The Sweet Spot: Hoi An, Vietnam

by  Katie Hammel | Apr 3, 2019
Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An, Vietnam / RomanBabakin/iStock

Vietnam — like much of Southeast Asia  has a well-earned reputation for being an affordable place to visit. And Hội An, which is situated on a river along the country’s central coast, is no exception. For travelers looking for a tropical getaway away from the hustle-and-bustle of Vietnam's large cities, the city offers the perfect mix of historic sites, delicious food, charming city streets, beautiful beaches, and a lush countryside: all at a budget-friendly price.

Strolling the streets of the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town is like stepping back in time.

A thriving port town in the 1700s, Hội An still looks much like it did 300 years ago — though now its narrow, yellow two-story buildings are storefronts for tailors, leather shops, and souvenir stores. Today, most of the people milling about its streets are tourists who gawk at the colorful lanterns that adorn every building, street, and intersection.

Still, it’s easy to imagine walking these car-free city streets. Several centuries-old buildings and landmarks remain, including the 200-year-old Tan Ky house, which is filled with intricately carved columns; the Japanese Covered Bridge (or Cau Chua Pagoda), which was originally built in 1593 (and reconstructed by the Chinese and Vietnamese in the 18th century); and 200 Years in Hội An, a 200-year-old family home that was used for a scene in The Quiet American and has since been converted into a cocktail bar.

Those visiting the Hoi An Ancient Town — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — are expected to buy a ticket (technically, it’s good for 24 hours but the expectation is that you’ll buy one ticket for the duration of your stay). The cost is 120,000 VND (about $5). About once per month on the night of the full moon, the lights are turned off and the streets are illuminated only by lanterns. There are no cars allowed within the Ancient Town — only bikes and the illuminated boats that ply the river. You can take a 15-minute boat ride for around $5, which only adds to the area’s nostalgic charm.

You can eat and drink well for a very small price.

At Bánh Mì Queen, you can snag a hearty bánh mí sandwich filled with pork or chicken, pâté, pickles, papaya, carrots, chili sauce, and a mayo-like egg sauce for 25,000 VND (about $1). A heaping plate of chicken rice or traditional cao lầu noodles — chewy rice noodles topped with pork, lemongrass, bean sprouts, and crispy fried rice crackers — tops out at around $5 (you can get it for even less if you buy from a street stand). Additionally, a serving of white rose dumplings (another Hội An speciality of translucent rice dough filled with pork) costs around $3.

Even for a special occasion, you’ll be hard-pressed to spend more than $100 for dinner for two. For example, at the upscale, European-inspired Aubergine 49, entrées like potato-scaled grouper or smoked duck breast will cost around $20 each.

Alternatively, head over to the speakeasy-style Tadioto, a Japanese bar hidden behind a clothing shop. Pieces of exceptionally fresh nigiri cost about $3 for two and rolls start at $5. Also, be sure to order a glass of the bar's own Scotch, which costs less than $8.

Accommodation and transportation are equally affordable, too.

While hostels, homestays, and Airbnbs in Hội An start at around $20 for a private room, full-service hotels aren’t much more, which means you can sleep in style for an affordable price. For example, a double room at the Ally Beach Boutique Hotel Hội An on Cua Dai beach starts at around $50 per night, while a spacious balcony room at the Hội An Rivertown Hotel is $70 per night, and features a prime riverside location (just five minutes from the Ancient Town), two pools, a gym, and complimentary breakfast. 

Transportation is also cheap. Bike rentals will cost you about $3 per day, but many times, are offered by hotels for free. With your bike, you can get get to the Ancient Town, the beach, or the surrounding rice paddies for just a few bucks. What's more, taxi rides rarely cost more than $2 or $3 around Ancient Town, or from the Old Town to the beach. The 30-minute taxi from Hội An to the Da Nang International Airport costs about $15.

The beaches are beautiful, but there’s plenty to do away from the waves as well.

Hội An is sunny and hot nearly all year around (aside from the rainy season from October to January, but even then, it usually doesn’t rain all day). Plus, with beautiful beaches that are just a 10-minute drive from the Ancient Town, the city makes for a great wallet-friendly beach escape.

The most popular beach is An Bang, a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of white-sand beach, lined with bars and lounge chairs available to rent. Full-day chair rental costs anywhere from 50 cents to $2, depending on the location, whether there’s an umbrella, and if you order food and drink. There are also several beautiful beaches farther north, which are closer to Da Nang.

Aside from soaking up the sun on the beach or wandering the charming lantern-lit streets of the Ancient Town, there’s plenty more to do in Hội An. About an hour outside the city, you can explore the crumbling ancient ruins at My Son Sanctuary, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built between the fourth and 13th centuries by the Cham people, the site features 70 Hindu temples in various states of decline (and yes, some of that decline was accelerated by American bombs).

Closer to Hội An (near Da Nang), visit the Marble Mountains, a collection of five limestone and marble monoliths. While each of the mountains is dotted with dozens of caves and hidden shrines, Mount Thuy is the most popular, thanks to the elevator that provides access to the top for visitors who don’t want to climb the uneven stone steps. Once you reach the top, expect fantastic views of the beach and surrounding mountains. The summit also features caves of various sizes, many of which have massive carved Buddha statues inside. You can easily spend a few hours exploring the caves alone, and the Marble Mountains can be combined with My Son Sanctuary on a single day trip. A full day private tour with Hidden Land Travel costs about $100 per person. 

For a less strenuous activity, consider participating in a cooking class with Gioan Cookery for $40 per person. Each group gets to choose the four dishes they want to make, such as lemongrass chicken, pho, or spring rolls. There's one instructor per group, so even if your group of two is part of a larger class, you still get one-on-one instruction.

And you can’t leave without visiting a tailor or leather shop.

Finally, you won't want to leave Hội An without visiting a tailor (or at least, you can’t leave Hội An without walking past at least a dozen of them). Once you see some of the beautiful fabrics and designs — and the low prices —chances are you’ll be tempted to step inside.

Although prices can vary, a custom-made leather bag will usually cost around $30 to $50, a men's collared shirt goes for about $25 to $40, and a suit jacket and/or sport coat is priced at around $70 to $100. Women’s clothing often comes in a variety of different price points, and it pays to shop around. Most tailors will ask have you come in for about two to four fittings, and they’ll deliver your finished clothes to your hotel for free (they also take cash and credit card).

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