Stubbornly traditional and jam-packed with sights, the small city of HOI AN also exudes a laidback, almost dreamy atmosphere that makes it an essential stop on any tour of the country. This intriguing place, with its narrow streets comprising wooden-fronted shophouses topped with moss-covered tiles, has much to recommend it, not least the fact that a concerted effort has been made to retain the city’s old-world charm: by way of example, it’s the only place in Vietnam that places restrictions on motorbike use, and the only place that forces local businesses, by law, to dangle lanterns from their facades. These come to the fore as evening encroaches, and by nightfall you’ll see them shining out from narrow alleys and the riverbank in their hundreds, the light reflecting in the waters of the Thu Bon River. Also notable are the city’s many cheap tailors, who will whip up made-to-measure clothes in no time, and a culinary scene that ranks among the best in Asia.
Hoi An’s ancient core is a rich architectural fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European influences dating back to the sixteenth century. In its heyday, the now drowsy channel of the Thu Bon River was a jostling crowd of merchant vessels representing the world’s great trading nations, and the mellow streets of this small, amiable town still emanate a timeless air.
The city’s most photographed sight is, without doubt, the beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge. However, the most noteworthy monuments in town stem from Hoi An’s resident Chinese population. First are the merchant homes, some of them more than two hundred years old, and still inhabited by the descendants of prosperous Chinese traders. Between their sober wooden facades, riotous confections of glazed roof tiles and writhing dragons mark the entrances to Chinese Assembly Halls, which form the focal point of civic and spiritual life for an ethnic Chinese community that, today, constitutes one quarter of Hoi An’s population.
Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999, Hoi An is now firmly on most visitors’ agendas. For some it’s already too much of a tourist trap, with its profusion of tailors’ shops and art galleries and its rapidly proliferating hotels – try telling those who come for a day and stay for a week. It’s easy to while away the time, taking day-trips to the atmospheric Cham ruins of My Son, biking out into the surrounding country or taking a leisurely sampan ride on the Thu Bon River. If possible, try to time your visit to coincide with the Full-Moon Festival, on the fourteenth day of the lunar calendar every month, when the town centre is closed to traffic and traditional arts performances take place in the lantern-lit streets. Notable in a different way is the flooding which hits every year, usually in October – at this time the riverside roads can be under several feet of water, and if you’ve brought your wellies along, it actually makes for a great time to visit.
For centuries, Hoi An played an important role in the maritime trade of Southeast Asia. This goes back at least as far as the second century BC, when people of the so-called Sa Huynh culture exchanged goods with China and India, but things really took off in the sixteenth century when Chinese, Japanese and European vessels ran with the trade winds to congregate at a port then called Fai Fo, whose annual spring fair brought in traders from far and wide (see Fai Fo spring fair). Tax collectors arrived to fill the imperial coffers, and the town swelled with artisans, moneylenders and bureaucrats as trade reached a peak in the seventeenth century.
Commercial activity was dominated by Japanese and Chinese merchants, many of whom settled in Fai Fo, where each community maintained its own governor, legal code and strong cultural identity. But in 1639 the Japanese shogun prohibited foreign travel and the “Japanese street” dwindled to a handful of families, then to a scattering of monuments and a distinctive architectural style. Unchallenged, the Chinese community prospered, and its numbers grew as every new political upheaval in China prompted another wave of immigrants to join one of the town’s self-governing “congregations”, organized around a meeting hall and place of worship.
In the late eighteenth century, silt began to clog the Thu Bon River just as markets were forced open in China, and from then on the port’s days were numbered. Although the French established an administrative centre in Fai Fo, and even built a rail link from Tourane (Da Nang), they failed to resuscitate the economy, and when a storm washed away the tracks in 1916 no one repaired them. The town, renamed Hoi An in 1954, somehow escaped damage during both the French and American wars and retains a distinctly antiquated air.