Located on Vietnam’s central coast, where the Thu Bon river meets the South China Sea, Hoi An is an impeccably preserved historic town with walls the colour of a mellow sunset. Its architecture is a medley of influences, the result of being a strategic river port on the ancient spice route for Chinese, Japanese, Indian, French, Dutch and Portuguese seafarers from the 15th till the mid-19th centuries. In 1999, the town was given Unesco World Heritage status, ensuring that its architecture—a grand fusion of Chinese, Japanese and French styles—with its original street plans, canals and bridges, remains unchanged.
Rambling mansions of Chinese merchants, ornate Buddhist pagodas and ancient tea warehouses merge seamlessly with lounge bars, boutique hotels, art studios and trendy watering holes in a dappled canvas brushed with vivid strokes of mustard yellow and draped over with elegant silk lanterns.
A few of the two-storey houses are open to tourists for a small entrance fee. Taking a step inside one is like stepping back in time, past intricately carved columns and slanting roofs to a wall marked by the height of the floods that partly submerge the town every autumn. At the very back, there’s a square courtyard that has housed the family deity for a few hundred years.
Days start early in Hoi An, with the lighting of incense in each home, their floral fragrance wafting through the lemon-coloured lanes. Farmers peddle herbs and greens from traditional shoulder baskets, and street-side vendors sell noodles, sticky rice and dumplings to schoolchildren and the odd tourist out for a stroll to see the town’s golden hues in the morning light. Scores of country boats ply in the Thu Bon, ready to take visitors downstream for a glimpse of traditional fishing
After the river trip, dive straight into the delightful disarray of sights, sounds and smells at the market that stretches right from the river banks. There are table-loads of tropical fruits, raw-meat counters and stalls selling spices and incense. It is the perfect place to indulge in a bowl of cao lau—Hoi An’s signature dish of thick rice noodles with generous toppings of pork and greens.
As the light softens, wind up the day at the emblematic Japanese bridge, an arched pagoda that was originally built in the 1590s and later reconstructed by the Chinese and Vietnamese. Find a table at one of the outdoor restaurants near the bridge. And sip on Vietnamese coffee while watching the darkness descend gently on the river, floating candle offerings flickering on its inky water.
Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer and has contributed to The Globe And Mail, Al Jazeera and Nat Geo Traveller India, among others.