The Ancient Town of Hoi An
Hoi An, in Quang Nam province, is about 35km south of Danang on the mouth of the Thu Bon river. In the middle of today's modern municipality is the ancient port town of Hoi An, surrounded by urban development.
Facing the silted-up river that once made it a major trading centre, it is now a World Heritage Area and a popular destination. Its close proximity to Cua Dai Beach, good hotels and restaurants make it a pleasant place to spend a few days in the middle of a full tour of Vietnam.
Although it's commercialised, it's a well managed site and retains it's 'village’ atmosphere. Apart the ancient streets of wooden buildings, silk shops, river trips and a delightful monthly 'return to the past' evening when traffic and electricity is replaced by lanterns and traditional costumes, are additional attractions.
Hoi An's History
The Chinese took an interest in the Quang Nam area back in the days of the Cham Empire, and began anchoring their ships in Tra Nhieu Bay, to the south of Hoi An, but it wasn't until the early fifteenth century that the area’s potential for trade was recognised.
Originally known as Fai Fo, Hoi An was established somewhere between 1602 and 1618 by Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, the ruling ‘Lord’ at that time. He had a close relationship with both the Japanese and Chinese, who were the first to use the new port via the trade winds. The number of traders expanded rapidly, and by the mid-1600’s ships Japan, China, Europe India and the South Pacific countries congregated for an annual four-month trading fair.
Fai Fo became a melting pot of cultures. Predominant were the Japanese and Chinese that ran with the trade winds. As many of the merchants often had to wait several months for favourable winds to carry them home, they established resident communities with their own rulers, legal codes and temples. Many prospered, some reaching the equivalent of billionaires.
Fai Fo reached its zenith in the middle of the seventeenth century, when it was among the largest ports in South East Asia. Towards the end of the 18th century, the river began silting up, coinciding with the focus of trade in the region turned towards China. Fai Fo’s value as a port dwindled rapidly as Danang's began to develop. By the beginning of the last century, it had become a backwater, its glorious past merely a memory.
Renamed Hoi An in 1954, the town had reverted a sleepy backwater until the rapid post-war rise in Vietnam’s population stimulated a considerable amount of urban development around the Ancient Town. Its economic renaissance was further fuelled by the new trade of tourism generating an explosion of hotels and tourism infrastructure leaving the Ancient Town as an island in the middle of a large conurbation. Since being added to UNESCO's World Heritage List, the number of visitors has expanded exponentially, and is now reaching the limit of the town’s capacity.
What is there to do in Hoi An?
The centrepiece is, of course, the Ancient Town. It retains the original street pattern and many of its buildings (described separately). Some of the houses and temples participate in a ticket scheme: each 50,000 Dong (roughly $3.40 US) ticket contains four ‘tokens’ allowing visitors to choose what attracts them – extra tokens cost 10.000 Dong each. The proceeds are directed towards renovation.
However, nearly all the owners of the old houses are delighted to show visitors around in anticipation of a tip – your guide will advise you or deal with it, if you prefer.
Hoi An is also famous for its many restaurants offering both local and Vietnamese specialities, and international fare. The standard is high, and the prices inexpensive. It’s also a good place for shopping, especially for silk material and garments. Most of the silk shops are just outside the boundaries of the Ancient Towns – most can turn material a tailor-made garment within 24 hours.
For early risers, the riverside end of the town’s market is an interesting place to be around 05.00 to 06.00 when the night fishing boats come in to unload their catches.
The islands in the river and other local communities are worth visiting. In the past, there was a thriving network of craft villages, but they declined as the town slipped obscurity. Nevertheless, some vestiges of the old trades are still to be found, such as boat building on Cam Kim Island. Some of the Cam Kim artisans were ‘recruited’ by boatyards in Ha Long, where they applied their skills to creating the distinctive wooden junks that have become a feature of the Bay and a popular tourist attraction.
Further away, but accessible by ferry, Cham Island has unspoilt beaches, good snorkelling over coral, and interesting fishing villages. Its Hai Tung Pagoda dates back to 1758 and although it is near to collapsing, is worth a detour.
About four kilometres the town is Cua Dai Beach, part of an enormous strand of sand lining the coast as far as the Mekong Delta. Don't be misled by references to My Khe Beach – that's a section of Danang's My Khe beach. Cua Dai is just as good: clear water, and palm/ pine fringed sandy beaches.
If you don't want to bother with a taxi of motorbike, a bicycle is a good way of getting around – we can arrange it in advance, or you can easily rent bikes in the town.
Further afield, visits to the Marble Mountains and the UNESCO World Heritage Area of the My Son Sanctuary would each take about half a day.