Early morning, Hoi An resembles a vintage postcard of a sleepy, riverside town. One where boats gently bob on the river, cyclists speed past on cobbled pathways, a light breeze sets lanterns aflutter and non la (conical leaf hat) clad locals go about their daily work.
I am on the banks of the Thu Bon River, revelling in the quiet when it is broken by a loud, mechanical voice. It welcomes people to the Ancient Town (and advises them to buy tickets before entering, the proceeds of which go into its maintenance). It stops as abruptly as it started.
It may seem like a lot, paying just to walk about the old town area but then, Hoi An exists largely because of tourism. It wasn’t always like this:
Aside: History lesson – Hoi An was once a prosperous trading port in the fifteenth century called Faifo (meaning seaside town). In the eighteenth century, the nearby port of Da Nang became the new center of trade and Hoi An lost all its glory. It has thus remained untouched for over 200 years. In 1999, UNESCO declared the Ancient Town a World Heritage Site, bringing it intothe limelight.
Tourism is today town’s bread and better and everything within it functions to serve that purpose. Now the tourists don’t stop coming.
The Ancient Town
The most popular attraction in Hoi An is the Ancient Town, a two sq km area steeped in historical monuments. My entry tickets gives me access to any five attractions within the old town (of the 21 in total), leaving me to choose between museums, old family houses, meeting halls, temples and observing local traditions and culture. My favourite structure is the Japanese covered wooden bridge or the Chua Cau Bridge. It is located at the beginning of the old town and at any moment is abuzz with tourist chatter, couples taking selfies, and vendors hawking street food nearby. Legend has it that a mythical dragon, its head in India and spine running along the Vietnamese coast, caused earthquakes in Japan when it moved. The Japanese solved this by building the bridge on the dragon’s spine to kill it. There’s a small faded shrine inside the bridge where I am invited to offer incense to appease the beast.
A stroll around the old town introduces me to what is popularly known as the Hoi An style – a mix of European, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and French architectural influences. There are century-old houses, some preserved and some crumbling, red and gold Chinese temples or assembly halls, wooden shophouses with French shuttered windows, wooden facades and balconies, European-style brick buildings, intricately carved beams and aged timber structures. The easiest way to get about is by walking or renting a cycle (most homestays or hotels offer them on rent); the Ancient Town is a pedestrian-only zone.
Almost all of the old wooden shophouses have been converted to businesses aimed at tourists – tailoring shops and boutiques, souvenir stores, restaurants and cafés, and art galleries. There are a few preserved family houses, with high compound walls, sometimes a chapel, and almost always with a garden abundant in bougainvillea and frangipani.
Being on the banks of a river means much of the town’s activities are centred in this area – the most expensive places boast a ‘river view’ and there are even tiny restaurants locating on bobbing boats.
Tailoring was once a traditional craft with a long history, tailors were in high demand when the town was an international port. The master craftsmen were known for being able to replicate any design. Today, every second shop is a tailor’s shop, looking to cash in on the influx of tourists interested in custom-made clothing and shoes. Remember, always bargain.
The spurt in tourism in the last decade has seen various activities catered specifically to them, from musical bingo nights to backpacker areas and a night market. In 2011, the tiny islet of An Hoi, once home to a banana plantation was cleared out and space was made for quaint guesthouses, fancy hotels and riverside bars and restaurants. It is this space that hosts the a vibrant night market, where they sell cheap souvenirs, jewellery, trinkets, clothes, and the centre of attraction, handmade lanterns.
There are lanterns everywhere in Hoi An, they bedeck its streets, its shops, and its homes. When lit, they become a signal of sorts, of the town bursting to life. That’s when bars and restaurants are crowded with tourists enjoying happy hour discounts, fresh seafood and good music. The lanterns bathe the town in warm glow, playing off the light of floating candles – a tourist gimmick that traps me into sending off a paper boat onto the river for ‘good luck’.
As I sit by the riverside, drinking local Tiger beer (at Rs 12 a glass) and listening to a banjo player serenade a couple on a boat, I realise that I don’t need fake good luck charms to be happy. I already am.
- The entry ticket to Ancient Town is about 120,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong) or about Rs 360 – this was three years back. It gives you access to five heritage spots in the old town
- The old town is pedestrian-only but you can rent cycles to move about
- At night, the lighting of lanterns signifies the beginning of happy hours and festivities, that go on till early morning
- Visit the night market at An Hoi islet to buy cheap souvenirs and lanterns