Hoi An Overview
Preserved like a butterfly in amber, Hoi An is one of the few towns in Vietnam to have survived the country’s tumultuous history more or less intact. With over 800 historical monuments and buildings, this striking yet also strangely modest little place resembles a film set from a bygone era and is full of the atmosphere and grace of bygone days. If one were to choose the single place that best epitomises the romance of Indochina, Hoi An would be Vietnam’s strongest contender for the title.
If you fancy upgrading your wardrobe with shiny new threads, Hoi An is the place. Every other shop in this small, perfectly formed central Vietnamese town belongs to a tailor who will happily whip up a pair of slinky pyjamas or a silk kimono (‘made-to-measure, Visa or Mastercard’). It will be made from the fruit of locally bred silkworms and, with luck, will fit perfectly and carry no size tag.
This fashion hub and Unesco World Heritage Site has long been a class act. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was an international port called Faifo swarming with Chinese and Japanese merchants. Today, the exotic trader influence shines through in the shrines, silk shops, bridges and quaint tile-roofed wooden houses.
Because many of the downtown streets are closed to cars and even motorcycles on some days, they are great for a wander. Although most shops target tourists, unusually for Vietnam, much of the town has been conserved. A heritage time capsule, this living museum of Vietnamese culture offers visitors the tranquility many need as an antidote to the mania of the country’s cities, and from their lives back home.
The limited development that has been allowed has unfolded sympathetically, resulting in a minimum of tower blocks and karaoke parlours and a general lack of tat and tack. It feels “boutiquey” rather than “souveniry”, to echo one observer.
When you tire of the lanterns, kites and looms, there is no need to pack up and leave. Just beyond the fringes of this most picturesque of towns, you will find plenty of momentous attractions, if little in the way of golf, although the area has five world-class courses in the pipeline.
Tempted? Hoi An is just down the road and is far quieter than Hanoi. Instead of honking horns and revving motorbikes, the prevalent sounds are whirring sewing machines, clinking chisels and softly shuffling flip-flops topped by sibilantly humming voices.
Give in to the temptation to fall into a trance, but try to snap out of it when you take a taxi, as you are still in the most commercial of countries. Confirm the cost and destination. Otherwise, expect to arrive at the wrong hotel, to be charged way too much and then to be stung for extras, such as for having too many shopping bags or for any other reason your driver can concoct, such as being a large person, or your belt causing wear-and-tear on the upholstery.
Finally, ensure you have plenty of traveller’s cheques or stacks of cash. The reason: as in much of Vietnam, the ATMs have the distressingly capricious habit of, like casino one arm bandits, dispensing cash at random intervals or not at all.
For wireless internet access on what some Vietnamese call your ‘toplap’, try the Hai Scout cafe at 111 Tran Phu Street. Alternatively, try another old quarter stalwart, the chic and bare-bones Art Cafe at 30 Thai Hoc Street, which is a good place to relax and soak up Hoi An's ample atmosphere. “It nice,” as the sign says.
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