Central Vietnam’s cultural restoration is underway, and the old town of Hoi An is right in the middle of it all. From the historic architecture that lines coloured avenues to the medley of local delicacies, Hoi An’s sleepy backwater vibes provide a glimpse into traditional central Vietnamese life.
Just along from The Nam Hai Hoi An, on the banks of the Thu Bon River in central Vietnam sits the old quarter of Hoi An, a once bustling seaport that long ago slipped into the laid-back rhythms of a sleepy backwater. Founded as a fishing village more than two millennia ago, it wasn’t until the 16th century that traders from China, Japan and Europe established Hoi An as a hub to rival Malacca and Penang, taking advantage of its strategic access to the shipping lanes of the East Sea. But the town’s fortunes were not to last: by the end of the 19th century, the estuary of the Thu Bon River had begun to silt up and Danang, 25 kilometres up the coast, came to supersede it in importance.
Happily for the modern traveller, Hoi An’s economic stagnation and subsequent lack of development has allowed its historic quarter to retain much of its old-world atmosphere. A mélange of mossy tiled roofs, balconies of black ironwood, weathered shophouse facades, and a tight grid of walkable streets festooned with Hoi An lanterns, the area is so singularly well preserved that it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, a distinction that it shares with Hue and the nearby Cham ruins of My Son.
“Asian characters emblazoned on banners and wooden plaques fringe wide French doors and verandas; elaborate roofs are covered in am and duong (yin and yang) tiles; and flamboyant pagodas and clan houses appear at regular intervals.”
One could easily spend a day exploring the place on foot, ogling the architecture that has made Hoi An one of Vietnam’s most beguiling destinations. Asian characters emblazoned on banners and wooden plaques fringe wide French doors and verandas; elaborate roofs are covered in am and duong (yin and yang) tiles; and flamboyant pagodas and clan houses appear at regular intervals. Perhaps the most famous landmark is the covered Japanese bridge that spans a canal on the western edge of the old quarter. First constructed in the 1590s, the bridge is guarded on either side by a pair of animal statues—monkeys on one side, dogs on the other—and features a small temple that can be accessed for a fee. There’s also a humming riverside market with a labyrinth of fish vendors, pallets of vibrant vegetables and aromatic herbs, and rickety food carts that boil and sizzle in the light of the morning, when the market is at its liveliest.
Mornings are also a good time to join locals for a bowl of cao lau, a signature Hoi An dish of yellow noodles accompanied by slivers of pork and fresh vegetables. Available at stalls and cafés throughout town, it’s a delicious way to start the day, all the more so because of its special ingredient: cao lau, any local will tell you, is always cooked with water from an ancient Cham well. Other treats to look for include Vietnam’s iconic French-influenced banh mi sandwiches (head to the Banh Mi Phuong stand on Hoàng Diệu street for perfectly baked baguettes filled with velvety pâté and sliced tomatoes) and a cup of ca phe sua da, filter coffee with condensed milk that, served hot or on ice, has become a staple for locals and tourists alike.
“Conical hats hide sun-burnished faces that dip and bob as they pluck and plant stalks of green and yellow.”
Tourism has brought a return of bustling commerce to Hoi An, as evinced by the old quarter’s legion of souvenir shops, eateries, and art galleries. Other booming businesses include tailors and leatherworking workshops, where suits, dresses, bags, wallets, hats, and everything in between can be had for less-than-Western prices on every corner. Just be sure to ask your concierge for some advice before signing up for a fitting; Hoi An’s tailors can be skilful and astute, but they can also be sharks.
While most visitors choose to stay within the limits of town, an excursion into the surrounding fields and villages is certainly worth the time for anyone interested in embracing more of the local culture. Flanking the edges of the old quarter is a patchwork of green, brown, and gold rice fields where water buffalo can be seen pulling plows through the mud. Conical hats hide sun-burnished faces that dip and bob as they pluck and plant stalks of green and yellow. Interwoven within this mosaic are small plots of land dedicated to herbs, spices, vegetables and fruits that will eventually make their way to the market in a mind-boggling array of shapes and colours.
Never too fast, and never too slow, days are long and lazy in Hoi An. Whether sipping some iced ca phe sua da or sauntering alongside the sleepy Thu Bon River, this reborn cultural relic is sure to be the highlight of any central Vietnamese sojourn.
(Featured image: The historical Japanese Bridge in Hoi An town)