You might be in two minds about Hoi An, dithering about whether it’s worth a stop or not. After all, it’s not the easiest town to get to.
Sure, there are open tour buses that stop there, and fares are crazy cheap – maybe $10 – but the horror stories online, combined with your experience of long distance bus rides and what you’ve seen so far of Vietnamese roads, might seriously put you off.
The train from Saigon to nearby Danang doesn’t come cheap, at more than $50 a ticket, and a berth split with two elderly Vietnamese women who don’t look overly impressed by having to share with these foreigners and spend most of their time ‘whispering’ to each other. (It’s okay; we have no idea what you’re saying, so covering up your mouths and speaking into each other’s ears without dropping the volume one notch makes zero difference, ladies.) But at least it’s comfortable, and that is (almost) priceless for your 6’2 husband.
Then there’s actually getting to Hoi An from the train station. As per usual, we seem to be travelling the wrong way; the trip to Hoi An apparently costs twice what it would if you were travelling from Hoi An. I’d armed myself with all the information I could find about catching the cheap public bus, but with comfort and convenience in mind, we end up forking over $20 for a taxi.
Once you reach Hoi An, though? It’s completely, unquestioningly worth it.
True, while the ancient buildings have been physically preserved yet turned into rows of “same same” (to borrow a phrase) shops, there’s still an overarching old world charm that permeates.
Women (always women) presiding over their clothing shops and restaurants. Dogs ambling down the streets, or sitting dead still on the sidewalks. Vibrant galleries and bins of broken porcelain. Soothing music piped through the streets, punctuated by late afternoon public announcements that the motorbike ban is about to end.
Cheap delicious food abounds, especially the local specialty, cao lau (noodles). Oddly, the eateries seem to either embrace you, doing all they can to reel you in, or practically ignore you, leaving you to find your own seat and wait 10 minutes for service.
At night, they come out to play. The bridge is a beacon in the dark, packed with tourists jostling for photos and local kids on blades and bikes. Candles, lanterns, and portraits for sale all along the riverbank. Public performances at the corner pavilion. Music from the moored boats, where you might be able to make out singalongs to old English tunes.
It’s all a show, really, but it doesn’t make it any less magical.
My Hoi An recommendations
Where to stay
Phuong Dong Hotel. Book directly through the website. It’s inexpensive yet clean and airy, located reasonably close to the action. Our last hotel in Saigon was meant to have a bathtub but didn’t; finding one in our room here was an unexpected surprise.
Where to drink
Buy drinks from street stalls, your room fridge, even restaurants. For some reason, water, fizzy, and iced tea actually costs more at the minimarts.
We also found a bar along the riverside that sold 65,000 dong cocktail buckets (under $4). Bargain.
Where to eat
Tran Cao Van is home to Lucky Cafe, which is run by Aussie NGO MAD Indochina and works with Vietnamese youth, serving up a mix of Western and Asian food. The menu is massive, though I really only went there for bacon baguettes on T’s behalf.
Across the road, you’ll find the Banh Mi queen, Madam Khanh, who claims to be the best in Hoi An. I went straight there and never had banh mi anywhere else. Freaking fantastic. And for some reason, I got extra meat added to mine after they found out I was from Malaysia. The downside? You won’t be able to stomach banh mi in any other town afterward – inferior versions that don’t hold a candle to the Madam’s.
Around the corner on Thai Phien are some streetside food stalls. I tried two different ones, both of which served up amazing bowls of fresh noodles. Take a look, see what tickles your fancy.
Toward the river, Trung Bac on Tran Phu was also excellent, and be sure to grab a scoop of homemade ice cream at the Art Cafe and Pizzeria right on the waterfront.