Tourists planning a budget trip to Hoi An should consider home-stay accommodation. Inexpensive and cosy, a home-stay will show you how locals really live, and give you a chance to immerse yourself in the culture.
Many tourists choose home-stay accommodation as a way to approach Vietnamese culture, and there is no better way than living with a local family. Home-stay guests are treated like a member of the host family. They may have to wake up early in the morning to help the host family prepare breakfast – usually mi quang (local-style noodles), cao lau (noodles with roasted pork) or steamed sticky rice, and may be asked to help out in the garden later.
There they can learn how to identify the various herbs and vegetables used in Vietnamese cooking, and how to grow them. After breakfast, guests can accompany the host mother on a trip to the local market. At the market a myriad of colours and smells assault the senses, the host mother may show the guest how to choose the freshest produce and also how to bargain down the price. This is, after all, Viet Nam.
During my recent trip to Hoi An in September, after spending two days in a three-star hotel, I decided to stay at a home-stay called Riverside Home to get a better idea of local life. As I approached the home, I realised it was hidden under a thick blanket of foliage, and cautiously made my way to the gate. Inside it was cool and fresh, despite the oppressive muggy weather outside, and I knew I had made the right choice. Bird song filled the air, and the rustling of leaves left me feeling at ease immediately, and I settled in.
The owner, Nguyen Duc Cuong, who is also an architect, is both friendly and hospitable. His house is actually two buildings, separated by a tree-lined path. The garden abounds in flowers. There is a well, and I noticed a haystack siting somewhat incongruously in the corner, until I discovered it hides a restroom. Unlike other home-stays, guests are housed in one building, while the family lives in the other. There is also a gym.
During my stay there I did very little. I read lying in a hammock under a thatch roofed pavilion, and watched ducks searching for food in the fields opposite. I felt like I was staying in a meditation retreat.
In the afternoon, I hired a small boat and slowly wandered the waterways until sunset. The boatman, Cuong’s neighbour, was down to earth and friendly, and I enjoyed chatting with him. I also made friend with Cuong’s daughter; she took me to visit a nearby market. We visited a fortune teller together on a whim. She was a fantastic tour guide and showed me the best street food in town. Back at the house she also cooked all the meals and proved a great chef.
Cuong keeps a guest book, with pictures and writings from most of his guests, and while looking for a suitable place to write about my own experience, I noticed that many shared my view of the place.
Two American guests, Jalel Sager and Nathalie Miller, wrote, "Riverside Home is a marvellous, tranquil oasis. We loved the views from our room, the windows framing palms trees and the river. Your family is an exceptionally nice group of people to be around, and our only regret is that we couldn’t stay longer."
Taking their advice to heart, I postponed leaving and extended my stay another night.
According to Cuong, whose family operates a business in HCM City, the home-stay he runs is not so much a business, as a way to meet people from all over the world.
"I love meeting new people from different cultures and regions all over the world. To meet, talk and live with them is really an invaluable experience for me," he said.
So far, nearly 1,000 guests have stayed at Riverside Home since it opened in 2007. Rooms cost from US$15-20.
Hoi An authorities see home-stay accommodation as another draw card for the town, and hope authentic local culture will attract tourists looking for the real deal. They plan to promote home-stays in the suburbs surrounding the old town, and are looking for homes in the traditional architectural style that have a decent-sized garden. Potential home-stay hosts must also offer cultural activities to be considered.
"Investing in the development of home-stay accommodation also helps promote community spirit, and allows locals to benefit more from tourists. It also takes some of the pressure off the crowded town centre and gives tourists a better understanding of the way of life here," said Nguyen Hong Linh, head of the Hoi An Trade and Tourism Chamber’s Tourism Section.