A Visit to Hoi An, Vietnam
In January of this year, my wife and I spent several days in the beautiful and historic town of Hoi An, Vietnam. Hoi An is located on the east coast of Vietnam in Quang Nam Province, about a half hour’s drive south of Da Nang. The Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam describes Hoi An as Vietnam’s “most atmospheric and delightful town.” Situated at the mouth of the Thu Bon River, where the river flows into the South China Sea, Hoi An was a major trading port from the 16th to the 19th centuries. It was visited regularly by Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Indian, Filipino, Indonesian, Thai, French, British and American traders who came to Hoi An to purchase high-grade silk and many other products, and was the site of a number of Japanese and Chinese settlements in addition to the local Vietnamese community.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the Thu Bon River silted up and Hoi An was replaced by Da Nang as the region’s principal trading center. As a result, Hoi An was largely unaffected by the modernization experienced by Da Nang and other commercial centers and its street patterns and architecture are very much the same today as they were in the 19th century. The town thus displays a profusion of centuries-old wooden Japanese and Chinese structures in addition to the local Vietnamese buildings. This largely accounts for Hoi An’s historic charm. It was designated in 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage site, for its character as “an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port.” See http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/948. Its economy today is heavily oriented toward tourism, and it is a much prized culinary center with a large number of excellent restaurants and cooking schools. Silk and silk fabrics, clothing and lanterns are still, however, the town’s most sought after local products.
The most famous example of Japanese architecture in Hoi An is the Japanese Covered Bridge. First constructed in the 1590’s, its arched shape was later flattened by the French to make it suitable for automotive traffic. However, it was restored to its original shape in 1986. Inside the bridge, on its north side, is a small temple to Tran Vo Bac De, a god of weather. (Note: You may click on any photo in this article to see a larger version.)
Examples of Chinese architecture abound, including several assembly halls that serve different communities of Chinese immigrants residing in the town. Here we see the entrance gate to the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation. Originally built as a place for Fujian Chinese immigrants to socialize and trade, this assembly hall was later transformed into a temple to Thien Hau, their goddess of the sea.
Inside the gate is the entrance to the Assembly Hall itself:
Seen here is the altar to the goddess, located inside the Assembly Hall:
The town includes a number of small islands surrounded by arms of the Thu Bon River, to which the main part of the town is connected by several bridges. The islet of An Hoi is connected by, among other bridges, a beautiful pedestrian bridge that is decorated with fanciful sculptures and silk lanterns:
I photographed this beautifully dressed young pedestrian crossing the bridge:
From the pedestrian bridge, there is an excellent view of the Hoi An waterfront:
Crossing the pedestrian bridge to An Hoi island affords another view of the town’s waterfront:
Colorful boats line the waterfront, available to give tourists a scenic ride for a reasonable price:
This elderly gentleman was beckoning to passing tourists in hopes of selling rides on the boat sitting directly behind him:
As previously mentioned, Hoi An is renowned for its beautiful silk and silk products. This fact is celebrated by a giant silk lantern mockup situated on the island of An Hoi at the edge of the river:
Hoi An is home to several expert tailor shops, such as Yaly Couture, where a visitor can select from a large stock of silk fabrics and have a custom suit, dress or shirt made in a few days.
Many of the streets in Hoi An are decorated with colorful silk lanterns, some strung across the street on overhead wires. These are lit at night to spectacular effect. Here is a view of Nguyen Thai Hoc Street at night, just outside the entrance to the highly-rated restaurant Morning Glory:
The pedestrian bridge is likewise brightly lit at night:
Here is another night view, looking across the Thu Bon River at An Hoi island:
The night market on the island of An Hoi is also worth a visit. There are brilliantly lit lantern shops like this one:
The night market also features several blocks of brightly lit stalls, mostly offering touristy knick-knacks:
Hoi An is also justly celebrated as a culinary center, boasting over 500 restaurants serving a wide variety of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, European and American cuisines. Many of these restaurants also offer cooking classes, where visitors to the town can sample a variety of local dishes and learn techniques of preparation. My wife and I took a two-hour cooking class at Vy’s Market Restaurant and Cooking School, a local favorite located across the pedestrian bridge, on An Hoi island. Like many restaurants in the region, the sides of the restaurant are lined with cooking stations each specializing in certain dishes. Here is a view of the inside of the restaurant:
Cooks prepare dishes at each of the stations:
As our little group of “students” made the rounds of the various stations, guided by an English-speaking teacher, we performed some of the steps required in the course of preparation and sampled the results, resulting in a satisfying meal as well.
The days my wife and I spent in Hoi An were one of the principal highlights of our visit to Southeast Asia. Travelers to the region should not miss an opportunity to experience it.
Copyright © 2016 Philip A. Haber