and unique character has earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They decree that, “Hoi An Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site.” There are a plethora of historically significant cultural and sites to visit. Its people are welcoming and industrious, most easily seen in the garment industry. The traditional architecture and narrow streets create a feeling of intimacy unlike many other travel experiences. Hoi An is like no other place I have been in Southeast Asia and not to be missed by anyone traveling through Vietnam.
Top 25 Things to Do in Hoi An, Vietnam
I’ve been to Hoi An twice, and you can read about it more in My Hoi An Story. In that time I have yet to complete everything on this list, so plan accordingly. I would recommend that you stay in town for at least three days. Despite its size there are honestly too many things to do in Hoi An, the nearby villages in the surrounding countryside and cities in close proximity.
The list is organized primarily based on geographic location and secondly on the in order of importance. Suggestions # 1 – 11 are all concentrated around town center. Suggestions # 12 – 20 are activities that will take you out of town by bicycle or boat. They vary in length to a few hours to a full day. Suggestions # 21 – 25 are half day and full day excursions that require the use of motor vehicles. Each subsection is then broken down into order of importance. For example, go to # 4 before # 7 or go to # 21 before # 24. I have asterisked all of the things on the list that I have done.
# 1 – Hoi An Ancient Town Self-Guided Walking Tour***
The best way to take in the rich history and culture of Hoi An Ancient Town is to explore the neighborhood by foot or bicycle. There is really no need to pay for a tour unless you insist on having a guide. You will need to go to one of the Tourist Information Centers or Ticket Booths and purchase tickets. They are sold in sets of 4, which will grant you access to 4 sites. At each site there will be an attendant to cut the ticket. In total there are 22 sites in the UNESCO zone, and I covered all of them in a single day. When my local friend told the ticket agent, he said in Vietnamese that no one he knows of has ever done all of them in one day, and that I was crazy. We had a good laugh, because it is probably true. My second time in Hoi An, I toured some friends around Ancient Town and was able to narrow down the list of 22 to the most important sites. Our afternoon inspired me to outline the route in my Hoi An Ancient Town Self-Guided Walking Tour.
# 2 – Walking Along the Riverside & Explore the Backstreets***
After or during your exploration of Ancient Town, take a walk along the Thu Bon River. The canal, although small, is beautiful in a very rustic sense. On the other side of the bridge there are a number of statues on An Hoi Island. Take a walk through some of the backstreets and catch a more local glimpse of the neighborhood. If you’re hungry or tired, there are many riverside restaurants, cafes and bars that could induce you can relax and catch your breath during the daytime heat.
# 3 – Experience Hoi An by Night***
By day Hoi An feels like a sleepy little relic of the past, but as the sun begins to set, the town comes alive. Dusk is not the time to be in your guest house. The narrow streets are flooded with people partaking in all the night is about to offer. Colorful and brightly lit lanterns of all shapes and sizes light the town. The scent of food and smoke from vendors and kitchen chimneys begin to fill the air. You can start by grabbing a bite to eat either on the street or at a restaurant, many of which have outdoor seating and rooftop lounges. (# 5 – See Below) If you’re looking for a quieter setting, consider going on a dinner cruise. (# 13 – See Below) As darkness takes hold the reflection of the street lanterns across the water with the paper lanterns floating on top of it looks like colorful dancing stars, a sight that not even the night sky can recreate.
Make sure to head over to the foot of the An Hoi Bridge before crossing over to the island, and you can catch the evening’s Puppet Show. Actually, it’s not very long, something like 15 minutes and is performed a few times over the evening. You may need to wait a few minutes between performances.
Feet away are vendors selling paper lanterns with candles to be sent down the river. This is easily one of the top evening attractions. You will need to first purchase your lanterns, and then descend down a rickety bamboo ladder into a long thin paddle boat. Negotiate the best price amongst vendors and captains. Ride out into the canal and release your lantern into the water. (One morning I noticed that they get caught in a net downstream if you’re concerned about the environmental effects.) This should take about 20-30 minutes depending on the wait.
On the other side of the An Hoi Bridge on An Hoi Island, you will find even more to do. Nguyen Phuc Chu is the main street that runs parallel with the water. The night market should be in full swing if you’re looking to do some shopping. There are even more restaurants and cafes if you’re looking for a sit down dinner. When you’re done, grab a beverage at one of the drink carts, but try to find my friends. Afterwards head to one of the many bars like my buddy Nam’s King Tiger Tiger Bar. Tell them I sent you! If you’re still standing towards the end of the night and want to dance, then head over to the Why Not Bar. Otherwise, go to bed!
# 4 Get Custom Made Clothing***
Hoi An is known for its garment industry. If you are looking to get custom fitted clothes, then this is the town for you. There are more tailor shops around town than I care to count, but not all of them are of equal quality, so make sure to do your research. Make this your first priority when you get in town, especially if you plan on getting a large quantity of items or more intricate pieces. The entire process, including multiple fittings may take a few days. If it’s just some shirts, shorts or slacks, they should be able to turn it over in 36 hours. Shop around for the best prices, but lower prices often means cheaper fabric and construction. Consider bringing your favorite clothes to show as a sample if you’re looking for replications. Always do the burn test on fabric so you don’t buy plastic clothes. For more information check out the Top 15 Scams in Vietnam!
To avoid all the hassle, only go to trusted vendors. I would recommend you go to one of the Bebe Shops. I was fitted at Bebe II, and found the staff to be very helpful. Honestly, I didn’t know there were that many options when making a button-down shirt, but they walked me through the entire process. They’ll even ship your clothes home for you. To this day, I get compliments about how nice my shirts look and fit.
# 5 – Enjoy the Local Cuisine***
Hoi An is known for its food culture and could easily be considered a foodie capital. There are many restaurants and cafes all over town. You will be able to find a variety of ethnic cuisines, but most are serving Vietnamese or a fusion variation. The best places to eat are known for serving unique dishes that you can only find in Hoi An. It is essential that you try the White Rose Dumplings, but don’t eat them just anywhere. You have to eat them straight from the source at the factory that produces them for the surrounding restaurants to ensure you’re getting the proper dumplings. Then there is the local Cao Lau pork dish that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. You can’t forget all the street food. Make sure to grab pork rolls at my favorite food stand in Vietnam if not the planet and drink tea at the “quietest tea house” in the world. Find out more about local cuisine and the exact locations to find them in my Top 10 Things to Eat in Hoi An.
# 6 – Food Tour
If you’re not looking to be an independently adventurous eater, don’t have a local contact or not interested in doing the research to find the best local spots, then consider going on a food tour. I don’t know why you would want to, considering I just gave you 10 suggestions. Despite my opinion, food tours are a great way to get familiarized with the local cuisine and sample dishes you might not have thought to try as you passed it on the street wondering what was staring back at you. There’s something about a guide that makes some people more willing to try new dishes. If you’re looking to get out of your comfort zone or learn more about local food culture, then this might just be right for you. Some of them can even be combined with my cooking classes. (# 7 – See Below)
# 7 – Cooking Classes
Like food tours, cooking classes are a great way to learn about local cuisine, while preparing and sampling a number of dishes. If you’re interested in taking a cooking class during your trip to Vietnam, then consider the calm and relaxing environment in Hoi An. Some locations will let you choose the dishes you want to prepare, while others have a fixed menu. Others can be combined with a food tour. (# 6 – See Above) Some are even conducted on river cruises. There are tons of options available, so make sure to do more research.
# 8 – Visit the Markets***
There are a number of markets in town that sell your typical mixture of locally sourced food and tourist souvenirs. Bach Dong Street runs parallel with the river and the docks is a long strip of outdoor shops and vendors. Keep walking towards the Cam Nam Bridge and you will notice to your left the larger indoor Central Market. (Combine this with # 2 – See Above) Both locations have a plethora of fresh fish, vegetables, fruits and other animal proteins, live or in the process of being slaughtered. You will also find all sorts of merchandise, but consider picking up some of the famous Hoi An lanterns. They close in the afternoon. As the sun begins to set you will notice merchants setting up tents for a small night market on An Hoi Island, where you will find souvenirs and street food vendors. (Combine this with # 3 – See Above or # 12 See Below)
# 9 – Lantern Making Workshop
Hoi An has been known now for centuries as one of the best sources of silk lanterns in Southeast Asia. Traditionally, lanterns were placed in front of houses to bring happiness, luck and wealth. This history is most evident at night when wonderfully colorful lanterns light the town’s streets. With the aid of a reputable lantern maker, you will be given a lesson in crafting your own lantern, although it won’t be silk. During the construction process you will learn about the history of lantern making. If you enjoy arts and crafts or would rather make a souvenir than purchase one, then you may want to try your hand at making your own lantern.
# 10 – Pamper Yourself***
There are many different spas, massage parlors and beauty salons in and around town. Prices vary depending on the services provided, but there is a strong correlation between higher prices and better service. Make sure you shop around and negotiate. If you are in the need of a basic haircut or a manicure/pedicure you might want to try Su Bi Spa on Duong Ba Trieu. I have used their services both times I’ve been to Hoi An and have been pleased with the results. The staff is super friendly and the prices were fair. For the most expensive treatments, head toward the beach resorts.
# 11 – Play Billiards with Locals***
If you’re looking to spend the night in a more local setting, then consider heading to a billiards hall. My friend invited me to hang out with him and some of his friends (who actually turned out to work for the government and the military) at the Viet Carom Billiards Club. I think they were playing snooker, but to be honest I’m not sure. They tried to explain the rules, but it didn’t help much. It was more enjoyable sitting around, listening to them banter (and interestingly mostly in Vietnamese to make my life easier), eat eel and watch them consume copious amounts of beer. If you’re looking to get local one night, head over to the billiard hall.
# 12 – Take a Boat Ride to the Kim Bong Carpentry & Woodworking Village***
Next to the markets you will find the docks. A short ferry ride (you can bring your bicycle) across the Thu Bon River is Kim Bong, a carpentry village in the Cam Kim Commune of Hoi An in the Quang Nam Province. Stop at local woodworking shops and observe craftsmen working on projects. Each business has its own specialization. Everything that is produced is sold out of one central shop. The prices were fair. If you can make it out of wood, then it was available for purchase. Even if you’re not interested in purchasing anything, it’s worth an hour or two of your time. This can be combined with the My Son Sanctuary Tour. (# 21 – See Below)
# 13 – Dinner Cruise on the Thu Bon River
From the docks in Hoi An, you can depart at around 5 p.m. on a boat for a dinner cruise along the Thu Bon River. The boat will ferry you to get an amazing view of the sunset before retiring back to the docks. The trip will take around 2 hours. During the cruise you will be served a variety of different Vietnamese dishes over the course of the evening. You will return back early enough to enjoy the rest of your evening in Hoi An. (# 3 See Above)
# 14 – Rent a Bicycle (or Go On a Tour)
If you are looking to conveniently travel around Hoi An, consider renting a bicycle. Many travel agencies offer tours if you are interested in having a guide. One company even offers a bamboo bicycle tour. My recommendation would be to rent a bicycle if you are planning on exploring the town or nearby Cam Nam Island.
# 15 – Rent a Motorbike (or Go On a Tour)
If you are looking for a faster mode of transportation that will allow you the ability to easily explore the surrounding countryside, you may want to rent a motorbike. Many travel agencies offer tours if you are interested in having a guide. If you are planning on venturing off on your own, then you can cover much more territory, but keep in mind that there are restrictions on motorized vehicles in and around Ancient Town, especially at night. Luckily, my friend wheeled me around town saving me the trouble.
# 16 – Go to the Beach***
There are two beaches close to Hoi An that are easily accessible by bicycle, motorbike or taxi. Both are approximately 6 kilometers outside of town and take more or less the same amount of time to reach. An Bang Beach is actually the public beach of Hoi An, and as result there are many locals. I’ve had offers to be brought to An Bang Beach by a local friend, but didn’t have the time. Down the coast is Cua Dai Beach, which is populated by many high end beach resorts and luxury hotels. I’m not sure if it is a private beach, but it is predominately filled with tourists staying at the accommodations there. I had friends stay at one of these hotels and visited them at Cua Dai Beach a number of times. The water was pleasant, but to me it was just a beach. There’s much more to do in and around Hoi An than sit around at the beach.
# 17 – Tra Que Vegetable Village
Tours to the Tra Que Vegetable Village will actually help you combine a number of these suggestions. The tour starts in town with a bicycle ride on tiny rural roads to the village that provides a good portion of the vegetables that are sold at the markets and served at restaurants around Hoi An. You’ll sample herbal tea and learn about the history of the village, cultivation techniques and much more. A trip into the fields with local farmers will result in some manual labor and buffalo rides. When you’re done, you will soak your legs into warm basins of water with medicinal herbs and get a foot massage. Afterwards there’s a short cooking class, and it’s back to the hotels.
# 18 – Go On an EcoTour of the Countryside
Ecotourism is growing in popularity throughout Vietnam. There are a few companies, but one that comes highly recommended is Jack Tran’s EcoTours. They offer a variety of different tours that combine a number of the following activities: farming, rice planting & harvesting, water buffalo riding, riding in basket boats, local fishing with the river basket dance (# 20 – See Below) and a few other boat tours. They range in price from $35 to $140 USD and last anywhere from 2.5 to 10 hours.
# 19 – Thuan Tinh Island (Cooking Class & Tour)
If you are looking to combine a number of the above mentioned suggestions, then consider the Thuan Tinh Island Cooking Class. You will meet in Hoi An and begin by taking “a trip to the market to purchase all fresh ingredients. Then, [you] board [their] river boat for a relaxing 40 minute ride to Thuan Tinh Island, which is recognized by Hoi An as an official ecological zone. To visit the local village, [you] take a row boat ride through the water coconut trees,” where you will take an outdoor cooking class along the river, while their chefs “show you how to make Vietnamese food while you enjoy the cool breeze and peaceful setting.” Sounds like a good day.
# 20 – Fish Like a Local Tour on the Cua Dai River
Head out by bicycle to the Cam An Wharf and set sail on the Cua Dai River. You will learn about the local fishing culture and traditional Vietnamese fishing techniques. Stop at villages like Cam Thanh where you will meet locals. Ride and race in a bamboo basket boat. Lunch is included in the tour. After returning to the wharf you will cycle through Tra Que village taking in the scenery before returning back to Hoi An. (# 17 – See Above) This activity is often combined in a packaged tour like something made available by one of the ecotourism companies. (# 18 – See Above)
# 21 – Half-Day Trip to the My Son Sanctuary Tour***
If you’re a history lover, then make sure to book a tour to the My Son Sanctuary, also one of Vietnam’s 8 UNESCO Sites. “Between the 4th and 13th centuries a unique culture which owed its spiritual origins to Indian Hinduism developed on the coast of contemporary Viet Nam. This is graphically illustrated by the remains of a series of impressive tower-temples located in a dramatic site that was the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom for most of its existence” (UNESCO). These are really the only ruins to see in Vietnam, making this a site one that is not to be missed.
The tour is only a half day trip and instead of returning by van, for a few more dollars (I think it was $3 USD extra) you can return by boat, stopping first at the Kim Bong Craft Village then back to Hoi An. (# 12 – See Above) It can be booked for the early morning or early afternoon. The morning brings promises of sunrise views, but don’t be fooled, there aren’t any. It is supposedly cooler, but it actually may be more crowded despite being basically empty when I was there. With the right company, you may also be able to do a cooking course on a different boat. (# 6 – See Above) If you’re interested in learning more, here is my article about the My Son Sanctuary Tour.
# 22 – Day (or Night) Trip to Da Nang
Da Nang is not what many would consider a tourist or backpacker destination, and is often skipped by many travelers. Most people, including myself, have seen little other than the airport and the architecture of the Tran Thi Ly Bridge & Dragon Bridge. However, as of late it has been seeing an increasing number of visitors. The city has beautiful bridges that are a mix between classic imagery and modern design. There are nearby beaches, including China Beach, famous in part because of its popularity with US service members during the Vietnam War (and also the name of an American TV show about that era). I also came across an evening bus that for a fair price traveled from Hoi An to a number of nightspots in Danang, but the flyer has long since disappeared.
# 23 – Day Trip to the Cu Lao Cham Marine Park
Off the coast of Hoi An are the Cham Islands. You go from your hotel to Cua Dai where a speedboat will take you to the Cu Lao Cham National Marine Park, also a UNESCO protected biosphere reserve. You will visit to a local fishing village, go swimming and/or snorkeling while seeing marine life along coral reefs. Lunch will be served oceanside and afterwards you will have time to relax before returning to the marina and shuttle to Hoi An.
# 24 – Day Trip to the Marble Mountain
The Marble Mountains is a set of five large marble and limestone hills in the Ngu Hanh Son District, south of Da Nang. Each mountain is named after one of the five elements: Hoa (fire), Moc (wood), Kim (metal), Tho (earth) and Thuy (water). There are numerous cave entrances and tunnels that lead to Buddhist sanctuaries, some of which are accessible. It is even possible to hike to the summit of Mt. Thuy, often done as part of a religious pilgrimage. The trip is often combined with the Hoi An City Tour or a stop in Danang at the Cham Museum making it a full day excursion.
# 25 – Day Trip to the Son My Vestige Site***
If you are a history connoisseur and looking for a much more authentic piece of Vietnam War history, then consider a trip to the Son My Vestige Site. This was the location of the infamous My Lai Massacre where hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians were killed by US soldiers. The site is a reminder of the war crimes committed during the brutality of the conflict. It is a very sober place and my arrival was not warmly received. Nowhere greater than there did I feel war guilt in Vietnam. That being said, my guide was extremely helpful and knowledgeable. She showed me around the museum and the property. Many of the buildings are reproductions, but they stand in their original locations. They are the same canals where innocent women and children were gunned down. There was a large mural and cemetery honoring the dead.
The trip is not an easy one. By bus it would take a significant amount of time but will be very cost effective. I hope you speak good Vietnamese. The easier and much more expensive option is to rent a car for the day. It should cost around $75 USD. The trip will take around 3 hours in each direction. There’s not much to see along the way other than the countryside. Try to get a group of people and divide the cost as the fee is for the driver and car, not per person.
To complete everything on this list, it would probably take you at least a week if not closer to two weeks. There is so much to do in and around Hoi An and often too little time to do it in. Plan to stay in town at least three days. You won’t regret it. Unlike Vietnam‘s metropolises of Hanoi & HCMC, in Hoi An, slower is better, so plan on moving at that pace. I would recommend #’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 12, 21 as must do activities. Determine what from the article seems the most interesting. Figure out if there is a way to combine some of your interests into one packaged tour. If you do some planning, then there will be plenty of time to cover everything in town and a few outside of town. From the history and cultural sites to the food and nightlife, there is something for everyone in Hoi An and just a bit more you didn’t cover that will have you wanting to come back. Happy Trekking!
BONUS – Multi-Day Bamboo Bicycle Crafting Workshop
This activity requires a great deal of time and dedication: only a niche of travelers will find it interesting. This experience allows you the “one-of-a-kind opportunity to craft your own bicycle using one of Asia’s most iconic and versatile materials. With a master’s expert guidance, this workshop lets you form a bicycle frame out of bamboo” that is yours to keep. “Using bamboo from the nipa palm forest that lies just outside of Hoi An, your host walks you through the process of hand-fashioning your very own bicycle … The workshop covers the first 3 days of the crafting process, with sessions of up to 8 hours a day—enough to get you halfway through the process of building your bamboo bike. Afterward, your host takes over the process, applying the finer finishing details to produce a bike you can take out to ride” (Expedia). If this peaks your interest and you have the time and money to spare, I’m sure it’s an amazing experience.