This has been a recurring theme in my travel. Show up in a historic town that the guidebooks describe as lovely and charming, only to find that it’s filled with tourists and touts and nearly all the local life has been squeezed out of the historic core in favor of shops, cafés, and tour agencies serving foreigners.
It happened in Lijiang, China and it’s on the verge of happening in one of my favorite places: Melacca, Malaysia. I was about to dismiss Hoi An the same way…and then I started slowly discovering the subtle charm of the town.
It is packed with tourists, no doubt. And the old town center is one tailor’s shop after another. But as I rode my bike farther out of the center, I began to find where the local crowd hang out. The coffee shops, TV bars, and simple eateries—each offering its specialty. Chicken rice, snails, cao lau, chicken soup, or Pho—pull up little plastic chair and dig in.
Eating in Hoi An is supposedly cheaper and better than most places in Vietnam. But it’s still a challenge to find a local café that will quote you decent prices. But we enjoyed snails, chicken and rice, and lots of cao lau, the local noddle and pork specialty. One particular recommendation is Sun Shine café run by a woman named Hoi. It’s a traveler’s restaurant located out front of her house offering lots of delicious local specialties (and more) for very reasonable prices. A fantastic local chicken rice place is located north of town on Ly Thuong at the intersection of Ngo Gia Tu.
It seems every visitor to Hoi An is going to a tailor to get a custom-made dress, suit, or shirt. And with good reason—tailors are skilled, prices are cheap, and it’s fun. There’s no shortage of tailors either—over 400 at last count. I got a shirt made for $14 US and my travel partner got two dresses made that ran from $20-25. Although there are plenty of good tailors out there, we had success with Ants Silk at 72 Ba Trieu Street.
Going out for coffee was a daily routine for me in Vietnam. Be it at a street stall or café, hot or iced with condensed milk, I didn’t miss my Vietnamese coffee. My favorite place to go for coffee in Hoi An, was along the river. All the seats are open-air, under cover with a view of the tranquil palm-fringed river. A coffee is only 10,000 dong ($.50) and the wait staff was honest. It’s called Café 139 located predictably at 139 Nguyen Duy Hieu, about 2 km east of town on the way to the Cua Dai beach. Hop on a bike and take a break before the beach.
There are a plethora of places to stay in Hoi An, many at reasonable prices. We stayed at Cam Chau Homestay, which is a collection of families that offer rooms for travelers in their homes. They are located to the east of town about 2 km and south in the neighborhood across the stream. A room is priced at about $20 for a double and includes breakfast. Our family had a ‘stay three nights and get one free diner’ policy. The family was friendly, the food was great, and I even got to observe their offering for the full moon.
Hoi An is also close to the beach. Our homestay offered bicycles, so we only had to pedal a very pleasant 20 minutes down the road to Cua Dai beach—a long section of sandy beach with good swimming. Alternatively there is An Bang beach 4 km north of town which supposedly is even nicer.
You could probably linger in Hoi An for a few weeks or even work there remotely if you are a digital nomad. Although if you’re on a whirlwind trip through the length of Vietnam, 2 or 3 days should make you happy.