It’s hard to think of a more visitor-friendly town than Hoi An. A ridiculously photogenic Ancient Town? Hundreds of tailor and leather shops offering custom-made items for less than off-the-rack back home? Palm-lined beaches and nearby islands? Yes, please!
However, being blessed with culture, history, shopping, and beaches, all within a compact area means Hoi An is almost always bursting with tourists, with over- and underwhelmed visitors inevitably split on whether they loved or hated the experience. Here are ideas for how to spend a perfect weekend in Hoi An, including alternate tips for returning travelers who’ve already been to the major attractions.
Pick up a ticket to Hoi An’s Old Town and decide which five attractions you’ll visit. There are old wood-frame houses with lovely courtyards, colorful Chinese assembly halls, the iconic covered Japanese Bridge and more. While you’re walking the town, place your order for tailored garments, a Hoi An specialty. To speed up the process, have images or a sample to show the tailors. Most can turnaround orders in 24 hours, but it’s best to give it a bit of extra time for any needed alterations. As lunchtime approaches, head over to Banh Mi Phuong for what celebrity-chef Anthony Bourdain called ‘a symphony in a sandwich’. If you’ve been there before, walk 10 minutes across town to rival Madam Khanh’s aka The Banh Mi Queen.
The key to enjoying Hoi An is limiting your exposure to the crowds. This afternoon, hop on a bicycle and head towards the beach. In just a few minutes, you’ll find yourself surrounded by rice fields, shrimp ponds, and curious buffalo. Get lost along the dirt paths, with a stop at the famed Tra Que gardens for a cooking class making use of flavourful organic herbs. Or, if you prefer to leave the peddling to someone else, take a vintage sidecar for a jaunt around the countryside. If you still have some energy, continue on to the nearby beaches of Cua Dai or An Bang for some late afternoon sun and sea. Returning visitors might consider a half-day trip to the nearby Cham Islands instead, with their quiet beaches and good snorkeling and diving.
Spend an hour browsing Hoi An’s incredibly kitschy Night Market lined with souvenir stalls along the Thu Bon River. Have a Vietnamese fusion dinner at Mango Mango while watching the brightly lit up boats bobbing on the water and people releasing floating candles for good luck. If you like Mango Mango, end the night at ThirtySeven Woodfired Grill + Bar, a chic new steakhouse by the same owner specialising in locally-sourced ingredients cooked over the coals of coffee and cashew woods. Sip on a cocktail (the ‘Tropical Darkness’ with Flor de Caña, cardamom, pineapple, and charcoal gets rave reviews) at the copper bar or enjoy a Cuban at the upstairs cigar club.
Wake up early while all the other tourists are still making their way down to the breakfast buffet and visit the Ancient Town with its ochre-colored walls bathed in the early morning light. Bring your camera because it’ll be the only time you won’t have dozens of people in your frame. The Hoi An Market will be bustling with locals, and the small boats ferrying shoppers over the river make for spectacular photos. After a bowl of mi quang noodle soup, explore one of the nearby single-craft villages specializing in woodworking or pottery. While accessible via a short drive, a boat cruise makes for a more memorable experience, with bonus views of fishers deftly casting their traditional circular nets.
Time to pick up the clothes you had made and perhaps a few gifts for friends back home. Most of the kitsch souvenirs are actually made in China, so you’ll get better value (sentimental and otherwise) from products handmade in Hoi An. Reaching Out has beautiful homewares handmade on-site by people with disabilities, or watch as a silversmith craft a personal memento for you at Silver Lanterns (120 Nguyen Thai Hoc). Ties are another good deal, as the tailors often fashion bits of leftover fabric into ties for less than US$5. As you’re shopping, use up the rest of your entrance ticket. The well-preserved Quan Thang House with its original wooden beams and beautiful furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl is worth a visit, and there’s even a tiny eatery at the very back where you can watch the staff make shrimp dumplings by hand, known as ‘White Rose’.
You can’t leave Hoi An without trying one of its amazing specialties: chicken and rice or cao lau, available at posh restaurants and streetside stalls. The chicken and rice get its intense flavor from using every part of the chicken, from the chicken broth to boil the rice, to the innards being made into a gravy, to the chewy strips of the chicken itself. Broad cao lau noodles get their distinctive texture from soaking in lye water only available in Hoi An, which means you’ll likely not find it anywhere else in Vietnam. Grab a seat by the window at one of Hoi An Roastery’sseven locations throughout the Ancient Town and enjoy an after-dinner coffee while people watching, or join the town’s expats at the wraparound veranda of Mia Coffee, known for its delectable desserts, on a quiet side street lined with galleries and boutiques just beyond the Hoi An Market.