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A Walking Tour Through Hoi An, Vietnam

I fell in love with travel at the age of ten in Florence, Italy, and have travelled widely since.

The lanterns of Hoi An © A Harrison

The lanterns of Hoi An © A Harrison

The Lanterns of Hoi An

The paper lantern floated down the Thu Bon River, a soft light against the darkness. Dozens of other lanterns—red and yellow and blue, orange, purple—of every combination of every colour imaginable danced along the current.

In the old part of Hoi An, coloured lanterns adorn every house, and at night, the soft glow of candlelight settles over the town. Every full moon, the electricity is switched off and a procession winds through the candle-lit streets to the river, where the lanterns are set free. I stood and watched the flickering lights float down the river. They slowly drifted out of sight, and I wondered how far they went and where they would finally sink or maybe come ashore.

Lightning flashed across the sky, and a distant rumble sounded. The humidity rose even higher. The wet season is an interesting time to visit Vietnam.

An old doorway, Hoi An © A Harrison

An old doorway, Hoi An © A Harrison

The Beginnings of Hoi An

The maritime importance of Hoi An dates back to as early as the 2nd century BC. The town rose to prominence in the 16th century, and for the next two hundred years proved one of Vietnam’s most important trading ports. It has seen occupation by the Chinese, Japanese and Europeans, and their influence is visible throughout the old town, especially in the temples and houses built by merchants who came to trade but instead set down roots. Towards the end of the 18th century the river slowly silted up; although this eventually led to the end of trade, it helped preserved the town, so that in 1999 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

An old street sign, Hoi An (c) A. Harrison

An old street sign, Hoi An (c) A. Harrison

Sights in Hoi An

A Walking Tour of Hoi An

The best way to discover Hoi An, however, is to simply wander. Little more than a maze of a few streets, there are temples, museums and preserved houses to visit; yet with some 850 buildings heritage-protected, the best feel for the town comes from the places which are free to all. As with everywhere in this country, the ‘real’ Vietnam is to be found in unexpected places, such as a back street or turning down an unexpected alley, or talking in broken English to the old lady who sells Chinese scrolls. Try a stroll as dawn breaks and the heat of the day is yet to swap, the town.

In hidden nooks and crannies I found art galleries, cafes, gastronomic gems, ceramics for sale, shops filled with lanterns, and of course, the silk for which the town is famed. There are woodworkers and carvers, artists at work, craft shops. Plus there are always cold drinks for sale, important no matter the time of year. In this part of Vietnam, it is either hot and dry, or hot and wet.

The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An © A Harrison

The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An © A Harrison

The Old Town, Hoi An

The Old Town starts at the Japanese Covered Bridge—the Lai Vien Kieu, which means ‘Japanese Pagoda’. This gracefully arching bridge of brick and timber dates back to the early 17th C, but has been rebuilt several times due to flood and fire. At one end is a dog (the zodiac year in which the bridge was started) and at the other a monkey (the year the bridge was finished.) The stream under the bridge is quite tiny, a reflection of how much the river has silted up over the centuries. Halfway across the bridge is a small temple dedicated to Tran Vo Bac De, God of the North, who controls the weather.

The unique influence of the Chinese and Japanese traders (many who became settlers) can be seen in the buildings, especially along Tran Phu and Nguyen Thai Hoc. Most are two stories, their roofs covered in tiles and presenting a unique skyline, the result of the amalgamation of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese styles. Inside, a large interior room is topped by an upper gallery. The rooms are a wonder of hand-carved woodwork, with exquisite inlays and rich detailing. The main room opens onto a sun-drenched (or rain-filled!) outer courtyard.

The best-known house is Tan Ky, 101 Nguyen Thai Hoc. Across the road, at no. 80, is Diep Dong Nguyen House. It once functioned as a pharmacy, and the original cabinets and cases can still be seen. At no. 4 Nguyen Thai Hoc is the Phung Hung House, lived in by descendants of the original builder.

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A bicycle at the Reaching Out Tea-House © A Harrison

A bicycle at the Reaching Out Tea-House © A Harrison

A Unique Tea House

Many of these houses are now cafes or shops which you can simply wander through. One such delight is the Reaching Out Tea House at 131 Tran Phu. Everyone working here is either deaf or vision impaired; the cafe is an oasis of calm when the streets can be full of tourists.

In Nguyen Thai Hoc (next to Tan Ky House) is their retail shop, Reaching Out Arts & Crafts, which is adjacent to their workshop. Both are set in restored buildings. The business was established to employ disabled artisans, allowing them to live independently while practicing their craft. The items for sale are exquisite, from coffee sets to bed linen, jewellery and hand-crafted papers to lacqueur ware, and you can wander through the workshop and see things being made. Much of the work reflects traditional Vietnam craft; for example, material sourced from ethnic hill-tribes.

Entrance to the tea house © A Harrison

Entrance to the tea house © A Harrison

Clothes and Food in Hoi An

Then, of course, there are the tailors. Hoi An is a clothes-shoppers heaven. Everyone has their favourite stall, and hotel concierges have good recommendations. Clothes can be made in 24 hours, but it is best to have a fitting. The easiest way is to have a dress or outfit which fits perfectly and have them copy it.

Hoi An is also a foodie’s mecca. Try the white rose (dumplings of prawns in clear rice noddle), cao lau (rice noodles with fresh greens and croutons), morning glory sautéed with garlic, and banh xeo (crepes filled with prawns, beans sprouts and greens).

Restaurants abound, and any guidebook or Internet search raises a plethora of them. Not to be missed, however, is Mr Hi at Hi Restaurant, 1 Nguyen Phu Chu, which is a short walk across the bridge. On a bend facing the river are a series of food stalls; Hi restaurant is at no. 15. Mr Hi greets everyone as his wife cooks the most amazing meals on a small gas burner. Beer costs 50 cents, and the three of us reached elegant sufficiency for around 10 Australian dollars.

A street in Hoi An © A Harrison

A street in Hoi An © A Harrison

Hoi An by Night

At night the town takes on a life of its own. On the far side of the river are the night markets. Lanterns, of course, are for sale, plus everything a tourist needs: cards, hair clips, pearls, clothes, war memorabilia. Whole stalls are devoted to selling lanterns of every colour and shape, the shopkeepers experts in packing them flat for travel.

Fat drops fell from the sky, and in a sudden burst of frenzy stalls holders spread their tarpaulins. We made a dash for the restaurant, and a few minutes later, glass in hand, we stood on the balcony watching the downpour. Despite the torrent, people still bustled through the markets, and music from one of the stalls drifted up to us.

Across the river, the old town wavered in the storm. I could still see a few lanterns on the river. The lanterns of the town flicked, and it seemed as if the old town of Hoi An was floating away, back to a forgotten time.

Questions & Answers

Question: I'd love to explore Hoi An with a knowledgeable companion. Do you know of someone in the area who might be interested in showing me around Hoi An toward the end of January or beginning of February 2020?

Answer: Sorry, I can't help you there. Maybe a local travel agent could give you links to someone, or recommend a walking tour.

© 2013 Anne Harrison

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