Hoi An: A step back in time


Hoi An: A step back in time

By Jerry Wadian

The next place on the journey Professor Don McComb and I took through Vietnam was to the Danang area. Our first stop was Hoi An, one of the most unusual cities in the world because it is a step back in time. 

Hoi An was important seaport from the second century B.C., until the Thu Bon River silted up in the 19th century. With ships no longer able to use the river, nearby Danang became the seaport and Hoi An drifted into obscurity.

However, the river silting eventually proved to be a huge blessing. With little reason to change, Hoi An didn’t, and the various wars went right by the town without affecting it. With some structures remaining intact since the 17th century, Hoi An became a virtual time capsule.

When tourism became an industry in the 1990s, Hoi An became important once again. Of course, there are some concessions to the modern world with paved roads and electricity – otherwise, there would be few, if any, visitors. 

The river divides the city. On one side is a fairly normal Vietnamese city, with structures that date back in time, or were rebuilt, by law, in the style of the old buildings.

The true delight is the other side of the river, a place called “Old Town.”

Here, some of the buildings date back to the 17th century, although most are mid to late 19th century and have gone through some restoration. There is electricity, but no neon signs or TV.

It costs 20,000 dong to visit. The Vietnamese currency is the dong; there are roughly 20,000 dong to the dollar, so admission for a full day is all of $5.

You walk through Old Town. It is four streets wide, but the streets go on seemingly forever; you could spend days there, just walking around seeing things.

One street is right by the river – talk about fresh fish – and the other three parallel it. The buildings along the river are slightly elevated because during the monsoon, the river can flood.

The ubiquitous motor scooter is allowed on the streets during some parts of the day, but no cars or motorcycles.

In its heyday, Hoi An had a large population of Japanese and Chinese merchants who rode the trade winds south, but then were stuck in the city for months until the monsoon winds ended and they could sail home.

Thus, the architecture is fascinating because you will see Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese styles all in the same building. 

There is a multitude of museums, temples, pagodas, old tea warehouses, Chinese meeting rooms, and traditional Vietnamese “tube homes” that families have lived in for generations.

Of course, there are numerous shops selling just about anything and everything, a large market where you can buy local foods, and a number of fine restaurants. 

One of Hoi An’s highlights is its tailors. There are a number of shops that will make suits, shirts, ties, dresses, robes, etc., from silk. They can take measurements and deliver that day or the next.

One of the places we visited had its own silkworms, looms and everything else needed to produce items in-house (although with its volume of business, it was obvious it was not solely reliant on the in-house worms). My wife, Becky, has a number of nice silk scarves and shawls made from there.

The center of Old Town has a Japanese bridge. Constructed in 1593 and faithfully restored in 1986, the 20-meter (a bit over 60 feet) bridge connects the Japanese and Chinese sides of town. 

A pair of statues guards each entrance; one end has a pair of dogs, and the other, a pair of monkeys. Some say it is because construction was started in the Year of the Dog and finished in the Year of the Monkey. 

However, most Vietnamese call it the “Monkey Bridge.” Presumably because so many Japanese emperors were born in the Year of Monkey (perhaps a new meaning to the term “great ape??.

At night, Old Town is lit up from the bridge you cross to get to it, all the way through its long streets. From a distance it looks like a fairyland.

All of Vietnam was interesting and visual. However, Hoi An was the most unique place; I could easily spend a week or so there and use up a fair amount of “film.” 

A side note: Someone asked me why Saigon is now called Ho Chi Minh City. After the North Vietnamese won the war, they renamed the city after the most popular person in the country. Even president Eisenhower admitted, in print, that Ho was the most popular person in South Vietnam and would win any election held.

By the way, when the city was renamed, all of the French street names were renamed. The exceptions were the streets named for French scientists (like Madam Curie).


Next installment: Danang to Hue: beautiful beaches and rural Vietnam

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