Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tokyo/Vietnam July 2011 - Exploring Hoi An

***This post is part 14 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Out of all the places I visited in Vietnam, Hoi An was my favorite. Something about this town just resonated with me. In 1999, the old town area was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and it still remains the central gathering place for the populace. The peculiar thing about Hoi An is that much of the old town area has retained the same streets and buildings from centuries ago, so it is often said that this is a place suspended in time, forgotten by the manic economic expansion seen elsewhere in the country. I fully understood the description the moment we arrived.

It wasn't always this way, Hoi An in the 16th and 17th century had perhaps the largest trading port in Southeast Asia, and as a result generated tremendous wealth and attracted immigrants from all over the world including Japan, China, Europe, India, and the Middle East. By the 1800's however, Hoi An lost its luster to the French established ports in Da Nang to the north. The area became stagnant, and remained relatively unchanged for the next 200 years, until its recent establishment as a tourist hub.

It's easy to see why so many tourists are flocking here nowadays... Hoi An is an absolutely beautiful town. Without the rapid construction boom engulfing the rest of the country, Hoi An has retained it's slow, idyllic rhythm and preserved it's centuries-old architecture. It just feels different from the rest of Vietnam, and it's probably because it simply is. Many of the narrow streets in old town are closed off to cars and motorbikes, and as such, it has become a bicyclists' paradise for exploration. I must say this about Hoi An: there isn't a beautiful monument here, or breathtaking vistas, or ancient palaces, but what makes this place special is the atmosphere it just exudes out of every corner and alleyway. An early morning stroll through the bustling central market, a quick glance into the centuries old houses along the riverfront, a walk by the colorful lantern shops in the evening, a sampling of the Hoi An delicacies in a random hole-in-the-wall restaurant... this place just makes you feel like all your cares in the world are gone.

Hoi An riverfront

As a method of crowd control and revenue generation, you must now purchase a $5 USD ticket at one of many kiosks all around Hoi An to access specific sights in old town. These include museums, historic houses, congregation halls, and traditional performances. You also need the ticket to access the famous Japanese covered bridge. I used the ticket to see the old Tan Ky House, the Chinese Meeting Hall, as well as the Hoi An Museum of History. Mind you, these are not particularly exciting activities, but I'm a person who loves reading about history and experiencing different cultures, so for me it was the perfect way to spend a morning.

Japanese covered bridge, originally built in the late 16th century

Chinese Meeting Hall

Old Tan Ky House

Later in the afternoon, we decided to ride our bikes to Cua Dai Beach, just a few miles outside of old town. The beach is very popular with the locals, and it was fun to just lounge around for a bit, buy a drink, and chat. Starting around 5-6 pm every day, however, the monsoon rains arrive and a torrential downpour begins that doesn't let up until past dinner. During this time, I would hide under the covered patio of our hotel and enjoy a good book.

Scenary on the bike ride to Cua Dai Beach

Cua Dai Beach

There are some delicious specialties of Hoi An, the most famous of which is probably the white rose dumpling. The skin is made from translucent rice paper, and it is filled with a small amount of shrimp and topped with a generous helping of fried onions. Vietnamese cuisine here takes on a distinctive Chinese flair as much of the old population from centuries ago were immigrants from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces of China.

White rose dumplings

Hoi An is also famous for it's skilled tailors. There are literally hundreds of tailors in old town, ready to make shirts, dresses, and suits for much less than you can find in Western countries. Of course, the more you pay, the higher the quality, but suits typically run between $80-$250. My friend had a button-down shirt that he loved, so he brought it to one of the highly rated tailors, Mr. Xe, and had it copied with 7 different fabrics that he chose himself. Total cost per shirt ended up being about $15... while the original cost $80.

Mr. Xe tailor shop

One final note: the cynic in me did at times feel like Hoi An was a bit Disney-fied... with much of old town catering to tourists. But at the same time I also noticed that locals were enjoying the sights and sounds just as much as the tourists, and the central market in old town was still very much a real, local affair catering to their daily needs. Who knows what time will bring to Hoi An in the next few decades, but if it is able to retain its charm and atmosphere without being completely overrun by tourists, then locals and visitors alike should be able to coexist in harmony.

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