If you’re going to Southeast Asia for the first time, consider making Hoi An in Central Vietnam one of your first stops. It’s scenic, safe, quaint (for Southeast Asia standards) and developed, providing visitors with a multitude of different activities to do. It’s also a good gateway trip into Southeast Asia, as most places throughout Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and The Philippines are still very underdeveloped. Hoi An, on the other hand, provides an amalgamation of Western and Eastern influences, making it an easy stop for those traveling to Southeast Asia for the first time.
The heart of Hoi An is its Old Town, a former trading port that is now the mecca of the city. Unlike any other place that I’ve been to in Southeast Asia, it feels European in ways. It’s made up of colorful quaint buildings, narrow and winding streets and blooming trees – things that you don’t find often in Southeast Asia. It’s also built along the Thu Bon River, adding another element of European beauty and character.
Old Town is listed as a UNESECO World Heritage Site; however, the word ‘heritage’ can be deceiving. There are a few historic sites that have been preserved, such as temples, old houses and a famous Japanese bridge built in the 1600s; however, the city’s historical presence is greatly outweighed by the hundreds of bars, hostels, shops and merchants that make up its streets. You can’t walk a foot without passing a souvenir shop, tailor, café or restaurant serving burgers and pizza.
That said, what’s best about Hoi An is that you can make it as you wish, taking a more Western, commercial route or finding authentic, local experiences outside of Old Town. We did a combination of both and had a great trip. Take a look below!
City biking: One of the best parts of Hoi An is that you can bike around the city. Compared to most Southeast Asian cities where you wouldn’t dare bike for fear of being hit by a motorbike, Hoi An is much calmer and less dense, making it much more feasible for biking. Most hotels will have bikes that you can use or you can rent them from local shops in town. This may not seem like something special given that many Western cities have biking options; however, it’s very rare to find this in Asia.
In terms of where to bike, biking around Old Town is the most common. We did this on our first day, as it provided a nice way to get the feel of the city and see its diverse architecture, an amalgamation of Chinese, French and Vietnamese-influenced buildings. We then biked to the beach, about 5 kilometers away from Old Town. Surprisingly, we didn’t seen many other tourists doing this, but if interested, it’s a nice smooth bike ride with only a few small hills.
Countryside biking: If you’re looking to see the local parts of Hoi An and the surrounding area, I recommend doing a bike trip through Hoi An’s countryside. It offers an escape from the touristy-areas while providing a glimpse into the way of life in central Vietnam – one that isn’t focused on tourism and consumerism.
As the biking company Heaven & Earth’s pamphlet was in our hotel and it had great reviews on TripAdvisor, we went with them. You’ll find on Heaven and Earth’s website that it offers three different all-day biking tours that are each mixed with cultural excursions, such as learning Vietnamese handicrafts or visiting a local family’s home. However, as we only had two full days in Hoi An, we asked if they could tailor the tour to make it shorter and biking-only without excursions. Within five minutes, the company called their guide and we had a three-hour biking-only tour set. If only every company worked like that!
Heaven and Earth’s bike tour through Hoi An’s countryside was the highlight of the trip. We spent the afternoon riding through rice paddies, peanut fields, bamboo bridges and local villages, seeing the agriculture and way of life in rural Vietnam. The aesthetic of Hoi An’s countryside felt very similar to our past bike trip in Southern Vietnam with colorful homes, narrow rivers and temples along the biking path. Our guide, Quy, also helped make our experience. Not only did he have a great personality, but he created the tour for us in real-time, meeting our expectations, and shared invaluable local and personal insight about Hoi An throughout our ride.
While it was a third of the time of Heaven and Earth’s typical bike trips, it was a perfect amount of time to see the beauty of Hoi An’s countryside while also getting a realistic glimpse into local life.
Tailored-Suits: One of the most popular activities in Hoi An is to get a custom suit made. You’ll see dozens of tailors throughout the streets of Old Town; however, it’s important to get a recommendation or check out TripAdvisor before deciding which one to use. It’s also important to keep in mind that the quality of suits will not be comparable to what you can get in Hong Kong or Singapore, but it will be a whole lot more affordable and a fun experience!
Food: Most places in Southeast Asia aren’t known for their cuisine, which is another reason why Hoi An is special. Not only does it have great local specialties and street food, but it also has a mix of international cuisines and Vietnamese fusion restaurants, such as the restaurant Nu Eatery. Nu serves modern and fresh fusion dishes, such as Vietnamese steamed buns, spring rolls and stuffed avocado. It was one of the best meals we’ve had in Southeast Asia and a must-go if you visit Hoi An.
This said, what stands out most about Hoi An’s food is its banh mi, local Vietnamese sandwiches. We had searched for authentic banh mi during our prior trips to Southern and Northern Vietnam, only to be disappointed by the lack of options and quality. In Hoi An, however, banh-mi is everywhere. Make sure to visit Banh Mi Phuong – it’s the best authentic banh mi you’ll ever have.