Photo: suphanat/Shutterstock

How AI Helped Me Plan a Day in Hội An, Vietnam

Vietnam Insider Guides
by Alex Bresler Jun 5, 2023

Last month, I found myself in Hội An, Vietnam, with a single objective: to have some clothes custom-made in the tailoring capital of the world.

Hội An is a city on Vietnam’s central coast, roughly an hour south of Da Nang. Hundreds of tailoring shops line the streets of the UNESCO-recognized Ancient Town, a longtime Southeast Asian trading port whose merchants now cater to shopping-inclined tourists. My partner had a handful of suits made there some years ago, and our recent trip to Vietnam was the perfect excuse to have them altered.

It was also an opportunity to test out Matador Network’s’s AI-assisted travel concierge, GuideGeek. As a Matador editor, I was among GuideGeek’s first users, eager to assess its knowledge of my native Bay Area. I was generally impressed with its recommendations for dining and hiking around San Francisco, two of my favorite local pastimes, but I was curious to see how helpful the WhatsApp-based travel guide would be in a place that was mostly foreign to me.

With only one full day in Hội An, our tasks for GuideGeek were simple: find us a tailor, tell us what and where to eat, give us the lowdown on local beaches, and help us figure out what to do with the rest of our downtime. Here’s what happened.

Mission one: Find the best tailor in Hội An


Photo: Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock

The first task I assigned GuideGeek, to single out a tailor in a sea of tailoring shops, was more of a litmus test than a genuine request. We already knew we’d be going to BeBe, the atelier where my partner had his suits made originally. BeBe is probably the most prominent tailor in Hội An, and GuideGeek knew that, recommending it first.

I wanted a better test. BeBe is highly regarded for its quality and professionalism, but it’s also a large storefront with an accordingly large price tag. So I asked both GuideGeek and my hotel concierge to recommend a smaller, more affordable alternative. Initially, GuideGeek sent a list of three shops in the Ancient Town that had clearly established themselves as tourist favorites, suspect quality notwithstanding. But with a little prompting — and a more refined query, using language like “lesser-known” and “good value” — GuideGeek suggested Maya, the shop that our concierge had told us about with a wink, as if she was letting us in on a local secret.

Trip-planning takeaway: AI can recommend popular and under-the-radar destinations

Asking GuideGeek to choose a tailor in Hội An provided us with two helpful tips for AI-assisted trip-planning. First, that GuideGeek has good, if indiscriminate, taste. It’s quick to promote establishments that are widely well-reviewed. But it’s also able to dig deeper into a destination if you take the time to ask pointed questions.

One pleasant surprise was the unprompted advice GuideGeek included in its responses, such as the average turnaround time for Hội An tailors and the fact that BeBe would likely be able to accommodate same-day service. Given that we only planned to spend one full day in Hội An, GuideGeek not only helped us figure out what to do with our limited time but also how to budget it.

Mission two: Give us all the deets on Hội An’s essential eats


Photo: Yong Faris/Shutterstock

In Hội An, as in much of Vietnam, it only takes a few minutes to determine the city’s iconic cuisine. Street vendors specializing in one or two staple dishes are ubiquitous. In Hội An, these dishes include cao lầu (lye-soaked noodles with pork and greens) and mì quảng (lightly brothy noodles with seafood, various meats, and herbs). GuideGeek endorsed both immediately. It also recommended a dish I might have otherwise overlooked: bánh mì. Because bánh mì are available across Vietnam, I failed to realize that the vendors I saw slinging them in Hội An were among the nation’s most masterful sandwich artists. Without GuideGeek, I might have missed out on one of the best bánh mì I had in Vietnam.

Trip-planning takeaway: AI excels at providing general details about a region

Quickly sourcing information that’s readily available but dangerous for travelers who’re prone to digital rabbit holes is one of GuideGeek’s greatest strengths. This works well when you’re looking for generalities rather than specific recommendations, such as what to eat rather than where to eat it. As someone who finds that doing too much research tends to detract from my experience of a destination, I appreciated that GuideGeek was able to brief me on Hội An in a matter of seconds — in a friendly, conversational tone no less.

Mission three: Recommend specific restaurants in Hội An


Photo: worawut charoen/Shutterstock

Before my partner and I arrived in Hội An, our meals required little guesswork. In Hanoi, my partner took me to all of his favorite places from when he lived there. On a motorcycle trip through the mountainous Hà Giang region, we ate whatever was available. Anywhere in between, we followed the same rule: pick a place outside with plastic stools that seem to be primarily occupied by locals.

In Hội An, we let GuideGeek decide. Craving bánh xèo when we arrived, we asked GuideGeek to tell us where we could snack on the crispy, savory stuffed-rice pancakes. We scootered to its first suggestion, Miss Ly Cafeteria, but decided against it upon realizing that it was a sit-down restaurant, indoors with proper chairs.

GuideGeek also suggested Madam Khanh, the Bánh Mì Queen, a hybrid street vendor and sit-down restaurant with an extensive menu that included several iterations of bánh mì but no bánh xèo. We put our craving aside and heeded GuideGeek’s earlier advice, ordering two bánh mì thịt nướng (baguettes filled with barbecue pork and a variety of fixings). They were excellent.

After an unsuccessful back-and-forth with GuideGeek to find a bánh xèo place closer to dinnertime, we decided to find one ourselves. We settled on Ba Le Well, a surprisingly large restaurant with relatively few — but all glowing — reviews.

Thrilled with our meal, we pulled up WhatsApp on the way out to see if GuideGeek’s take on Ba Le Well differed from ours. The ever-positive chatbot seemed slightly less enthusiastic about the restaurant than we were, describing it as “pretty good” and reminding us that there were “many other fantastic options” for bánh xèo in Hội An.

“Nevertheless,” it concluded with a surprising level of thoughtfulness, “if you’d like to give Ba La Well a try, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. Just remember, food is subjective, and everyone’s taste is different.”

Trip-planning takeaway: AI relies on popular opinions but recognizes that preferences are subjective

GuideGeek did a better job at suggesting specific dishes than it did specific restaurants. It was able to identify countless “good” or even “great” options but also understood its limitations, hesitating to name anything as “the best.” As a rule, GuideGeek’s first recommendations are typically for places that are well-rated on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, or frequently mentioned in publications and blogs. If you’re looking for something more under-the-radar, you may want to consider its second, third, fourth or subsequent suggestions first.

Mission four: Point us toward the best beach with the smallest crowd


Photo: avtk/Shutterstock

Situated on the South China Sea, Hội An opens to a stretch of coast that’s popular with sunbathers, swimmers, and surfers. The most well-known beaches, An Bang and Cua Dai, are long and wide but feel surprisingly cramped when you factor in the beachgoers. Our task for GuideGeek was to find us a beach as beautiful as either but without the crowds.

GuideGeek’s first suggestion was to travel to a city called Quy Nhon. It recommended a beach there called Bai Xep, which Google confirmed was both scenic and secluded, but also located five hours away by car. GuideGeek’s second suggestion, Tam Than Beach in a city called Tam Ky, was equally undeveloped and much closer, but still too far away for a quick visit at an hour’s drive.

I decided to take a different approach. Next, I asked how many beaches there are in Hội An. GuideGeek reiterated that An Bang and Cua Dai are among the most popular beaches in the area, but it also included a new name in its list: Ha My Beach.

A reasonable 15-minute drive from Hội An, Ha My was exactly what we wanted. It was significantly less developed than the bigger beaches near town, with a few hotels and restaurants but no large resorts or beach bars like we’d seen fringing An Bang. It’s hard to say how crowded Ha My would have been at the height of the day, as we visited later in the afternoon, but without much tourist infrastructure, I imagine that Ha My stays pleasantly empty while the main beaches swell.

Trip-planning takeaway: Rephrase your question if the answer isn’t what you want

Finding a lowkey beach near Hội An required a little more legwork than some of our other prompts. While GuideGeek’s initial recommendations would have been ideal, I was surprised that the chatbot hadn’t initially suggested Ha My, given that we asked for beach recommendations near Hội An.

Ultimately, this was a lesson in providing detail up front. If you have specific needs, GuideGeek works best when you ask questions that are equally specific. However, I was impressed to see that our feedback was taken into account in real time, resulting in increasingly helpful answers based on our reasons for rejecting its initial results. I also learned that there are multiple ways to get to the answer you want — by framing my inquiry different ways, I was able to get the most useful information.

Mission five: Give us a few options for non-beach activities


Photo: SARAH NGUYEN/Shutterstock

Between our consultation at BeBe, subsequent fittings, meals, and brief beach visit, we only had time for one extra activity in Hội An. GuideGeek had several ideas. It opened with a guided walking tour of the Ancient Town or a self-guided bike tour of greater Hội An, highlighting sites such as the Japanese Covered Bridge, Hội An Museum, and Fujian Assembly Hall. In the same response, it suggested a cooking class, lantern-making workshop, or spa day, followed by two possible day trips to the Ba Na Hills or Marble Mountains.

It was nearing early evening, and we had an early flight to catch in Da Nang the next morning, leaving no room for a side trip. Having spent much of the day in the Ancient Town, we decided on a cooking class. GuideGeek recommended the Red Bridge Cooking School or Green Bamboo Cooking School. Unfortunately, we were too late for both, so we settled on massages.

One of the two spas that GuideGeek named was permanently closed, a fact the chatbot thanked us for pointing out before providing an alternative. We made appointments at La Siesta, which belongs to a boutique luxury hotel and, according to GuideGeek, offers a wider variety of treatments than many other spas in Hội An.

The spa menu was indeed extensive. There were full-body treatments, facials, hand and foot massages, neck and shoulder massages, skincare-focused treatments, and packages that combined elements of all of the other offerings, not to mention a sauna, steamshower, jacuzzi, and herbal bath for “extra pampering.”

I opted for a joint full-body massage and facial. I left feeling relaxed and refreshed. I like a spa day as much as the next person, but it’s not something I typically seek out while traveling. Turns out, after a bumpy days-long motorcycle trip in Hà Giang with our evenings split between rustic guesthouses and even more rustic campsites, a bit of pampering was exactly what I needed.

Trip-planning takeaway: AI is great at coming up with unique things to do

Prompting GuideGeek to coordinate a random activity for us was the only task that we assigned to it with zero qualifiers or preconceptions. And in many ways, I was most impressed by its responses. Giving GuideGeek complete control over our itinerary — whether to tell us what dishes to order or suggest how to spend our downtime — not only relieved us of some of our decision-making but also yielded ideas that we might not have had ourselves.

Overall verdict: GuideGeek simplifies travel-planning by providing customized tips in a quick and convenient tool

When it comes to trip-planning, GuideGeek saves travelers both time and stress. While there’s no replacement for a local guide, the chatbot’s wealth of knowledge, friendly tone, and immediate WhatsApp responses almost make it feel like you’re conversing with one. Better yet, GuideGeek is able to provide recommendations beyond the most obvious ones if you prompt it to do so using targeted language. Having an AI-assisted travel concierge in your back pocket is invaluable in situations where you’re short on time, but after testing it out on a one-day visit to Hội An, I’m eager to see what it can do when given free reign on a longer trip in the future.

Discover Matador