Let’s just say that Vietnamese cities are usually not exactly beautiful. There is no such thing as taking a leisurely walk in Hanoi or Saigon, absorbing the sights, because your auditory system will constantly be overwhelmed by the incessant noise of traffic. Now the thing is, I do love cities. I seek them out whenever I travel, but Vietnam tested my love for urban environments. I truly wanted to explored, but I always found myself hardly managing a couple of hours on the pavement before turning cranky and restless.
This is why my fondest memories of any city in Vietnam are those I have of Hoi An. It’s not that places like Hanoi and Saigon are not beautiful places. Like everywhere else, they do have their charm. But it’s just that when the sound volume is turned up to full blast, it’s kind of difficult for your body to absorb sights, smells and tactile stimulus. So when I finally made it to Hoi An and the volume was practically turned off (the old town of Hoi An is closed to cars, and few motorbikes venture there), something happened, and all my senses had space to breathe and absorb it all up.
Hoi An is something of a miracle in Vietnamese history. Having survived the Vietnamese war practically intact, its old town is now one of the most visited places in the country with its traditional houses, car-free centre and lantern-lit streets by night. Even more amazing is the fact that year after year during the rainy season, the river swells up and floods the buildings, which somehow deal with the water and keep standing. Some of these homes are open to the public, and you can see the marks of the last flood on their living room walls.
Some travellers call Hoi An tourist disney land, and to some extent, I can see what they mean. The old town is filled with travellers exploring the sites and hanging around in slightly overpriced (when compared to the rest of Vietnam) restaurants and cafes. Houses which used be homes to local people have now been turned into museums. I don’t find this a bad thing though. Local people still live just outside of this area and their businesses thrive because of the constant influx of tourists. At the same time, the money brought in by travellers who pay to visit the historic sites of the old town goes into restoring the buildings themselves. The truth is that without tourist money, the houses in this area which make the place so delicately charming would have crumbled years ago and been abandoned by the locals.
Instead, Vietnam and the world has been left with tens of heritage buildings and sites which have been lovingly restored and keep being cared for.
It is, of course, absolutely free to walk around and admire the beautiful buildings, but if you want to take a peek inside and contribute needed money to fund further restoration, all you need to do is pop over to one of the kiosks around town and purchase a pack of 5 tickets for 90,000 dong. You can use the tickets to access any of the attractions on the map and information leaflet, which you’ll also be given. The tickets will allow you access into some small but aesthetically and historically interesting temples, old houses and congregation halls around the old town. Some places are free to visit, and will have a large sign advertising them as being so, with the only catch being that there’ll be some kind of souvenir shop inside which you can explore or ignore.
Though one, maximum two days are enough in the old town itself, Hoi An is a good base from which to explore some of the surrounding area, or to take some tours or do some activities. Take time to explore the Hoi An market and sign yourself up for a cooking course, hire a boat and driver and explore the river channels, head over to nearby Danang for the day and check out the Marble mountains, Danang beach and the Monkey mountain, or book a tour to the My Son ruins. There are also boat and snorkelling trips available to nearby Cham island.
The nights in Hoi An are made magical by the light of hundreds of Vietnamese lanterns, which can also be purchased for a very reasonable price in many of the city’s shops (I am the proud owner of 3-remember to haggle!), and at specific times and locations, there are free performances of Vietnamese dance, theatre and music.
Yes, Hoi An is a wonderful (even if touristy) Vietnamese gem.
-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @ www.theartofslowtravel.com. All rights reserved.