Far away yet so close: Hoi An is the gentle pearl of Central Vietnam. Liza Linklater spends quiet days in a town from yesteryear.
“Maybe later?” Hien says softly. Such is the constant refrain uttered by vendors as you pass the innumerable tailor shops in historic Hoi An. Even the ubiquitous, itinerant backpackers come to this quiet Vietnamese town to stock up on custom-made suits and silk outfits. This may often have more to do with the low price than the exceptional quality of the tailoring.
A conservationist’s dream – Hoi An is a quiet, slow-moving town known mostly for its historic buildings. On two visits, we stayed at opposite ends of the Cam Nam bridge over the Thu Bon river. The early morning chugging sounds of the small, motorized ferries, laden with people sporting conical hats and bicycles stacked on their roofs, awakened us as they were heading toward Hoi An’s busy riverside market. From our window, we also saw streams of bicycles and Honda Dream motorcycles meandering across the bridge transporting their passengers to and fro.
Hoi An was granted World Heritage status in 1999 by UNESCO. Parts of the town have been restored, but the townsfolk still live in the backs of, or above, tourist shops and restaurants. The town hasn’t become a theme village, it’s very much a “living” place. (But in order to raise funds for preserving more of the town, tourists can buy tickets along Tran Phu Street, the “main” street in the old part of town, which provides entrance to the Japanese bridge, a Chinese assembly hall, an ancestor worship temple, an historic house, and a museum.)
Hoi An’s ancient houses are worth touring. Be sure to visit the 18th century house of Tran Ky to see the family heirlooms and the 200-year-old Tran family chapel at the corner of Le Loi and Phan Chu Trinh streets. There are several other private homes whose owners will beckon you inside for a small sum.
The town is made for walking or cycling and is very easy to get around in. Start walking along the narrow streets among the pastel-coloured buildings with their clay-tiled roofs, offering a unique combination of ancient Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and French architecture. Three centuries ago, Hoi An was a bustling port, full of traders and sailing ships from China, Japan, Portugal (via Macau), Holland, and India.
From the mid-15th century until 1639, Hoi An was home to a thriving Japanese community. A red wooden bridge linked it to the Chinese district. Built in the mid-1500s, this bridge with its covered roof is now the symbol of Hoi An, housing a small Taoist temple, dedicated to the God of Wind and Rain.
In later years, the Chinese quarter prospered and many of Hoi An’s historic houses were built by Chinese immigrants in the latter half of the 18th century. Many of the descendants of these settlers live in these single or two-story houses to this day. They also built splendid assembly halls. French colonial style houses built in the early 20th century add to Hoi An’s appeal.
During the late 19th century, Danang began to develop into a modern port to which Hoi An’s role as a commercial port was then shifted; hence, Hoi An did not modernize or develop and the town remains virtually untouched.
Being a riverside town, you will surely be approached by one of several middle-aged women wanting to take you on a rowboat-ride, especially lovely before dusk. The gentle sound of the oar dipping the water as it propels you slowly along the placid waterway is very soothing. The ochre yellow and pale pink sunset hues cast a softness over the shoreline where palm and bamboo trees sway in the breeze, boat builders put late day touches on their creations, evening fires are stoked for dinner, children run up and down the river bank and it appears as if time has stood still.
Maybe you will be fortunate enough to have your visit coincide with the 14th night of the lunar month when soft-hued silk lanterns alone (no electric or neon street lamps) light up the streets of the town in the evening. It is pure romance.
Bicycles ply the streets – women sit poker straight on them, often looking like bandits with handkerchiefs over their faces, small hats on their heads and long evening gloves covering their arms. Rent bicycles to ride around town or to go to the beach, just sit in one of the cafés and watch the parade of humanity go by, or walk along the leafy, sun-dappled streets and see older ladies sitting on their porches. Hear the whirring of sewing machines and the clackety-clack of the wooden looms in the cotton mills. It’s a place where you can simply enjoy the heightening of your senses.
The fisherwomen work the Central market on the river, a bustling place from dawn to night. On my first trip I took a photo of a group of older women. When I returned on a second trip, successful in finding some of these women, it was poignant that one of them sat in her little boat crying incessantly after I gave it to her. Unfortunately I had no translator so couldn’t figure out why she was so upset. Perhaps one of her friends had died in the interim.
This tiny town still doesn’t have an overabundance of hotel rooms. A few four and five star hotels have recently been built outside of town on the way to the beach where you will find foreigners trying to turn their white skin shades of red or brown, while the Vietnamese women who serve them drinks and food cover up every inch of their bodies. There are also guesthouses and some hotels right in the town. Good quality restaurants, however, thrive. Of particular note is the Brothers Café. Located downtown by the river in a former ice factory, the building is now a mix of Chinese, Japanese and French architecture which oozes a superb atmosphere with exquisite food.
So if you are looking for a ‘safe’ country to visit in these troubled times, Vietnam is the place. Overall visitor figures for the country were 2.1 million in 2001, with forecasts of 6 million by 2008. Tourism officials are trying to attract more visitors to Central Vietnam, so try to get there soon.
Bangkok to Danang
» Bangkok Airways via Siem Reap, Cambodia
» Thai Airlines (Tues., Thurs., Sat., B11,000)
Hanoi/Ho Chi Minh to Danang
» Vietnam Airlines, twice daily.
» Take a taxi on a short, 45-minute, 30-kilometre drive south.
» Buses, minibuses and trains constantly ply the coastal route up and down the country.
Where To Stay
» Pho Hoi: Riverside Garden Restaurant Hotel. It’s on the river just across the Cam Nam Bridge. Ask for a room facing the river.
(84 510) 826-628, 863-782, Fax (84 510) 862-626 email@example.com
» Hoi An Beach Resort (84 510) 927-011, 927-016, Fax (84 510) 927019 firstname.lastname@example.org | www.hoiantourist.com
» Hoi An Riverside Resort (84 510) 864-800, Fax (84 510) 864-900, email@example.com | www.hoianriverresort.com
Where To Eat
» Treat’s Same Same Café, Tran Phu street. Happy hour daily from 4pm-9 pm, 2 for 1.
» Brother’s Café, Hoi An 27 Phan Boi Chau Street, Vietnamese cuisine
» Good Morning Vietnam, 34 Le Loi Street, very good Italian and Vietnamese place
» Tam Tam Café & Bar, 110 D Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, French and Italian food