About halfway through my month on Ko Lanta I started my research on where to head next. I had about five weeks to fill before returning to Europe. As I had already booked my return flight out of Bangkok I wanted to stay roughly around this timezone and Vietnam fit the bill. Also I had never been before but heard so much about it. As usual I searched for co-working spaces as a base and plan my trip around. I found and settled on the Hub in Hoi An. Despite being a top tourist destination (which at this point I did not know) Hoi An boasted beautiful rice fields and close beaches so I set things in motion.
Flights around South East Asia are fairly cheap and availability is good. Nevertheless I had to fly via Bangkok which meant a one night layover due to the airport transfer time from Ko Lanta. For Hoi An the closest Airport is Da Nang which is about half an hour to an hour drive
Vietnam has recently introduced short visas for stays of about 1-2 weeks but there is a Visa on Arrival (VOA) available for 30 days for about 25 USD. You need to have cash on USD or Vietnam Dong, a passport picture and a pre-approval letter. After some research I decided to go with a company called VietnamVisaPro to get that letter. The website reminded me of the 2000s but everything worked well and I even decided to book their fast track service where they meet you just before the VOA counter, you hand over the documents and take a seat. They take care of everything and hand back your passport with the Visa inside. For a couple of Dollars extra it’s a reasonable service, but you can do without it all as long as you have the Visa invitation letter.
There was some brief confusion with the pickup that had been arranged as part of the Hub Hoi An Package but that was soon sorted out and the driver picked me up outside the terminal and took me to my accommodation.
N.B. Vietnam is quickly becoming more technologically advanced for Visa issues and I heard about e-Visa Initiatives from some nomads I met there, so best to research what the current procedure is in order not to get stuck at the border or even worse denied entry. (Then again I also heard a story that if you didn’t have the cash on you they will let you out of the building unsupervised to get some at the ATM. I guess the thinking is they will notice the missing Visa when you try to leave the country again.)
Hub Hoi An works with two home-stays/guesthouses. One is closer to the beach and the other closer to the coworking space. I decided to go for the one closer to the office as I was expecting more trips to the office than to the beach. It wasn’t available for the first few nights, so I stayed at a BnB called Mountain House.
About ten minutes down the road from Hub this family run home-stay was my home for four days. A lovely room on the second floor with balcony surrounded by palm trees. Breakfast was included and in addition to a meal choice there was always a plate of fruit. I realized it was the first time eating a “real” passion fruit. The first of many more times that month. The lady running it was very kind and also offers the room and another larger apartment for monthly rental. Along with the bikes (see note below) this is definitely a place I would recommend for longer stays too. On foot it’s about 10min, by bike only a couple of minutes, from the Hub. It’s close to the main road leading to old town in one direction and one of the less popular beaches in the other.
Mike and Hanh welcomed me to their home-stay on the fifth day and I stayed with them for the remaining time – close to four weeks. The modern house just off the main road from the Hub has decent size rooms with small balconies overlooking the rice fields. Bed and interior decoration seemed brand new and the bathroom had a superb and very hot shower. Water is available for free from the downstairs kitchen, but there is also a good selection of other drinks and they will help you with any food you’d like to order (from western to the best local cuisine). Room service is on demand and you can get your washing done directly in the house. A small selection of free bicycles (included with the Hub Hoi An Package) for getting to the beach in roughly 20 minutes and the guard dog duo (small dogs) that slowly warmed up to me over time rounded off the experience. Only thing I missed after getting used to it everywhere else in Asia was a mini fridge but I’m sure there would have been no problem cooling some drinks in the main fridge – ultimately my laziness won me over.
The other home-stay is the Golden Rice which is a bit more expensive but also close to the Hub.
One of my first impressions when I arrived was how many people there where on bikes. Sure, there was still a lot of motorcycles and mopeds too – after all I was in Asia, but in comparison to Thailand it was a much more even balance. Almost every guesthouse has either free bikes or bikes to rent for a dollar a day. I have to admit these bikes are most often older models, no gears and very “weathered”. For a person of my height and weight it was sometimes a challenge finding a bike that I felt comfortable on for more than 5 minutes. Nevertheless the Rice Fields had a good selection that got me to the beach and back and around town with no issues.
For Hoi An the bike is definitely the way to go. The roads are good and in between the rice fields you will discover many little paths shared by pedal and motorbikes. Just watch out for cars now and again that will take up the whole width of the road and it‘s up to you to figure out how to survive. And beware of animals (cattle that isn’t really bothered moving and the odd snake that quickly gets out of your way).
If you want to explore outside of town or don‘t feel comfortable peddling everywhere in the sun then you can rent motorbikes at a lot of places and even cars for long trips. But beware that inside the old town there are certain restrictions in place. Some times of day are reserved only for bicycles.
Co-working space: Hub Hoi An
A lot of my destination choices are centered around the co-working facilities available. This has been a good approach as it gives me at least one place with good internet connectivity. When I was searching for places in Vietnam the Hub Hoi An almost immediately popped up. Run by Sarah who moved to Hoi An from Germany, the Hub is a beautiful Vietnamese house with a large outside area in the back. It‘s constantly evolving so check the website before you go to see what‘s new.
There is a small but tight nomad community that you‘re welcomed into almost immediately – thanks also to the group lunches everyday with western and local dishes (around 120 VND). The café provides breakfast, coffee and drinks from 9 AM until 4 PM for reasonable prices. There‘s even some imported Dr. Pepper. Everything needs to be prepaid, so you top up your account by cash (membership can be paid by credit card if you‘re staying in one of the partner guesthouses) and every second day at the latest you get an updated invoice with your balance. Having just come from the heavily computerized and automated system at KoHub – the process at Hub Hoi An was very manual (food and drinks are first added to a paper sheet and then transferred to invoic.ly) apart from one or two mistakes the system works well and fits the vibe.
Even though the space is one of the smaller co-working spaces I’ve been to, there is still an abundance of working possibilities and never had any issues with getting a comfortable space. There are A/C rooms, outside areas with shade, sofas etc. In the big glasshouse at the back they have just installed a second A/C to keep it cool during the summer, but in May you could simply open the windows in the morning and only resort to AC around 10AM. 24 hour access is available and the first staff member usually arrives around 9AM.
Note on burning season: I was there during one of the rice harvests where they burn the left-overs afterwards. This is only a minor inconvenience in Hoi An and the Hub. When cycling to the beach you might drive past an area of intense smoke, just watch out that you keep on track, but that‘s probably the worst you’ll experience. In the Hub there was only one day with more intense smoke because the wind turned, but I only noticed when I went to the front and the doors were shut. I was told the farmers take good care not to burn all at the same time if possible, because of the heavy reliance on tourism and the effect the burning has had in other areas.
A quick side not on electricity. Most plugs accept European style plugs without an issue, but be very careful if you‘re plugging in a device. Some plugs have thicker poles and sometimes you have to force them into the socket or extension cord. Obviously when pulling them out they are quite tight too. I made the mistake of grabbing the plug close to the bottom, got in contact with the metal and electrocuted myself briefly. The connection to the plug is made quite far at the top, so there is live electricity even if the plug is more than half out of the socket. It was just a brief jolt, but nevertheless try to avoid it.
The Hub has an excellent internet connection and a best practice WiFi installation. No outages at all while I was there. While exploring I used a local prepaid sim that was part of the package from the Hub. I can‘t remember the provider unfortunately but I had coverage everywhere I went, even in remote areas.
My feeling was as soon I entered Vietnam the price of food went down and the quality went up at the same time. Maybe I just found great places right from the get go. In general you can get a meal from 50-70K VND without much effort. The ingredients are fresh and sea food is the default and cheaper than any other meat selection. Hoi An has some specialties like the white rose made from rice paper. My favorite was fresh spring rolls which I could not resist ordering wherever I went.
Here are some recommendations for eating:
Restaurant 328 – 328 Cura Dai: As is typical for Vietnam (may be subjective) this restaurant next to a tailor and mini-shop all owned and run by the same family was my first dining experience in Vietnam and I kept coming back. Great food for a great price. 5 min on bike from Hub.
Soul Beach – on the beach: One of my favorite spots looking over the beach and ocean. Very good food and drinks at slightly higher than average prices. Great to work from too, but only one plug in the center table/hut as far as I remember. WiFi works well enough even for Skype calls until early evening when it gets crowded.
Sea Village – on the beach (next to Soul Beach): My second favorite spot at the beach with sun chairs directly on the sand. It seems to mark the boundary of the beach where the local distribute themselves. At 4-5PM the beach fills up and you‘re almost shoulder to shoulder with the locals with grilling, karaoke and all. A must-have experience at least once. Sea Village has WiFi but it just barely reaches the sun chairs, therefore not the right choice if you want to work.
Café Des Amis – 52 Bach Dang (old town): You can‘t eat or drink here without being interviewed by the chef who has worked internationally and shows you the guestbook from visitors all around the world. He will kindly show you the page with entries from your country and of course you‘re obliged to leave a comment or two.
Things to do
If like me you‘re not a fan of the motorbike you can book a bicycle tour in town. You don‘t want to sit on a typical Vietnamese bike for hours on end, so make sure you find one that provides good mountain bikes.
GrassHopper Bicycle Tour to My Son: My Son is a set of temples in the mountains from different eras and worked on by international archeological teams. The tour begins in Hoi An old town and leads through rice fields, small villages and fields until about 30min away from My Son where you transfer onto a bus to take you to My Son.
The bicycle portion is about 2-3 hours and the tour at the site another 1-2 hours. My bicycle was perfect, you can deposit small items like a camera in the front bag and they will transport your rucksack to the meeting point before My Son. The guide was friendly and helpful, but his English was sometimes hard to understand, so I would probably read up on My Son beforehand if you want to take in every detail, but even so the gist of everything was clear. It‘s an impressive site and different to other temples I‘ve visited. Be warned though there is no shade in the temple area and I wouldn‘t go in high summer. Temperature was perfect in May.
Old Town Hoi An: I had not heard of Hoi An before I went to Vietnam, but apparently I‘m the only one. This famous town has attracted tourists ever since Vietnam opened itself up. It‘s voted one of the most romantic villages in the world. Situated directly on a river arm the old town has a wonderful charm and packed with beautiful old buildings. Lot‘s of restaurants and cafes let you sit next to the river and watch the tourists but also the Vietnamese who come from other places to celebrate certain life events here like marriages, end of school or birthdays.
Don‘t forget to explore beyond the pristine old town just a few roads further to see more modern Vietnamese living. Most people in Hoi An don‘t live in the old city center, but outside.
Beach: Definitely my favorite activity at the weekends. Lie down with a drink to read and relax. An Bang beach is the main beach. There is a beach further south called Cua Dai, which used to be the tourist beach, but since a storm a couple of years destroyed most of the area the rebuilding efforts have not been fruitful. There‘s still smaller strips of beach with all the facilities you would expect, but most people go to An Bang. Cua Dai takes about 30min, An Bang – depending on traffic – about 15-20min.
Note: when taking a bicycle to the beach you will be guided by parking guides to their parking spot where you will pay 5-10K VND to leave your bike for the day. You will get a number and they will take care of your bike. At both beaches though you can drive past them and park somewhere else if that‘s more convenient for your location. For example there is free parking both at Soul Beach and Sea Village if you stay there. Obviously don‘t park there if you‘re not visiting those establishments.
Supermarkets and Food
Just a note there are no supermarkets (like 7/11) in Hoi An. For that you would need to go to Da Nang (30min by car) but there are many mini markets with a lot of the daily stuff (including hygiene products). Also try the fish and fruit markets directly in old town. There‘s also a bakery just down the road from Hub where it meets Cura Dai road. I didn‘t miss 7/11 really, it was just very surprising at first coming from Thailand where you can’t turn a corner without one of them. Just before reaching An Dang beach (after the crossing and the large parking on the right) there is a bigger market with local and international products at above average prices, but great for buying stuff for or after the beach.
I can‘t believe Vietnam wasn‘t higher up on my list of places to visit. My first trip definitely wasn‘t my last and even though Hoi An is probably a bit of a bubble compared to the rest of Vietnam I‘m very happy I visited. It‘s a town with many personalities: the historic old town surrounded by a flourishing modern town that is benefiting a lot from the tourists, surrounded by rice fields with traditional farmers (rice, chilis and peanuts mostly) and finally the beaches around the corned. This mix made for a terrific month!