69. Romancing the Past in Hội An

The small city of Hội An has everything a tourist might want. It’s picturesque, historical, romantic, safe and affordable.

A woman in a traditional Hoianian wardrobe crosses narrow Nguyen Thai Hoc street in Hoi An’s Ancient Town. (JGA photo)

What’s not to like about Hội An?

Central Vietnam’s premier tourist destination has it all. It is atmospheric and approachable, with great food, friendly people, and a picturesque riverside location just a short bike ride from a sandy beach.

Its highlight is a marvelously preserved central city, “The Ancient Town,” that is a living relic of the 17th and 18th centuries. In that era, Hội An was an important trading port known throughout the western Pacific, with a significant Chinese and Japanese population.

Honored with UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999, it now maintains more than 800 historic buildings, nearly two dozen of which are open to visitors as places of worship, private homes and small museums. Many dozens (perhaps hundreds) of others have ground-floor shops, restaurants and coffee shops.

Hội An is at once safe and affordable, with the entire Ancient Town district off-limits during certain morning and evening hours to all traffic except motorbikes. And even at that, many riders prefer to park outside the restricted area and enter as pedestrians.

The Japanese Covered Bridge, which dates from 1590, stands at the west end of the Ancient Town. (JGA photo)

The past is present

The freeze on Vietnam tourism brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic might actually be a good thing for Hội An. Although businesses are undoubtedly suffering from the economic fallout, resulting in temporary and sometimes permanent restaurant and hotel closures, the dramatic reduction in foreign crowds has enabled preservationists to sigh deeply as they engage in ongoing reconstruction work.

I arrived in the city of 140,000 (it feels much smaller) on a Friday afternoon with a plan to remain just four days. I stayed for a full week, encouraged by new discoveries, new friends and a couple of rainy days when I cut back on exploring. I paid only US $12/night at the May’s House homestay for my private upstairs room (with full bath, flat-screen TV and air conditioning, although I didn’t need the latter two); from there, it was only a 10-minute saunter into the Ancient Town.

At the small Museum of Sa Huyhn Culture, I learned about the earliest peoples who inhabited the coastal plain near the mouth of the Thu Bồn River. Iron implements that predate the Christian era suggest a cultural link to Indonesia rather than to the bronze tools then being shaped in northern Vietnam. And the Museum of Trading Ceramics displayed fragments of Cham Empire pottery more than 1,000 years old.

A boatman awaits passengers for an illuminated cruise on the Thu Bon River. (JGA photo)

Lanterns and silks

Beginning around the 15th century, during a long period of peace between the frequently feuding Chams and the rival Tonkinese to the north, Hội An emerged as a major commercial port city — a place where Asians, including not only Chinese and Japanese but also Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais and Indians — could transact with Western merchants, who knew Hội An as “Faifoo.” Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French, British and later American ships came to call.

Their boats anchored in the gently flowing Thu Bồn. Today three bridges cross the river between the Ancient Town and a pair of islands, An Hội and Cầm Nam. Between them, a flotilla of small boats, strung with colored lanterns, offer short cruises of the old town at night, and longer upriver voyages to the Thanh Hà pottery village (2.5 kilometers).

Among the most cherished trade goods of the historic past were textiles, especially woven cotton fabrics and exquisite silks. They remain so today, as evidenced by the scores of tailors whose shops beckon visitors. I was reclothed practically overnight by one craftswoman, whose careful measurements put me in custom-made shirt and pants at a cost of 1 million Vietnam dong — about US $46, a price that made us both happy.

The Cantonese Assembly Hall, dating from 1786, is one of several in Hoi An built to serve the overseas community. (JGA photo)

End of an era

In the heyday of Hội An, Chinese traders in particular made themselves at home here, following the monsoons south in spring and returning north four months later when the winds turned. They came not only with silk, but also paper, spices Chinese medicines, beeswax and lacquer. Eventually, the foreigners established full-time agents in Hội An. They built assembly halls as places to gather and worship their Taoist and Confucianist deities, each congregation representing their specific home regions of China: Canton, Fujian, Hainan, Chaozhou.

European traders also brought Christianity to Vietnam as early as the 17th century. Among the missionaries was Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit whose Latin-based quoc ngu alphabet eventually replaced Chinese characters in the written application of the Vietnam language. (Author’s note: It’s still not easy.)

The era of peaceful trade ended with the Tay Son Rebellion of 1765-1789. When the populist revolt reached Hội An in the 1770s, the city was almost completely destroyed. Although Hội An rebuilt, the Thu Bồn River silted up within the next century, and Da Nang emerged as the leading port in central Vietnam.

Young shoppers select a paper lantern from a street vendor beside the Thu Bồn River. (JGA photo)

A sense of romance

Perhaps Hội An’s greatest international fame today is to be called “Asia’s most romantic city,” as proclaimed by numerous international outlets including America’s CNN broadcast network. The paper lanterns that adorn the river boats and bridges at night are a big part of that appeal. And local citizens have been quick to enlist in the promotion.

The lanterns aren’t as evident by day as they are by night … until you look up. On many old-town avenues, especially Nguyen Thai Hoc and Tran Phu, you’ll see them strung from shop to shop or across streets. Keep an eye open for a couple of shops where you can learn how to make them yourself.

And don’t be shy about becoming a street walker in Hội An. It’s an easy town to find your way around, despite some nameless narrow alleys; they all lead somewhere, and there are numerous maps and directional signs (most of them in English) to help you out.

One of the town’s highlights is the old Japanese Covered Bridge. I established it as my personal orientation point, at the west end of the Ancient Town beside a curving lane that links to the An Hội foot bridge. Built over a stream in the 1590s by Japanese merchants to link to Hội An’s Chinese quarter, the arched bridge is guarded at either end by paired statues of dogs and monkeys. At its center is a shrine guarded day and night by human security.

Tailors and boutique clothing stores go hand-in-hand in Hoi An, where silk has always been a precious commodity. (JGA photo)

Supporting heritage

To pay for continued maintenance of the Ancient Town’s historic buildings, all visitors are requested to purchase an entrance ticket. A fee of 60,000 Vietnam dong (about US $2.60) entitles admission to five of the 18 heritage buildings. I wound up buying a second ticket, but not every building was open during my pedestrian hours. Still, it was money very well spent.

Apart from seven Chinese assembly halls and communal houses, which I’ll present in a subsequent blog, and five small museums, the ticket enables entrance to a half-dozen traditional family homes. Of these, both the Tấn Ký House and the Quân Thắng House are in their seventh generation of continuous family ownership. Each features beautiful artisan tile and wood work, numerous historic portraits, a central courtyard and an altar beneath the front eaves.

Traditional cultural shows and craft demonstrations are offered at several locations around the Ancient Town, although with tourism at a near-standstill, performances are not as frequent as they may previously have been. Ask for information when you purchase your admission ticket.

Two young women modestly clad in ao dai, Vietnam’s traditional national dress, pose outside a shop in Hoi An’s Ancient Town. (JGA photo)

There’s so much to stay about Hội An, it could fill a book. In decades past, I did my time as a guidebook author and won’t return to that chore. But I do have more stories to tell before I move on from this town. Coming up: #70, the spectacularly colorful Chinese community centers; #71, the wonderful food and local culinary specialties; and #72, the remarkable Hindu religious sanctuary of Mỹ Sơn, an hour’s drive west.

Tiles cover the roofs of historic homes in Hoi An’s Ancient Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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