Ever since my visit to Luang Prabang, Laos, I had been hearing from other travelers about Hoi An, Vietnam. The city is midway along the coast of Vietnam, and it’s a common place for travelers to stop and rest a while after traveling through the country either from north to south (like I did) or in the opposite direction. I initially booked three nights in the city and ended up staying five. You’ll hear that Hoi An is touristy, and it is certainly popular with tourists. I think that’s because the little town offers plenty of traveler-friendly activities and feels like a calm respite from the chaos of Vietnam’s larger cities and the ruggedness of its countryside.
Hoi An is welcoming and inexpensive. I made good use of my four full days in Hoi An by indulging in three tours, a massage, a cooking class and private lodging in a wonderful local home. Here are a few of my favorite ways to live large on a little budget in Hoi An, Vietnam.
- Stay at a Local Homestay
Homestays are a burgeoning industry in Hoi An. Many local families earn a good living from hosting travelers in their homes, and visitors get the benefit of inexpensive accommodation in a local home. I stayed at Countryside Moon Homestay, where I had a private room and bathroom, air conditioning, refrigerator, a generous breakfast and daily use of a bicycle…all for about $13. Though not all of the family spoke English, they were friendly and welcoming, and even gathered all the guests together for a free home cooked dinner during my stay.
Many homestays are outside of the main downtown area, but many offer free use of bicycles or rent them for a small fee. I enjoyed the 10-minute bike ride back and forth to town everyday. Consider supporting a local family instead of a hotel chain by choosing a homestay for your accommodation in Hoi An.
2. Go on the Kim Bong Village Bike Tour
I found out about Hoi An Free Tours through a Lonely Planet guide, and decided to book the Kim Bong Village bike tour for my first morning in Hoi An. The tours take place a few times a week and are hosted by students interested in practicing their English. Our tour guide, Hua, was absolutely adorable and energetic. She happily ushered us onto a ferry across the river and then guided us to several interesting stops within the Kim Bong Carpentry Village.
I highly recommend this tour, if only for the insight it offers into traditional Vietnamese life. We visited a small ship yard where wooden boats are constructed by hand, met tiny old woman whose family harvests and sells rice from the fields on the island, watched boys carve decorative bowls and pictures from wood, and visited the home of a woman who weaves sleeping mats. The homes in this village are tiny and extremely basic. Our minimal tour fee of approximately $1.50 per person went directly to the locals we visited.
3. Enjoy Vietnamese Cuisine on a Food Tour
The same organization that hosts the Kim Bong Village tour also does a fantastic “Cheap Walking Food Tour,” which I also wholeheartedly recommend. Six travelers participated in our walking tour, and I had a great time getting to know the local tour guide as well as the other travelers. The 2.5-hour tour included several stops around downtown Hoi An, entertaining commentary and tons of delicious food.
Our last stop was at the home of an older local couple who served us some delicious dishes and the local beer in their living room surrounded by family photos. The husband poured each of us a shot glass full of his homemade “wine.” It tasted more like whisky to me, but I wasn’t complaining! The food tour is $19 and well worth the price.
4. Indulge in a Massage
After having a couple of Asian massages in Thailand and Laos, I decided I was ready for a massage like the ones I get at home. I contacted Palmarosa Spa by email and scheduled my appointment. In Southeast Asia, where it’s not uncommon to find five massage parlors on a single street, the level of training the massage therapists have received is somewhat questionable. Palmarosa Spa is clean, professional and staffed by therapists who apparently know what they’re doing.
I went all out and booked the “Palmarosa Spa Signature,” a 100-minute, full body massage in a private room with relaxing spa music. This indulgence cost about $25. At my favorite spa back home in Scottsdale, Arizona, the same treatment costs $125. I think I got a pretty good deal!
5. Learn How to Cook…on an Island
I took a fun and delicious Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but my Hoi An cooking class was whole new level of luxury. Many options exist in Hoi An for cooking classes, but I chose the Thuan Tinh Island Cooking Class because the price was on the lower end but it still offered some additional experiences beyond the cooking itself.
As part of the class fee, I was picked up at my homestay and taken to the local market, where we had an interesting tour of the seafood section, the produce section and the meat section. After we had done our shopping for the day, we took a 30-minute boat ride to Thuan Tinh Island. The cooking school operates from a lovely series of open-air bamboo huts, and each student received a chef’s cap and an apron to wear during the class. I felt like I was at a fancy resort!
We made (and ate) four delicious dishes before being transported back to our hotels. The total time for the cooking experience was five hours and cost $34.
6. See the Sunrise at My Son Temple
When I checked into my homestay, a family member told me about the daily tours to the My Son temple complex, a UNESCO heritage site located about 55km from Hoi An. I had heard that the afternoons get very busy at the small site, so I opted for the sunrise tour, which cost about $8. I was the first passenger when a minivan picked me up one morning at 4:30 for the tour. We picked up several other passengers on the way and arrived My Son when the gates opened at 6:30 a.m.
My Son was constructed in the late 4th century by the Cham people and rediscovered by the French in the late 19th century. In more recent history, My Son was used as a Viet Cong base during the Vietnam War and many of the most important monuments at the site were destroyed by U.S. bombs. Today, only about 20 of the original 65+ structures remain.
Though it was a very early wakeup call, I didn’t regret my decision to do the sunrise My Son tour. When our group of about 15 people arrived, we had the place to ourselves. It was peaceful and quiet and easy to take tourist-free photos. Our tour guide shared some interesting information at each of the temple groupings, and we had plenty of time to explore.
The structures themselves are beautiful, but I think what I enjoyed even more were the breathtaking surroundings. The temple complex is situated in the jungle with lush green hills on all sides. It was wonderful to be able to experience the beauty of the place before tour groups started filing through the area.
We were back in Hoi An by 10 a.m., at which time I enjoyed a homemade breakfast at my homestay and then headed back to bed.
7. Wander Around Hoi An
Wandering is free, and as I’ve said before, it’s the best way to experience a city! Hoi An is rich with interesting sites and colors. It’s famous for its silk lanterns, which hang on trees, balconies and bridges all through the town and light up after dark.
Hoi An is also known for its tailors. The downtown streets are filled with shops promoting custom-made clothing. Anything you have in mind, from leather jackets to wedding dresses and everything in between, can be made to your specifications before you leave town.
A friend I met in Hoi An had two dresses, a short set and pantsuit made during her weeklong stay. I was tempted until I realized that my backpack was already overfull.
Don’t forget to watch the people as you wander around the city. The street vendors will call out to you. You will be asked to buy lanterns and peanuts and multiple configurations of fried, sugared dough (the coconut-filled treats are especially good!). If you wander along the water, you’ll find many sailors loudly offering their services.
The hawkers can get very tiresome, but it’s all part of the experience. Shake your head, say “no thank you,” or just keep walking. Don’t let them prevent you from taking in the fresh air and all the sights Hoi An has to offer.
Whether or not you choose to follow these tips, I hope you’ll make a stop in Hoi An on your next trip to Vietnam. It’s a beautiful city that will offer a chance to rest a while amid the craziness of this diverse and fascinating country. Have you been to Hoi An? What was your favorite part?