THE CENTRAL COAST || HOI AN
Stubbornly traditional and jam-packed with sights, the small city of HOI AN also exudes a laidback, almost dreamy atmosphere that makes it an essential stop on any tour of the country. This intriguing place, with its narrow streets comprising wooden-fronted shophouses topped with moss-covered tiles, has much to recommend it, not least the fact that a concerted effort has been made to retain the city’s old-world charm: by way of example, it’s the only place in Vietnam that places restrictions on motorbike use, and the only place that forces local businesses, by law, to dangle lanterns from their facades. These come to the fore as evening encroaches, and by nightfall you’ll see them shining out from narrow alleys and the riverbank in their hundreds, the light reflecting in the waters of the Thu Bon River. Also notable are the city’s many cheap tailors, who will whip up made-to-measure clothes in no time, and a culinary scene that ranks among the best in Asia.
Hoi An’s ancient core is a rich architectural fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European influences dating back to the sixteenth century. In its heyday, the now drowsy channel of the Thu Bon River was a jostling crowd of merchant vessels representing the world’s great trading nations, and the mellow streets of this small, amiable town still emanate a timeless air.
The city’s most photographed sight is, without doubt, the beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge. However, the most noteworthy monuments in town stem from Hoi An’s resident Chinese population. First are the merchant homes, some of them more than two hundred years old, and still inhabited by the descendants of prosperous Chinese traders. Between their sober wooden facades, riotous confections of glazed roof tiles and writhing dragons mark the entrances to Chinese Assembly Halls, which form the focal point of civic and spiritual life for an ethnic Chinese community that, today, constitutes one quarter of Hoi An’s population.
Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999, Hoi An is now firmly on most visitors’ agendas. For some it’s already too much of a tourist trap, with its profusion of tailors’ shops and art galleries and its rapidly proliferating hotels – try telling those who come for a day and stay for a week. It’s easy to while away the time, taking day-trips to the atmospheric Cham ruins of My Son, biking out into the surrounding country or taking a leisurely sampan ride on the Thu Bon River. If possible, try to time your visit to coincide with the Full-Moon Festival, on the fourteenth day of the lunar calendar every month, when the town centre is closed to traffic and traditional arts performances take place in the lantern-lit streets. Notable in a different way is the flooding which hits every year, usually in October – at this time the riverside roads can be under several feet of water, and if you’ve brought your wellies along, it actually makes for a great time to visit.
For centuries, Hoi An played an important role in the maritime trade of Southeast Asia. This goes back at least as far as the second century BC, when people of the so-called Sa Huynh culture exchanged goods with China and India, but things really took off in the sixteenth century when Chinese, Japanese and European vessels ran with the trade winds to congregate at a port then called Fai Fo, whose annual spring fair brought in traders from far and wide (see Fai Fo spring fair). Tax collectors arrived to fill the imperial coffers, and the town swelled with artisans, moneylenders and bureaucrats as trade reached a peak in the seventeenth century.
Commercial activity was dominated by Japanese and Chinese merchants, many of whom settled in Fai Fo, where each community maintained its own governor, legal code and strong cultural identity. But in 1639 the Japanese shogun prohibited foreign travel and the “Japanese street” dwindled to a handful of families, then to a scattering of monuments and a distinctive architectural style. Unchallenged, the Chinese community prospered, and its numbers grew as every new political upheaval in China prompted another wave of immigrants to join one of the town’s self-governing “congregations”, organized around a meeting hall and place of worship.
In the late eighteenth century, silt began to clog the Thu Bon River just as markets were forced open in China, and from then on the port’s days were numbered. Although the French established an administrative centre in Fai Fo, and even built a rail link from Tourane (Da Nang), they failed to resuscitate the economy, and when a storm washed away the tracks in 1916 no one repaired them. The town, renamed Hoi An in 1954, somehow escaped damage during both the French and American wars and retains a distinctly antiquated air.
Fai Fo spring fair
Although long since swallowed up by the sands of time, the spring fair of Fai Fo, the former name of Hoi An, had a measurable influence on the city of today. From humble beginnings in the sixteenth century, the event grew into an exotic showcase of world produce. From Southeast Asia came silks and brocades, ivory, fragrant oils, fine porcelain and a cornucopia of medicinal ingredients. The Europeans brought their textiles, weaponry, sulphur and lead – as well as the first Christian missionaries in 1614. During the four-month fair, travelling merchants would rent local lodgings and warehouses; many went on to establish a more permanent presence through marriage to Vietnamese women, who were (and still are) renowned for their business acumen.
Unravelling the architectural features of Hoi An
You can’t walk far in Hoi An without confronting a mythical beast with a fish’s body and dragon’s head; though they’re found all over northern Vietnam they seem to have struck a particular chord with Hoi An’s architects. One of the most prominent examples tops a weather vane in the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, but there are plenty of more traditional representations about, carved into lantern brackets and beam ends, or forming the beams themselves. The carp symbolizes prosperity, success and, here, metamorphosing into a dragon, serves a reminder that nothing in life comes easily. To become a dragon, and thereby attain immortality, a fish must pass through three gates – just as a scholar has to pass three exams to become a mandarin, requiring much patience and hard work.
Another typical feature of Hoi An’s architecture are “eyes” watching over the entrance to a house or religious building. Two thick wooden nails about 20cm in diameter are driven into the lintel as protection against evil forces, following a practice that originated in the pagodas of northern Vietnam. Assembly halls offer the most highly ornamented examples: that of Phuoc Kien consists of a yin and yang with two dragons in obeisance to the sun, while the Cantonese version is a fearsome tiger. The yin and yang symbol became fashionable in the nineteenth century and is the most commonly used image on houses, sometimes set in a chrysanthemum flower, such as at the Tan Ky House, or as the octagonal talisman representing eight charms.
Activities in and around Hoi An
There are a number of activities to enjoy in and around Hoi An – even more reason to make your stay here longer. Easiest to organize is bicycle or motorbike hire, which will enable you to see some of the gorgeous surrounding countryside; with a motorbike, you can even make it to My Son.
Slightly more taxing to arrange (but not much) are boat rides around the Thu Bon River; crowded ferry boats leave from the market end of Bach Dang every thirty minutes, and on the same road you’ll be able to haggle with sampan-rowers (from 20,000đ for a short ride).
Lastly, from April–October it’s possible to go diving around the Cham Islands.
Arts and festivals
With the influx of tourists, Hoi An is becoming a centre for the arts. A delightful hour-long medley of traditional music and dance is performed most evenings in a cramped room rather grandly known as the Traditional Arts Theatre, 75 Nguyen Thai Hoc (Mon–Sat 9pm; 50,000đ). Folk musicians also play short concerts at the Hoi An Handicraft Workshop, 9 Nguyen Thai Hoc (Mon–Sat 10.15am & 3.15pm; included in ticket scheme).
Once a month vehicles are banned from the town centre, coloured silk lanterns replace electric lights and shopkeepers don traditional costume to celebrate the Full-Moon Festival (fourteenth day of the lunar calendar). It’s a tourist event, but a great occasion nonetheless: there are traditional music performances, with food stalls selling local specialities by the Japanese Bridge and on the waterfront.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival, a much bigger affair celebrated nationwide on the fourteenth day of the eighth lunar month, people also float lanterns on the river. In recent years – usually in spring but dates vary – Quang Nam province has also staged a week-long cultural heritage festival in Hoi An and My Son, including Cham dances and folk songs.
Hoi An specialities
Hoi An has a number of tasty specialities to sample. Most famous is cao lau, a mouthwatering bowlful of thick rice-flour noodles, bean sprouts and pork-rind croutons in a light soup flavoured with mint and star anise, topped with thin slices of pork and served with grilled rice-flour crackers or sprinkled with crispy rice paper. Legend has it that the genuine article is cooked using water drawn from one particular local well. Lovers of seafood should try the delicately flavoured steamed manioc-flour parcels of finely diced crab or shrimp called banh bao, translated as “white rose”, with lemon, sugar and nuoc mam, complemented by a crunchy onion-flake topping, adding extra flavour. A local variation of hoanh thanh chien (fried wonton), using shrimp and crab meat instead of pork, is also popular. One less heralded dish (and one of the cheapest) is mi quang, which sees a simple bowl of meat noodles enlivened with the addition of flavoursome oils, a quail egg, fresh sprigs of leaves – few tourists order this dish, and your ordering it may be met with surprise. To fill any remaining gaps, try Hoi An cake, banh it, triangular parcels made by steaming green-bean paste and strands of sweetened coconut in banana leaves.
Many Hoi An restaurants serve these dishes, but one good place to head is the cheap, market-like area at the eastern end of An Hoi Island. It’s a very cute place, with each section demarcated by the name of its chef, and their stated speciality.