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Stubbornly traditional and jam-packed with sights, the small city of Hoi An also exudes a laid back, 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 a 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.
There are a number of activities to enjoy in and around Hoi An – even more reason to make your stay here longer. Easiest to organize is bicycle or motorbike hire, which will enable you to see some of the gorgeous surrounding countryside; with a motorbike, you can even make it to My Son. Hoi An Motorbike Tours and Phat Tire Ventures organize great trips around central Vietnam for motorbikes and bicycles respectively.
Slightly more taxing to arrange (but not much) are boat rides around the Thu Bon River; crowded ferry boats leave from the market end of Bach Dang every thirty minutes, and on the same road you’ll be able to haggle with sampan-rowers.
Then there are the cooking classes. A whole bunch of riverside restaurants offer these from around $10 per person, slightly more for those including a visit to buy ingredients at the market. Most notable are the classes laid on by Lighthouse restaurant, which include a bike tour to fetch the ingredients from the countryside.
Lastly, from April–October it’s possible to go diving around the Cham Islands.
With the influx of tourists, Hoi An is becoming a centre for the arts. A delightful hour-long medley of traditional music and dance is performed most evenings in a cramped room rather grandly known as the Traditional Arts Theatre. Folk musicians also play short concerts at the Hoi An Handicraft Workshop.
Once a month vehicles are banned from the town centre, coloured silk lanterns replace electric lights and shopkeepers don traditional costume to celebrate the Full-Moon Festival (fourteenth day of the lunar calendar). It’s a tourist event, but a great occasion nonetheless: there are traditional music performances, with food stalls selling local specialities by the Japanese Bridge and on the waterfront.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival, a much bigger affair celebrated nationwide on the fourteenth day of the eighth lunar month, people also float lanterns on the river. In recent years – usually in spring but dates vary – Quang Nam province has also staged a week-long cultural heritage festival in Hoi An and My Son, including Cham dances and folk songs.
Although long since swallowed up by the sands of time, the spring fair of Fai Fo, the former name of Hoi An, had a measurable influence on the city of today. From humble beginnings in the sixteenth century, the event grew into an exotic showcase of world produce. From Southeast Asia came silks and brocades, ivory, fragrant oils, fine porcelain and a cornucopia of medicinal ingredients. The Europeans brought their textiles, weaponry, sulphur and lead – as well as the first Christian missionaries in 1614. During the four-month fair, travelling merchants would rent local lodgings and warehouses; many went on to establish a more permanent presence through marriage to Vietnamese women, who were (and still are) renowned for their business acumen.
Hoi An has a number of tasty specialities to sample. Most famous is cao lau, a mouthwatering bowlful of thick rice-flour noodles, bean sprouts and pork-rind croutons in a light soup flavoured with mint and star anise, topped with thin slices of pork and served with grilled rice-flour crackers or sprinkled with crispy rice paper. Legend has it that the genuine article is cooked using water drawn from one particular local well. Lovers of seafood should try the delicately flavoured steamed manioc-flour parcels of finely diced crab or shrimp called banh bao, translated as "white rose", with lemon, sugar and nuoc mam, complemented by a crunchy onion-flake topping, adding extra flavour. A local variation of hoanh thanh chien (fried wonton), using shrimp and crab meat instead of pork, is also popular. One less heralded dish (and one of the cheapest) is mi quang, which sees a simple bowl of meat noodles enlivened with the addition of flavoursome oils, a quail egg, fresh sprigs of leaves – few tourists order this dish, and your ordering it may be met with surprise. To fill any remaining gaps, try Hoi An cake, banh it, triangular parcels made by steaming green-bean paste and strands of sweetened coconut in banana leaves.
Many Hoi An restaurants serve these dishes, but one good place to head is the cheap, market-like area at the eastern end of An Hoi Island. It’s a very cute place, with each section demarcated by the name of its chef, and their stated speciality.
You can’t walk far in Hoi An without confronting a mythical beast with a fish’s body and dragon’s head; though they’re found all over northern Vietnam they seem to have struck a particular chord with Hoi An’s architects. One of the most prominent examples tops a weather vane in the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, but there are plenty of more traditional representations about, carved into lantern brackets and beam ends, or forming the beams themselves. The carp symbolizes prosperity, success and, here, metamorphosing into a dragon, serves a reminder that nothing in life comes easily. To become a dragon, and thereby attain immortality, a fish must pass through three gates – just as a scholar has to pass three exams to become a mandarin, requiring much patience and hard work.
Another typical feature of Hoi An’s architecture are "eyes" watching over the entrance to a house or religious building. Two thick wooden nails about 20cm in diameter are driven into the lintel as protection against evil forces, following a practice that originated in the pagodas of northern Vietnam. Assembly halls offer the most highly ornamented examples: that of Phuoc Kien consists of a yin and yang with two dragons in obeisance to the sun, while the Cantonese version is a fearsome tiger. The yin and yang symbol became fashionable in the nineteenth century and is the most commonly used image on houses, sometimes set in a chrysanthemum flower, such as at the Tan Ky House, or as the octagonal talisman representing eight charms.
From Hoi An you can bike out along meandering paths to the white expanse of Cua Dai Beach or hop on a sampan to one of the islands of the Thu Bon River. River tours take you to low-lying, estuarine islands and the craft villages along their banks, while it’s also now possible to visit the distant Cham Islands, renowned for their sea swallows’ nests.
Vietnam’s most evocative Cham site, My Son, lies 40km southwest of Hoi An, in a bowl of lushly wooded hills towered over by the aptly named Cat’s Tooth Mountain. My Son may be no Vietnamese Angkor Wat, but it is now on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and richly deserves its place on the tourist map. The riot of vegetation that until recently enveloped the site has now largely been cleared away, but the tangible sense of faded majesty still hangs over the mouldering ruins, enhanced by the assorted lingam and Sanskrit stelae strewn around and by the isolated rural setting, whose peace is broken only by the wood-gatherers who trace the paths around the surrounding coffee and eucalyptus glades. The groups of buildings labelled B, C and D most warrant your attention: viewing these, it’s possible, with a little stirring of the imagination, to visualize how a functioning temple complex would have appeared in My Son’s heyday.
Excavations at My Son have revealed that Cham kings were buried here as early as the fourth century, indicating that the site was established by the rulers of the early Champa capital of Simhapura, sited some 30km back towards the highway, at present-day Tra Kieu. The stone towers and sanctuaries whose remnants you see today were erected between the seventh and thirteenth centuries, with successive dynasties adding more temples to this holy place, until in its prime it comprised some seventy buildings. The area was considered the domain of gods and god-kings, and living on site would have been an attendant population of priests, dancers and servants.
French archaeologists discovered the ruins in the late nineteenth century, when the Chams’ fine masonry skills were still evident – instead of mortar, they used a resin mixed with ground brick and mollusc shells, which left only hairline cracks between brick courses. After the Viet Cong based themselves here in the 1960s, many unique buildings were pounded to oblivion by American B52s, most notably the once magnificent A1 tower. Craters around the site and masonry pocked with shell and bullet holes testify to this tragic period in My Son’s history.
Archeologists regard Group B as the spiritual epicentre of My Son. Of the central kalan (sanctuary), marked on maps as B1, only the base remains, along with a lingam discovered under the foundations a few years ago; but stone epitaphs found nearby reveal that it was dedicated to the god-king Bhadresvara, a hybrid of Shiva and fourth-century King Bhadravarman, and erected in the eleventh century, under King Harivarman IV, on the site of an earlier, wooden temple.
Fortunately, other elements of Group B have fared rather better, particularly B5, the impressive repository room. Votive offerings and other ritual paraphernalia would have been stored in B5’s chimney-shaped interior, while its outer walls support ornate columns and statues of deities. The carving on the southern facade is particularly well preserved; on the west look out for a fine bas-relief depicting two elephants with their trunks entwined around a coconut tree.
The carving of Vishnu sitting below the thirteen heads of the snake-god Naga that adorned the roof of B6 was an early casualty of war, but the oval receptacle for the holy water used in purification rituals and statue-washing ceremonies is still intact inside. The two smaller temples flanking B1’s south side, B3 and B4, would have been dedicated to Skanda and Ganesha, the children of Shiva, while posted around the complex are the remains of seven tiny shrines honouring the gods of the elements and of the points of the compass.
Originally separated from Group B by a wall, the Group C complex is quite distinct from it. This time the central kalan, C1, is standing and fairly well preserved, though the statue of Shiva that it was built to house long since went to Da Nang’s museum, leaving only its base in place. The statues of standing gods around the walls have been allowed to stay, though, as has the carved lintel that runs across the entrance.
East of B and C, the two long, windowed mandapa (meditation halls) that comprise Group D have now both been converted into modest galleries. Precisely aligned with the foundations of B1 is D1, the mandapa, where the priests would meditate prior to proceeding through the (now ruined) gate B2 to worship. It also contains a lingam, the remains of a carving of Shiva, and a statue of Nandi, Shiva’s bull, while in D2 you’ll see a fine rendition of many-armed Shiva dancing, and, beside the steps up to its eastern entrance, an impressive statue of Vishnu’s vehicle, Garuda. The ground between these two galleries was named the Court of Stelae by early archeologists, a reference to the stone tablets, etched with Sanskrit script, that litter it. As well as these stelae, altars and statues of deities would have stood in the court, though all that remain of these are their plinths, on whose sides are sculpted images of dancing women, arms raised to carry their gods.
East of Group D, signs direct you to Groups A and G. Bomb damage was particularly cruel in the vicinity of Group A, reducing the once spectacular kalan, A1, to a heap of toppled columns and lintels that closely resembles a collapsed hall of cards. Unusually, A1 was constructed with both an eastern and a western entrance. Within, a huge lingam base is ringed by a number of detailed, fifteen-centimetre-high figures at prayer. You’ll pass A9, the mandapa, and A8, the gate, en route from B, C and D; A11 would have been the repository room.
The remains of hilltop Group G, 60m north of Group A, are equally poorly preserved. However, you can still pick out horned gargoyles, sporting fangs and bulbous eyes, carved into the corners of the main kalan. The base of a lingam stands at the kalan’s southwestern corner, with breasts around its base.
While we’ve outlined a handful of the site’s particularly noteworthy edifices above, you’ll get most out of My Son simply by wandering at your leisure – but don’t stray far from the towers and marked paths, as unexploded mines may still be in the ground.
Heading between Hoi An and Da Nang is a piece of cake, either by bus or rented vehicle. While most buses take the busy main road between the two cities, travelling by taxi or xe om – or under your own steam – gives you the chance to utilize the newer coastal road, and take in the Marble Mountains on the way. Since 2008 the long stretch of beach running parallel to the road, once unspoilt, has been the subject of huge development. Five-star resorts are springing up like mushrooms and there are now a couple of golf courses in the area, as advertised by Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie, whose faces adorn billboards along the coastal road.
Top image: Traditional boats in front of ancient architecture in Hoi An, Vietnam © Romas_Photo/Shutterstock