As we rushed northbound with tourists and locals alike, Vietnam continued to transform before our eyes. The appearance, scenery and atmosphere transformed into something entirely different than what we saw in Saigon. while our surroundings became greener and more mountainous the ambiance also evolved into a calm and laid-back demeanor.
We were traveling with a herd of backpackers and locals, all moving north in a kind of exodus during the holiday season. Everyone had a destination and they were all scrambling to make it there before the Tet (New Years) celebrations.
For Jess and I, our aim was an average-sized city in central Vietnam called Hoi An. due to its location and proximity to the ocean, Hoi An has become a very common place for backpackers to stop in between long bus rides up and down Vietnam.
From Da Lat we caught 2 separate busses (due to a stop in Nha Trang for a couple hours), logged 16 hours bouncing and hobbling northward and finally, dragged our groggy minds off the bus at 7am. We were tired but optimistic as we stretched our legs and got to experience Hoi An awakening. The walk to our hostel was 20mins and the city was covered in the traditional yellow flowers seen around Tet.
Hoi An rests on the water in 2 magnificent ways. First of all, it is within 10 minutes of the ocean and easily accessible by renting a cheap scooter or bicycle. Secondly, Hoi An hovers along a popular river that draws tourists to streets, shops and bars that rest along the riverside. Hoi An is a coastal city with its heartbeat on the Thu Bon River.
You can’t miss the laid back feel in the air and I would highly recommend stopping in Hoi An (Not Nha Trang as many people will suggest).
The US Dollar – 1 USD = 21,000 Dong (roughly)
Scooter Safety – Hoi An is a great place to learn or ride a scooter. As always though, I encourage you to use extreme caution while riding scooters in SE Asia. Everyone will let you rent a scooter regardless of your skill. Know what that skill is and know what you can and can’t do. I saw too many tourists in Vietnam and SE Asia who ruined their vacations from crashing, getting crazy road rash and getting stuck staying in their hostels.
Cheap Drinks & Dishonest Bars – I can’t attest to the honesty of all the bars, but I will warn you against a place called Destination Bar … they are liars and not worth your business (click link for my Trip Advisor review – I don’t mention them to rant; I just don’t want you to waste your money). You can drink a lot for very little in Hoi An … if your goal is to get wasted it is doable! Just keep in mind that there are lots of people (bike taxis, thieves, street vendors and other tourists) who may have something to gain from you being wasted. I have rarely seen so many passed out teens and excessively drunk backpackers than I did in Hoi An. Just be careful and don’t get so drunk you can’t find your way home (see next point…)
Hoi An is Spread Out – Hostels, hotels, the water front and beaches are all very spread out and far away from each other. I would recommend getting a scooter or a bicycle in order to cruise around the town. If you want to go to the beach the best one is north (not east) and it is about 10mins by scooter (pretty far walk).
If you are going to be drinking by the Riverside remember how you got there and do yourself a favor by having a rough plan on how you’re going to get home… it can be a long walk depending on where you are staying.
Things to do:
Beaches in Hoi An are unlike any I have ever seen. There are shops, restaurants and coffee shops located strategically on the beaches and they create the appearance of a wall that suggest you have to buy your way onto the beach. For this reason I recommend the north beach. There are still lots of restaurants and bars at the entrance of the north beach, but you can get onto the sand without walking through someone’s business (you do have to pay for parking – 10,000 dong).
The riverside runs along the Thu Bon River and with it comes tons of shops, stores, bars, street food and entertainment. You can float a candle down the river, jump on one of the Vietnamese style boats, or just walk along the crowded streets. Expect lots of bar deals, drunk tourists and an over-all party atmosphere. Swing down some of the alleys on the north side of the river to check out some local art and cool little shops.
There are tons of bars and cheap drinks along the riverside. Many bars promise you just about anything to get you in (free shots, free hookah, or all you can drink for $5) but be careful getting sucked into bars on the riverside. They’re not all honest.
During Tet, you can’t get the popular “Fresh Beer” (Only 4,000 dong in some places … that’s about 20 cents!) No one will sell it to you during Tet through, because they can sell the expensive beer and people will buy it.
Japanese Covered Bridge –
The Japanese Covered Bridge is a big tourist spot and really not that cool. Check it out because it’s right there in the center of everything, but don’t expect much. I love bridges, but this one is somewhat anti-climatic.
I’m not a shopper … and by that I mean I have about a 30 minute fuse before I get cranky and don’t even want to walk anymore … BUT if I was! …. I would appreciate the shops and tailors in Hoi An. There are tons of people who make good custom suits, custom dresses and personalized clothes for fairly good prices (they also ship things home if you want). Kimmy (photo below) seemed like the largest and most successful one that we saw.
Rent a Scooter –
Hoi An is a beautiful city to stroll up and down with a scooter. You can drive along the river, zip around on back roads and see the city comfortably on a scooter. Traffic moves relatively slow in Hoi An so it isn’t too overwhelming for new drivers. It’s a great way to get to the beaches too.
Vietnamese food is awesome … really awesome! If you want to go to a really nice Vietnamese restaurant along the river the best place is Mango Mango. Make reservations, they do fill up!
If you are into French food, Jess and I both highly recommend the Bamboo Buddha. It’s a bit pricey but it was the best meal I ate in Asia… seriously.