Hoi An is a firm favourite on the now well beaten tourist path in Vietnam. Together with the less popular destination for backpackers, Da Nang (or Danang, previously Tourane to the French), it marks about the half way point geographically in the “S” shape bend of Vietnam, the top of the bulge into the South China Sea. The tourists come here because everyone tells them to, it’s in all the guidebooks and a “must see” in Vietnam. The open tour buses shuttle them in and out again. They follow all the other tourists, hang around in the same bars and restaurants, exchange stories-or they did before smart phones killed conversation, buy clothes from the town’s many tailor shops and ship them back home. While Danang is more the reserve of package tourists, mainly Russians, Hoi An is a stop for those “doing” Vietnam on the circuit for getting Vietnam “done”.
I first came to Hoi An by train back in 2006 from Nha Trang on the Unification Express, the premier rolling stock of Vietnam railways. The French finally connected Saigon with Hanoi by rail in 1936 as part of their infrastructure investment in Vietnam, the jewel in the crown of their Southeast Asia ‘colonies’. They didn’t build a train station at Hoi An, so the train stopped in Danang, Vietnam’s fifth largest city, just up the coast. After some argument at Danang railway station with various taxi drivers I grabbed a cab with an English couple and a Swede. We left Danang on a dual carriageway that ran south parallel to the beach. Shortly afterwards the road started petering out; first narrowing into one lane each way and shortly afterwards into a track as we negotiated potholes and moving steamrollers. It’s infrastructure, but not as we know it.
The turn-off to Hoi An was poorly marked and I would not have found it on my own. The town of Hoi An emerged from the rice fields and our taxi pulled up outside a hotel where it turned out the English couple were staying. As they were only in the country for a few days they were happy to splash out to have some extra comfort. The Swede and I meanwhile, headed off on foot to go hotel hunting.
Walking around in the tropical heat carrying your bag like a sack of potatoes is no joke. At the second hotel offering a room inspection I left the Swede to continue on and went for a look. For value for money this was the best place on my travels back then I had yet stayed in. It came with a balcony, hot water, a fridge, satellite television, two beds, lounge furniture, balcony chairs and table, and the room was cleaned everyday – all for US$8. In fact, the whole of Hoi An is considered good value for accommodation.
If you want to splash out for a bit of added luxury and heritage, try the Vinh Hung I Hotel. It’s called a “heritage” hotel to distinguish it from all the pop-up copycat versions cashing in on a local success. The Vinh Hung was used as a dressing room by Michael Caine when filming ‘The Quiet American’, the 2002 remake of the Graham Greene novel that first starred the unlikely Audie Murphy. To depict early American involvement in Vietnam it seems, you needed the most decorated US soldier of World War Two (his Vietnamese love interest in keeping with Hollywood cultural insensitivities, was played by an Italian). Set in an old Chinese trading store in the heart of the old town, the Vinh Hung is decorated with antiques and the rooms contain canopy beds. Prices ranged then from US$15 to US$45, probably worth the expense it if you’re on a short trip and fancy some nostalgia, but there are so many hotels to choose from.
They say Hoi An is a “living museum oozing charm and culture”. It’s true it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and widely regarded as the most enchanting place along the Vietnam coast. Hoi An, UNESCO says ‘is an outstanding material manifestation of the fusion of cultures over time in an international commercial port.’ You can find elements of Hoi An in other parts of Southeast Asia, but not in the same concentration or numbers of preserved historic buildings, or in the same condition. War, lack of resources or of commitment, and predatory developers have sadly put paid to many others.
Evidence of human habitation at Hoi An goes back 2200 years. Between the second and tenth centuries CE the region was the heartland of the Champa Empire who followed the Linyi Kingdom. Arabic and Persian documents from this period give Hoi An as a trading post and provisioning port. The Chams were gradually pushed out by consecutive Viet dynasties. The Tran, the short-lived Ho dynasty, the Later Tran, followed by the Later Le, and Gia Long’s son Emperor Minh Mang of the Nguyen Dynasty. For the history of what is now Vietnam is as much about the colonization of the country by the Viet people from north to south and into the highlands as it was about external forces. This Viet expansion gradually squeezed the Chams for their stronghold in central Vietnam to enclaves near Nha Trang, and diaspora to Cambodia and beyond.
For four centuries European and Asian ships visited Hoi An to buy high quality silk (for which the area is famous) and a variety of goods from lead and paper to fabrics and tea. Japanese and Chinese traders would stay in Hoi An for months before returning north with the favourable winds. Eventually they began leaving agents in town all year round. The Japanese (they knew Hoi An as Faifoo) arrived on the famous Red Seal ships those permitted to travel by the isolationist Tokugawa shogunate with Portuguese maps dubbed in Japanese characters. Earlier, they came with their own Portuguese navigators, who went everywhere, even as far as Khmer Phnom Penh, Siamese Ayutthaya and Malay Pattani. They came with international crews contributing to the polyglot and multinational nature of port towns across Southeast Asia and often stayed on, creating their own enclaves who in turn left their won mark (there are Khmers called Fernandez even today).
From Hoi An, Cham and Viet sailors travailed all along the coast and as far as Thailand, modern day Malaysia, and Indonesia. The Chams were exposed to Indian culture and to Islam, yet later Hoi An was the first place in Vietnam to be exposed to Christianity. Among those early missionaries was the French Jesuit priest and lexicographer Alexandre de Rhodes, who developed the Latin-based quoc ngu (or “national language”) script for the Vietnamese language. Missionaries wanted a Romanised script for spreading religion and later, the French used it for colonial administration.
During the Tay Son “Western Mountains” Rebellion in the late 1700s, Hoi An was almost destroyed only to be rebuilt and continued to function as an important trading post until the late 19th century CE when the local Thu Bon River silted up. The town was then surpassed by Tourane (Danang) as the region’s most significant port.
To travel to Hoi An is like being transported back in time two centuries a cliché, but true. A number of the town buildings date from the early 19th century or earlier. Over 800 structures have been officially classified as historically significant and the town serves as a living piece of Vietnamese history. During French colonization Hoi An functioned as an administrative centre for the Annam region of central (or Trung Ky) Vietnam. During the US war (the Second Indochina War) the town was largely untouched due to an unofficial cooperative agreement between the two sides. The People’s Liberation Armed Forces or Viet Cong (of the National Liberation Front) stayed away and so too did the US bombers.
You don’t need transport in Hoi An as the old town is closed to traffic. You can see everything on foot. The riverfront is lined with bars and restaurants, all very low key. There is a central market and the town is famous for its tailors’ shops. If you want to buy clothes in Vietnam this is where most people come, and you can arrange to have it all sent home. Tailors literally accost you on the street, and none of your Singapore of Bangkok prices, (this is quality, generally) at bargain basement prices. One day the woman working in my hotel, resplendent in her Ao Dai, took me to meet her family. Very nice I thought except that it turned out to be their tailors and I was there supposedly to buy – like perfume shops in Cairo you’re fair game it seems in Hoi An.
One of the sights to see in the Hoi An area is My Son, an hour away and a whole another story. There you can see Cham architecture up close and personal. My Son rivals, to a lesser extent, other ancient cities in Southeast Asia like Angkor in Cambodia and Borobudur in Java. Unfortunately, the US forces had no agreement to ignore this ancient cultural wonder and bombed it with B-52s and when that failed, sent in army sappers to blow it up. Remarkably, some of it remains, which either attests to the wonder of Cham engineering capabilities or the incompetence of the US military machine.
On my last night in Hoi An I was leaving the restaurant in the Old Town and heading back to the hotel when a moto rider asked if I wanted to go a bar. I replied I’d just been to one and he said this one wasn’t in town and not many tourists had heard about it though some would be there, locals too. I asked if it was just a bar (not a brothel) and he said it was. Intrigued and knowing I would be leaving the next day I decided to take a punt and check it out. After agreeing on a price, there and back, we were off into the night.
We headed off into the countryside. After a few minutes he stopped in a small village, “for petrol,” he said. I couldn’t see where he would find any at that time of the night, as nothing was open and the place completely deserted. There weren’t even any lights on. He left me standing the middle of the road, pushed his bike up the small ramp seen at the front of most Vietnamese houses and inside. I waited at the T-junction. Two motorcycles approached and slowed down. They turned into the T-junction and as they swept by me I saw they were women. They shouted “hello” in turn, and laughing rode off into the night, their voices and the bike’s engines slowly receding into the darkness. Any thoughts to personal safety quickly dissipated.
Presently the moto man was back with the bike fueled. Apparently, I wasn’t about to become the victim of a heist. We carried on into the darkness for about 10 minutes before stopping outside a small building near the Thu Bon River, where two or three other riders sat on their bikes talking. My rider said he would come back in an hour to take me back to town.
I stepped inside. A long bar ran half-way down one side of a large room. There were several people near the bar and more sat around the room, tourists and Vietnamese. The music was Western and not too loud. The bar was sparsely decorated. The barmaid was a big woman from Regina, Saskatchewan. “What’ll you have?” I was a little surprised to see all this way out here. “Most people are,” she replied, getting my drink. The Canadian, Julie, had been in Vietnam for several months and working at the bar for two. She was on one of those world trips of indeterminate length and with no plans to go home anytime soon.
Sitting at the end of the bar were two Danes. Later I saw them in Hue. We exchanged the tourist chit-chat and views on places seen and destinations planned. I said I had been to Denmark and found it probably the easiest country to travel around in terms of geography and infrastructure. Over beer they told me my name was almost certainly Nordic. I told them it was an old Anglo name meaning the son of Bartholomew and was included in the Domesday Book from the 11th century. They said that before it was Anglophile it was Nordic and likely arrived with the Vikings.
Interesting to go all the way to Hoi An to learn that. It was one of those meetings you get travelling and makes it well worth leaving home for. Later my moto man took me back to town as promised. Like the conversation about my surname, a trip to Hoi an is about understanding the past, so the present makes more sense.