Matt Cowan visits Hoi An and asks the question: How much more tourism can the most popular destination in Vietnam take? Photos by Mike Palumbo

 

Hoi An remains arguably Vietnam’s most popular tourist destination. Situated on the central coast by the banks of the Thu Bon River, it needs very little introduction.

 

Once a major trading port dating back to the 15th century, its old town is recognised as being of significant cultural heritage and was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999. Even if you haven’t been there, you’ve most likely heard of it.

 

It’s not hard to understand why Hoi An is such a draw. In the old town, there are houses dating back 500 years, and at night, lanterns illuminating the narrow streets bounce warm light off the butterscotch-coloured walls of the houses lulling even the least sentimental of us into enchantment.

 

But are we loving Hoi An to death?

 

History and Architecture

 

Word readers recently ranked history and architecture as the two best reasons for visiting Hoi An. This comes as no surprise.

 

No other town or city in Vietnam can lay claim to the effect it has on its visitors like Hoi An can through its architecture and its atmosphere. Who can deny sensing the romance as paper lanterns are released from Hoi An bridge in the evenings?

 

As far as impact, Hanoi perhaps comes closest, since Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city, has embarked headlong on a journey into modernity that has little time for the past. Although Hanoi is also struggling to balance the needs of the present with the heritage of the past.

 

In Hoi An, French colonial-era architecture stands alongside Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese structures. In Ho Chi Minh City, they are being torn down in favour of characterless office blocks and apartment complexes.

 

Indeed, our survey revealed Hoi An’s effect on travellers as 33% of readers who responded indicated they felt happier compared to usual during their last stay in Hoi An, and 15% felt less stressed.

 

Perhaps one of the main reasons for this is Hoi An’s most recognisable site, and most photographed, the iconic wooden and stone Japanese Bridge at the intersection of Tran Phu and Bach Dang streets in the old town.

 

Said to have been constructed around the 1590s to connect the Japanese and Chinese quarters of Hoi An, the bridge is one of those sites that no matter how many times you’ve visited the old town, it’s reassuring to see it’s still standing and in reasonable condition.

 

Its faded pink abutments offer a delightful contrast to the surroundings on either bank. However, the downside is that with beauty comes attraction. Stealing a photograph of the bridge these days without a selfie stick-toting tourist bombing it, is rare in itself. It also has the highest concentration of touts in the old town pestering people to buy useless plastic knick-knacks. The latest is a spinning disco ball-type top.

 

Nevertheless, the bridge remains a charming landmark (despite the stagnant water beneath) and a reminder of the positive impact immigrants and traders have had on Vietnam over the centuries. The concern for the bridge now, however, is whether it can withstand the hordes of tourists trampling over it for much longer. There are already rumours circulating that there are plans to dismantle it for restoration.

 

Equally photogenic are the terraced houses in the old town, which escaped unscathed during the war. It’s hard not to stop wishing you owned one for yourself. Whatever the time of day or year, they’re not only uplifting, but they offer a fleeting glimpse into the mood of life centuries ago without having to actually visit a museum.

 

There are reportedly over a thousand of such timber-framed structures in Hoi An, including monuments, the market, the quay, pagodas and family homes. Their tiled roofs and carved wooden motifs add yet another layer of curiosity. Some of the more famous houses are Duc An House (129 Tran Phu), Tan Ky House (101 Nguyen Thia Hoc) and Phung Hung House (4 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai).

 

Yet their beauty, like the Japanese bridge, may actually be contributing to a decline in the old town’s authenticity. There’s concern among locals that since Hoi An has became a highlight of a visit to Vietnam, non-local investors have bought up most of the properties to cash-in on tourism.

 

Some say this has lead to a cultural shift among remaining local residents who have had to discontinue traditional ways of earning a living for something else. Some have found the offers for their properties too irresistible to refuse and have simply sold up and left Hoi An. Local youth have fewer options for employment despite the growth in tourism.

 

These changes are noticeable when you walk down the streets of the old town. It’s rare to see an artisan at work as business houses have been converted into coffee shops, restaurants, tailors and bars. It’s also believed to be having an impact on the quality of stay at guesthouses and B&Bs.

 

With the inception of homestay networks like Airbnb allowing residential property owners to rent out their lodgings, it’s meant that people inexperienced in hospitality can now become accommodation suppliers often with the effect of damaging the reputation of suppliers who are experienced hospitality professionals.

 

Nowadays, a visit into the old town isn’t free. Visitors are expected to purchase a ticket (VND120,000) to gain entry into five heritage sites in the precinct. However, these tickets continue to raise the ire of tourists and locals alike as their method of sale, or at times lack thereof, remains bewildering.

 

On the opposite bank of the old town on Nguyen Phuc Chu, official ticket sellers turned Word staff away who had intended to dine at one of the many restaurants on the street facing the old town. Because one was unable to produce a ticket, and the other refused to buy another one, one ticket seller turned nasty and suggested they leave despite an intention to spend considerably more money than the value of the ticket in the area.

 

Food

 

It’s not only history and architecture that draw tourists to Hoi An. Food ranked as the third best reason for visiting among Word readers who responded to our survey. In fact, 20% rated it the second best reason.

 

Hoi An is renowned for its cuisine and is considered by many to have some of the best in Vietnam. The most famous local dish is cao lau, a noodle dish made from rice flour.

 

Cao lau isn’t ubiquitous outside of Quang Nam province. While it’s available in other cities and provinces, its regarded to be of poorer quality mostly because authentic Hoi An cao lau is said to gain its distinctive texture and flavour from a freshwater aquifer beneath the town.

 

There are believed to be at least 80 wells throughout Hoi An, which are thought to have been bored around the 10th century by the Cham.

 

But perhaps the most famous and accessible is Ba Le Well off Phan Chau Trinh. It’s located about 50 metres down an alley behind a small shop and residence.

 

The well itself is uneventful and those looking for a marker to identify it as ancient will be disappointed. But seeing is believing, and so is tasting. The water is surprisingly warm and if you were to describe water as sweet, then that’s what the water from Ba Le well is.

 

A good place to try out cao lau is at Hoi An market which runs from Tran Phu down to Bach Dang by the river. It’s busy most of the day and there are no less than 36 different vendors who do a great job at charming you to their stall.

 

At Lieu’s, a bowl of cao lau with a plate of nem ran (fried spring rolls), banh xeo and a couple of drinks will set you back about VND120,000. Not bad for a tourist town.

 

Another place that can’t go unmentioned is Madam Khanh’s banh mi at 115 Tran Cao Van.

 

‘The Queen of Banh Mi’ has got it all happening and appears to have wrested the mantle from Ms Phuong at 2B Phan Chau Trinh made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s visit a few years back. How? Now that would be something to find out.

 

As for more formal dining, restaurants such as the well-known Mango Rooms (111 Nguyen Thai Hoc) add an interesting twist to local and pan-Vietnamese cuisine, while the more recently opened Bep1919 (108 Nguyen Thai Hoc) focuses on home-style fare, adding to the already extensive range of dining options in the area.

 

This is just the start of it. Cuisine in this town, whether it’s on the street or in a more formal dining environment, is a huge draw.

 

Environment and the Beach

 

The environment and the beach were the next best reasons for visiting Hoi An according to Word readers responding to our survey; surprising given the highly publicised erosion issue with Cua Dai Beach.

 

Not too long ago, Cua Dai Beach was beautiful. Now, much of it is sandbagged and resorts on the water have had breakwaters constructed to prevent further erosion. Vendors walking what’s left of the foreshore reminisce about the days when the surf was 100m from the shore.

 

Tourists to Hoi An are fortunate enough, however, to have access to more than one stretch of sand.

 

For now, this appears to be keeping travellers content. Word readers ranked the beach as the fifth best reason for visiting Hoi An, and 45% of them indicated that Hoi An had matched their expectations, with 38% indicating it exceeded them.

 

With Cua Dai’s fate seemingly sealed as a swimming destination, An Bang Beach a further 10 minutes north by motorbike is the next best option. There are also some very good dining options with The Hmong Sisters on the beach attracting excellent reviews.

 

Still, concerns about the environment haven’t gone unnoticed. Environmental damage, too many tourists and development are the three biggest challenges facing Hoi An as a tourist destination according Word readers who responded to our survey. Anyone who has driven the stretch from Danang to Hoi An will testify to the scale of resort development underway.

 

While the official number of tourists who visited Hoi An last year is unavailable to the general public, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has reported that over 9 million international tourists visited Vietnam this year, a 25% increase on 2015.

 

And, according to our survey results, 60% would definitely return if given the opportunity, while 33% probably would.

 

Clearly, Hoi An still has it as a tourist destination, but who knows for how long?

 


 

Reasons for Visiting Hoi An

 

Respondents to our survey ranked the reasons for visiting Hoi An in the following order:

 

1) History

2) Architecture

3) Food

4) Environment

5) Beach

6) Exotic culture

7) Cost

8) Recommendation from others

9) Tailors

10) Romance (including weddings)

11) Hospitality services

12) Nightlife

13) Close proximity to major airport

 

* No. of respondents = 60

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