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Time stands still in Hoi An

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 14, 2024 5:00 am

Arriving in Hoi An at night is simply magical, as multicolored brocade lanterns greet you on the boats as well as on the old shophouses along the river—a dreamlike prelude to the many delights that this ancient town has in store. Located in Quang Nam province in Central Vietnam, it’s just a 45-minute car ride from Da Nang International Airport, but a world away from anything else we have seen in this country.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s an exceptionally well-preserved Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Hoi An, in fact, is the only town in Vietnam that has survived intact in this way because of its unique historical circumstances.

Hoi An Ancient Town at sunset

Hoi An, which translates as “peaceful meeting place” in Sino-Vietnamese, was known as Faifo, part of the wealthy kingdom of Champa that controlled the spice trade between the 7th to 10th centuries. It became Vietnamese territory in 1471 when Champa was annexed by Emperor Lê Thán Tông.

Hoi An boats with floating lanterns

In 1535, Portuguese explorer Antonio de Faria saw its potential and after 1570 when the Nguyen lords took over, Hoi An became the most important trade port in the South China Sea. The English sailor William Adams had a trade mission in 1617 while the early Portuguese Jesuits had one of their two residences here. It was also a religious center where Hindus and Buddhists came for festivals and ceremonies, enriching its cultural diversity.

Japanese covered bridge

Japanese traders set up their quarter with dozens of wooden houses. The Japanese covered bridge—one of the key attractions today and the only one of its kind with a Buddhist temple attached on one side—was built with a curved roof typical of a Japanese traditional house, Chinese-style red lacquer wood and stone on the main structure and Vietnamese Yin-Yang tiles decorating the roof.

Ba Mu Temple

Japanese influence began to decrease in the late 17th century due to the Nguyen lords’ policy against Japanese Christians and the Tokugawa Shogunate’s “closed country policy,” opening the way for the Chinese. By the 18th century, Hoi An became a powerful trade conduit between Europe, China, India, and Japan, particularly for the ceramic industry; but by the century’s end, its significance waned sharply with the collapse of Nguyen rule during the battle with Tay Son rebels who were against foreign trade. When Emperor Goa Long regained power, he repaid the French for their aid by giving them exclusive rights to the nearby port town of Da Nang, making it the new trade center, leading to the final eclipse of Hoi An.

Sightseeing by rickshaw at Hoi An old town

The resulting economic stagnation, however, has kept it remarkably intact, not to mention that the entire town is state property and effectively protected by relevant national laws. Walking around, we were simply amazed by how time has practically stood still. Even motorized vehicles are restricted only to some streets and only on certain hours, making it a quiet pedestrian zone for most of the day.

A tailoring shop in a 1920 building

It’s like an outdoor museum as you encounter different architectural styles and interiors. Chinese-style buildings typically have a tiled roof and a courtyard while Japanese-styled ones have low roofs and exposed wooden beams. The Old House of Tan Ky is a fine example of traditional Vietnamese architecture with elaborately carved columns, lovingly preserved since 1741 for seven generations, surviving even a historic flood in 1964.

Interiors of Tan Ky Old House

Down the road from Tan Ky, we were attracted to a house with a bright turquoise façade and display cabinets of Ming porcelain, which we thought were for sale. It turned out to be the Diep Dong house built in the 19th century for the Chinese merchant from whom it got its name. Once a dispensary for Chinese medicine, the ground floor has glass-enclosed apothecary cases for objects while the owner’s collection of antiques is upstairs.

Antique apothecary cabinets, porcelain and furniture at Diep Dong House

Duc An is another old house of almost 200 years combining ancient Vietnamese architecture with Chinese style, a tubular structure with a courtyard in the middle. The front has a three-door system with the middle as the main entrance and two large windows on the sides as “horizontal doors.” We learned that it’s a historic house associated with the revolution of anti-French patriots when it was a bookstore from the late 19th century. 

Bamboo root sculptures

There are several pagodas, temples and assembly halls that are not to be missed for their cultural and spiritual significance. Phuc Kien (1690), Quang Trieu (1885), and Trieu Chau (1845) Assembly Halls are stunning examples of Chinese architecture adorned with intricate carvings and vibrant colors. They have similar structures with central courtyards and fountains featuring dragons made from mosaics. Evenings are a nice time to visit when hundreds of small candles and incense spiraling to the ceiling make for a tranquil, otherworldly experience.

Cao lau noodles

To go deeper into Hoi An culture, there are museums dedicated to Sa Huynh Culture, Trade Ceramics, Folklore, History and Culture, Precious Heritage, and Traditional Medicine.

White Rose dumplings

Shopping is easily done while sightseeing, with many shops selling handicrafts and fabrics, which the region is known for. There are also good tailors doing 24-hour suits and dresses out of their exquisite brocades and silks. The Night Market offers crafts like lanterns, artworks, jewelry, clothing, leather goods, and even local snacks.

Hanoi's irresistible Banh Mi

Local culinary specialties are a must: cao lau, a noodle dish with pork, fresh herbs and a unique type of noodle has a broth made from water taken from the ancient Ba Le well. Com ga is made from shredded, poached chicken, seasoned pilaf rice, green papaya, and carrots. White Rose dumplings of shrimp or pork are shaped into delicate rose petals. Bánh xèo is a crispy, savory, stuffed pancake with a touch of turmeric. Called the “Banh Mi Capital” by CNN, Hoi An has many choices for the baguette sandwich of paté, grilled meat, and vegetables with the Anthony Bourdain fave, Banh Mi Phuong and the popular Madame Khanh leading the lot. Morning Glory, which also has a cooking school, is a good place to try all of the above. There are also many coffee shops where you can have delicious coconut coffee as you look out to contemplate this tranquil, beautifully preserved town that will hopefully keep its charm for generations to come.