The heritage town of HOI AN is a town that time forgot. In the early morning, HOI AN resembles a “vintage postcard of a sleepy, riverside town”.
The silence is broken by a loud mechanical voice that welcomes people to the Ancient Town (and advises them to buy tickets before entering, the proceeds go into its maintenance) The message is repeated every few minutes. HOI AN exists largely because of tourism. but this wasn’t always the case.
HOI AN was once a prosperous trading port that flourished in the 15th century after it was absorbed into the Champa Kingdom, when it was known as LAM AP PHO and then FAIFO (meaning seaside town). Through the centuries, the Portuguese, British, French, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese and the Indians used the port for trade.
In the 18th century, the nearby port of DA NANG became the new centre of trade and HOI AN lost all its glory. Today, very little trade occurs at HOI AN, barring a few small-scale fishing boats. It has thus remained “untouched” for over 200 years. HOI AN’s fortunes changed in 1999 when UNESCO declared it’s old town a World Heritage Site.
Tourists come here to soak in the atmosphere of a heritage town and learn its history. The most popular attraction in HOI AN is the Ancient Town, a 2sq.km. area steeped in historical monuments.
There is a Japanese covered bridge or the CHUA CAU BRIDGE. It is located at the beginning of the old town and at all moments is abuzz with tourist chatter. Here you find the weathered statues of monkeys and dogs. Legend has it that a mythical dragon, its head in India and spine running along the Vietnamese coast, caused earthquakes in Japan when it moved. The Japanese solved this by building the bridge on the dragon’s spine to kill it. There is a small faded shrine inside the bridge where you can offer incense to appease the beast.
You are introduced to what is popularly known as the HOI AN style ——– a mix of European, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and French architectural influences. There are century-old houses, some preserved and some crumbling, red and gold Chinese Temples or assembly halls, wooden shop-houses with French shuttered windows and balconies, European-style brick buildings, intricately-carved beams and aged timer structures.
Almost all the old wooden shop-houses have been converted to businesses aimed at tourists —— Tailoring shops, boutiques, souvenir stores, restaurants and cafes and art galleries. There are a few family houses with high compound walls, an occasional chapel like the well-preserved TRAN FAMILY CHAPEL that dates back to the 19th century.
One aspect of the past that as evolved in HOI AN is tailoring. Once a traditional craft, tailors were in high demand when the town was an international port. The clothes made by these master craftsmen travelled all over the world and they were known for being able to replicate any design. The trade has passed down through generations and every second shop is a tailor’s shop, looking to cash in on the influx of tourists interested in custom-made clothing and shoes.
History has shown that HOI AN adapts easily to change. The spurt in tourism in the last decade has seen various activities catered specifically to them. A few years ago, when the old quarters became a “pedestrian-only zone”, many street traders found themselves without space to sell their wares. In 2011, the tiny islet of AN HOI, once home to a banana plantation, was cleared out and space was made for quaint guesthouses, fancy hotels and riverside bars and restaurants. The traders finally found their spotlight at the vibrant “night market” here.
There are lanterns everywhere in AN, bedecking streets, homes and shops. The lanterns bathe the town in a warm glow. , playing off the light of “floating lanterns”.
The heritage town of HOI AN is all about “old-world charm repackaged to appeal to new-age travellers.”
——- Joanna Lobo.