Hoi An is one of the most charming little cities in Southeast Asia. Having personally travelled to most of the famous tourist sights in the region I can confirm that there are few places that can match its beauty.
As such, Hoi An has become one of the overtourism hotspots of Southeast Asia, and by 2019 the city was trying to work out how to deal with the crowds.
Having been based in Vietnam for a few years now, I’ve been to Hoi An several times. I’m always impressed what a beautiful town it is, but the crowds have been getting noticeably larger every year.
On my last few visits to Da Nang (the nearest big city) I’ve not bothered to visit Hoi An. If you’ve never been you should of course go. Just because it’s crowded doesn’t mean it’s overrated. To the bloggers that say it’s overrated, I ask them to show me a better example of a well-preserved South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century.
Hoi An has parallels with Bruges in Belgium. Both are centuries-old river-trading ports that were somehow spared destruction from war and modern development. They are both remarkable places, and to write them off as over-rated because there are too many tourists misses the point. Remember, you may think you are a traveller, but everyone is looking at you thinking you are a tourist.
I wasn’t planning a revisit to Hoi An this year, but then the coronavirus happened. I had a busy year of international travel planned before the virus struck. By March these plans were in tatters, and I made sure I was back in Ho Chi Minh City to ride out the storm.
It turned out to be a good choice as Vietnam has been one of the most successful countries in containing the virus. At the time of this post there have been no deaths, and new cases have been confined to people returning from overseas who are quarantined upon arrival.
Vietnam was thus one of the first countries to restore its domestic travel network. With no prospect of international travel for the next few months, I started planning trips in Vietnam.
I immediately wondered what Hoi An would look like without international tourists, so that was an easy first choice for places to visit. I am of course aware that I am an international tourist, but technically I am temporarily living here as an expat. At the time of my visit the only international flights were random repatriation flights, so there are no short-term visitors in the country.
After flying to Da Nang, the first place I went to was An Bang (the best beach area to stay in Hoi An). I stayed there to get a beach fix before moving on to Hoi An. (Here is my article about staying in the beach areas of Da nang and Hoi An.)
I arrived in Hoi An Old Town by taxi from An Bang Beach. After checking into my room I went for a walk. The old town streets were eerily deserted.
Hoi An is a long way from Coventry, but I couldn’t help singing Ghost Town in my head.
There were many shops that were shuttered or closed down completely. Most of the shops that were closed were tailor shops, of which there is an abundance in Hoi An.
There were many places with “nha cho thue” (house for rent) signs up. With international tourism not returning in the near future (and who knows when it will recover to 2019 numbers), it will be a while until it’s clearly known which businesses have survived the pandemic. This is a story that will be played out in every tourism-dependent city. Behind every shuttered door is a story of a broken dream, unemployment, and unpaid debts.
Like other cities in Vietnam, there are COVID-19 posters everywhere, and this hand-wash station was a reminder of the times we are living in.
Many hotels are still closed as well, and I wondered if online travel agents have been keeping these closures up-to-date. If you are a hotelier with access to finance, now is a good time to get those renovations done that have been put off for years.
When I’m returning to a familiar destination I have what I call my “first meal back” plan. For Hoi An my first meal back is always Banh Mi Phuong. This banh mi stand was made famous by Anthony Bourdain, who put it on the global food trail. Every time I’ve visited there has been a line out the street.
As I wandered through the empty streets of Hoi An I wondered if it would even be open. To my relief it was, and there was a decent crowd considering the late lunch hour that I arrived.
I sat outside and had my banh mi, and watched as a steady stream of customers on motorbikes arrived to pick up takeaway orders.
I was pleased to see that this place was so popular with the local crowd. It’s hard to tell sometimes when a place becomes internationally famous if it’s a place that “the locals” still go to. I was also pleased that the banh mi was as good as I remembered it to be. They have a picture of Bourdain on the paper bag, and I’m still sad about his demise.
I noticed on my walk around that some of the famous chicken rice places were also packed out. I don’t know if it was locals or domestic tourists, but it was good to see that these places weren’t just guidebook famous.
It was incredibly hot when I was walking around. I had forgotten that the central coast of Vietnam has an inverted rainy season to that of Southern Vietnam. I had left rainy Saigon to be in hot and dry Hoi An.
I retired to my room to have a siesta and then do some work. My plan was to go out into the old town in the late afternoon and get some photos of the famous Japanese Covered Bridge without tourists. Even though I never do it for the ‘gram, I had visions of me looking all influencer-like while standing on the bridge by myself. Perhaps I would have to wait a few minutes to ask a passer-by to take my photo.
By the time I got to the old town, I realised that my dream of having the bridge to myself was not to be. Hoi An was looking like the Hoi An I last remembered.
It occurred to me that most normal people don’t go wandering around in the afternoon sun, which accounted for the empty streets. By the late afternoon, my fellow tourists had emerged from hiding.
I visited the covered bridge, and I ended up being the photographer for others. There were groups of women in their matching Ao Dai who had dressed up to have their photo taken here.
According to one Hoi An local, I was talking to, most of the tourists here were from Hanoi (judging by their accents). A Saigon friend told me though that the Hanoians are the loudest tourists, so it might have just sounded like there were more of them (and maybe Hanoians say the same about Saigonese).
Along the riverfront, it was business as usual at the Hoi An UNESCO World Heritage Theme Park. The sunset tour boats were doing a busy trade, and I could barely walk along the Bridge of Lights without bumping into an extended selfie arm.
Despite the crowds, I was happy to be here. It was an interesting experience to see Hoi An at this moment in time. The last time that Hoi An had so few international tourists there would have barely been a domestic travel market. That might have been in the 90’s (pre UNESCO designation), when the old town looked like this.
While there is no prospect of international tourists for the next few months, local businesses are working out how to attract the domestic market. The quick rebound of domestic tourism is also being driven by cheap flights and discounted hotels.
I walked along the riverfront and discovered that one of my favourite cafes in Saigon has a branch here. Bosgaurus Coffee has a prime location in the old town by the river.
Not every cafe and restaurant was open yet, so it still didn’t feel quite right. Supply chains are not back to normal either. I was with some Saigon friends who also came to visit. We went back to Banh Mi Phuong for an evening banh mi, and they had run out of bread a few hours before closing. If you are running a business serving fresh bread, you don’t want to over-order, but maybe they were caught out by the surge in tourists.
One of the prominent cafes in the old town still had not opened either, adding to the not-quite-right vibe of the town.
I had a look around on 4square for some new cafes and I found one down an alley. I would never have found it otherwise, but Phin Coffee turned out to have the best coffee on this trip. There are enough cafes here to warrant a “best cafes in Hoi An” list, which somehow I haven’t got around to doing (I did a Da Nang cafe list on my last visit).
Like any other UNESCO World Heritage Site that is groaning under the strain of over-tourism, you only need to step back a few streets away from the main sights and it becomes manageable again. There are plenty of little streets here where you can find a hidden cafe or crumbling old temple.
And apart from the core streets of the world heritage zone, Hoi An is an everyday working Vietnamese city. I like staying a bit out of town and walking in. That way you find street stalls and cafes that I might have otherwise missed.
The day after I left Hoi An for Da Nang, the city decided to recommence all tourism activities. Domestic flights were almost fully restored as well, and as you can see from the Da Nang Airport departure board, there are now plenty of flights from both Hanoi and Hochiminh.
Even though Vietnam has pretty much contained the pandemic, I wasn’t going to name this “Hoi An after the pandemic” as we are not out of the woods yet. I’m concerned that reopening the borders will bring in new cases and all the hard work will be undone. For now, I will just enjoy travel in Vietnam until we work out how international travel is going to work.