If you ask any tourist in Vietnam about Hoi An, you are bound to hear one of two responses: either it’s a paradise with charming streets, lovely cafes on the water and beautiful beaches (more likely) or it’s an artificial touristy hell hole.
Of course in real life it’s neither extreme—or maybe it’s both. After all, a place can both be touristy and beautifully charming. Indeed, the beauty of such a place is often why so many tourists flock to a place in the first place. And one may want to go to Hoi An precisely for that reason—to see crowded streets, to waste away the night at loud party bars.
If you go to Hoi An expecting huge crowds and endless nights, you are bound to be disappointed. Take it from me, a one-time bar worker in Dali, along the tourism road to Lijiang, Hoi An is no Lijiang, and it’s not even Dali. For good or bad, it is less crowded and less artificial-feeling.
One Wednesday evening I was walking around the “night market” island. Strings of lanterns festooned the streets. A tour group from Korea watched a bingo and singing performance of some sort. A foreigner on the bridge gave me a free drink coupon for “Moe’s Tavern.” There were crowds on the main streets, but the side streets were all empty, mostly filled with residential housing.
I went to a bar at 8 pm and left at 10:50 pm. In Lijiang, the night is just getting started at 11. Walking back at 11 in Hoi An, most of the streets were empty. Few of the other bars were full. It was so empty that if you waved a 5,000 VND bill in front of a motorcycle driver and he finally agreed to take you back to your hostel 30 minutes away walking—against the protests of his fellow motorcycle taxi touts—he could probably take you to an ATM and rob you with no one seeing. Would he really do that? I don’t know, because I jumped off the back of the motorcycle less than one minute later when it looked like he was going the wrong way.
Beyond the actual market area, there are a lot of quiet streets where you can sit in the courtyard of a nice quiet restaurant with few other people. Much of the Lijiang ancient town is loud and chaotic, with few open seats in lots of restaurants.
So is Hoi An better or worse than Lijiang? Depends on what you’re looking for look at these pictures and see for yourself.