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The old-world charm of Hoi An

The World Heritage site of Hoi An, a Vietnamese riverside town, offers a sense of the rich intermingling of cultures and history that trade and travel engender

A local fisherman in Hoi An, Vietnam.
A local fisherman in Hoi An, Vietnam. (Sonia Nazareth)

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The picture-perfect Vietnamese riverside town of Hoi An has been in the news a fair bit lately—it has, for one, been named the world’s leading entertainment destination 2022 at the World Travel Awards in Oman.

At Hoi An, idyllic charm meets historic interest. This port town, about 30km south of Da Nang City in central Vietnam, was a meeting place for merchants arriving on ships from Japan, China and the West during the 15th-19th centuries. The old town’s architecture continues to reflect both indigenous and foreign influences, be it of France, the Netherlands or Portugal.Now this remarkably well-preserved Ancient Town with its surviving wooden structures, known for its food and fabric, is a Unesco World Heritage site.

It doesn’t seem to have changed much over the centuries, even though a new Starbucks outlet, styled like the traditional homes of this Ancient Town, has just opened there. Today, the visitors may be tourists, not merchants, but the town, as easily accessible now as Thailand, still offers a sense of the rich intermingling of cultures and history that trade and travel engender. The unique feel is so appealing I have visited numerous times.

To appreciate the Ancient Town, you must be something of a nomad, wandering where your fancy takes you. I start at the Japanese Covered Bridge, Chua Cau, an elaborate structure first constructed in the 1590s by the Japanese as a link to the Chinese quarters. Across the bridge, in unbroken rows, sit roughly 1,100 timber-framed buildings. Commercial and domestic establishments squat next to pagodas, cafés and ancient halls, hallmarks of a thriving port town.

Amid the most visited buildings is the majestic assembly hall of the Fujian Chinese Congress. Distinguished by its green-tiled gateway, this traditional hall is now a place of worship for the sea goddess Thien Hau, a deity of China’s Fujian province. It’s not just a historical site but also an important place of worship for the local community.  

Unsurprisingly, nautical themes dominate the imagery in murals here. One depicts Thien Hau, her way lit by a lantern as she crosses a stormy sea to rescue a floundering vessel. Others depict red- and green-skinned deities who alert Thien Hau when a boat is in troubled waters.

A five-minute walk away is the wooden Tan Ky house, built around 200 years ago by a Chinese merchant and preserved through generations by the same family. Carved balconies adorned with dragons and poems engraved in Chinese characters on columns speak volumes about the status of the homeowners. Carved under the ceiling are swords wrapped in silk ribbons—the swords representing power, the silk, flexibility. The front of the house retains the look and feel of a shopfront where business was done, while the back, which looks on to the river, was used for the receipt and handover of goods by the merchant.

Another house, open to the public and worthy of a visit, is Quan Thang. A typical example of a single-storey house, this home, built in the late 17th century, is defined by attention to detail. Hidden pillars, connected rafters and an arched roof enhance not just the artistic value but also keep the place spacious and ventilated. The courtyard and miniature landscaped gardens invite relaxation. Spiral designs carved on to doorways were meant to protect its residents from harm.

The town’s structures are well-preserved but not stuck in time. They have been adapted into lounge bars, cafés, areas for the practice of traditional crafts, or living museums for travellers to get a feel of times past. The daily life of the old town’s residents, with their customs, beliefs, folk arts and festivals, is being preserved, thanks in part to tourism being the key occupation.

I run into artisans engaged in traditional embroidery and silk lantern-making at the Hoi An Handicraft Workshop, lodged in a 200-year-old Chinese home. You can try your hand at various crafts here and pick up beautiful souvenirs.

Lanterns on sale at the Hoi An night market.
Lanterns on sale at the Hoi An night market. (Sonia Nazareth)

The streets of the old town are lit at night by elaborate lanterns, giving the place a never-ending air of festivity. Complex and flavoursome Vietnamese fare is always on offer, be it at a street food stall or a fine-dining establishment. Bahn beo, a steamed dumpling made with minced chicken, eggs and mushrooms, believed to be derived from the Chinese dim sum, is a favourite. Boards advertising cooking classes that focus on local specialties pepper the streets.

You could learn, for instance, to make cao lau, or Japanese-style doughy noodles, seasoned with bean sprouts and topped with pork slices, or bahn vac, shrimp dumplings topped with crispy noodles. Egg coffee, made with egg yolk and condensed milk, wows lovers of coffee.

As well-known as its food is the town’s fabric production. Tailoring units punctate the streets. You can have an outfit done to specifications if you are able to provide a detailed description.

A two-minute walk from the Japanese Covered Bridge is the night market that sells an abundance of street food, clothes and souvenirs. Think conical hats, lanterns and Ao Dai—the national, elegant Vietnamese dress. Look out for unglazed porcelain pots that come from the Than Ha Pottery village, known for its 400-year-old industry. Don’t leave without sampling bahn mi, a baguette stuffed with cold cuts of meat, pâté, pickled carrots and coriander, or smokey ice cream, born when liquid nitrogen is poured over the dessert, that has you breathing like a dragon.

A 15-minute walk from the Ancient Town is the 10-hectare Hoi An Impression Theme Park, a tourist-oriented space that recreates traditional architecture, food, calligraphy studios and crafts. I attend the Hoi An Impression Theme show, which restages the 400-year-old trading port’s history through elaborate costumes, folk songs, trading sounds and modern staging techniques.

Evenings are especially balmy, if you take a boat trip on the Hoai river, a tributary of the Thu Bon. It’s common for people to make a wish and float a paper lantern lit by candlelight down the river.

If you have time for just one more activity, drive 6km east of Hoi An’s ancient town to the Cam Thanh region, to what’s popularly called the Coconut Village. We walk through a unique mangrove ecosystem, punctuated with palm fronds and coconut trees, until we reach a jetty. Here basket-shaped boats, made of young bamboo and shaped like coracles, pepper the waters.

These boats have become a symbol of life along the central coast of Vietnam. Once used to evade taxation from French colonial rulers who imposed a tax on regular fishing boats, these innovative and manoeuvrable vessels are now popular among fishermen and travellers alike. Local fishermen perform mind-bending twirls of the basket boats to pulse-revving music. You can sing along, try your hand at a spot of fishing, or just relish the bucolic scene and soak in the wonder that is Hoi An.

Getting there: VietJet offers direct flights connecting Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru with Da Nang. From Da Nang, it is a 45-minute taxi ride to Hoi An.

Stay: The Almanity Hoi An Resort & Spa is a short walk from the Ancient Town. It’s comfortable and hosts a hearty breakfast.

Sonia Nazareth is a writer and an anthropologist based in Mumbai.

Also read: Do you know of this egg yolk coffee from Vietnam?

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