Wondering what to do in Hoi An? You’re not alone – but trust me, there is so much more to this beautifully preserved river trading port than meets the eyes! Bare with me, as I show you a few of the top things to do in Hoi An, proving that while the Old Town of Hoi An might be very Disney-esque… If you know where to look you can find both substance and style!
Sadly many travelers never get to discover the true essence of Hoi An, only stumbling around it’s -admittedly picturesque – old town, managing only a few hours of admiring grand architecture in the hot midday sun before beating a hasty retreat back to their hotel pool. Frazzled and a tad bewildered, they seem to quickly spread word up-and-down Vietnam that Hoi An is a one day stop at best with overpriced Old Town restaurants of dubious quality and not much else… Unless of course, you visit for the insanely awesome Lantern Festival held annually. But I promise if you look a bit harder – and explore outside the old town – Hoi An will quickly become your favorite destination in Vietnam. This is thanks to Hoi An’s incredible food scene, relaxed pace of life, varieties of shopping and events on offer – not to mention plenty of day trips, tropical beaches on its doorstep and some of the most foreign-friendly nightlife in Vietnam!
Most of these top things to do in Hoi An I gathered through local recommendations, stumbling around and more than a little research – and after you visit you will probably have your own so feel free to come back and let other readers know. If you’re heading to Hoi An for the first time (as this list assumes!) you really should have at least 3 full days to really get a feel for this UNESCO listed town…because the most common regret I heard from other travellers once they got to know the city was ‘I really wish I had more time here’ ….
You may think it’s boring, just riding around on a bike – but if you do, you’ve clearly never been to Hoi An before. Often devoid of motorised traffic the majestic Old Town is a remarkable collection of ancient buildings, temples and meeting halls that can easily be seen all on a casual bike trip (and with a breeze no less!)… Yet within minutes a completely different world awaits – in no time at all you can be in the centre of a rice field, amongst ducks, pigs and wild birds. The contrast is quite remarkable and thanks to Hoi An’s pancake-flat environment and relative lack of traffic (well compared to Hanoi or Ho Chi Min anyway), exploring Hoi An by bicycle allows you freedom, flexibility and an escape from the ‘tourist trail’ where you can really see local life on display! You never know what will be around the corner…
If you don’t want to navigate by yourself or just want to explore Hoi An with some new friends and a guide by bike, there are also a few popular small-group bike tours in Hoi An that explore both the city and countryside.
I don’t say this lightly, but anybody who is passionate about discovering, sampling and understanding the foods of Vietnam and Hoi An needs to sign up to the Original Taste of Hoi An tour and organize to have it on the first day you arrive in Hoi An. Out of all the food tours I have taken over the years around the world, none have come close to the level of passion, community involvement, professionalism, knowledge and fun I found here with Neville the Teacher and his team. I don’t want to give away too much – but the tour is split into two parts, one discovering the markets, street-side stalls and small restaurants of an authentic Hoi An neighbourhood (with plenty of food samplings, photo opportunities and anecdotes) and the second back at Neville’s home where in a custom-designed space he and his team attempts to stuff you with as much food and knowledge as you can possibly handle – Hint: You’re never going to think about SPAM the same way ever again!
I sampled around 45-50 different Vietnamese dishes (there are over 1,700 at last count) and these are no small portions. It’s a tasting tour so you eat what you want and everything is based on recognising that you have distinct taste buds – you either like or you don’t like, and there is no wrong answer. Well except when it comes to the Vietnamese Coffee Ice-Cream, because anyone who doesn’t 100% love that must be a little deranged. Beyond Neville and his teams passion and pride (they have been running this tour in one from or another for 10 years), I also loved their commitment to social responsibility within the community and the cost of the tour directly benefits over 40 people – many of whom you will meet on the tour – and an orphanage (I’ll let Neville explain that better). If you take the tour when you arrive, you will also get Neville’s planning services which basically means he will tell you all the best places in town for whatever your heart desired including cocktails, shoes, bags, coffee, pizza…You name it, which is great! The top reviewed food tasting tour in Hoi An (hell, it’s one of Hoi An’s top attractions!) you won’t ever regret heading out with the Original Taste Of Hoi An…and will probably never look at Vietnam or food the same again!
Make a day of it at the beach. At any of the seaside bars/restaurants you’re welcome to a deck chair just meters from the water’s edge – and it’ll only cost you a bottle of water. Relax in between swims with a good book and a snooze – but don’t forget your sunscreen like I did! Choosing somewhere to eat can be daunting with so many options, so let me make it easier and say hands down you need to just head straight to Ms Tuyet and her self-named seafood restaurant Tuyet with the Worlds Best Spring Rolls (trust me, they are *huge*), great service, cute little thatched umbrellas and a enviable position just 30 meters from the surf! If you still have energy head to the Soul Kitchen for some sunset sundowner drinks – often joined by live music making the whole thing extremely atmospheric!
The ruins at My Son hark back to the early centuries AD, when the Hindu Champa civilization ruled much of central Vietnam. But in the case of the My Son ruins, it hasn’t just been the ravages of time at play. In 1969, during the American War, the Nixon administration targeted My Son from the air (because it was a Viet Cong haven) and blew most of it to smithereens. The 70 or so well-preserved towers and attendant structures were hammered but all considered, some of the buildings are remarkably intact among the bomb craters.
Today, like many of Vietnam’s famous sites, mass tourism has taken it’s toll and My Son Sanctuary – in large part thanks to it’s UNESCO World Heritage listing – is swarming with tour groups and tourists wandering around with very little clue as to what is going on. You can either brave the heat and hire a private driver to take you to My Son in the afternoon when the crowds have all returned to Hoi AN (around 1 pm 99 % of tour groups have gone…) or sign up to any of the huge tour buses taking groups out for sunset at My Son or on a half-day morning tour. If you read up about the site in advance and ditch you guide once you are through the entrance gate, its actually pretty nice and you can avoid most the lumbering groups and explore a few quiet spots on your own …Definitely worth a visit for history buffs or those who have not seen Angkor Wat.
Let’s just be clear right of the bat: the best restaurants in Hoi An are not in the old town, and while some restaurants have beautiful fit-outs, decent food and average service …You will be paying 2-3x at a minimum for the privilege of dining here, and are unlikely to be impressed. Ignore your hotel as they will get kick-backs and commissions for sending customers to one place over another (when we were in town hilariously every shop and hotel recommended one place, and yet every traveller and Tripadvisor review said it was terrible…).
None of this is not to say there arn’t great restaurants in Hoi An…You just need to explore, ask other travellers, pick the brains of Neville at the Original Taste of Hoi An. By no means comprehensive, here are a few of the best restaurants in Hoi An we heard about that you should try:
It’s hot as hell in Hoi An and sometimes you just need the beach to cool off – so why not check in for a few nights of luxury pampering and pool-side cocktails just 15 minutes drive from Hoi An Old Town. And if you’re visiting the whole of Vietnam you’re around about half-way now and probably long overdue for some much needed rest and relaxation. I checked into the Naman Retreat and loved it’s multiple pools, daily activities program including learning how to basket boat (well trying at least), chic modern design complete with minimalist bamboo architecture and world-class spa facilities. With a myriad of palm trees, live music and spectacular sunsets the evenings are never boring here and they conveniently had free shuttle services to Hoi An if you wanted to visit by day-or-night… Not only that but on check-in I was allocated our own personal ambassador contactable 24/7 via Whatsapp to answer any questions and help with absolutely anything we needed, so needless to say I felt like I was living the high-life at a mere fraction of what it would cost in a more developed country!
What else can I say? Hoi An is the most tourism orientated city in Vietnam, and while the heat of the day keeps many people back at their hotel pool-side, at night – Hoi An comes alive. Happy hours, bucket drinks, free tequila shots or entire bottles of vodka, anything can be negotiated here or offered but quality might not be the best. My picks for the best Hoi An Nightlife are Q Bar, with their opulent cocktails amidst upscale oriental decor, White Marble Wine Bar for its extensive ..well wine, Tam Tam for it’s second floor balcony views and happy hour and of course – Tiger Tiger for it’s dance-until-you-drop, cheap drinks and backpacker vibes with the parties to end all parties. Whatever your preference, budget or style, Hoi An nightlife can provide!
Shopping!! Finding a tailor in Hoi An is about as hard as shutting your eyes, turning around and pointing to the nearest shop. But getting the actual clothes made is a lot trickier – it may turn out to be the greatest thing you’ve ever done or an unmitigated disaster. Of course if you’re Vietnam Itinerary doesn’t end in Hoi An you might want to hold off to avoid carrying anything around with you. Either way, there are many tips to prevent a tailoring disaster but the most important ones are:
If you’re one of those selfish types who hates sharing your tropical paradise with the general public, check out this largely unspoilt marine-protected island; one of the least developed islands in Vietnam. Day-trippers flock to it on public holidays and weekends, but pick a weekday, especially out of peak season, and you may just find yourself alone with the locals. Cham Island’s coral reefs attract divers and snorkelers alike, with some operators offering scuba diving, snorkeling and trekking packages at pretty reasonable rates – but with only two shops, quality is low and many trips are cancelled without reason. The ferry only takes about 90 minutes to get to Cham Island so why not head out to this UNESCO Biosphere and see what all the fuss is about!
While the coffee or drinks can be of dubious quality, why not spend the day trying to find unique views of the Hoi An old town from above…. This was one of our favourite things to do in Hoi An, popping up to the 2nd or 3rd floor of restaurants and considering the coffee or cocktail an admission charge to set from above and watch the busy streets below or look out over the tilled roof-tops of the old city! Sometimes we were pleasantly surprised by the coffee quality – like at the beautiful rooftop of Faifo Coffee – and many times, we were not. There are probably 100 or more restaurants with views across Hoi An and half the fun is discovering your own personal favourite…Just keep a keen eye on the sky as your walking along and when something look intriguing head up! Let other readers know your favourite roof-top cafe in Hoi An in the comments below after!
If you’re heading to Hoi An, chances are you are either going to or coming from Hue – so while this is not technically a thing to do in Hoi An, you should still consider taking an Easyrider over the bus or private car! So what is an Easyrider in Vietnam? Well – basically its an experienced Vietnamese man who takes you on the back of his bike to where-ever you want to go, and boy is it a rush! Having no interest in navigating Vietnamese roads at high speed, I contacted Hue Riders (the original guys who started this idea, with the best reviews) and organised a one day trip with them between Hoi An and Hue stopping at a remote fishing village, a white-sand beach for lunch, traversing the famous Hai Van Pass and even swimming by Da Nang Beach and Marble Mountain. No prior experience is needed, they are pro’s at everything (including transporting bulky luggage) and since you can’t really sleep you will have an entirely new appreciation for Vietnam life simply by looking around as you go! I loved it so much I’m planning to head back for a multi-day Easyrider in Vietnam … But if you’re not sure just start with the Easy Rider Hoi An To Hue first! You won’t regret it!
Of course the are so, so many other things to do in Hoi An, and that’s without even getting into day trips from Hoi An. While many are of dubious quality, it pays to book with a reputable company to ensure everything goes well and you are clear on expectations to avoid any potential issues. I never got to head to the Ba Na Hills as time was short (and I had too much food to try!) but I have heard bizarre and wonderful things, while Hue is a large historic city also worthy of a visit – but in a pinch a day trip from Hoi An will be enough to see the main Citadel and other highlights.