Hoi An

Hoi An, an ancient port town on the Thu Bon River and just three miles inland from the South China Sea, developed into one of the most important trading ports in Southeast Asia and appeared on ancient marine maps before ebbing as it's port silted up. Although it is no longer bustling with international trade nor hosting sailors and merchants from China, Japan, and Portugal, it is certainly getting a new lease on life by attracting tourists in its uniquely charming way. Indeed, the main industry in town is now tourism, with chunks of its Old Quarter given over to hotels, cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops and in 1999, Hoi An became a World Heritage Site, which may assist in preserving its traditional sites as there are certain U.N. guidelines that go along with the designation.

The Old Quarter, though heavily influenced by Chinese and lined with French row houses, still has vestiges of native architecture which survived the American war untouched. Not that all of this should dissuade a visit — the unique and picturesque setting of the small town makes it typically a favorite stop for most travelers. The natural and cultural sites around the town make it a must visit and indeed the charming town is often mentioned as traveler's favorite in the country.

Hoi An Prefecture spreads over 60 square kilometers, is home to 70,000 inhabitants, and consists of six mainland villages and Cham Island. The first inhabitants of the Hoi An area were the Champa, who occupied the area from the 2nd to 15th centuries. From the 15th to 19th centuries, under Vietnamese rule, Hoi An attracted foreign trade, with vessels coming to purchase silk, fabrics, tea, pepper, and Chinese medicines. Chinese traders would sail south in the spring, then stay in Hoi An for three or four months waiting for the wind to change direction and blow them back home in summer. Other ships came from Japan, Portugal, Spain, India, the Netherlands, France, and Britain.

On old marine maps Hoi An shows up as Faifo, Faiso, Haiso, or Cotham. It developed into one of the most important trading ports in Southeast Asia. By the early 19th century, Hoi An trade declined partly as a result of internal conflicts, but mostly because the mouth of the Thu Bon River silted up, rendering the sea approach too shallow. The port of Danang gradually usurped Hoi An.

Hoi An is a rare place in Vietnam where we'll find genuine Vietnamese architecture. The Old Quarter, though heavily influenced by Chinese styles and lined with French row houses, still has vestiges of native architecture which survived the war untouched.

Along Hoi An's waterfront, from the Japanese Covered Bridge to the main market, lies its historic Old Quarter, featuring well-preserved old housing and pagodas. This section of town is protected against development and is slowly being restored with help from international experts.

Hoi An Historical and Cultural Museum

Hoi An Market sells everything from larvae to lug wrenches. If we go early in the morning we can see the fresh seafood arrive at the dock. To relieve hunger pangs, try the string of open air cafes along Nguyen Hue Street. Opposite the cafes is the entrance to Hoi An Historical and Cultural Museum. The museum occupies the site of former Quan Am Pagoda, and features artifacts, old maps, photos, and information on history, culture, and architecture in Hoi An; English captions provided. Adjoining the museum is Quan Cong Pagoda. You enter from the museum through a small courtyard with goldfish in a rock pond. To the sides of the main altar in the pagoda are two full-scale horse statues and two fierce guards. General Quan Cong is the seated figure with the red face and beard. He was a talented general of the 3rd century Three Kingdoms period in China. The Chinese-style exterior of this pagoda is photogenic, especially from the direction of Tran Phu Street.

Two other small museums are found westward ward along Tran Phu Street. The Trading Ceramics Museum, at 80 Tran Phu, offers a display of old Hoi An ceramics. The 15th and 16th centuries were the golden age of Vietnamese ceramics, which were exported to Japan and parts of Southeast Asia. These ceramics included wares from Bat Trang in the north, Hai Hung (blue and white ceramics), and Binh Dinh (celadon wares); in the 17th century, Vietnamese ceramics suddenly disappeared from the market. Near the Japanese Covered Bridge is Sa Huynh Museum, with exhibitions from the earliest period of Hoi An history.

Phuoc Kien Pagoda
Phuoc Kien Pagoda

Phuoc Kien Pagoda
The Chinese clans in old Hoi An established community halls to assist traders, depending on their origins — Fukien, Canton, Chaozhou, Hainan. These self-governing clans ran their own schools, hospitals, cemeteries, and temples. The temples were an eclectic mix of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and other imports from China. Phuoc Kien Pagoda, opposite 35 Tran Phu, is the former Fukien Community Hall. Phuoc Kien is the Vietnamese rendition of " Fukien." The temple dates to the late 17th century; it's been extended and renovated over the past 300 years.

This pagoda is dedicated to Thien Hau, goddess of the sea and patroness of sailors and fisherfolk; Thien Hau also retains elements of the Taoist Queen of Heaven. You enter the pagoda through a triple arch. To the right a large mural depicts a boat being tossed about on a stormy sea, with Thien Hau and an assistant with a lantern coming to the rescue. To the left is a battle scene showing a Fukien general.

Inside we'll find a series of altars. At the back sanctuary are glass cases containing two statues Thien Hau, made in Fukien. On either side of Thien Hau stand her helpers, also in glass cases: on the left, a blue-skinned figure who can see great distances; on the right, a red-skinned emaciated being who can hear great distances. When either of these gentlemen sees or hears fisherfolk in distress, he tells Thien Hau. That was back in the 17th century-hopefully, the fisherfolk have radios by now. To the east side of the courtyard is a large scale model of a 17th-century Chinese war junk. The original vessel held about 100 people.

Behind the main altar, through a courtyard, is a set of wish-granting statues: the god of prosperity on the left, and on the right 12 midwives. Infertile women come here to pray for pregnancy. One of the central figures in this group, clothed in pink, apparently decides if a child will be born male or female. To ensure a successful visit, temple guardians sell small red plastic disks engraved with characters to promote all kinds of positive results-from auto, air, and boat safety to peace in the family. Ceramic statues bringing prosperity, longevity, and happiness are also sold. Toward the front of the temple we'll notice large gold Chinese characters on the walls-the east side bears the characters for happiness, the west side for longevity, while the center represents prosperity but has no characters.

Life Resort
Hoi An's Life Resort

Heritage Housing
Continuing west along Tran Phu we'll see moss-covered roofs, some concrete buildings, and some French-style buildings with shutters. There are half a dozen houses in Hoi An recognized as heritage pieces they even get a certificate to prove it. Although repaired and remodeled, these houses retain their original character, family heirlooms, and furniture, and often the original family.

Drop in at Quan Thang House at 77 Tran Phu for a cup of tea. They'll show we around may talk you into buying souvenirs. Half-a-dozen family members live there now; on the wall hangs a portrait of the great-great-grandfather, a Chinese merchant and traditional medicine practitioner. The house is some 300 years old, but of course wood doesn't last that long-it's been replaced gradually. Wooden pillars are ingeniously mounted on marble bases to prevent rotting; ornate woodwork features dragons or unicorns on finials.

In 2000, Hoi An revived an old custom called the Night Festival, taking place around the 3 14th day of each lunar month (the time of a full moon). For this event-scheduled for early evening-Hoi An reverts for one night to the way it looked 600 years ago. No motor traffic is permitted; televisions are turned off. Residents cut fluorescent lights, illumination is provided by silk and paper lanterns hung from buildings. Events are staged on street corners in the Old Quarter by Hoianese in traditional dress; music and poetry recitals, games of Chinese chess. So the town appears to be the set for a Chinese historical drama-its narrow streets festooned with lanterns glowing red or yellow-hanging from restaurants and shops, reflected in the water near riverside cafes.

On Nguyen Thai Hoc, next door to number 80, we'll find another classic, Diep Dong Nguyen House. Diep Dong Nguyen is marked on the building; a lattice doorway and bold calligraphy on the exterior. Diep Dong Nguyen House was once a dispensary for Chinese medicine. This place doesn't seem keen on visitors, but if we get past the door, the interior features antique furniture, porcelain, and lanterns. Tan Ky House, 101 Nguyen Thai Hoc, features Chinese and Japanese influences in its structure. Visitors welcome. This elongated house has a shop front entrance on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, and a storage and dock entrance in back on Bach Dang Street. The interior living quarters are grouped around an open courtyard. There are three kinds of timber in the 200-year-old structure-timber from the jackfruit tree poses a problem as it at-tracts termites. Fine carvings decorate the woodwork; some are inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

The Japanese Covered Bridge is a Hoi An landmark. The curved bridge has a green and yellow tile roof, two guardian dogs on the east side, and two guardian monkeys to the west side. The bridge is vintage 16th century, most likely constructed by the Japanese community to link the Chinese quarter with the Japanese quarter. A small Japanese-style pagoda that protects sailors is built into the north side of the bridge. The chapel is normally locked but we can get in if we buy a ticket, but there's not a lot to see.

Over the Japanese Covered Bridge is Phung Hung House, at 4 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St., the mansion of the Phung Hung family for eight generations. The wooden structure has elements of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese styles, constructed using 80 columns of ironwood with marble bases. The structure is held in place with large wooden nails. The four-sided roof is made of Yin and Yang tiles, named after the way the tiles lock together. Another interesting feature of the house is a flood provision: a square opening on the ceiling allows hauling of belongings to the second floor. The last major flood hit Hoi An in 1998. The Phung Hung family welcome tourists, and sell souvenirs and T-shirts from a boutique at the front. In the same area, on both sides of the bridge but especially on the west side, other shops sell silk, art, souvenirs, and marble carvings. There's also an art gallery in a French two-story building near the bridge.

A short way east of the Japanese Covered Bridge is Quang Dong Pagoda, or the Assembly Hall for Maritime Commerce. This pagoda was open to all Chinese traders or seamen, and is dedicated to Thien Hau. It's a small Chinese-style temple, with a lintel-gate, a rockery courtyard, and lucky animals depicted in statuary-a lion and a phoenix mounted on turtles, and dragon coiled columns inside. Strolling eastward along Tran Phu we'll come across some ancient buildings formerly used for cotton mills, weaving workshops, or furniture making, and now adapted for other uses.

Last stop for tea: the Tran Family Chapel, near the corner of Phan Chu Trinh, is entered from Le Loi Street. A small donation is expected. The ancestral chapel is maintained by eight members of the Tran family, who live in the house nearby. The Tran family is seeking funds for renovation of the chapel, which is 200 years old, and was last restored in the 1930s after a fire. With some houses occupied continuously for seven generations, ancestor worship is big in Hoi An. The altar holds wooden boxes containing the tablets of Tran family ancestors arranged in order from oldest to newest generations, with Chinese characters chiseled in the tablets to summarize their curricula vitae. The annual gathering of the Tran clan in December draws up to 100 relatives.

Vicinity of Hoi An
Hoi An is a great base to explore the nearby Marble Mountains and China Beach by car (or bicycle). Boat trips around Hoi An are pleasant and we can combine cycling with traveling up river with our bikes loaded into the sampan, disembarking for a spin through the countryside and then returning to town by boat.

Most sights in the vicinity of Hoi An can be approached by bicycle. A popular ride is to head for Cua Dai Beach, about three miles east of Hoi An-a great beach for a swim or run. The white sand here is expansive; the water is slightly surfy. You can catch the sunrise if you're out there by 5 AM or so-it's worth it because the water is cooler, and all the fishing boats come in to unload the night's catch. Alternatively, we can go when all the locals go, around four in the afternoon, to have a dip before dinner. There are thatched drink stands grouped at one section of the beach, with tables and chairs, and serving seafood; some also sell crabs. The only drawback is the children who pester we to buy coconuts or rice biscuits. An alternative way to reach Cua Dai Beach is by boat from the Hoi An Market area, and pack your bicycle aboard the boat. The trip by boat from Hoi An to Cua Dai should take two to three hours. At the other end, we bid the boatman goodbye, and leave the return trip to your trusty bicycle or driver.

Another recommended bike ride is across the bridge east of the markets, and over to Can Nam Island-there's pleasant countryside here. Other side trips reached easily by bike are to pagodas and sites around Hoi An. The oldest pagoda in the area is Chua Phuc Thanh, dating from the 15th century. The ride offers more to look at than the temple. To get there follow Nguyen Truong To Street north out of Hoi An, then turn left and follow a path for half a kilometer. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Chua Long Thuyen, a Vietnamese pagoda, with main hall built in 1993. Take the first dirt track to the right after the bus station and gas station west of Hoi An, then continue for about 400 meters through rice paddies and loads of graveyards. Garish and fanciful, the pagoda features broken beer-bottle and porcelain decoration, and a multicolored lotus tower at the back. The low concrete wall around the pagoda is painted in the form of two dragons who come head to head to form a gate.

It's pleasant to cruise for a few hours from the waterfront to explore the Thu Bon River and the area around Hoi An. A regular boat runs out to Kim Bong village on Cam Kim Island-a 10-minute ride. Kim Bong is a village of woodworking and boat-building families. Handcrafted boats range from simple fishing models to vessels the size of Noah's Ark. Families also carve statues and furniture, some incorporating marble from the Marble Mountains.

Long-distance boats travel to Cham Island and Danang. Cham Island lies about 20 kilometers off the coast. A motorboat leaves the Hoi An Market docks early in the morning for the island and returns in the afternoon. Cham Island has several fishing villages and is famed as a source of swallows' nests, used in gourmet soups. Access to the island is restricted and requires a permit.

Great news on the gastronomic front-Hoi An is the place to satisfy your stomach, if not your soul. You can get Vietnamese, Western, and vegetarian fare. Restaurants are usually family-run, use fresh produce from the market, and offer a cozy atmosphere-better thought of as cafe bistros. Hoi An has its own specialties. Cao lau is a bowl of thick noodles in a dark rich broth, topped with herbs, bean sprouts, slices of pork, and crunchy croutons, and served with a crispy rice pancake-delicious! A number of small eateries along Tran Phu Street serve cao lau. Hoi An loanh thank is a special wonton soup. White Rose is fresh shrimp wrapped in rice paper with garlic, lemon, and chili sauce, fashioned to resemble a rose. For Hoi An pancake, you're supplied with all the elements-rice paper, egg, bean sprouts, slivers of raw banana, and lettuce. Assemble the pancake, then dip it in sauce, and add chili sauce. A newly-updated copy of our restaurant will be sent in your pre-tour packet.

Hoi An is also our top recommendation for cooking classes and we can arrange an intensive, half-day class learning to expertly prepare a half-dozen Vietnamese favorites including banh xeo (a Vietnamese crepe), green papaya salad, and spring rolls (right). The class includes a market visit shopping and learning about ingredients.

There's very little here and Hoi An remains realtively quiet at night. However, of genuine note are the performances of traditional music and drama at two small places-72 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street and 92B Bach Dang Street. Inquire in advance about evening show times. Tam Tam Cafe, at 110 Nguyen Thai Hoc St., tel. 862212, is on the first floor of a beautifully renovated merchant house. This French-run venue sports a grand bar and a pool table and stays open late.

Hoi An has a slew of souvenir shops strung out along Tran Phu and Le Loi Streets. The stock is high quality: shops sell silk paintings and sketches of Hoi An street scenes, pottery, marble carvings, and other handcrafted items. One of the specialties of Hoi An is silk-and-synthetic lanterns of various shapes and sizes. Though these are designed to be used with electric lights, six hundred years ago, Hoi An streets were lit only by lanterns (there are sometimes lantern festivals in Hoi An that commemorate this).

"Flash Fashion"
At 108 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street is Kim Bone traditional carpentry shop, selling mother of pearl inlaid boxes, among, other items. There are number of reputable tailors in town-you can get made-to-order clothing fashioned in a single day. Clothing is designed, or duplicated, by talented local tailoring outfits known for "flash fashion" or overnight tailoring. Service is top notch (although the quality of tailoring here is equal to (or higher than) that in Hanoi or Saigon, this is not on the level of quality of world-class shops in Hong Kong or Bangkok). We recommend the largest outfit, Yaly, at 358 Nguyen Duy Hieu Street who, because of their large staff, can turnover items more efficiently during your brief stay. There are also some excellent tailors along Le Loi Street. Try Thu Thuy at number 60 Le Loi, or Phuong Huy at 13 Le Loi. Both specialize in Chinese and Vietnamese silks, and cotton. They also deal in synthetics, so if we want to be sure, use a lighter for a litmus test: if we burn a thread of pure silk it will smell like burnt hair, and if touched will turn to ash; if it has any synthetics, the thread will shrivel up into a hard ball and give off a plasticly smell.

When to go
During the cool season, November through mid-February, it's better to stay in town rather the beach resorts on the coast where the weather will likely be overcast will drizzle and wind. Dry months are March through September. For beach time, the best months are March through September although it is very hot in July. Transitional February can can be sunny or overcast. [More on Vietnam Weather]

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