During my recent expedition in and around Vietnam, I seized the opportunity to visit the various parts of this country albeit to experience its new and old. This Vietnam adventure of mine has finally given me a more personal experience of this highly-talked-about country in many of its different ways – including its quirks and perks. However, as many travellers would agree with me, there is no such thing as a flawless heavenly-perfect trip on this planet earth.
This time round, there were several incidences and mishaps along the way but I really have to say that this is the first time in my travel-life that I did feel disappointed even for such a highly appraised location. I rarely whine and gripe about my trip with such negativity but I strongly feel and hope to share a little subjective opinion about, what appears to be, the infamous ancient town of Hoi An.
During my stay in Da Nang, I decided to take a day trip to Hoi An; this often overlooked, quaint and rural heritage city of the Vietnam midlands. Thinking I could travel back in time to reminiscent the gracefulness of such old historical town, my initial impression of Hoi An as I have seen and visualised from Pinterest and Instagram posts was a tranquil, spectacularly old, yet charming little town that is full of alluring classic and timeless beauty.
The quintessential epic of Hoi An is when evening falls, its colourful lanterns that decorate its streets from above alongside its magnificent rows of yellow epoch buildings by the riverside all become alive. In fact, Hoi An to me was supposed to be Vietnam in a different era or maybe even a Vietnamese replica of the heritage town of Li Jiang, China. I imagined it stuck timelessly in an era way back in time framed in a blithe environment full of historic and cultural evolution and wonders. Its pictures had captured my attention and has been on my bucket list for about a year before I planned my trip to Vietnam.
Located on the south of Da Nang along the Thu Bon river, Hoi An is quite a long way to go. To get there, I would recommend you getting a private car tour as there is limited transport options back from Hoi An towards Da Nang.
Most people including a few of my friends who have visited Hoi An before me have painted a very picturesque, quaint and timeless scene of an old oriental unchanging town by the river. This may be true a few years back. The architecture and designs of the upper floors and shopfronts can be witness to this. But sadly, it is no longer so today. Trust me, as gorgeous as it may look on picture, the experience there in-person differs and it isn’t at all pleasurable.
The whole town area has evolved into a tourist trap. People from all around Vietnam flock in to earn tourist dollars in every corner and street. The multiple rows of riverfront shophouses has been today, transformed into an endless parade of shops selling touristy antique goods, local crafts and boutiques. Staff of these shops are belligerent and lack integrity; initially offering products without a price tag and at a ridiculous price to which can miraculously drop the moment you turn your head and walk away.
The promenade by the riverside has also turned into a marketplace where individual mobile unlicensed sellers, touters and cartel operators gather. All of them selling the same products and services with endless touting, co-booking or “outsourcing” in hopes of getting some of your tourist dollars.
With so many neighbouring locals flocking in to sell food, items and services but none are well conversant in English or even remotely retail oriented, shopping becomes a tiring waste of time….a hassle hustle.
The supposed ‘scenic’ river is completely hogged by little ‘sampans’ (or little boats) offering “oh-so-lo-mio” Venetian style gondola river cruises up and down the Thu Bon river. Lots of river-cruise crew are constantly patrolling the promenade like vultures looking or ‘touting’ anyone who whips out or carries an imaging tool; i.e cameras and tourists. Unfortunately, global warming has taken a severe toll on the river causing it to swell with water levels rising a few feet higher than normal. Thus, the boats on one side of the river are unable to cross under the infamous bridge to the other side of the river giving its unsatisfied passenger tourists only half a ride’s worth.
Even the bridge itself that connects the main town to the small island across the river, is over-touristified. It was clearly built with lack of anticipation of global warming effects making it too low for boats to cross underneath. The amount of tourists flocking around and crowding over the bridge just to get a better selfie simply destroys the image and picturesque experience of the bridge and river altogether. It really looks like a mass migration or something.
Several roads located between two rows of shophouses turned boutiques within the town area have been cordoned off as a no-vehicle zone allowing it to be used as a pedestrian walkway in anticipation of the large number of tourists. It was designed for walking and taking pictures in your own time and pace. However, you will still find a lot of locals riding their motorbikes along these roads with endless honking. The town and its streets itself is compact and narrow and becomes harder to picture with endless traffic from trishaws, bikes and pedestrians.
Getting a perfect selfie is almost impossible with people buzzing all around. All the shops along the main streets are old and in shape of what may seem to be its original design. The contents within them are simply designed for tourism dollars. They even offer outfit rentals of their beloved Ao Dai for female tourists to capture a classic shot with an ‘aged-old’ (not ancient) backdrop. What’s more, they have liberally strung the city with colourful lanterns of all sizes just so to add a little more ‘vibrancy’ and twinkles to its Instagramably-engineered backdrop as the day turns to evening.
Night street markets around the small island town spring into action as night falls, luring tourists to their brightly lit souvenir stands and stalls. Family run street food businesses buzz with roaring fires and whiffs of marinated roast meat enough to bewitch the will of the empty stomach of any tourist. Ordering can be a challenge though due to the inherent language barrier and even if universal hand languages does do the trick, their memory-based order tracking can put eating to quite a wait. Since Vietnamese do not have the civilised culture of queueing, the stall operators are often overwhelmed and forced to serve their less patient kind before foreigners. Further with the lack of proper equipment and capacity to cook for large orders, the number of curious crowds continue to gather and linger around, confused if their food order was ever taken or not.
Keep an eye for grouped street kid pick-pockets following tourists who are too busy trying to get a perfect Instagrammable photo. They may be minors but they come in numbers. As the town itself is small with narrow lanes and trishaws pushing around the streets, this place gets really crowded with waves and waves of tourists arriving by the bus loads. This place has really become over-commercialised and touristy.
Seated in front of a public washroom is the bust and park dedicated to the Polish archeologist Mr. Kwiatkowsky who quite literally saved Hoi An and the Champa heritages from the communist purges of ideologies, symbolisms and cultural re-education. He was also accredited to listing the Hue imperial city as a protected Unesco World heritage site back in 1997. Some place to commemorate someone who has dedicated so much of his life to save this city.
My trip to Hoi An is definitely not what I have expected it to be. Nonetheless, the serendipity in Hoi An is still beautiful for an evening stroll even in its coldest periods. Touters aside, the experience of being there and embracing the lasting images of a city trapped in time is pretty amazing. My experience in Li Jiang is definitely way better and so much more spectacular. Being here brings back fond memories of it. Now I can strike this destination off my travel bucket list!
As to whether I will be visiting Hoi An again in the near future, I shall let time take its course. What about you? Have you been to Hoi An and what is your thoughts about it? I’d like to hear from you.
Next Read: 5 Reasons To Visit Da Nang
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