Living in Hoi An was equally incredible as it was excruciating. I’ve dabbled into a few of the issues and benefits before, but I wanted to really get honest about my time there. With no fluff – just a transparent look inside what it was really like for me day-to-day.
We called Hoi An, Vietnam ‘home’ for almost 5 months. It’s a small town in central Vietnam that is both magical and frustrating at the same time. To visit, it’s a romantic, sensational and enchanting place. To live there is a different story. Although it still has amazing aspects (remarkably affordable, wonderful people, beautiful architecture), daily life can be a struggle.
We dealt with having to walk in floods, getting strange rashes and infections from sewer backups happening in those flooded streets, 45-degree heat with high humidity and no relief, black mold infestations in the house, more skin and health problems from the mold, and heat stroke. We had weird bug bites, meals from sketchy kitchens, people overcharging us 10x’s because we were westerners, power outages, unsafe water issues, torturously hard mattresses…the list goes on.
Now, depending on your own travel experiences that previous paragraph either sounds like the whining of a privileged North American, or you personally related with every single point.
The point of this post is not to complain or degrade what a great place Hoi An is, but to shed some light on the parts that the travel brochure doesn’t tell you about.
Why Did We Choose To Live in Hoi An?
We chose Hoi An out of so many other options in South East Asia because of its unique heritage, architecture, in-tact culture and extremely low prices. It’s really unlike anywhere else in Asia. Hoi An is a strikingly handsome city that allows one to live like a king on a pauper’s budget. There are hardly any places like it left on the planet.
The Truth About Living in Hoi An
I’m not one to start out with the negative. First, I want to cover all of the ‘Pros’ about living in Hoi An, because there certainly are some strong ones.
All The GOOD Things About Living in Hoi An
Cheap Hotels and Rentals
Houses and apartments in Hoi An are insanely cheap. It’s not uncommon to find a small apartment for under $200 a month, and an entire newly built house for $500/m. (what!?)
For the first two months we actually lived in different hotels, as they are equally as affordable! You can get a nice hotel room for as low as $15 a night. A mid-range hotel with pool, gym and on-site restaurant starts at about $25 a night. If you are looking for high-end luxury, you’ll only pay around $75 a night to start.
We decided we wanted a little more stability and moved into a house for the last few months of our stay. We found brand new 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom place for $500/m that was in a very quiet area of town. All of our neighbors were locals, which made it a really authentic and cultural experience. One of our favorite things to do was walk around our neighborhood at night. All the Vietnamese families would be eating on the floor of their patio together, listening to music, or singing karaoke in their living room.
Let me tell you, renting a house for $500/m had me feeling like I won the travel budget lottery. It had a huge rooftop patio, massive master bathroom, gated front yard, high ceilings and big bright windows.
Here are some pictures:
Insanely Affordable Food
One of the things I loved about Hoi An was how far our budget went, especially when it came to eating out at restaurants. If you choose to eat where the locals eat, you can easily get a great meal for $1. If you are less adventurous and want some North American type food, the bill might set you back a whopping $2-$5 per dish.
I wrote a lot about our favorite cheap places to eat, but here are some examples of just how affordable it was:
Com Ga (chicken rice) = $1.50
Fresh Rolls = $1.94
Banh Mi (meat sandwich) = $1.29
Sweet potato & pumpkin veggie burger, fries and pop = $2.79
Pot of tea and English style scone = $1.50
Italian style cappuccino = $1.79
Cheap Cell Phones and Data
Getting a SIM card in Hoi An has changed my outlook on all cellular providers forever. I am now more convinced than ever that Canadian cell phone providers are purposely over charging 20x’s what they should be.
For $3.40 I received a full month of unlimited data! (technically it was 4GB PER DAY, which gives 120GB over the entire month.) In Canada I pay close to $100 for only 6GB for the entire month.
Topping up my cell phone plan in Hoi An made me absolutely giddy.
Services Like Maids, Drivers, etc.
Hoi An is the kind of place that can allow you to have services you’ve only dreamt of in another countries. It’s very easy to afford a maid, private driver, and other services that make your life easy.
We had a maid come in once a week for 3-4 hours that only cost us $6.
We also hired a private driver when we needed a ride that charged roughly $12-$15 for an entire half day of driving.
Even taxis only cost about $1.75 to get anywhere in town.
There are over 400 tailor shops in Hoi An that will custom make you any type of clothing you desire. You can get shirts for as low as $10 and dresses for as low as $15. If you want to have custom suits or gowns made, prices start around $75 and can go up depending on fabric and the skill of the tailor.
It was nice to be able to take advantage of getting custom fitting clothing made for a lot less than we can even buy fast-fashion for. I even had some of my favorite shirts replicated at a tailor for 80% less than the originals.
We met some amazing friends in Hoi An.
Most of the people we became close with were locals, but we even met a few expats and travelers who shared a lot of the same values as we did.
The people of Hoi An are generally very kind, welcoming, considerate and eager to share whatever they have. We have some very fond memories exchanging stories, ideas and thoughts with our Hoi An friends.
The Laid-Back Lifestyle
Living in Hoi An is like taking a permanent Xanax, it makes you relax and slow down to a snail’s pace. No one is in a hurry and no one seems stressed out about anything. Partly because of their culture and party because of the heat, mid-day in Hoi An reminds me a lot of Mexico with people taking their afternoon siestas.
It was nice to take a break from the ‘go go go’ lifestyle that’s prominent in North America.
The entire downtown of Hoi An is considered a living museum and was giving UNESCO heritage status in 1999.
The city was an important trading port in South East Asia between the 15th and 19th centuries, with many of its homes, bridges, pagodas and temples dating between those periods. The result is a very diverse and interesting ancient town, brimming with unique buildings and attractions.
Strolling through Hoi An is truly a sensational experience and you can’t help but be captivated. We would spend many afternoons sitting in a café, people watching and eating French baguettes with our coffee, just enjoying the ambiance of the town. It’s these types of memories that makes me wish I was back in Hoi An.
On the topic of touring the city, here are all the best things to do in Hoi An.
All The BAD Things About Living in Hoi An
Yeah, we had some issues. There were some tear-filled days and nights for sure. Most of the ‘cons' we experienced were caused by the rain/flooding, the intense heat, the contaminated water, the disease carrying bugs, and the sanitary issues in the city.
I have never seen so much black mold, mildew and other respiratory hazards In my entire life than I did in Hoi An. The city is ancient and commonly floods, and when you mix that with unbelievable humidity, there is mold everywhere you turn. It’s on the walls in restaurants, in the streets, and even infested our newly built rental.
It’s everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.
After spending a lot of time in Hoi An, we started to develop breathing problems, skin problems and other mold related health issues. We also started to notice that even the Vietnamese people struggled with mold poisoning, even though they had grown up with it inside their homes most of their lives.
In the spare bedroom of our house, the bedsheet actually started growing mold and mildew on it because it was constantly soaked because of the humidity in the air.
After only a few weeks, black mold started spreading across the ceiling and walls, so we had to quarantine that area of the house. It then spread into our guest bath (which was Trevor’s bathroom) and we had to stop using that as well.
When we contacted our landlords, they told us that was normal and it was harmless, which is based on their local superstition belief systems. The only area of the house that didn’t get a mold infestation was our bedroom, the only room with an AC unit. We basically lived out of that 1 room for months.
Personal Health Issues
We found out quickly that when you mix walking in flooded streets that also have sewer backups, you can contract some nasty stuff.
Trevor's Health Issues
During the rainy season the streets will be flooded for days or even weeks and there is nothing you can do about it. Daily life must resume. We needed to pick up fresh water, food and other supplies regardless of what the streets were like.
We really didn’t mind too much, until Trevor had a small open cut on this leg from itching a mosquito bite and walked into town. A few days later, his leg exploded into itchy red bumps that almost looked like pimples. A few more days and it started spreading all over his body. He went to the doctor who explained that he most likely got a bacterial infection caused by fecal matter from backed up sewers in the flooded streets. Gross! It took him almost 4 weeks and a lot of different pills to clear the infection.
After the rainy season came the HOT season, which brought us a new set of problems. I won’t bore you with the average bouts of heat stroke we both got, but instead another new outbreak for poor Trevor. On a very hot and humid day Trevor got so soaked in sweat and overheated that the naturally occurring fungus we ALL have on our skin had the perfect conditions to multiply and flourish. It’s called tinnea versicolor. This condition left Trevor with huge white patches all over his back, neck and shoulders that looked like his skin was peeling off. While it doesn’t hurt, it caused a lot of distress when combined with his red, bumpy legs. He started to feel like his entire body was failing him, and felt he looked like a monster. I get it! If it had been me, I would have freaked out and been so self-conscious!
Kashlee's Health Issues
I had a few of my own health issues come about during my stay in Hoi An.
First (and this is TMI for most people, but I told you I wanted to share everything!) I got intense constipation from the change in diet and it went on for weeks. I was literally unable to go to the bathroom for almost 4 straight weeks, even with laxatives. I don’t wish that upon anyone! It’s was an incredibly painful ordeal. While I couldn’t find the source of the problem, lots of research says mold poisoning or compromised gut bacteria due to contaminated food/water can have a major impact on bowel function.
Once I was able to move past that, I developed plantar fasciitis from walking 10,000 steps a day in flip-flops, which I am sure was a long time coming. Never the less, it was almost impossible to find proper orthotics in Hoi An. I was frustrated, in pain, and wishing I lived in a place where I could order what I needed on Amazon. (Yes, that’s right. No Amazon in Hoi An!)
After the heat came in the spring, I also developed a bad bout of cystic acne, which I am sure was a combo of the heat, mold, and stress. I broke out in dozens of deep panful zits all over my jaw line and chin, which left me with dark scaring. Now that I’m home, I am trying PRP to get rid of the scars that Vietnam gave me.
Besides all that, I got sad y'all. I lived there for 5 whole months and hardly posted 1 photo on social media. I was homesick, withdrawn, and disconnected.
Lack of A/C
There is really no A/C in Hoi An. 95% of all shops and restaurants simply don’t have it. It’s viewed by the Vietnamese as something that makes them sick (they believe the cold air gives you a cold) and it’s also extremely expensive to run.
I’m not a huge fan of A/C, (especially how Americans use it! Freezing cold all the time!) but Hoi An is the type of place where you need it 10 months out of the year. This is usually fine during the winter when the temperature is super agreeable, but is oppressive once the daily highs soar into high 30’s and low 40’s. It becomes almost impossible to escape the heat.
Even at home, it’s very difficult to get cool and dry. It is extremely common for homes in Hoi An to either have NO A/C, or just to have it in ONE room (the bedroom). It’s rare to see A/C in any other room of the house, even if the rental was made for expats.
In the house we rented, we had to stop using the kitchen and living room once spring/summer type weather came around, because it was simply too hot. The temperatures would easily reach 45 inside the living room by 11am to the morning sun, and with no A/C to cool it, we just couldn’t function.
There are some major sanitary issues in Hoi An, and most day-visitors never even notice.
Walking down by the river, through the ancient streets is one of the biggest tourist draws in Hoi An. But rarely do people ever look down. The restaurants and shops adjacent to the river sometimes have little ‘rivers’ of their own, which is really sewers backing up and leaking into the sidewalks. Most of the plumbing systems were built 100+ years ago and are in a constant battle with high water and the introduction of toilet paper. Anyhow, it causes literal waste to run out into the streets, finding its way to the river system.
The water is another story. No, you cannot drink the water in Hoi An. No, you cannot even brush your teeth with the water in Hoi An. You shouldn’t even trust local ice-making houses or may of the local water-bottling companies. Many have been found not using the reverse osmosis systems that they’ve claimed to have.
The tap water contains heavy metals, bacteria and a whole new world of things you’ve likely never been exposed to before. Drink brand name bottled water always.
As for the ice… I personally will not drink the ice in Hoi An, and that is because I have seen the ‘ice factories’ with my own eyes. We lived in a very local area of town and were a few streets over from an ice house. I’m not kidding, this place looked like the most condemned structure I had ever seen in my entire life. Black mold and dark green mildew everywhere, coolers with rusted out bottoms, ice cutting saws with completely rusted out blades, massive rats running through the building, holes in the walls… it looked like a horror movie.
We found out that particular ice house delivered to most of the restaurants downtown. You couldn’t PAY me to touch that ice.
Food is another concern. We were brought to the market by a local Vietnamese friend who pointed at a particular woman's stall. “I don't buy from her anymore because she injects the fruit with chemicals to make it look fresh for a longer time”, he told us. That was incredibly alarming. We thought we were getting fruits and vegetables that were hyper-local and super fresh, but in reality, some were being artificially preserved with god knows what. I don't know how to tell the difference between fruits that have been injected/painted, and ones that have not, so I became afraid of shopping at the market.
Garbage is a sanitary issue, but it gets its own section because it’s a whole other issue. While the young people of Hoi An are getting very passionate about waste management and recycling, the older generation could not care any less.
It is not uncommon to see a person bring bags of household garbage, including plastics, and just throw them in the river. On a daily basis.
We have seen trucks pull up and dump their loads of garbage into ponds and rivers. We’ve seen people throw plastic bottles from moving vehicles onto the highway without a care in the world. Garbage seems to be everywhere, and no one seems to give a damn.
We did see beach clean-ups being organized by expat groups, but Hoi An (and Vietnam as a whole) needs a radical mindset shift to happen around waste management and recycling.
Haggling and Paying ‘Foreigner' Prices
When I lived in Hoi An I missed the days when I could just go into a store and purchase something I needed. In Hoi An, it’s not always that easy.
Let’s say I needed some Advil for a headache. I would have to find a pharmacy or a store that sold it and start the negotiations. The last thing I want to do when looking for Advil is to haggle and negotiate with someone who just rose the price 8x’s more than normal. It’s exhausting, frustrating and quite frankly, annoying. Now I understand that is their culture, and I am not saying it should change, but I am saying it’s a part of living in Hoi An that I did not enjoy.
Haggling aside, it also gets old being treated as a walking ATM. Granted, most tourists are just visiting for a few days, so locals are very used to using fast and hard sales tactics while they have the opportunity. But after a few weeks, it got terribly annoying just walking down the street. Going from point a to point b resulted in being sold to anywhere from 10-20 times. You can only say ‘no thank you’ so many times before you start to get hardened and short, even though I know they are just trying to make a living.
Lack of Stores and Products
In Hoi An, there are NO traditional convenience stores. No brand name or chain store has yet found its way to the small little Vietnamese town. Most people still sell items out of the front of their homes, make-shift shops, or from small carts on the road. 90% of the things you love picking up at the 7/11 don’t even exist there yet. You can find simple Coke, Pringles and M&M’s, but that’s about it.
I actually loved the fact that big chains and brand names had not invaded Hoi An, and that mom and pop shops still had the upper-hand…until I actually needed something.
Finding proper razors, makeup removers, cosmetics, even simple things like a protein bar is almost impossible. Sure you might find a few tourist items like chemical sunscreen or whitening cream, but nothing I actually use.
After I started running out of all my favorite snacks, products and everyday items, I started to get resentful that I couldn’t find any decent replacements. Not having access to the little things in life started to compound, making me more uncomfortable by the day. For many women, the thought of not having your brands of shampoo, skin cream, makeup, lotion, vitamins, and even tampons – and having to resort to cheap ‘no-name’ alternatives (or no alternatives at all), is horrifying. And for me it was. My hair was breaking off, my skin was resembling a teenager and my confidence was going down the drain.
I ended up taking a flight to Bangkok (which was thankfully only $30!) to fill up a few supplies and to get my hair done. After contacting a few of the hair salons in Hoi An, I was not confident they could work with blonde hair.
Certain foods, especially healthy ones, can be equally as hard to find. While there are some healthy restaurants in Hoi An run by young, forward thinking people, they are the minority. Things like, stevia, organic, or specialty items like almond flour or fibre bars are nearly unattainable. People who have dietary restrictions or who want modern health food should not look to Hoi An as a place to get it.
Mosquito bites in Hoi An can result in more than just an itchy red spot. Dengue fever is a real threat in the area, affecting both locals and visitors alike. In our house at night we would try and let some cooler (still 26 degrees…) air into the downstairs to cut the heat, but that also meant mosquitos would come by the dozens.
We either had to choose. Be scorching hot inside the main floor of the house with no A/C, or let a night breeze in along with hordes of mosquitos attacking us.
I think it’s a little unfair to complain about mosquitos, as they are found on every corner of the planet, but it’s worth mentioning that a seemly innocent mosquito bite here can result in hospitalization.
Hard Beds and Hard Furniture
Before we rented our house, we explicitly asked them about the mattress. We had learned that in Hoi An (and Vietnam in general) people do NOT buy the soft cushy mattresses we are used to in North America. Most locals will actually sleep on a bed that does not even have a mattress, but instead a woven straw that looks like an empty bed frame.
The mattresses that do exist outside of luxury hotels are very hard. Torturously hard. Like, might as well sleep on the concrete floor hard.
So we asked them: “Is the mattress soft? For hotel or North American standards would you consider it soft?” They reassured us over and over that it was very thick and plush and much softer than anything they would normally use.
On move in day, we realized just how different our cultures were when it came to defining softness. The mattress they bought, that was incredibly soft and luxurious to them, was thin and ROCK HARD to us. A few nights on that thing and we both had sore backs. Finding any kind of mattress pads is also a disappointment in Hoi An. They are all advertised as ‘the cure’ for the infamously hard Vietnamese mattresses, but they were also thin and extremely uncomfortable.
No matter what we did, the bed was awful.
The rest of the furniture is no different. In Hoi An, locals use completely wooden structures for their couches, sofas and chairs. No cushions, no pads, just hard wood. They are actually stunning and many of them are even hand carved, but to have to sit on them is a different story. There is no ‘Netflix and chill’ happening on any of these rigid and hard sofas, 3 minutes in about the maximum time you can stand lounging on one.
Finding a western type sofa is a challenge. That is because they’re not popular in the Vietnamese culture, and also because thick and cushiony sofas are also a breeding ground for mildew and mould.
Hoi An used to be the best kept secret of South East Asia. NOT ANYMORE!
Now, during high season, the ancient town is absolutely flooded with thousands of tourists, most of them coming in for day-trips from Da Nang. (With help from Travel and Leisure magazine promoting it as the place to go in 2019)
During the heat of the day the streets are manageable, but after 5pm when the sun starts to go down, it can become unnavigable. Many people think of night-time in Hoi An as the ultimate romantic experience, and maybe a few years ago that was correct, but now it’s a gong show.
If we went out for dinner in the ancient town we would literally be elbow to elbow with thousands of people trying to get river selfies, clogging up the bridges and sidewalks. Just getting a meal became an intense strategy game, that had us bobbing and weaving through thick crowds of South Korean, Chinese and European tourists.
The Roads & Horns
Riding your bike, crossing the street, or just walking down the road can be a seriously dangerous event. I don't know how many times we've been sideswiped, even when being super cautious. Many expats feel the same way about the roads. They are over-crowded and they lack any type of organization, rules or regulations. Families are piled high onto one motorbike, all without helmets, weaving in and out of fast moving traffic, all while giving zero consideration for any pedestrians. It can get draining trying to navigate through the town without being hit.
The horns are a different story. I guess they effected me because I grew up with mostly silence on the roads, but the incessant use of loud horns started to drive me crazy.
So Is Living In Hoi An Good or Bad?
Living in Hoi An is MUCH different than visiting Hoi An.
Looking at this blog, it seems to be more heavily weighted on what we didn’t like about living there. While that wasn’t the purpose of this post, I thought it was very important to be honest and give details on the things you WON’T find most bloggers talking about.
The purpose of this post was not to paint Hoi An in a bad light, but instead, try and offer both sides of the story.
Some expats would tell you living in Hoi An is the best decision they ever made, and they wouldn’t be wrong! Different people value different things. What might be heaven on earth for one traveller might be a living nightmare for another. There is no right or wrong way to travel, nor is there a country that is the perfect definition of ‘home’ for every type of person.
Here is the big question:
Would I ever live in Hoi An again?
The answer is no. I didn’t come to that conclusion easily. In fact, Trevor and I were thinking of opening a business there and moving back for another year. But after a lot of soul searching and finding out what is most important to us, Hoi An is not a place we could be happy living.
If we valued budget over anything else, living in Hoi An would be an absolute YES. But after seeing first-hand what the real ‘price’ is on a cheap cost of living, we personally can’t deal with it. There are too many daily struggles, language barriers, lack of services and long-term health concerns.
Would I recommend Hoi An to other travelers?
YES. To both expats and travelers, Hoi An should not be missed.
I think everyone should visit Hoi An at least once, and if they are adventurous, I think settling down there to try it out is also a fantastic idea. I have many friends who would think Hoi An is a paradise. Just because I didn’t like living there doesn’t mean other people wouldn’t love it.
However, if you think you have similar values and standards as me, you might find your time with Hoi An is best as a weekend-long affair.