Travel Report: Hoi An, Vietnam.
Hoi An, Vietnam.
I had a good feeling about the Vietnamese city of Hoi An the moment I left my hotel on the first day. I’d been walking for just a few minutes, but could already see that this was my kind of town. Despite being one of central Vietnam’s most popular tourist draws, the roads were eerily quiet. There wasn’t much in the way of foot flow either. In fact, most of the rickshaw drivers had given up looking for customers in favour of an afternoon nap. I could only guess that I’d caught Hoi An at a pleasing lull.
The sleepy vibe continued as I made my way towards the city’s famed Ancient Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Birds flitted between the trees in one deserted lane. In another, I poked my head inside a second hand bookshop. But I didn’t want to disturb the owner, who was fast asleep in a comfy armchair.
In the Ancient Town a few tourists strolled past me on their way between historic houses. Looking for a ticket booth, I stopped for a moment to watch a local woman prodding fruit out of a tree with a long stick. Moments after I took my shot she hit the jackpot and three mangoes came hurtling to the ground with a thump… thump… thump.
Hoi An, Vietnam.
Hoi An’s Ancient Town is a mesmerising open air museum of well-preserved historic structures. Some of the highlights date from the 15th to 19th centuries when the city was a prominent trading port. To visit these buildings, you have to pick up a ticket book from one of several wooden huts peppered around town.
There were different sized ticket books depending on how many sites you were interested in seeing. I went for a five-ticket book that allowed me to enter five sites of my choosing. Priced at just 120.000VND (£4/€4.50/$5), it seemed like a bargain.
With no particular plan that day, I found myself wandering into the first compound I came across, Fujian Assembly Hall. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries Hoi An was home to a sizeable Chinese community. They flocked here from Fujian province in order to capitalise on Hoi An’s booming business as South East Asia’s most strategic trading port.
Hoi An, Vietnam.
Before long, the Chinese decided to build a social centre that would serve their growing community. Thus they created Fujian Assembly Hall from an abandoned Vietnamese pagoda dating back to 1690. Initially, the complex featured just a small meeting hall set within a handsome courtyard garden.
Eventually, they transformed the old pagoda into a stunning temple dedicated to Thien Hau, a Chinese sea goddess more commonly known as Mazu. Glimpsed between the various potted trees, it was a beguiling sight that day as I approached. So much so that I stopped for a moment to rest on a bench and enjoy the temple from a distance before entering.
There was a tiny store next to the bench with a cold drinks cabinet. So I grabbed a bottle of water and asked the storekeeper if he’d take my photo. He happily obliged. Back on the bench I guzzled the water and listened to the traditional Chinese music crackling out of the storekeeper’s radio. At some point a large colourful butterfly wobbled by. My god, the whole scene was so ridiculously idyllic.
Fujian Assembly Hall.
The inside of the temple was lovely too, largely decked out in red and gold. It was a feast for the eyes, with fruit-stuffed altars, painted dragons and unicorn statues among the many treasures. One of the altars draws in childless couples who come to pray for fertility aid. “Oh powerful goddess, grant me a baby, if you would”.
A pair of magnificent paintings dominates the main hall. The Sea Goddess Thien Hau, they say, can grant safe passage to sailors out at sea. Especially during storms and whatnot, so it’s common to see worshippers leaving fruit offerings and praying for loved ones.
Japanese merchants had a big influence on Hoi An’s Ancient Town too. This is most evident at the stunning Japanese Covered Bridge, the city’s most iconic landmark. Dating back to the 1590s, it is one of Hoi An’s most photographed spots and a popular place for locals to do their wedding photos.
Hoi An, Vietnam.
The Japanese Chamber of Commerce built the bridge to connect HoI An’s Japanese and Chinese quarters. Before that, residents had to walk around a long section of canal belonging to the Thu Bon River. The Vietnamese call the bridge Lai Vien Kieu, which translates as Bridge that Receives Guests from Afar. If you want to enter and spend some time admiring the interior, you’ll have to give up one of your precious tickets.
This is mainly due to the presence of a tiny pagoda, added to the structure in 1763. It contains a shrine to Tran Vo Bac De, the Vietnamese God of Weather. Yup, another deity who can help protect Uncle Bob when he heads out to sea.
It was also cool to see the four stone guardians, two at each end of the bridge. On one side you’ve got a pair of dogs, referencing the fact that construction started in the year of the dog. On the other side there’s a pair of monkeys to signal the zodiac year of completion.
Tan Ky House.
I used my remaining three tickets to visit some of Hoi An’s most historic residences. Of these, the most memorable was Tan Ky House, a 280 year old townhouse home to seven generations of the Vietnamese Le family.
Mr. Le, a merchant of agricultural products, built the house in 1741. Born in Hoi An as an orphan, his hardworking and entrepreneurial spirit saw him rise from manual labour to a prominent landowner of rice fields, farms and gardens.
This wonderfully atmospheric townhouse was the home he bought for his family. Dark, cool and sophisticated, it features a stylish mix of classical Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese furnishings. It was the family’s second generation that named the house Tan Ky, which means “progress shop”. A nickname that revealed the family’s ongoing desire to remain inventive and prosperous.
Tan Ky House.
Moreover, the house showcases hundreds of family heirlooms spanning the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. However, with little in the way of English language labelling, it’s best to time your visit for one of the daily guided tours. They do this in a variety of languages, though times vary depending on the day. Check at a ticket booth for each day’s tour times.
Hoi An, Vietnam.
A small shrine in the living room pays respects to the family’s dead. It’s also another spot for praying to your favourite weather god. Indeed the house sits right on the edge of the river and is prone to flooding. Out in the courtyard there are even a number of flood level marks on the walls.
Exploring the Ancient Town saw me build up quite an appetite. Keen to try some local dishes, I made for the highly recommended White Lotus Restaurant & Cooking School on Phan Boi Chau Street.
The restaurant was a subsidiary of Project Indochina, an Australian aid organisation dedicated to the betterment of Hoi An’s disadvantaged communities. On arrival I received a warm welcome from the waitress who, with only one other customer to attend to, laid on the star treatment. First she brought a glass of ice tea, then busied herself positioning a fan next to my table. This was certainly appreciated, as it was a scorching hot day.
White Lotus Restaurant & Cooking School.
White Lotus offered a number of local specialities, in addition to a handful of western staples. I tried a curious Hoi An delicacy known as White Rose, a plate of rice paper dumplings topped with shredded pork, chopped shrimp and crispy onions. Absolutely delicious, but essentially a starter. For my main, I ordered Cao Lau, a bowl of pork noodles sprinkled with salad, crispy rice crackers and chilli sauce. Excellent.
Before leaving, I had a quick chat with White Lotus owner and Project Indochina founder Geoff Shaw. He was in the middle of a resident’s visa renewal, “an endless red tape nightmare” as he put it. Unfortunately, White Lotus closed its doors just six months or so after my visit. Similarly, there has been no update on Project Indochina’s Facebook page since October 2018. It’s a real pity, as they seemed to be doing great work.
As fascinating as Hoi An’s Ancient Town is, one couldn’t accuse the city of having just one string to its bow. Another reason I’d come here was to visit its world famous cloth market, one of Asia’s most economical spots for high quality tailored clothing. I’d never had a shirt tailored for me before, so I set off for Hoi An Cloth Market with a spring in my step.
The Cloth Market.
Back in the city’s heyday, the Chinese began producing silk products and exporting them all over Europe. Silk even became a type of currency, playing a key part in Vietnam’s economic development.
Not that I was looking for anything as fancy as silk that day. Rather, I simply wanted some cotton shirts I could teach in for what would be a hot summer back in eastern China. With so many tailors to choose from, and each of them doing their utmost to pull you in, I was happy to have secured a solid recommendation prior to arrival.
I made my way directly to 45 Cloth Shop, where two friendly ladies listened to what I wanted and wasted no time in measuring me up. It felt good to have full control over everything, from the colours and number of buttons, to pocket sizes and any other decorative flourishes I desired. Better still, I was all done within an hour and told to return the next day to pick up my order. In the end I went for three cotton shirts ($10 each) and two pairs of cotton shorts ($12 each).
Hoi An, Vietnam.
In the evenings I strolled through the utterly charming Hoi An Night Market. Occupying Nguyen Hoang Street, this 300-metre road is stuffed with cheap souvenir stalls, upmarket craft stores and food vendors pedalling all manner of delicious dishes.
Furthermore, it’s one of the best places to see fulsome displays of the world famous Hoi An paper lantern. In fact, they are virtually ubiquitous, bobbing from tree branches, lining bridges and forming colourful ceilings over sections of the street. And of course you can see store after store selling them.
For me though, Hoi An Night Market was all about the food. One of my favourite stalls was a vegan friendly Mexican joint run by a local Vietnamese man. On my first evening I went for a large tasty Beef Taco filled with fried onions and guacamole. According to my trusty notes, it set me back 35000VND (£1.15/€1.30/$1.50).
Another winner was this local lady and her grilled coconut cakes, known in Vietnamese as Banh Bo Dua. It’s essentially a fluffy pancake-pie packed with coconut shavings and crunchy nuts. Drowned, don’t you know, in a thick chocolate sauce moments before serving. There’s even a touch of lime I believe, which would have no doubt pleased Harry Nillsson.
Hoi An Night Market.
Finally, I must say a quick word on my excellent digs, Thanh Van 1 Hotel. Seriously, this was one of the best places I stayed at in Vietnam.
They booked me into a stylish double with a front door that was literally five steps from the pool. Inside, my compact room offered a pleasing mix of modern and classical furnishings, while there was cable TV, reliable WIFI and plug sockets galore. Just the way I like my rooms.
Above all, it was the staff that really made my stay. Indeed the hotel’s team of cheerful ladies were incredibly friendly and helpful. Going above and beyond to make sure my stay was a memorable one. A special thank you goes to Kelly, who single-handedly arranged my transfer to Cham Island, leaving no small detail unattended.
Thanh Van 1 Hotel.
Having a pool on my doorstep was the icing on the cake. Especially at night when I would usually sit photo editing or working on articles. To break up these work sessions, it was lovely to just stand up, lift my t-shirt off and jump into the cool water for a refresh. Another victory for the Vietnamese city of Hoi An.
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