Hoi An: A Town Suspended in Amber

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.

Boat rides in Hoi An

Boat rides in Hoi An

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.

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I won't wear shoes that are anything less than a dozen Franklins

I won’t wear shoes that are anything less than a dozen Franklins

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.

Carrying different loads--the locals and the tourists

Carrying different loads–the locals and the tourists

The beautiful, but oddly empty, streets of Hoi An

The beautiful, but oddly empty, streets of Hoi An

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.

At the Japanese Bridge in Hoi An Ancient Town

At the Japanese Bridge in Hoi An Ancient Town

A small shrine on the Japanese Bridge

A small shrine on the Japanese Bridge

A collections box

A collections box

A war memorial

A war memorial

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.

Tran Family Chapel

Tran Family Chapel

Tran Family Chapel waiting room

Tran Family Chapel waiting room

Part of the large collection of ceramics, coins, and statuary for sale

Part of the large collection of ceramics, coins, and statuary for sale

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The Tan Ky House

Mother-of-pearl inlay in the Tan Ky House

Mother-of-pearl inlay in 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.

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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.

Markings of how high the floodwaters rose over the years

Markings of how high the floodwaters rose over the years

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.

Coins for the future

Coins for the future

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.

Old House of Quan Thang

Old House of Quan Thang

Lacquer woodwork

Lacquer woodwork

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.

Fukien Assembly Hall

Fukien Assembly Hall

Offerings at the altar

Offerings at the altar

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Lovely detail

Lovely detail

Tailors

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!

In the tailor shop

In the tailor shop

Plumeria

Plumeria

Along the river in Hoi An

Along the river in Hoi An

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.

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Hoi An by night

Hoi An by night

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Oh yeah, I took model shots

Oh yeah, I took model shots

Among the Splendid Ruins of Ayutthaya

I like to pretend that my short time in Ayutthaya, ancient capital of the kingdom of Siam, was spent in the manner of a ruler from that era: whisked from magnificent stupa to impressive monument in my personal chariot, all doors open to me. In reality, of course, I bounced along in the back of a tuk-tuk and paid the same entrance fees as everyone else, but when the afternoon sun is beating down and you only have a few hours in a place when you’d planned to have two days, you have to inject a little romance where you can.

Astonishing what one color against stone can do.

Astonishing what one color against stone can do (no filter)

Ayutthaya is a World Heritage site, and as such it’s better maintained than many tourist sites in Thailand. All the guidebooks suggest renting bikes to get from one site to another, which sounds nice in theory, but in practice it still means dodging terrifying traffic and sucking in mouthfuls of exhaust. Some friends did bike to different temples, and they said those were the problems exactly, plus it’s super hot, of course. So all in all, I’m glad I paid $20 for a driver to take me door-to-door for three hours.

ayutthaya

Tiny me in there for a sense of scale

Tiny buddhas at Wat

Mini buddhas at Wat Phra Chedi Chaimongkhon

The city of Ayutthaya was founded in the 14th century, and at its peak at around 1700 CE it had 1 million inhabitants, which made it one of the largest cities in the world. In 1767 the Burmese invaded, burning the city to the ground and committing blasphemous acts like cutting the heads off the stone buddhas in the temples. The kingdom would be fought over and rebuilt over the next few years, but the capital was never re-founded on the same site, and it’s remained in ruins to this day.

One of the many headless buddhas

One of the many headless buddhas

Wat Phra Mahathat

Wat Phra Mahathat

Some of the temples seemed to be out of use, while others contained buddha statues, yellow or saffron cloth coverings, and other signs that they were still active places of worship.

I think he looks downright cozy

I think he looks downright cozy

Guards stationed themselves by the head in the tree of Wat Phra Mahathat to make sure people took respectful photographs. It’s considered disrespectful to put your head above that of a buddha or monk, so any time you’re in a temple you have to watch yourself. Since this particular head somehow got wrapped up in the roots of this tree, it’s even lower than statues usually are, and you have to kneel on the ground to make sure you’re not breaking any taboos.

Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat?

I visited Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, which a fellow American told me was the site of some scenes from Mortal Kombat–look familiar, anyone?

Reclining buddha of

Reclining buddha of Phra Budhasalyart

The reclining buddha of Phra Budhasalyart, according to legend, got in that position because a giant was boasting about how big he was, and how therefore he didn’t need to pay proper respect to the buddha. The buddha made himself bigger than the giant and just laid out on his side, like, hey, what’s up, we can play this game if you really want to. (I presume the giant was humbled, though accounts don’t say.)

Wat

Wat Phu Khao Thong

The last stop of the day, Wat Phu Khao Thong, was one of the nicest simply because the sun was going down and the site was deserted. Once my driver dropped me off at the bridge that served as the entrance, it was just me and a determined evening jogger as the sun descended and the temple folded itself in shadow. It was a peaceful end to a busy afternoon of temple-hopping, and kudos to my driver for arranging it that way.

A peaceful good night

A peaceful good night

New Page: The World Heritage List

My friend Liz mentioned that I seemed to be coming across a lot of World Heritage sites on my travels, and I realized that was probably true but I wasn’t keeping track. We all know I’m too fond of lists for my own good, and although my goal for this trip is to appreciate experiences rather than to cross things off a list and call places “done,” I think this is an all right list to work with.

I don’t mean to cheat you of the promised post a day, so head over here to see the real post for today. Then let me know: What World Heritage sites have you visited? Which places have you never heard of before? Which places are you surprised didn’t make the cut?