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Hoi An: a bridge between cultures

Standing on a pedestrian walkway by the Thu Bon River, Bama and I drink in the view of a sublime architectural gem. It rests on a succession of stone piers, the timber frame bearing traces of maroon paint, faded and stripped away by years of exposure to the elements. Above the rafters, delicate blue-and-white porcelain bowls are set into the edges of the tiled roof, itself crowned by florid, dragon-like finials. It was this famous structure – the Japanese covered bridge – that had brought us to the central Vietnamese town of Hoi An. When I read last August that the 400-year-old landmark would eventually be dismantled for restoration, I knew it was high time to go.

The name Hoi An means “Peaceful Meeting Place”, and it’s entirely fitting that the town’s symbol also represents long-lost connections forged with distant lands. What started out as a harbor of the Hindu-Buddhist Champa Empire eventually blossomed into a thriving mart of trade under the Nguyen lords. Portuguese carracks called in as early as 1535, followed by the Spanish and the French. Known to European merchants as Faifo, the town flourished as an important regional port dealing in silk and ceramics.

Japanese traders also established a settlement of some 60 houses in Hoi An, and along with it, a bridge over a small canal to link their enclave to the Chinese merchant communities. Some believe the bridge was not built merely for practical reasons – apart from aiding transport and providing shelter, it might have also been intended as a gesture of peace. Curiously, the entrances at either end are guarded by a pair of statues not dissimilar from the temple sculptures I’d seen in Japan: dogs in the east and monkeys in the west. These are said to correspond to the Chinese zodiac, for the bridge was started in 1593, during the Year of the Monkey, and finished in 1595, under the Year of the Dog.

Outside the Chinese All-Community Assembly Hall, founded in 1773

Early morning in Hoi An, before the streets are closed to traffic

A small, picturesque square with a framed view of the river

Solitude at the Japanese covered bridge

Looking towards the Cantonese Assembly Hall, established in 1785

The old town’s streets are festooned with lanterns and flowering vines

Making a delivery amid the morning calm

Socialist flags in a historic trading town

Hoi An’s cloth market is a recent but sympathetic construction

The Japanese were a dominant force in Hoi An, but their influence was not to last. Four decades later the shogun (military ruler) Tokugawa Iemitsu closed Japan’s borders and imposed a strict isolationist policy known today as sakoku. The move was meant to curb the influence of the Spanish and Portuguese – and the growth of Christianity – but it also barred the Japanese from leaving their home country and conducting business abroad. Bowing to the shogun’s demands, the last remaining Japanese traders in town packed up and left in 1673. Care of the bridge was passed into the hands of the Vietnamese and Chinese communities, who added on a small temple to the Vietnamese folk deity Tran Vo Bac De, the god of weather. Still, subsequent renovations remained faithful to the original Japanese design. In 1719 the visiting Nguyen lord renamed it Lai Vien Kieu, “Bridge for Travelers from Afar”, no doubt a tribute to the long-departed Japanese merchants.

Hoi An’s fortunes waned at the close of the 18th century with the rise of several large-scale peasant rebellions. The fatal blow came in 1835, when Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang issued an edict banning European vessels from landing anywhere on the coast except for Da Nang, just 24 kilometers (15 miles) to the northwest. Hoi An languished in Da Nang’s shadow, though its inexorable decline shielded the backwater from some of the horrors of the 20th century.

The American War (as the Vietnam War is known in these parts) did not bring about the kind of wholesale destruction wrought on the old imperial capital of Hue, which suffered artillery and napalm strikes amid weeks of heavy fighting during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Nor did the town share the same fate as the Cham archaeological site of My Son, about an hour’s drive to the west – its priceless temples carpet bombed to flush out Viet Cong soldiers hiding in the jungle. By contrast, Hoi An managed to escape the war entirely unscathed.

Revisiting the Japanese bridge, this time in the afternoon

Reflections of the past

An inscription that reads “Lai Vien Kieu” marks the entrance to the bridge’s temple

Offerings to the sacred dog and monkey guardian statues

Intricately carved beams at the Cantonese Assembly Hall

An altar to the Chinese historical general Quan Chong; a mosaic dragon in the courtyard

The inner gate to the Phuc Kien (Fujian) Assembly Hall

Its main hall, now a temple, dates from the mid-18th century

The sanctuary is dedicated to the sea goddess Thien Hau

Sleepy Hoi An was eventually inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999, and its resulting fame has brought about a surge in tourist numbers. Not that this is entirely a bad thing: the Hoi An of today is spruced up with coats of mustard-yellow paint, and its slew of guesthouses and hotels, shops and restaurants provide a livelihood for younger residents who might otherwise leave for better opportunities in nearby Da Nang.

My initial impression, arriving with Bama early in the afternoon, is that Hoi An resembles Luang Prabang on steroids. I say this because the Vietnamese, with their sharp business acumen, know how to cater to the throngs of foreign tourists who come. And just like Luang Prabang, Hoi An is understated in its charms. The town isn’t dominated by one particular, attention-grabbing landmark – no enormous Buddhist temple, no spire or stupa that defines the skyline, no sprawling imperial palace ringed by fortifications and a moat (as at Hue). Even the iconic Japanese covered bridge is comparatively small, appearing almost squat when viewed from a distance.

Lucky travelers who have visited Hoi An some 10 or even 15 years ago will likely bemoan its ongoing transformation. The booming tourism industry has seen former merchants’ houses converted into upscale restaurants and a profusion of tailoring stores, while the streets and shop fronts are festooned with colorful handmade lanterns all year round. Come nightfall, floating candles in delicate paper rafts are set adrift by old women and other enterprising locals on the Thu Bon River, as classical music drifts over from speakers affixed to the slender poles along the riverfront promenade. In its entirety, the scene is admittedly a bit contrived, but undeniably romantic. Business-minded townsfolk call out on the quayside and from their small wooden vessels: “You want bo rai [boat ride]? Bo rai?”

My favorite time to walk around Hoi An is in the early morning hours, when most visitors are in bed, the riverside market is in full swing, and the streets of the old town are not yet closed to traffic. Local residents can be seen going about their business: delivering fresh produce and other wares stacked on the backs of motorbikes, or stopping for tea and a banh mi breakfast on small plastic stools by the river, just around the corner from the Japanese bridge. These everyday scenes are a reminder that Hoi An is still a living, breathing Vietnamese town – and one that retains its weathered charm beneath a tourist-oriented veneer. 

Late afternoon on the riverfront promenade

Alfresco dining between bamboo and a banyan

This former merchant’s house now contains a Vietnamese restaurant named “Sakura”

Afloat on the placid Thu Bon River

Keeping an eye on the store

Breakfast near the Japanese bridge; looking down the Thu Bon

Hoi An’s busy riverfront at dusk

There isn’t a tall, dominant feature – no temple or pagoda – that marks the skyline

Window shopping on the old town’s main street

Quan Cong Temple, built in the 17th century

Romance after dark

34 Comments Post a comment
  1. The Japanese bridge was indeed the main reason, at least for me, to visit Hoi An. Regardless of its relatively modest size, it truly didn’t disappoint. What struck me the most about the city was its ability to embrace mass tourism without losing its old charm — not as easy as it sounds as some places in Asia demonstrate. I think cities like Jakarta and Semarang can learn a thing or two from Hoi An since both have been very keen on revitalizing their old quarters. After a busy day, your photos of those colors of Hoi An are truly a visual treat, James!

    June 7, 2017
    • Thank you, Bama! It’s great that Hoi An has managed to keep some of its original feel even with the all the tourists. Glad you were fine with going back to the Japanese bridge multiple times so we could get shots of it at different hours of the day. 😉

      June 8, 2017
  2. Wow, James! What beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing Hoi An. I look forward to experiencing it someday.

    June 8, 2017
    • You’re more than welcome, Kelly. It’s worth spending a few days there to wander the streets and try out the delicious local cuisine!

      June 8, 2017
  3. Wow! this is so beautiful 🙂
    I think night time environment with all lanterns lit up would be a treat to watch.

    June 8, 2017
    • It was very atmospheric after dark – but as you can see from the pictures, quite crowded nonetheless! Luckily for you, Singapore is just two and a half hours’ flying time from Da Nang (which has the nearest airport). 🙂

      June 8, 2017
  4. I appreciate, in particular, your closing thoughts here. It’s easy to feel disenchanted with towns like this that are innately charming, which leads to increased tourism, which leads to cynical grumbling about tourism’s pitfalls. I prefer an attitude like yours where you can see that under that kitschy veneer is a real, live, breathing town in which people live regular lives. All we have to do is look for it (and that’s the part the grumblers don’t do!). I really enjoyed this post, James, for that and all the wonderful history and photos as well!

    June 9, 2017
    • Thanks, Lex! Sometimes we can lose sight of the fact that these places became popular and well-touristed for good reason. I’ve learned that one way to pre-emptively stave off the grumbling (and the disappointment that precedes it) is to manage expectations before arrival.

      June 10, 2017
  5. Lovely post James, and beautiful photographs! Now I want to go back to Vietnam because we missed Hoi An. It sounds wonderful.
    Alison

    June 9, 2017
    • Well, Hoi An is so photogenic it’s hard not to take a good picture! I could see you and Don spending at least an hour wandering the central markets first thing in the morning… that was a riot of color and frenzied activity with all the shoppers and deliverymen coming in via motorbike!

      June 10, 2017
  6. James, i always captivated by your pictures. I think we share some same interests: streets, sidewalks, promenade, river in the middle of a city, old buildings (but I don’t shoot as detailed as Bama does, lol).
    You brought Hoi An’s serenity and beauty to me. Sitting for hours on the riverfront promenade would be a highlight for me…

    June 9, 2017
    • Makasih, Nugie. 🙂 It might be time to plan a trip there since Indonesians don’t need a visa to enter Vietnam! When it comes to architecture shots, Bama has a certain style and a great eye for detail. Speaking of the rivers in Vietnam, I genuinely feel that they are much cleaner than those in Indonesia. I didn’t see (or barely saw) any traces of rubbish in the Thu Bon and also in Hue’s Perfume River. The streets, on the other hand, are more or less the same!

      June 10, 2017
      • Yes. When i were in Saigon, i saw that Red River is clean. Lined with pedestrian and trees 🙂

        June 10, 2017
  7. Hi James, i like your picture, espesialy the night view and the romance think, its instagram able 🙂

    June 11, 2017
    • Hi Puput, thanks for the compliment! 🙂

      June 11, 2017
  8. S.Y #

    Nice pictures!

    June 11, 2017
  9. Interesting to read about the history here. Your photos bring back many good memories of my trip here. I especially loved the night time reflection in the river, and riding our bikes through the fields. Beautiful town 🙂

    June 11, 2017
    • Hoi An really does deserve its UNESCO World Heritage listing. I too loved how calm and placid the river was, no matter the time of day. How lucky you are to live in Japan, Celia – I was there last October (Osaka, Okayama and Kyoto) and would go back in a heartbeat!

      June 11, 2017
      • Thanks, James! It’s always great to hear when people loved their time here. I saw you visited Kurashiki in Okayama… I went in May and it’s now one of my favourite places in Japan. How beautiful is it, and surprisingly not that well known!

        June 11, 2017
  10. A beautiful post James. Tourism can be a double edged sword. It is good to be able to look beneath the downfalls and to the heart of the people and the history.

    June 13, 2017
    • Thank you, Sue. We did see some bad behavior from backpackers (one was passed out in the street outside the hotel) but luckily that seemed few and far between. Will you be stopping by Hoi An on your Southeast Asian bike trip next year?

      June 20, 2017
  11. “Luang Prabang on steroids.” Haha. After having just visited LP, that gives me a great idea of what Hoi An is like. Lovely photos and description. Hope I will get there.

    June 14, 2017
    • I was in Luang Prabang back in 2012, so I imagine it has gotten busier since then! Would love to return for a Lao cooking class and a visit to the Royal Palace (I didn’t get to go inside last time).

      June 20, 2017
  12. Wonderful account and photos James. Hoi An sounds like a place we would enjoy. Had no idea there was talk of dismantling that beautiful bridge. I better hurry myself:)

    June 14, 2017
    • I’m sure you would, Madhu – that combination of fabulous food and historic surroundings (not to mention the ruined Hindu temples of nearby My Son) would suit you and R perfectly! 🙂

      June 20, 2017
  13. I’m really glad I found your blog! Wonderful photos and writing. I’m looking forward to learning about places I know very little about. Thank you for sharing!

    June 20, 2017
    • You’re welcome, Erin – and thank you for the kind words!

      July 2, 2017
  14. Wow!!
    Beautiful pictures.

    July 2, 2017
    • Thanks for dropping by.

      July 2, 2017
      • Do check out posts on my blog and follow if you enjoy 🙂

        July 3, 2017
  15. Wonderful article! I really like it! I visited Hoi An when I was a child, and I can confirm you the town looks much better now. About 15 years ago, Hoi An was literally dead. The houses were decaying, the street was dirty and there were neither lanterns nor boats. Very few shops were opened and it was difficult to find a decent meal there. Normally, people made a day-trip to Hoi An from Da Nang. No one wanted to stay in a dying town. Tourism has successfully brought life back to Hoi An. But I hope they don’t make everything too commercial 🙂

    July 24, 2017
    • Thank you, Len! Bama has been telling me about your blog and the great photos you’ve taken around Europe. It is fascinating to hear about what Hoi An was like 15 years ago… your story reminds me of some old photos I saw from Macau in the 1970s, when the historic buildings were all decaying and there was hardly any tourism.

      July 30, 2017
      • I think tourism is like a double-edged sword. If you can manage it well, you can benefit from it, both economically and socially. Reversely, it can ruin an entire city.

        July 31, 2017

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