This city is a representation of the confluence of different countries, cultures, languages and empires both from the East and the West. Hoi An displays these various influences in varied and colorful architecture, a rich history, and robust tourism. Once an internationally regarded port city and commerce center, it now attracts tourists from every region and nationality. Its diversity of visitors mirrors the myriad of occupants and influences it has enjoyed over the arch of its history. Hoi An is incredibly charming and a welcome middle ground between the hustle and bustle of a big city and the quiet remoteness of the country. Our group was to spend a few days exploring the city and relax in the slower paced atmosphere.
Hoi An is a city of approximately 120,000 residents and is located near the center of the country along the coast to the south of Hue. It is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site due to it being an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port. Its architecture dates to the 15th-19th century and its buildings and street plan reflect a blend of indigenous and foreign influences. The most prominent architectural landmark in the city is the covered “Japanese Bridge” constructed in the 16th century. As early as the 7th century, Hoi An was an important trading center for spice and by the 17th century was home to Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Dutch, and Indian settlers in addition to the local population. This foreign influx can be seen in the diverse architecture that lines the tightly compacted city streets. The city at one time was divided by race and the Japanese settlement was connected to the rest of town by the Japanese Bridge. By the 18th century both the Chinese and Japanese considered Hoi An the best destination for trading in all of Asia as it had risen to prominence as a powerful trade conduit between Europe, China, India and Japan. By the 18th century, the French had exclusive trade rights in the nearby port town of Danang which became the new center of trade and French influence, leaving Hoi An a forgotten backwater. This abandonment for Danang resulted in the city remaining almost untouched by the changes that Vietnam experienced over the next 200 years. This preservation has caused it to be the tourist attraction that it is today.
We started our time in Hoi An with a short walking tour of the city. I was immediately struck by how colorful the old city was which each building painted a bright distinct color with equally colorful lanterns strung on the rooftops and across the avenues. The historic center of town is closed to vehicle traffic, so you are free to walk the main streets and peruse the endless shops, cafes and restaurants. European, Chinese, and Japanese style buildings huddle together to create a distinct feel known only to Hoi An. The bustle of the crowded streets was overpowering, with crowds out en-masse enjoying the city alongside us.
The next day we enjoyed a bike tour of the city outskirts and surrounding countryside. The area was an incredible tapestry of green and full of rice fields, farms, and the occasional mule pulling a plow. At one point we saw a man taking a nap on the back of a mule and couldn’t help but stop for a photo. That afternoon Mandy and I visited a tailor to have some clothes made and the cost and craftmanship were incredible. While I was swearing off having any suits made as I have grown accustomed to casual clothes, Mandy had a few dresses and outfits done. She simply had to show a picture of the clothes she wanted from a magazine, and they were able to have a custom piece made within a day – it was incredible. We later found out that this city is renowned for the quality of its tailors and fabrics and were incredibly impressed with how they turned out.
The next day was spent walking the old city and enjoying some amazing food in town. This was the day that we discovered Vietnamese Iced Coffee. An iced americano with a sweetened cream mixed in and plenty of ice, Vietnamese iced coffee was a revelation. I could have ten every day - the balance of creaminess, high quality coffee, and sweet cream make for a drink that far exceeds any concoction at Starbucks. I hope to find a place in Arizona that makes something even close. Newly energized, we met up with some of the others in our group and ventured into town to catch a glimpse of the Japanese Bridge at night. When we got to the old town, we were absolutely floored by the throngs of people cramming into the city center. Thousands of people had amassed by the Japanese bridge, lit up by countless red lanterns. The small bridge was impressive for its ornate craftsmanship and as the sun was setting, the lanterns in the city began to punctuate the myriad boats along the river in front of the bridge ferrying tourists along for a view. To find a brief reprieve from the crowds, we wandered into a bar which was remarkably empty. Venturing to the third floor with our drinks, we caught a breathtaking view of the river, the crowds below, and the lanterns lighting up the city. It was a remarkable vantage point to take it all in, and we spent a few hours there getting to know each other and talking about what a great city we had just experienced.
Hoi An was a remarkable small town that I would recommend to any visitor of Vietnam. Its past is matched by its present as I enjoyed not only learning its history, but experiencing the place as it exists today. It’s one of those rare places that exceeds expectations and one that everyone can get something out of. It is notable for its varied influences and highly preserved architecture and unique for its manageable pace and nonintimidating size. This is a city to relax in and watch time slow down. // Jeff