Vietnam’s cultural treasure of Hoi An is a must-see when traveling through Southeast Asia. This city has it all: quaint, walkable streets, a bustling nightlife, spectacular shopping, a beach, rice fields, and of course, the thousands of world-renowned lanterns hanging through its city center, Old Town.
This UNESCO Protected World Heritage Site is famous for good reason. Not only is it one of the best cities in Vietnam, it also still has low food and accommodation prices if you are looking to travel on a budget. Most tourists stay outside of the Old Town city and bike in to the town. (Which was our favorite way to travel around!)
Here are some of the top 10 things to do in Hoi An when visiting this wonderful, unique city.
1. Stroll through Old Town
One of the best activities in any new city is to walk and explore on foot. This can be difficult in most of Vietnam due to the lack of open sidewalks (most people park their motorbikes on the sidewalk, leading to pedestrians trekking in the street instead). But Hoi An’s Old Town is made up of a large neighborhood where visitors have no choice but to walk! No cars or motorbikes are allowed. Only bicycles, but with all the shoppers and site-seers, it’s best to just walk.
This city is known for the lovely rows of lanterns through the streets and the unique architecture of its matching dark yellow buildings. A river runs through Hoi An, so start by strolling along there night or day (preferably both!).
There’s also a busy night market that sells small souvenirs, clothing, street food, and just about anything you could ask for. It’s a two solid blocks long and can get packed at night. But that’s part of the adventure and charm!
In the heart of Old Town you can view the Japanese Covered bridge many tourists crowd to see. It’s packed full of people, and really, can be viewed from the outside with ease and less hassle. It costs money to go into the small bridge, so for a broke girl like me, it wasn’t worth it.
Technically, tourists are supposed to buy a ticket to enter Old Town, which costs about 5 USD, but this isn’t necessary. They will ask to see your ticket if you decide to enter any of the historical buildings or landmarks. But there’s so much to see by strolling the streets that I wouldn’t recommend buying the ticket unless you are a huge history buff or someone stops you and requires you to buy one.
There’s also a charming pagoda nestled inside of Old Town only a couple blocks from the Japanese bridge. There are no signs or fanfare and it’s not overcrowded so we almost missed it! But inside the gates are beautiful buildings with a lovely garden that well surpassed the Japanese bridge.
2. Street food
If you’re living on a budget and traveling to Hoi An, street food is a necessity. Not only is it more delicious and authentic than most restaurant food, it’s incredibly cheap. The most famous of foods in Vietnam are bánh mì and phở (pronounced fuh).
Bánh mì are sandwiches with a French-style baguette bread, loaded with meats and veggies and sauce. Each stand is slightly different and if you tell them 1 bánh mì, they will gladly hand over their most popular option. (Most street food vendors don’t speak English, so if you want to use your Google Translate to make a complicated order, that would be necessary). These sandwiches typically range from 10,000-25,000 dong ($.50-$1).
The most famous place is Bánh Mi Phuong. You’ll always see a line outside the door at all hours of the day. Phi Bánh Mi is also superb and less busy on a more local street slightly outside of Old Town. But truly, I was never disappointed with a banh mi stop, even at unnamed, unknown places. Plus, the unknown places are always cheaper!
Noodles are a staple in Vietnamese cooking, from phở to other dishes like hu tieu (clear rice noodles), mien (glass noodles), and cao au (unique to central Vietnam). We loved stopping at random street food spots, sitting in the tiny plastic chairs we were sure our American bodies would break, and ordering a random bowl of noodles. We never knew what exactly we were getting, but that was all part of the fun!
If you’re tired of street food after a few days though and want to splurge, our favorite fine dining stop was called Thirty-Seven Wood Fired Grill. It has a higher price tag than the street food, but they do an amazing job using all local ingredients with a steakhouse style menu.
I can easily say this was one of the best meals of my life because of the excellent service and top notch food quality. The cocktails were also the best I’ve had in Vietnam. It was worth one night after keeping a tight grip on my wallet most days!
Check out their gallery here to see the exceptional quality of the food, drinks, and atmosphere at this can’t miss restaurant.
Lantern Making Class
While lanterns are a stereotypical staple of Asia, they are deeply embedded into every area of Hoi An. Instead of simply buying one as a souvenir, sign up for a lantern making classes and craft your own!
It doesn’t take a high level of craftiness (if I was unsupervised I would have super glued my fingers together), but there’s a professional craftsman there to teach and help. Plus, you will have the satisfaction of saying you made it with your bare hands.
There are many to choose from, but we chose to attend Hoi An Handicraft. They have a cute storefront listing ‘Lantern Making Class’ which is hard to miss. The full class costs 380,000VND (about $16 USD), and you can also buy their handmade lanterns after the class.
They offer an express class as well (for 250,000VND – which allows you to start at the bamboo frame and wrap the silk outside yourself, to create the finishing touches).
I’m almost ashamed to say we ended up taking 11 lanterns home in total, some for gifts, and some selfishly for ourselves, with two of them being made by us! (Such a great feeling.)
You can also try other classes like pottery-making and Vietnamese drip coffee brewing through this company. While we didn’t try these ourselves, we can vouch for the owners of Hoi An Handicraft being amazingly friendly and informative.
4. Beach Day
Want to save money and feel luxurious? Head over to one of Hoi An’s beaches and spend the day under an umbrella drinking from a coconut. I spent many days on the beach with a book in one hand and a drink in the other.
If you venture to the most popular beach, An Bang Beach, you will be charged for parking, as well as a beach chair, and then for lunch and a drink on top of that. So to avoid all that hassle, look for a smaller, lesser known beach just down the road.
There are other little pockets of beaches where all you have to do is buy one drink and you can have a beach chair and umbrella all day. It’s a lovely, low-budget activity.
5. Bike or motorbike through the rice fields
If you’re staying close to Old Town, you’ll have to drive through the rice fields to get to the beach. You can rent a motorbike and drive over, rent a bicycle and ride (though be careful of riding from 12-4, it can get extremely hot), or you can rent a grab scooter and feel the wind rushing through your hair as you survey the luscious rice fields.
Scooters are easy to rent, simply by walking along any street in Hoi An within a couple minutes it is impossible to miss a sign for motorbike for rent. They typically cost 100-150k VND per day (about $4-6USD).
The most popular route is to take Hai Ba Trung north through the small island of Tra Que. Along the way you will see farmers working their rice fields, as well as local attractions such as the Tra Que Water Wheel, and Kumquat BBQ Restaurant & Cooking class.
This is a great activity to try yourself as a solo traveler or with another person.
6. Hoi An Lune Center
The Hoi An Lune Center is a performing arts center located just over the bridge from Old Town in An Hoi, that mostly puts on interpretive dance performances.
There are many to choose from, depending on the time of year and the day. We attended the AO show, which was about the history of Vietnam, contrasting the ancient civilizations and peaceful countryside, to the modern urbanization of Vietnam. The performers did a fantastic job incorporating humor with the extravagant smiles and dramatization of key moments of Vietnamese culture.
The show also has acrobatic dances from a group of talented performers, showcasing amazing physical stunts using bamboo in their performance art.
We recommend it as an excellent date night or a way to add some culture to your itinerary. Tickets cost between 700k VND to 1,600K VND (around $30 to $70USD). The stage is quite small (which makes for a more authentic and personalized experience) and the seats quality are quite similar even with the more expensive price tag.
While $30/person may be significant to those travelers on a tight budget, we were so impressed with the quality of the show we would recommend finding a way to incorporate this into your itinerary.
Also as a pro-tip, you won’t be allowed to bring in food or drink. They sell wine and beer outside, but even that isn’t allowed in the theater. We assumed it would be, so we had to finish an entire glass of wine before entering since we bought them right before the show was about to start! Learn from our mistake and get to the show with time to spare to enjoy your pre-show drink.
After the show the performers sit outside and play some music, giving the audience time to take photos. The performers are all so nice and energetic so try not to miss this opportunity to take a picture with the entertainers!
7. Scuba/Snorkeling off Cham Island
The Cham Islands are about an hour away by regular ‘old-boat’ ferry. You can explore this beautiful island on your own or go with a tour company to snorkel or scuba dive!
Most tours begin around 8 am with hotel pick-up, include a delicious, buffet-style lunch and two dives or snorkels. There are essentially two companies that offer these scuba and snorkeling trips: Blue Coral Diving or Dive Hoi An.
Both companies offer trips for either first-time or experienced divers. They also offer courses if you are looking to get open water scuba certified, or to increase your certification to an advanced level.
After doing both snorkeling and diving, they are both well-worth the day trip, especially compared to other snorkeling and diving options in Vietnam.
Snorkeling is cheaper, while scuba diving is more expensive but explorative. But either way, it’s a lovely way to spend the day on a boat, surveying the rolling ocean and tiny islands in the distance. We really enjoyed the break after snorkeling and diving to spend a couple hours on a beach and watch the tide come in.
Hidden Hoi An is a local travel group of writers who explore the lesser known yet most interesting pieces of Hoi An’s culture. They have written a full blog post on the Cham Islands which includes accommodations, transportation, activities, and top tips which we would highly recommend. You can find the article here.
Snorkeling Price: 1,000,000 VND ($43 USD)
Scuba Diving Price: 1,900,000 VND ($82 USD)
8. Night Life
While Old Town is favored for being more historic and beautiful, if you cross the bridge to the small island of An Hoi there is a different vibe. Not only will you have a chance to witness the hundreds of lanterns floating along the river, but you will find the bar scene.
Lining the street are tons of bars and clubs with buy one get one free mixed drink options and a bubbling population of young backpackers. It’s not a cultural spot favored by locals, but a fun night out nonetheless!
The bar we spent the most time, Corner Corner Sky Bar, played throw-back pop music and had a beer pong table set up. They offer good cocktail and beer happy hour specials, as well as a few varieties of local rice wine (which may not be for the less adventurous of travelers, but are definitely worth a try!).
If you haven’t gone to clubs or been to the bar scenes of Vietnam, there are also laughing gas balloons filled with nitrous oxide you can buy that I tepidly recommend trying at least once in your life!
9. Tailor-Made Clothing
Walking along the street, you will probably be flagged down by a Vietnamese woman who asks you to come to her clothing store. I was skeptical at first, but she seemed nice enough and her shop was in the same area we were heading to anyway.
Lo and behold, we ended up at a tailor shop where you can get clothes tailor made to fit you for a reasonable price.
They pressured me to try numerous dresses, but after some bartering, I got measured for one dress and one skirt and chose my fabrics. The dress was the cost of a Target dress and the skirt, even less than that! The best part, they actually fit me perfectly because they were tailor-made for me.
It’s a unique experience that isn’t common practice anywhere else in Vietnam and should be taken advantage of—I actually wish I would have bought more than one dress while there.
The shop I bought my dress from was Thien Thi. One of the most famous shops is BeBe Tailor, closer to the heart of the Old Town, which undoubtedly has higher prices but also high quality craftsmanship.
One last thing to mention is that they also offer tailor made suit jackets for men, however its way too hot in Vietnam to need one. But if Hoi An is the last stop on your trip, you should definitely look into getting one!
10. Take a food tour or cooking class
If traveling through Vietnam, we strongly recommend booking a food tour or cooking class on one of your first days. Each area of Vietnam has different style of foods, but also different customs, culture, and dialects. A food tour or cooking class gives visitors a chance to spend a few hours talking to a local about the region’s food and people.
With a food tour, you get the chance to walk through parts of the city you wouldn’t normally explore and have a knowledgeable guide explain the locals customs. We attended a few food tours in a few areas of Vietnam, and each time we’ve developed a meaningful relationship and memories with our guides.
Most in Hoi An range around $30 and offer anywhere from 5-10 courses of food. Your guide will typically start you off with a smaller course to try an appetizer, and then work your way into larger more substantial meals. We’ve tried so many different unique dishes we would have never thought to order (or not have known WHAT we are eating) without our guides.
Some unique foods include Xi Ma, a warm, sweet soup made with black sesame and tofu; White Roses, translucent white dough filled with minced shrimp or pork with a unique dipping sauce; and Quang noodles, some of the most thick and flavorful we have had yet while in Vietnam. These foods were found on the Coconut Food Tours, which we highly recommend!
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to try a cooking class, but have been told by numerous travel friends that it is well-worth it and much cheaper than similar quality cooking classes would be in Western countries.
we have 2 bonus day trips for you!
11. Day trip to Hue
When you visit Hoi An, take advantage of the train or bus system and head up to Hue for a night. It’s a three hour trip so it’s very convenient! There are direct bus options from Hoi An to Hue, or if you decide to take the train you will need to take a shuttle up to Da Nang first. Both have beautiful, scenic views so you really can’t go wrong.
Once you’re in Hue, there is a tiny strip of restaurants and bars for backpackers with some cute shopping within a couple blocks. On Google Maps you’ll find it near the He Army Pub. We didn’t end up going to that bar specifically, but the entire area is a couple blocks of music and night energy that makes it worth checking out.
But during the day, you should rent a motorbike and check out the Imperial City. Stroll through the historic palace as well as the expansive garden. You can motorbike in an area with cafes for free (we bought a coffee so I think that helps!) and then find the main entrance. We spent hours looking through the city and gardens and thoroughly enjoyed the history of the place.
After that, check out one of the tombs like the Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh King. It’s a quick tourist activity that doesn’t require a lot of time, but is beautiful and interesting to see.
Then ride over to the Abandoned Waterpark for some spectacular shots of what is now a tourist attraction. There will be a guard standing at the gate who will let you in once you pay him (only about 50,000VND) and you can motorbike up all around. We weren’t sure if we could motorbike, because most people were walking. So if you have time, take a stroll and walk around. If you’re arriving close to sunset, motorbike through to see all the halfway empty abandoned waterpark attractions.
12. Day trip to Bana Hills
To see the gorgeous Bana Hills, take a majestic cable car ride to the top of the mountain and explore the French-style village and the famous Golden Bridge. If you are on a budget, you can go just for the day and explore, then head back to Da Nang for a cheap Airbnb/hostel and food that’s a fourth of the cost. I’d recommend getting an early start though!
The cable car starts its assent at 7:30AM and its last ride back is at 9PM. This round trip ticket costs 700,000VND (around $30USD). This is a bit pricey for most backpackers but its such a unique experience that I would definitely recommend it.
Wanting to feel a bit bougie though? Book a room in a French boutique hotel at the top of the mountain in Bana Hills. For the same price as an average American hotel, you can stay in the misty hilltops where they carry your bags for you. By far, this was the most bougie experience I’ve had in Vietnam.
It’s definitely a little fancier, but if you’ve been budgeting like a champion in Vietnam and want to treat yourself for a night, it’s lovely (even in the pouring rain!) to walk through the fake French village the day you arrive, visit the pagoda at the top of the hills during the day. Then wake up, bright and early the next day to beat some of the tourists who flock to the Golden Bridge for the photo ops. (There will still be tourists there, even at 7:00 am, but far less than if you don’t stay overnight)
Be sure to go past the Golden Bridge and explore the gardens as well though! There are many unique nooks and crannies to behold besides the bridge.
If you’re using this as your one expensive night, try the French style restaurant L’Etable. It had wonderful food and wine that made sense with the Western prices and fine dining atmosphere. (This was still not that expensive. More along the lines of a mid-range American restaurant in a city).
While Hoi An is one of the best cities in Vietnam and a cultural hub taking the world by storm, get the most out of your Vietnamese experience by talking to locals, eating local food, and exploring the world outside the tourist spots. The more tiny plastic chairs you can sit on with giant bowls of pho, the better!
Check out brokegirltravels.com for more budget-conscious travel tips!
By Chelsea Sanders from @Broke_Girl_Traveler