I covered my ears and hurried off the runway at Da Nang Airport. Beneath my feet lay the same tarmac US pilots had landed on after dropping their bombs on North Vietnam.
Fifty years on, Da Nang has changed tremendously. I was not stopping though. My destination was further south, a town which had supposedly escaped time’s ravages.
It was a place I’d wanted to visit for years, and I had a question which needed answering.
Hoi An. Is it Asia’s prettiest town?
Hoi An’s a surviving ancient trading port — a rare specimen. Designated UNESCO World Heritage status at the end of the millennium, Hoi An is living history. Parts of the town are five hundred years old, and you can feel the years that have passed here.
Hoi An was once the most important trading port in Southeast Asia, visited by Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese traders. Its reach was global, with ceramics from Hoi An discovered in places as far-flung as Egypt.
It’s ironic then that Hoi An’s economic demise is why it’s so well-preserved today. Political change meant Da Nang overtook Hoi An as the region’s major trading port. The silting-up of the river-mouth further reduced Hoi An’s stature. Hoi An was then ignored for 200-odd years, saving it from modernisation.
Thank God this happened.
The sights of Hoi An
Against this historical tapestry, Hoi An cast its spell. The narrow alleys and pastel-coloured buildings charmed me, and I ended up staying twice as long as I’d originally planned. It’s easy to see why.
A typical day started with coffee on the riverfront. From the terrace I’d watch the river coming to life, fishing boats breaking the still water.
I’d then wander through the morning-market, impressed by the array of colour on sale.
Lunch was just as relaxed. Hoi An has interesting regional cuisine like the cao lầu and mì quảng, which are dry noodle dishes. Bánh mì was sold everywhere; the start of a delicious addiction.
In the late afternoon, Hoi An’s buildings would look most brilliant. The bright yellow walls were illuminated by the sun, vividly contrasting with the starched blue sky.
As night fell, Hoi An’s ubiquitous lamps came on, lighting the riverfront in soft reds and purples. The hum of people descending on the river for dinner produced a vibrant yet relaxed atmosphere.
Families would take photos at the the ancient Japanese bridge, admiring the structure which was built in the 1590s. Small crafts carried couples on romantic cruises, the only sound being the oarsman’s paddle tickling the water.
I sat and drank beer, watching kids float paper lanterns down the river, their ultimate fate unknown, but predictable.
Hoi An knew how to make itself difficult to leave.
One boiling-hot day I hired a bike and rode out of town. My destination was An Bang beach, a few kilometres outside Hoi An.
My route took me through impossibly green fields being ploughed by water buffalo; past colourful cemeteries and criss-crossing rivers. I knew I’d arrived in Vietnam.
An Bang beach however, was another story. The water looked dirty, and sun-loungers were crammed along every inch of habitable beachfront. It was nigh impossible to sit without being hassled to buy a drink. Even worse was the terrible erosion, with the remedial work further blighting the beach.
The consolation was seeing the traditional Vietnamese fishing boats in action. The round craft bobbed in the waves a few hundred metres offshore, lost in a simpler world.
I rode back to Hoi An in the late afternoon, and spied a cafe on the outskirts of town. The coffee was delicious, and the view was even better. It was the perfect end to the day.
Despite loving Hoi An, I couldn’t help feeling that tourism has sucked some of its soul dry.
The ancient town is well preserved, but the majority of buildings have turned into shops and restaurants. Derivative souvenirs, ranging from lanterns to wooden ships, are sold in every store.
Hoi An is famous for its good quality tailors, and there must be at least one-hundred inundating the town, each hustling for business. One tailor proudly told me, “our clothes are very cheap because we pay our workers so little!”
Hoi An lacks authenticity, and doesn’t feel like a town lived in by Vietnamese. It can be contrasted with places like George Town, Malaysia, which is still occupied by locals, rather than becoming a theme-town for tourists.
It made me wonder whether UNESCO World Heritage status is more of a curse than a blessing in some ways. It’s a complex issue, and as a tourist myself, I knew I was contributing to the problem.
And in saying all of that, Hoi An is still the most beautiful town I’ve visited in Asia.
Would you like to visit Hoi An? What’s the most beautiful town you’ve ever seen? Leave a comment below