Living in Hoi An: The Best & Worst of Expat Life in Hoi An
It seems criminal that I spent a year of my life living in Hoi An, Vietnam and I’ve yet to write a single, solitary word about the place. You’d be forgiven for thinking I was adhering to the old adage of “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, say nothing“, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Honestly, being able to call Hoi An home has been amazing. In truth, I’ve been so busy loving expat life in Hoi An that sitting down to write meant missing some of the fun.
There’s no questioning that Hoi An is one of Vietnam’s most gorgeous locations. Where else in the world can you see brilliantly verdant rice paddies, stunning beaches, and the colorful charm of a Colonial-era Old Town in the space of fifteen minutes?
While larger cities such as Da Nang, Hanoi, and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) might be able to boast greater amenities, it’s hard to look past Hoi An’s laid back vibe and immense natural beauty.
It’s not all peaches and cream, however. While Hoi An is cheap and gorgeous, there are definitely drawbacks to living in a smaller Vietnamese city with such a transient expat population.
The Best of Living in Hoi An
Let’s start positive. There are more reasons to love expat life in Hoi An than there are to hate it. Why else would we have done a six-month stint here in 2018 and then come back for more?
Hoi An is a fantastic short-term base and I know some who have called the city home for several years.
First and foremost, Hoi An might be one of the prettiest towns in the world. There’s a reason that Lonely Planet listed Central Vietnam at #6 in the Best of Asia-Pacific in 2019.
At the heart of Hoi An is the city’s Old Town, where colonial buildings in a variety of colors speak to the country’s colonial past while also representing its exuberant recovery from decades of oppression. Here, bright wildflowers, dangling vines, and paper lanterns criss-cross the streets, vendors sell everything from local snacks to knock-off watches, and countless eateries and coffee shops vie for your attention.
Hemming all of this in is the rice paddies that supply much of the region’s staple food. Depending on the time of year you’re in Hoi An, these range from lush carpets of vibrant green to shimmering mirrors that catch the setting sun and set the whole field ablaze. Farmers and water buffalo wade through the life-giving waters, while the slightest breeze causes this sea of foliage to rise and fall like stormy seas.
And did I mention the beaches? Once you’re out of Old Town and you’ve seen the rice fields, you’ve got a gorgeous strip of beach waiting to cool you off and sluice away a day’s worth of hard-earned sweat.
When it comes to Insta-fabulous bases, I’ve yet to find one that can hold a candle to Hoi An.
Hoi An’s Beaches
Hoi An has a fantastic, beachy vibe that is best represented by the thriving An Bang area.
While it can be a tad crowded with Korean tourists and locals at times, it’s still possible to stake out a bit of prime beach real estate if you don’t mind walking away from the restaurants and bars. Our personal favorite is the aptly named ‘Hidden Beach‘, where you can escape the crowds and soak in the serenity.
Personally, my favorite area of Hoi An’s beaches is the stretch that lies halfway between An Bang and Hidden Beach. Here, you’ll find the Aussie-run Salt Pub, the backpacker haven that is Kahunas, and a variety of new restaurants and bars opening on the regular.
Whatever your poison, Hoi An has you covered when it comes to great beaches, chill beach bars, and delicious food. You’ll be paying a little more for the views and everything closes inexplicably early, but the beach vibe is definitely a selling point.
Let’s be real: Hoi An’s Old Town is touristic and it’s crowded. If you’re not a fan of crowds or vendors shouting for your attention, you might even go so far as to say it’s overwhelming.
For me, Old Town is a bit like a night club. I wouldn’t want to spend too long there, but it can be a hell of a lot of fun if you’re in the mood.
Richelle and I love to take our phones down to Old Town to snap pictures and catch Pokemon (Old Town is the only Pokemon Go friendly area in Hoi An), enjoy avocado coffees, and people watch.
Some of the city’s best dining can be found here as well, with the restaurants going where the tourists are. Rather than write paragraphs about each of our many favourites in the area, I’ll just list them off below:
- Mix Grill: Greek cuisine;
- Com Linh: Cheap local cuisine;
- Mango Room: For something fancy;
- The Hoianian: Wine bar and Euro-Vietnamese fusion;
- Market Bar: Wine by the glass overlooking Central Market;
- Hola Taco: Delicious Mexican;
- Hoi An Roastery: Vietnamese Starbucks;
- Pasteur Street Brewing Company: Vietnamese craft beer.
- Chu Chu: Amazing avocado coffees.
The Old Town area is a photogenic tourist spot by day, but it transforms into the city’s nightlife district once the sun goes down. A variety of backpacker bars and clubs burst into life once the tour buses have pulled away, with Dive Bar our personal favorite.
Want a place to stay that is close to Old Town without the noise and chaos? Richelle and I loved ANIO Boutique.
This sleepy little island between Old Town and An Bang is often overlooked, which is a crying shame.
A quaint retreat full of organic farms, grazing buffalo, and adorable B&Bs, Tra Que was home for us for six months and remains one of our favorite spots to snap photos and escape the chaos of Vietnamese roads.
If you’re looking to learn how to cook Vietnamese cuisine (we recommend Baby Mustard or Tra Que Water Wheel) or want a base that’s away from the tourist traps (we adore Christina’s for short stays), you can’t go past this centrally located haven. By ‘centrally located’, I mean equally far from both the beach and the Old Town – rather than well located for tourism that doesn’t involve a whole bunch of pedaling or a Grab Taxi.
For those looking to live in Hoi An, however, it’s a great balance between access to the restaurants of Old Town and the beach.
Looking for a place to stay on Tra Que? Richelle and I loved Christina’s Hoi An.
If you’re looking to live in Southeast Asia, chances are that a big factor in this is that your dollar stretches a lot further than it might at home.
You’ll be pleased to know that this is especially true of Hoi An, where the influx of digital nomads and short term expats has not yet driven prices up to an unreasonable level.
You can find homestays and villas with shared kitchens for as little as $200 USD per month, while Richelle and I pay $400 USD per month for our apartment with a shared pool. My brother and his partner paid around $1,000 USD a month for a two-story, two-bedroom house with a private pool in the heart of Hoi An last year.
Regardless of your budget, living in Hoi An can be as cheap or as lavish as you like.
The cost of food, transport, and amenities remains cheap by Vietnamese standards, assuming you’re not eating all of your meals in the Old Town.
For digital nomads like Richelle and I, The Hub has been a godsend.
Part co-working space and part community, The Hub serves as both our workspace during the day and our social life. Whether we’re joining swing dancing nights, going to the movies in Da Nang, taking part in the weekly community dinners, or heading to a local attraction, there’s always something going on.
A monthly membership grants 24/7 access, high-speed WiFi, a free coffee each day, and discounts on the daily community lunch. They even do accommodation packages for those who want to base themselves close by.
If you’re looking at living in Hoi An, the Hub is likely to be your go-to workspace.
Jack’s Cat Cafe
Run by Vietnam Cat Welfare, Jack’s Cat Cafe is heaven for cat-lovers like Richelle and I. I admit my love does not go quite so deep as my better half’s, but even a grumpy old curmudgeon like me can’t help but grin when I’ve got my pick of ninety adorable cats.
If you’re living in Hoi An and miss having a pet, fostering the orphan kittens that regularly show up on Jack’s Cat Cafe’s doorstep is a great way to have a pet without needing to worry about how you’ll get them home.
Richelle and I have fostered through Jack’s twice and it has been a great balm for a couple of cat lovers who miss being able to have a pet.
The onsite vegan cafe is also remarkably good!
Fresh, Local Food
Vietnamese food might not be in my top five global cuisines, but I’m hard-pressed to say no to a flavourful bowl of Cao Lau or a plate of Com Ga. Thankfully, Vietnamese food is criminally cheap in Hoi An, even if you are paying the foreigner mark-up.
Local restaurants and coffee shops can be found in virtually every neighborhood, and while I tend to find Vietnamese food starts to all taste the same after a few months, the ready access to affordable local food does make it easier to live on a budget.
Local markets such as Ba Le and Tan An (Tiger) Market also give you access to fresh meat and produce, although you’ll want to go bright and early to make sure the meat hasn’t been baking in the sun all day.
With most Vietnamese apartments having tiny fridges, you’re going to become intimately familiar with local markets if you’re planning to do any cooking!
While I’ve made a point of singling out the Hub as a great community, there are other ways to make friends in Hoi An.
Richelle and I have enjoyed going to the free salsa lessons at Kukun, while Three Dragons Pub does a weekly trivia night that is a lot of fun. There is also the Hoi An Writer’s Group, which I was a member of during my first stint in Hoi An.
My sister-in-law found a lot of friends through local expat mum groups, while the Hoi An Expats Facebook group is always abuzz with local events or people looking for travel buddies.
While I’m a bit of an introvert and don’t socialize a great deal, there are definitely options out there!
The Worst of Living in Hoi An
As I said earlier, expat living in Hoi An isn’t all peaches and cream. The challenges of living in a small town in a developing country may be a bit much if you’re looking for a long-term base.
Lack of Conveniences
If you’re only in town for a few months as part of a longer backpacker journey, the lack of supermarkets and western conveniences in Hoi An isn’t likely to prove a problem.
If however, you’re like Richelle and I, going a year without a few tastes of home can be a bit of a headache.
Hoi An does not have any grocery stores, supermarkets, or malls. This means you’re going to rely on a motley mix of local markets and small, independent minimarts to do your shopping. While this is all well and good if you’re after chicken breasts, fresh veggies, and a can of Dr. Pepper, it can make finding anything more exotic than that a tad difficult.
Thankfully, Da Nang is just a half-hour away and has a number of larger shopping centers including Costco-esque MegaMart. While you’re still going to be hard-pressed to find all of your favorites from home, you’ll at least be able to source stuff like cheese, meat that isn’t chicken, and a pretty solid variety of East Asian staples like ramen and snacks.
This lack of chain stores and big business is definitely a part of Hoi An’s charm, but I would kill for some decent deli meat and produce that survives more than a day or two in the fridge.
One of the biggest hurdles we encountered with expat life in Hoi An has undoubtedly been the kitchens.
With food so cheap and with most of the expats in Hoi An just passing through, properties with fully functional kitchens are few and far between.
Many of the properties we visited either boasted a sad, shared kitchen or a bar fridge, a microwave, and a hot plate masquerading as a kitchen.
If you’re coming to Vietnam trying to follow a strict diet or you’re just a keen chef, be prepared to hunt a little harder to find a place with a suitable kitchen. When you couple that with the lack of access to groceries, it can be a frustrating place to embrace home cooking.
Hoi An is hot.
While you want stinking hot days for when you’re lounging around on the beach, trying to get stuff done in 43C temperatures is fucking difficult. This year, I’ve had to do the following in insane heat and humidity:
- Get fitted for my wedding suit;
- Shoot a TV show;
- Play tour guide;
- Take cats to the vet;
- Move house.
As you can imagine, none of these are things that are made more pleasant by torrents of sweat cascading down one’s back to collect around the taint and balls. It’s thoroughly unpleasant.
Thankfully, air-conditioners are pretty much standard in most Hoi An rentals, but you’ll be forking out 2,000,000+ a month in power bills during the long dry season.
When Hoi An isn’t unpleasantly hot, it’s usually because the rainy season has blown in.
From November through January/February, Hoi An is famously wet and – in some areas – flooded.
While the rain isn’t constant, the dams upriver regularly need to have the pressure eased, which can lead to Old Town becoming very much like Venice.
While house-hunting, it’s always a good idea to check with your real estate agent to see how your property fares during the rainy season. Locals often simply move to the top floor during the flooding, but you may not have that luxury.
Transient Expat Population
Even with expat haunts like the Hub to help us build a circle of friends, the transience of Hoi An’s expat population does make it difficult to forge lasting friendships.
As Vietnamese tourist visas are only good for three months at a time, many people are only here for a good time, rather than a long time. This translates into a lot of fun goodbye parties, but also a lot of sad goodbyes.
We made and lost friends so quickly during our time in Hoi An that it felt like an episode of Game of Thrones. Except, obviously, we didn’t kill them and seize their kingdoms. We’re not madmen.
If you’re okay with having to make new friends every 3-6 months, this is a pretty minor inconvenience, but it does mean a lot of starting from scratch with new faces.
The Local Drivers
Now, I haven’t been to every country on earth, but I’ve been to enough to feel confident in making this assertion: the Vietnamese are the worst drivers on the planet.
Whether it’s texting on a motorbike while weaving all over the road, blindly pulling a pushbike out into traffic at speed, two bikes riding side by side so their riders can chat, or shirtless, helmetless ‘young buffalo’ screaming down a narrow laneway at 100km, riding a motorbike or scooter in Vietnam can be a harrying experience.
And Vietnam is where I learned to drive. I’d never so much as started a motorbike prior to our year there, but I now feel confident I could complete the Kessel run in 12 parsecs.
(And yes, I know a parsec is a measure of distance, not speed. George Lucas is an idiot)
If the unpredictable scooter riders that turn Hoi An’s streets into a river of smoke and metal weren’t bad enough, you’ve also got to contend with local car drivers who seem to think their SUVs, buses, and sedans are motorbikes. You’ll find cars driving up the center of the road, swerving in and out of traffic, and blindly pulling out into oncoming traffic as if they forget they’re in 2+ tonnes of steel.
Despite all of this madness, there is a strange kind of order to Vietnam’s roads. Over the course of a year, I became quite used to weaving in and out of traffic with one hand constantly prepared to grip the brakes if an idiot careened into the streets.
The Legality of Driving in Vietnam
Right before we left Hoi An in August, the Vietnamese government had begun to crack down on foreigners driving with Vietnamese licenses.
They seem to have no problem with the fact 90% of locals don’t have licenses, but were confiscating bikes and issuing hefty fines to those who didn’t have local licenses.
The process for getting a local license is not an easy one, so I just learned to be hyper-vigilant for any sign of the fuzz, ducking down a side street or doing a quick u-turn to avoid being slapped with a fine.
Travel Insurance & Scooters
It’s also worth noting that, as local law means it is illegal to drive a scooter without a Vietnamese driver’s license, you will not be covered by your travel insurance if you’re injured while riding your scooter.
With medical care being affordable in Vietnam, you might be prepared to take the risk, but the number of feckless assholes on Facebook with GoFundMe pages for their drunken crashes is a pretty solid indication that you might want to play it safe.
Early to Bed, Early to Rise
As a smaller, rural city, Hoi An’s nightlife can leave a lot to be desired.
While there are plenty of shady backpacker bars in Old Town and a few of the restaurants on An Bang Beach stay open as late as 10 pm, this is not a city where you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to a late-night party.
Looking for a meal after 9 pm? Your best bet is to head to Old Town, as things in the An Bang and Tra Que area tend to shut up shop around the same time.
While Richelle and I are calming down in my old age, we still had a few nights where the party had to abruptly come to an end because none of us felt like inhaling nitrous oxide from balloons at a dingy downtown bar.
Now, if backpacker bars are totally your thing, Hoi An has those in spades. It’s just not much chop for anything else after about 10 pm.
All in all…
With the exception of the transient expat scene and the lack of comforts from home, I really had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to come up with reasons why I didn’t love expat life in Hoi An. I wouldn’t have come back for a second stint if I’d hated it, would I?
If you’re looking for a cruisy, comfy base in Southeast Asia where your dollar stretches a long way, Hoi An is amongst the best places in the world. It’s also terrific if you’re just looking for a base for three months or so.
For a long-term expat, however, the frustrations might begin to gnaw at your sanity. I know Richelle and I were so fucking excited to go to a Trader Joe’s and get meat that wasn’t fish or chicken once we got home.
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