World Heritage sites are meant to protect and preserve sites of cultural and natural beauty around the world–that’s a given. But I was surprised by Hoi An, a city near the coast of the middle part of Vietnam, whose old town is a World Heritage site. Although people live and work there–bustling about selling food and trinkets, ushering tour groups through historical houses, calling out to children down the street–I somehow still felt as if the place was stopped in time, like an insect suspended in amber, mid-flight.
The buildings are a combination of Chinese-style shophouses and French colonials. Almost every single one is painted a bright yellow, decorated with hanging lanterns, the occasional flowering vine, and not much else. Simplicity seems to be the decorating byword here, and it works really well. Everyone took photos against the backdrops of yellow houses and magenta flowers, sometimes with an old-fashioned bicycle as a prop. I’m no exception.
But that’s what the whole “ancient town” felt like–a prop. My mom asked me if a town that was so carefully preserved felt like a display at Disneyland, and it kind of did. Part of that was due to the restrictions on vehicles; only human-powered vehicles were allowed, so the usual crush of motos, cars, and buses was missing, and only cyclos (bicycle taxis), bicycles, and handcarts rolled through the streets. This made me less fearful for my life, but it also made it eerily quiet. There was so much space; although the buildings were all full of businesses, somehow the streets weren’t as full of people visiting them as they were just a few streets away, on the other side of the UNESCO sign.
Most of those businesses seemed to be for tourists only, and I guess that’s the basic point: I’ve never been anywhere else that’s had such a sharp tourist/local divide, where locals only venture to make some money off tourists. Except for maybe Navy Pier in Chicago.
Which is not to say the houses and their contents weren’t beautiful, or historical, or worth preserving. They were all of those things. But the liveliness that surely accompanied the building and decorating of those houses had faded away.
The Japanese Bridge
Hoi An was a trading town for centuries, and both Chinese and Japanese merchants settled here and had a large influence. One of the main sights of the town is the small, lovely covered Japanese bridge over one of the estuaries of the river. It was built centuries ago, connecting parts of town where different ethnicities lived, and for a while was called the Friendship Bridge. You can pay to see the tiny altar in the center of the bridge, or you can just walk on the wooden structure, admiring the curlicued beams above and the solemn dog and monkey altar statues below.
I lucked out on the first day I went down to the old town. You have to buy a multi-ticket packet and use one ticket per attraction. I wasn’t sure where to buy a ticket when I got down there, so I asked a couple of Canadian women outside the Tran Family Chapel where to go, and they said, “oh actually, we’re done for the day, take the rest of our tickets.” Excellent!
The Tran Family Chapel
The Tran Family Chapel is one of the names for this 200-year-old building, constructed in the style of a Vietnamese garden house. The central entrance was only used on very high holidays, and normally men and women enter from different side entrances. The altar was surrounded by small, thin boxes that I believe contained the ashes, or perhaps the mementos of deceased members of the family. You can’t walk through the place by yourself; a guide gives a short speech on the architecture of the building (Japanese-style three-tiered wooden beams; a door sill that trips you up if you’re not careful, so you are forced to look down when crossing it, thus showing respect for the ancestors as you cross into their space) and then brings you into the back room, which is full of ceramics, coins, and trinkets you can buy as souvenirs. It wasn’t too hard a sell, happily.
The Tan Ky House
The Tan Ky House is the most visited Chinese house in Hoi An. It’s over 200 years old, and it’s been owned by the same family that whole time. An older woman, sixth generation of that family, handed out tea to visitors and smiled serenely as each tour leader pointed out her importance.
One of the major reasons the town is a World Heritage sites, these old houses are all built in the same way: doorway, opening foyer with altar, outdoor courtyard, back room/kitchen. Sometimes beds were set up in the back, but it looked like most bedrooms were upstairs (we were only permitted to see the downstairs in each place). Guides pointed out the Chinese elements (the writing, the shophouse layout), the Japanese elements (the three-tiered wooden beams in the foyer), and the Vietnamese elements (the building materials and particular family touches) that appear in each house.
The river has flooded many times over the last few decades, and one wall of the Tan Ky house was chalked up with how high the waters rose during various floods. The houses looked good for how many times they’ve been submerged.
The lacquered woodwork found in the Tan Ky house and the Quan Thang house (another place I visited), and mother-of-pearl inlay in the former, were beautiful. The inlay looked like calligraphy, and some of it even made Chinese characters out of “brush strokes” in the shapes of birds, which was just lovely. The woodwork in all the houses shines from polishing, revealing pastoral scenes of flowers, animals, and twisting plants.
Fukien Assembly Hall
The Fukien Assembly Hall was built in the 17th century as a temple and was also used as a gathering place for the Fukien Chinese people who built it. It’s a long approach, past a fountain and through a triple gate, past two large paintings depicting heroic stories, through the open courtyard hung with giant prayer coils, red and smoking, and finally into the main room containing the large altar and another small pond. The altar room had some beautifully carved and painted pillars, and a feast laid out for the ancestors and gods on the altar. This was a great reminder of the huge Chinese influence in Vietnam, and how strong that influence still is.
Hoi An is the main tailoring hot spot in Vietnam. I am not exaggerating when I say that out of eight storefronts on one street, seven of them were tailor shops. I had some silk I’d bought in Thailand, and I had it made into a skirt for my cousin, which turned out beautifully. I had almost decided not buy any clothes for myself, but I succumbed to a different shop owner’s persuasions. She made a long-sleeved black linen/cotton shirt, which I generally like although it can be a little shapeless, and a pair of cream linen pants, which pilled after two wearings, and which she hemmed too short. I should’ve stuck with my original plan!
Hoi An was picturesque as any town I’ve been to, and it was a relief to walk around in a mostly pedestrian-only area for awhile, relaxing into the bright colors and quiet atmosphere, eating cao lau noodles and running my hands over rich fabrics in the shops. But even though I wandered at night under the lanterns strung across the streets, a part of me still thinks that maybe they shut the whole set down overnight, then open up this peculiar theme park again the next day.