The sleepy beach town of Hoi An, Vietnam is one of the most charming cities in Southeast Asia- with its yellow-walled historic Old Town, Chinese lantern-strewn streets, and storybook canals, it’s the perfect central stopping point for a trip through Vietnam between Ho Chi Minh City to the South and Hanoi to the north. The city is famous for its Old Town’s architecture, a fusion of French, Chinese, and Japanese influences from the city’s heyday as a major port in the 1700s, which earned it the title of a UNESCO heritage site in 1999.
While you could spend weeks hunting down the most delicious street food or the most happening beach bars this city has to offer, my husband, Justin, and I had a quick 48-hour stopover here during our trip around Vietnam and Cambodia. If you, like us, only have a short time to spend seeing the best sights in this city, I’ve mapped out the perfect itinerary for you.
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Table of Contents
How to Get There
Most travelers will be visiting Hoi An from the hub cities Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, so I’m assuming your passport is already proudly stamped with a Vietnam tourist visa (if not, I wrote a little bit about the visa process in my post about what to do in HCMC). While you can take a bus or train to Hoi An from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, I’d definitely recommend cutting off 16-17 hours of your journey and instead, jumping on a plane to the closest airport to Hoi An, the Danang Airport. The city of Danang is located just north of Hoi An- with a short 80 minute flight from either HCMC or Hanoi that you can score tickets as low as $25 USD per person, catching a flight seems like a no-brainer!
From the airport, you can grab a 45 minute taxi ride to Hoi An for about $15-23 USD- you can either hail one at the airport; call one using the Grab app (similar to Uber or Lyft, although requires a cash payment unless you have a Vietnamese bank account), which, in my experience, will almost certainly be cheaper and more reliable than a hailed taxi, or prearrange your transit with your Airbnb host or hotel. I’d recommend at least trying the last option so you can squeeze in a stop at the Marble Mountains along the way (several Buddhist shrines hidden in mountaintop caves that are about halfway between Danang and Hoi An that I talk more about below).
If you’re a budget traveler, you could alternatively prebook a ride on the Hoi An Express Shuttle Bus, which will run you about $6 USD and will take about 60 minutes.
Transportation Around Hoi An
Due to its compact size, getting around Hoi An is much easier than some of the bigger cities in Vietnam. I’d recommend getting accommodations in or very close to the Old Town, where most of the tourist attractions are located. The Old Town is super pedestrian-friendly, with most of the roads being closed to cars and motorbikes from 8:30 till 11:00 and 15:00 till 21:30- your own two feet can generally carry you from one side of Old Town clear to the other in about half an hour.
If you want to meander outside of the Old Town (perhaps for a ride through rice paddies and their water buffaloes flanking Hoi An to the north and south?), you can rent a bike- most Airbnbs or hostels will have bikes to rent for around $1 USD a day or you can stop in one of the many rental shops in the Old Town (I’d recommend Bicycles Rental Mr Cuoc, 79 Thai Phien, +84914080912)- just make sure to thoroughly check out all of the safety features of the bike before taking it out on the road.
For any other little odds and ends you want to check out that are outside of Old Town, like heading to An Bang or Cua Dai Beach, your best bet will be to grab a Grab! In case you haven’t already used the Grab application during your time in HCMC or Hanoi, I’d highly recommend downloading it- it’s a ride-sharing app, which offers you a set price for various modes of transportation, including via scooter or car. While you need a Vietnamese bank account to pay by credit card through the application, unlike the Uber and Lyft applications in the United States, you can pay your Grab driver with cash. It’s really affordable and reliable and besides walking on foot, pretty much the only way we got around in Vietnam.
Along the same lines, make sure to have cash on hand (called the Vietnamese dong or VND) while traveling in Vietnam- while a few of the more upscale places we went accepted cards, most businesses are cash only.
What to Do
Here’s how to see the sights of Hoi An in just two days:
If you’re like us and are arriving via the Danang Airport, I’d recommend making a midway pit stop along your route for a few hours at Marble Mountains, which houses multiple Buddhist shrines tucked away in hillside caves and pagodas and gardens dreamily spread along the mountaintops. Exploring the nooks and crannies of the caves made me feel like Indiana Jones (word to the wise: wear comfortable shoes and clothes, as there’s lots of climbing stairs and walking involved with a visit here) and on a clear day, the view from the top provides a stunning panorama of Danang and its beaches and surrounding mountains.
Perusing the Old Town
Once you arrive in Hoi An, the majority of the tourist activities are centralized in the Old Quarter. These include:
Seeing the sights of the Old City, like the Japanese bridge or the Hoi An Museum.
To meander around the Old Quarter at all, you are supposed to purchase a ticket from one of 11 yellow stalls around the outskirts of the walking area for about $5 USD, which goes to support the preservation of the UNESCO site’s roads and buildings. This definitely is not very clear or well-advertised to visitors and also not consistently enforced (I was completely unaware of this requirement until I started researching this post a bit more- oops!).
In addition to letting you stroll around the pedestrian streets, the ticket will get you into your choice of five out of 22 of the ticketed sights around the Old Quarter, including museums, historically-preserved family houses, temples and pagodas, art centers, and historical communal houses. Justin and I spent hours and hours wandering around the maze of yellow walls of the Old Town, perusing the tiny shops and sprawling markets.
We didn’t purchase tickets (again, we didn’t know we had to!), but, instead, gazed at the ornate gates and statutes adorning the exterior of the temples, shrines and assembly halls, which suited our wanderlusty feet just fine. If you want to explore these sites more in depth than we did, the Japanese Bridge, Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, Tan Ky house, and Cantonese Assembly Hall seem to be crowd-pleasers.
Getting decked out in tailored duds.
Hoi An has long been famed for its tailoring trade, dating back to its status as a port town on the maritime Silk Road. Given the recent boom of tourism, tailoring shops are EVERYWHERE and you can get tailored clothes for super cheap- for example, a man’s three piece suit should run you a little over $150 USD (to any vegan friends out there, Justin couldn’t find any shops that would make him a suit out of material other than wool, silk, or linen).
If you’re crunched for time and on as short of an itinerary as us, note that it usually takes between 3-4 days for most tailors to have two fittings with you and ensure a perfect fit. You may be able to find some shops that can squeeze you in within a shorter timeframe, especially for a simple article of clothing, but I’d be sure to try to find a tailor as soon as you arrive to provide the most runway. If you have too short of a timeframe in Hoi An to pick up your garment, you can alternatively skip the four-day timeframe and just have the shop send it to your home address once it’s completed.
Check out the markets.
The Central Market is a buzzing shopping center during the day frequented by tourists and locals alike with endless stalls selling fruits, spices, and other wares. Alternatively, you can check out the night market on the An Hoi Islet (right across from the Old Town), where you’ll find around 50 vendors every night, peddling their food and wares under hundreds of colorful lanterns.
Take a boat ride.
If you walk along the Thu Bồn River at any hour of the day, there will be dozens of rowers, waiting (and insistently asking) to take you on a 20 minute row along the river.
A couple of protips:
- If you want the best price, never take the rower’s first offer; it’s always going to be 30-75% higher than it should be!
- Go at sunset to watch the twinkling lights bring this fairytale city to life.
- One of the reasons this city’s tourism exploded was its monthly Lantern Festival, where rowers placed floating lanterns in the water as an offering to the ancestors at each full moon. Given the tourist demand, this is now a nightly event, with peddlers aggressively selling lanterns to tourists on the riverbanks every night of the week (trust me, it gets quite annoying by the end). I specifically arranged our itinerary to be in Hoi An the night of the “official” Lantern Festival the month we visited, which was disappointingly no different at all than the preceding night. So do NOT organize your itinerary around the “official” monthly event; you’ll still see just as many lanterns if you don’t!
- And while you’re at it, skip putting lanterns in the water all together. Some locals told us that vendors try to fish out the lanterns once they’re in the water to resell them, but I have to imagine that hundreds and hundreds of tourists putting lanterns in the water every night creates an unbelievable amount of pollution.
- Hoi An seems to shut down pretty early and definitely leans more towards a chilled-out beach vibes than all-night clubbing adventures. If you’re ready to wind down for the night, grab a beer on any second-story balcony overlooking the river, and watch as the lantern-festooned boats glide on by. Justin and I did just that at Hong Phuc 2 (98 Bach Dang, Hoi An 0510, Vietnam) and would 10 out of 10 recommend.
Sunrise Kayaking Tour
Trần Nhân Tông, Cẩm Thanh, Thành phố Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam
I’m not usually much of a tour person, but I LOVED the one we booked with Hoi An Kayaking Tours– Justin and I still talk about our experience here all the time! A van will pick you up at your accommodations at the ungodly hour of 4:30 AM and you’ll be taken out on the Thu Bồn River to watch the sunrise over the ocean by the Cua Dai bridge.
Usually, the tour includes a stop at a fishing market, but since Justin and I follow a vegan lifestyle and were the only ones on the tour that morning (perhaps the advantage of choosing sunrise?), we asked to skip that portion. Instead, we got to paddle around a maze of mangroves bathed in golden hour light, nothing short of a magical experience.
Afterwards, we were taken via motorbike to the best breakfast I had in Vietnam at a little stall called Bún-Mi Chay (20K Ngon, 25 Đường Phan Bội Châu, Cẩm Châu, Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam) and a coffee at Mia Coffee (if you also follow a vegan diet, we noted our dietary preferences when we originally booked our tour; I’m sure this is probably not the tour’s normal breakfast routine) and chatted with Long, our guide for the morning and the owner of the company, about his life in Hoi An and the rise of tourism there. All in all, it was a fantastic experience that we can’t recommend enough!
If your idea of a vacation does not involve waking up at 4:30 in the morning, there’s a variety of other tours you can check out, such as a stand-up paddleboarding or sunset tour, which all have rave reviews on TripAdvisor.
Be a beach bum
Hoi An’s spot along Vietnam’s coast provides long, gorgeous stretches of white sandy beaches. The two most popular beaches, An Bang and Cua Dai, are just a couple of miles from the Old Town, so grab a Grab on over and lounge the day away. Justin and I chose An Bang and quickly plopped down on one of the loungers under a coconut-thatched umbrella lining the beach. A server will approach you- you can either rent a lounger for a nominal fee (~$1 USD) or buy some kind of drink from whatever establishment you’re at. Justin and I toiled away a wonderful afternoon basking in the sunset, drinking Tiger beers, and watching people play in the surf.
What to Eat
Hoi An’s food scene is famous world round (even touted by none other than Anthony Bourdain himself), so it warrants its very own post. If you want to read about what stalls I can recommend (and which ones didn’t quite hit the spot), check out my post about what to eat in Hoi An here. (And if Ho Chi Minh is on your itinerary, might as well check out this one as well!)
I hope you love Hoi An and its historic charm and laid-back vibes as much as I do (Justin and I routinely talk about retiring there now- ha!). Did I miss any gems that you’d recommend squeezing in during a short trip? Let me know below!