Our favorite activity in Hoi An: a family cooking class
Hoi An or Hanoi? Rearrange the letters and it still spells C-R-O-W-D-S.
At least in Hanoi I expected the crowds. And embraced it.
Every piece of research I did prior to visiting Hoi An said it was a "must-visit". Most every blog raved about the town and said even though they spent days there they could have spent weeks: it was the cutest, most picturesque town in all of Vietnam. I was certain I was going to fall in love with Hoi An. But I didn’t. However it is cute and picturesque as advertised and worth visiting with the following caveats:
We were staying in the neighboring town of Danang when we first came into Hoi An just for a Friday evening dinner, city stroll, and grabbing a few grocery supplies figuring the town would have more to offer than the scant places by our resort. Instead we found it unbearably crowded with tour bus after tour bus bringing hordes of people into the very small old town. There was barely room to walk on its streets. Plus, we were picked out of the crowd of all the tourists streaming into the old town with a requirement to purchase a ticket to enter. I swear we were the only ones stopped that had to do this and, while it allegedly goes to a good cause, seemed weird that we were among the only ones stopped and forced to do it. We left that night with a sour taste in our mouths and were concerned about the two nights we had booked in Hoi An for that upcoming Sunday-Tuesday.
Hoi An streets aglow from paper lanterns like a scene from a fairy tale
When we made the short 20-minute taxi ride from our resort in Danang to our hotel in Hoi An that Sunday evening, we experienced a slightly different place. The crowds weren’t gone, but thinner than on the previous Friday. And while the tour buses roll through town 7 days a week, we learned Friday and Saturday nights are the most chaotic to visit. So we were glad to be there over a set of quieter weekdays.
Hoi An is meant to be seen at night. The town is decorated in cute paper lanterns strung all over and when lit, the town looks like something out of a fairy tale. Or at least something out of the Disney movie Tangled. The evenings are beautiful and a sight to be seen. However, if I had known then what we know now, we would’ve stayed clear of it on that Friday night (or any other weekend night) and had our first impression be on a more subdued weeknight when the town is still alive but not so overrun with tourists. We also learned that most tour buses seem to target their arrival in mid-late afternoon so the patrons are there to see the lanterns lit at night. Thus, my recommendation is to hit the old town hard in the morning and see every site you want when you only have the speedy motos to dodge (which are not permitted at night at least) and then tackle the old town sparingly at night without that needing to be your primary (or sole) visit. In that way you can dodge the crowds and take in its picturesque beauty from a riverside café and watch the masses of people from afar. From a safe distance across the river from the old town you’re really getting some of the best views anyway as the multi-colored lanterns reflect off the river.
Our favorite highlight from Hoi An was spending a day at a local cooking school. This was definitely the highpoint of our stay. We chose the Thuan Tinh Island Cooking School. It cost $34/per person, which included so many courses of food that we left stuffed and didn’t eat the rest of the day. The head chef picked us up at our hotel at about 8:15am, and along with only 3 other people enrolled in the day’s class, took us to the local market to learn about different types of Vietnamese food available there, pick up the supplies for our meal. We’ve been to a lot of markets around the world, but this ranked number 1 for seeing some of the craziest stuff available. At the top of the list of “never thought I’d see that one” were people driving away on their moto holding live chickens held upside down by their feet and others carrying live (for now) ducks in their shopping basket like it was a loaf of bread.
One happy customer from the central food market. Looks like someone's having duck for dinner tonight!
After gathering our meat, shrimp, and vegetables, we headed to the cooking school via trip on river through Hoi An to a smaller row boat, where we were rowed to the island cooking school under a big open pavilion. It was a neat way to approach the cooking school and feel like you were far removed from any sight of civilization. We prepared four different traditional dishes that morning and ate as we completed each course. The food – and the instruction – was spectacular. Some of our kids said it was the best day ever. And if you have any vegetarians in your crew like we have in ours, all the dishes can be prepared in a vegetarian was as well. At about 2:30 we were returned to our hotel, stuffed and ready for a long afternoon nap inside the friendly air-conditioned confines of our hotel room.
We took a small boat to the island cooking school (above) and prepared some of our favorite Vietnamese dishes for lunch (below)
Hoi An does offer some cool things we chose not to take advantage of. It is known for its tailor shops and you can have a custom-made shirt, dress, or suit ready in 24-hours. It is also very close to the beach and many people seem to enjoy biking from town the 3-4km to the beach. However, after spending the previous 3 days at the resorts in Danang, we didn’t need more beach time at this point. Plus, it was so oppressively hot and humid I couldn’t imagine choosing to do any unnecessary physical activity except lifting a delicious Vietnamese iced coffee to my lips. And with our son still recovering from a knee injury sustained earlier on a trip in northern Vietnam, bicycling was out to the question anyway.
We took the obligatory boat ride and dropped paper lanterns into the river.
Aside from the weekend evening crowds, the number of hawkers got a little annoying. They were selling everything from trinkety “handmade” crafts, to boat rides on the river and colorful lanterns you could place into the water, and of course, spa services. They are persistent and I understand it’s their way to make a living, but by the end we just wanted to wear a sign that said “I did the boat ride, put a lantern in the water, and had a spa. And don’t want to do it again.”. Because after doing all those within an hour’s time, I swear we were solicited for more boat rides and lantern-placement opportunities as we climbed the shore from having just gotten off of our boat ride. It was comical. But also not. And the hawking didn’t end there: at some of the cafés we sat in to enjoy a cold beverage and escape the heat, the hawkers came all the way into the restaurant to our table to sell us their stuff. I found that very annoying. They came in rapid succession, one after another, and I would have thought that by actually sitting rather deep in the restaurant we’d be away from that hassle. But again, I guess not.
Due to several circumstances (heat, family injury, our time already spent in neighboring town of Danang, etc.), we chose not to visit some of the other nearby attractions (My Son, Marble Mountain, the local beach). While many people could probably find enjoyment with the town as a home base and then exploring outlying areas, our family could have gotten the feel and been done with Hoi An in one full day or at most, an overnight and moved on. I am sure many travelers would have a different opinion from mine, but I would prefer to base myself in a less tourist-overrun location and then swoop in for the tourist attraction and then leave. Clearly, I’m leaving Hoi An with a less than favorable impression. But unfortunately it didn’t end there.
Our hotel was a block off the beaten path which afforded more peace and quiet. It was charming as heck but the 'bait and switch' room rate vs. what we booked and prepaid online and extra fees at check-out were not appreciated
Our hotel was in a great location, full of charm, and a good room set-up for our family with two rooms at the end of a hall that had a connecting balcony. We booked the hotel on VRBO and our confirmation clearly stated the price for our two nights (which we pre-paid through the VRBO website). But we learned the hotel “inaccurately” set up the pricing on VRBO and requested we pay an extra $50 at check-out to properly accommodate our family in the two rooms. Since they collected our passports at check-in, we had little recourse but to pay the money, get our passports, and move on with our travels as we were catching a flight to Cambodia later that afternoon.