Text and Photos by Andrew Wright
Hoi An, 15 January 2009. The history of Hoi An can be traced back to well before Vietnam existed, when it was originally the Champa town of Lâm Ap Pho. In the first century AD it was the largest harbour in Southeast Asia and brought great wealth to the Champa people as a key centre of the trade in spices, incense, herbs, drugs and opium. These were commodities of great value and importance to many countries throughout the world, at that time.
During the 17th century it was seen as being one of the most important centres of trade by the Chinese and Japanese and they brought, not only trade, but architectural and cultural influence to the town as many settled there.
It was also a popular trading port for the French, Dutch and Portuguese and their influences have intermingled with those of the Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese to create a fascinating melange that is now enjoyed by tourists.
In 1999 this town was recognised by UNESCO as a place of cultural heritage worthy of preservation and so it became a World Heritage Site.At this time, tourism was still mainly of the backpacker variety and the town was relatively unspoilt.
Hoi An has for a long time been a centre for cheap tailoring and it is common to be accosted by tailors in the street wishing for you to visit their shop to buy cheap tailored suits or to peruse last year’s clothing catalogues to have replicas made. The speed at which they produce this clothing is mind boggling but then the quality and endurance of these clothes is usually far from desirable. There are good tailors out there but you need to choose carefully and it’s best to look for online recommendations from other travellers.
The morning fish market on the riverside, in the middle of town is well worth a visit. You need to get there early for the best experience of the hustle and bustle as women haggle over all manner of sea creatures, some still writhing in buckets.
In recent years the tourism industry has exploded. Tour operators are springing up everywhere and the famous China Beach between nearby Danang and Hoi An is currently in a constant state of development.
There are giant resorts and luxury holiday residences such as the Crowne Plaza, Raffles and The Hyatt Regency being built all along this stretch of coastline. It won’t be long before the entire stretch has been developed. These places will pour thousands more tourists to the already busy streets during the high season.
A welcome to those who rely on tourism dollars for their income but not for those who care to preserve this place of historic importance.
The local government has made some moves to handle this influx of tourists. A new promenade gives pedestrians access to stroll along enjoying the slow moving river, fishermen, traditional boats and wildlife and while they’re doing a good job of maintaining the historical integrity of the old town they’ve allowed far too many restaurants and bars to open up just over the river.
These brightly lit bars and restaurants aren’t in keeping with the ambience of the sleepy town that was, until recently, Hoi An. They certainly add vibrancy and entertainment options after dark but many would argue that there are plenty of places for that in Vietnam and Hoi An isn’t one of them.
It’s yet to be seen whether the town can maintain the new and the old in harmony and with a place this pretty, it would be a real loss if they can’t.
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Photojournalist contact: Andrew AT summerwrights DOT com.