Hoi An – Vietnam’s City of Wood
In the last post from the Adventures Abroad Vietnam tour we visited two very different sites in Da Nang, the Museum of Cham Sculpture and the pagodas of Marble Mountain. It was yet another eye opening day in this fascinating country as I had no idea who the Cham people were and their important role in Vietnamese history. In this post we are going to move a little further south to the city of Hoi An which is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site and rapidly becoming a top tourist destination in the central part of the country. So please join us and our AA guide Claude Morency in finding out why Hoi An is such a popular destination for tourists with many different interests from cooking to kayaking.
History of Hoi An
Hoi An translates from Vietnamese as ‘peaceful meeting place’ and indeed that pretty well sums up its history in three words. As we learned in the last post, this part of Vietnam was once the domain of the Champa Empire whose strength lay in its strategic role in the southeast Asian spice trade. Hoi An was geographically well suited to trading as it lies near the mouth of the Thu Bon River which was easily navigable by ocean going ships. From the 7th to the 14th century it was the commercial centre of the Champa Empire. It seems to have avoided much of continual strife that plagued other parts of Vietnam in the interminable struggle between the Chinese, Vietnamese, Chams and the Khmers. However, the Champa Empire did eventually slowly begin to decline to the point that in 1471 it was annexed by the Vietnamese Emperor Lê Thánh Tông.
Not long after control was seized by the Dai Viet of north Vietnam, the first Europeans started to arrive and in 1535 the Portuguese tried to establish a trading post at Hoi An. By 1570 the powerful Nguyen clan had rested Hoi An away from the Dai Viet and they were very interested in making Hoi An the trading capital of southeast Asia so encouraged settlement by foreign traders. One entire section of the city was built by Japanese commercial interests who along with the Chinese did make Hoi An into the most important commercial port anywhere in the South China Sea. This golden age of Hoi An lasted until the Nguyen’s lost control in the late 18th century and the French were granted trading rights in Da Nang which rapidly usurped Hoi An’s place as the premiere trading port on the South China Sea. The Thu Bon River was allowed to silt up and Hoi An simply faded into obscurity. It stayed that way for the next 200 years until Polish architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski recognized that the city was in a truly unique state of preservation and brought it to the world’s attention. He was the one most responsible for Hoi an being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 with this description:
Hoi An Ancient town is located in Viet Nam’s central Quang Nam Province, on the north bank near the mouth of the Thu Bon River. The inscribed property comprises 30 ha and it has a buffer zone of 280 ha. It is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a small-scale trading port active the 15th to 19th centuries which traded widely, both with the countries of Southeast and East Asia and with the rest of the world. Its decline in the later 19th century ensured that it has retained its traditional urban tissue to a remarkable degree.
There are over 1,100 timber frame buildings in the historic centre of Hoi An that date from the city’s heyday and give it a unique appearance unlike any other city in Vietnam.
Today Hoi An is also part of the Cu Lao Cham-Hoi An Biosphere Reserve which protects the Thu Bon River delta and the Cham Islands just of the coast. Thus Hoi An is a bit of a rarity in that it attracts tourists not only for its historical and cultural features, but its natural ones as well. The result is that any visitor to the city will see people of all ages and interests wandering the ancient streets.
We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon and went directly to the Hadana Boutique Hotel where we spent three nights.
It’s the perfect place for a mid-trip break with balconies and a large swimming pool which many in the group took advantage of during our stay.
After freshening up Claude herds us into this large golf cart for our first foray into the historic centre of Hoi An for our evening meal.
One of the things I wish I had known in advance about Hoi An is that it is the culinary capital of Vietnam. The mixture of all the different cuisines that came together over the centuries produced a number of dishes unique to the city. Tony Bourdain claimed that the best banh mi sandwiches in the world are found here. Here is a link to a very helpful post that lists not only the best nine things to try in Hoi An, but the various restaurants to try them at. For tonight’s meal we are going to a restaurant that specializes in white rose dumplings, one of the nine on the list and found only in Hoi An. The name comes from the semblance to a white rose and here are two ladies preparing them at their restaurant that specializes in them, aptly named the White Rose Dumpling Restaurant.
And man are they delicious. To quote Canada’s version of Guy Fiero, John Catucci, “You Gotta Eat Here!”.
Also of note was this chicken on lemongrass skewers dish.
After dark Hoi An takes on an entirely new personality as the old town is lit up with hundreds of Chinese lanterns and boats ply the river festooned with their own lights. It’s really quite a sight to take in. My pictures didn’t turn out well so I borrowed this one from the exploringkiwis.com website.
My days of hitting the bars at night are long gone, but I was tempted by this one.
We began our tour of Hoi An the next morning with a walking tour of the historic district starting with a visit to the Quan Cong Temple which was built in 1653 to honour a legendary Chinese general Quan Van Truong who lived some 1,500 years earlier. He was so successful in his military prowess that after his death he was worshipped as a symbol of honesty and justice. People would apparently come to the temple to sign contracts in the belief that no one would commit fraud in the presence of Quan Van Truong. This is the shrine where offerings to the demi-god are made. Not surprisingly he likes dragonfruit.
There is a statue of Quan Van Truong which I somehow forgot to take a photo of, but I did get this one of his papier mâché guardian General Chau Xuong. Wouldn’t want to tangle with this guy.
Strangely enough the thing I remember most about the Quan Cong Temple is this sign. The United States dropped over 11 million gallons of this toxic defoliant on Vietnam between 1965 and 1971. It is estimated that over 300,000 United States troops who served in Vietnam died from cancers caused by the dioxin in Agent Orange and many, many more Vietnamese. While the soldiers and families of the US troops were compensated, the Vietnamese were not. Not only does dioxin have deadly direct health effects, it also causes birth defects which are still plaguing the Vietnamese over fifty years later.
Old Hoi An is a wonderful place to walk around in with lots of chances to buy fresh produce either on the fly.
Or from stationary sellers.
If you don’t fancy doing your own cooking you can pop into the Hoi An market where a lot of those local specialty dishes are offered for sale.
Our next stop was at the Fujian Assembly Hall which was built in 1690 by the local Chinese community as a place to meet, socialize and discuss matters of interest to that community. There are five of these assembly halls in Hoi An of which this is the most famous most notably because of its architectural gate.
While it did start out as a place to socialize it was by chance morphed into a place of worship when a statue of the sea goddess Thien Hau was found washed up on a beach near Hoi An in the 1700’s. She is notable as the patron goddess of seamen and sailors would come here to pay obeisance to her in hopes of a safe voyage. I believe the small statue in the glass box is the original statue.
People still come here today to light incense rings while making a prayer to Thien Hau. Now think about this. In the west we disregarded the notion of individual gods and goddesses almost two millennia ago in favour of the idea of one god and that applies to all Christians, Muslims and Jews. You would be ridiculed if you were to say a prayer to Zeus or Osiris today and yet in the east these type of religious figures are still revered and believed in. I think it’s great and another reason that travel to countries outside of western culture is so elevating.
There are a number of other interesting things to see at the Fujian Assembly Hall including this multi-media mural which is very imposing.
And this scary skeletal figure which is actually a storm warner, one who lets sailors know of oncoming storms and allows them to avoid them.
From here we wandered through the section of Hoi An where most of the older wooden frame houses are found.
The Ceramic Museum of Hoi An is located in one of the these and contains two floors of ceramics from the many areas of the world that traded goods at Hoi An. I haven’t been to Kyoto, but I’m told that this house is built in the style of those in that Japanese city.
Frankly, ceramics are not really my thing, but I did appreciate this ornamental ceramic altar.
Our tour ended at the most famous site in Hoi An, the Japanese bridge which was built in the late 16th century to connect the Japanese and Chinese enclaves. It certainly is the most photographed place in the city and rivals the Red Bridge of Hanoi in terms of Instagram popularity.
We were actually here when there we relatively few other tourists so Alison was able to get this shot of me on the famed bridge.
We now had some free time to explore Hoi An before rejoining the group for an afternoon boat tour. Aside from the buildings, the old part of the city has a ton of interesting shops, most not obvious tourists traps. Leather goods made from water buffalo are a popular item.
As is designer clothing at far less than designer pricing.
Other shops are just plain photogenic.
While others are just plain weird, like these creepy-eyed Justin Bieber like mannequins
Heading back to the river I spotted this semi-hidden boat and thought it made for a nice photo.
One of the things I really enjoy about Adventures Abroad tours is how much variety they include in their itineraries, especially in terms of getting around. There will almost always be at least one boat tour and we’ve already had a number before arriving at Hoi An. This afternoon we’ll charter one of these boats to take us out to the mouth of the Thu Bon river and back.
Here’s the happy group ready to shove off.
This is a look at the Hoi An market from the river.
I’m always amazed at how some symbols seem to be universal and one of those is definitely the idea of putting eyes on boats which is a practice that goes back thousands of years. This is a traditional Vietnamese river boat.
At the half way point of our boat trip we came to the mouth of the river where the Cua Dai bridge crosses it. Built at a cost of over $111 million USD it opened in 2016. The nets are lowered into the water after dark and illuminated to attract unsuspecting shrimp and fish. Instead of taking the net to where the fish are, this method attracts the fish to the net which is a lot less work and more environmentally friendly than other methods.
This concludes my post on Hoi An which I would have to rate as my favourite city in Vietnam. Its scale is not overwhelming, its charms are authentic and its food is out of this world. In the next post we’ll visit My Son, spiritual centre of the Champa Empire. I hope to see you there.