Hoi An

Hoi An's tranquil riverside setting, its diminutive scale, friendly people and its shops and galleries have made it one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam for tourists. There is much of historical interest in the town, plus a nearby beach and plenty of superb, inexpensive restaurants. That said, Hoi An's historic character is being slowly submerged by the rising tide of tourism. Although physically intact, virtually every one of its fine historic buildings either markets some aspect of its own heritage or touts in some other way for the tourist dollar; increasingly it is coming to resemble the 'Vietnam' pavilion in a Disney theme park. Nevertheless, visitors to Hoi An are charmed by the gentleness of the people and the sedate pace of life. A promenade has been built around the water's edge.

Most of Hoi An's more attractive buildings and assembly halls (
hoi quan
) are found either on, or just off, Tran Phu Street, which stretches west to east from the Japanese Covered Bridge to the market, running parallel to the river.

Hoi An is divided into five quarters, or 'bangs', each of which would traditionally have had its own pagoda and supported one Chinese clan group. The Chinese, along with some Japanese, settled here in the 16th century and controlled trade between the islands of Southeast Asia, East Asia (China and Japan) and India. Portuguese and Dutch vessels also docked at the port. Chinese vessels tended to visit Hoi An during the spring, returning to China in the summer. By the end of the 19th century the Thu Bon River had started to silt up and Hoi An was gradually eclipsed by Danang as the most important port of the area.

Japanese Covered Bridge (Cau Nhat Ban)

The Japanese Covered Bridge - also known as the Pagoda Bridge and the Faraway People's Bridge - is Hoi An's most famous landmark and was built in the 16th century. Its popular name reflects a long-standing belief that it was built by the Japanese, although no documentary evidence exists to support this. One of its other names, the Faraway People's Bridge, is said to have been coined because vessels from far away would moor close to the bridge. On its north side there is a pagoda, Japanese in style, for the protection of sailors, while at each end of the bridge are statues of two dogs (at the west end) and two monkeys (at the east end). It is said that the bridge was begun in the year of the monkey and finished in the year of the dog, although some scholars have pointed out that this would mean a two-year period of construction, an inordinately long time for such a small bridge. They maintain, instead, that the two animals represent points of the compass, WSW (monkey) and NW (dog). Father Benigne Vachet, a missionary who lived in Hoi An between 1673 and 1683, notes in his memoirs that the bridge was the haunt of beggars and fortune tellers hoping to benefit from the stream of people crossing over it.

Bach Dang Street and the French quarter

Just south of the Covered Bridge is Bach Dang Street, which runs along the bank of the Thu Bon River, where there are boats, activity and often a cooling breeze, before looping round to the Hoi An Market. Further on, the small but interesting French quarter around Phan Boi Chau Street is worth taking time over; it's not on the regular 'tourist circuit' and requires no entry fee but the colonnaded fronts here are particularly attractive. As in all historical quarters of Vietnamese towns, visitors should raise their gaze above street level to appreciate the architectural detail of upper floors, which is more likely to have survived, and less likely to be covered up.

Assembly Halls (Hoi Quan)

Chinese traders in Hoi An (like elsewhere in Southeast Asia) established self-governing dialect associations or clan houses that owned their own schools, cemeteries, hospitals and temples. The clan houses (
hoi quan
) may be dedicated to a god or an individual and may contain a temple, although they are not themselves temples. There are five
hoi quan
in Hoi An, four for use by people of specific ethnicities - Fukien, Cantonese, Hainan, Chaozhou - and the fifth for use by any visiting Chinese sailors or merchants.

Strolling east from the Covered Bridge down Tran Phu Street all the assembly halls can be seen. Merchants from Guangdong would meet at the
Quang Dong Hoi Quan
(Cantonese Assembly Hall). This assembly hall is dedicated to Quan Cong, a Han Chinese general and dates from 1786. The hall, with its fine embroidered hangings, is in a cool, tree-filled compound and is a good place to rest.

Next is the
All Chinese Assembly Hall
(Ngu Bang Hoi Quan) sometimes referred to as
Chua Ba
(Goddess Temple). Unusually for an assembly hall, it was a mutual aid society open to any Chinese trader or seaman, regardless of dialect or region of origin. The assembly hall would help shipwrecked or ill sailors and also performed the burial rites of merchants with no relatives in Hoi An. Built in 1773 as a meeting place for all five groups (the four listed above plus Hakka) and also for those with no clan house of their own, today it accommodates a Chinese School, Truong Le Nghia, where children of the diaspora learn the language of their forebears.

Phuc Kien Hoi Quan
(Fukien Assembly Hall) was founded around 1690 and served Hoi An's largest Chinese ethnic group, those from Fukien. It is an intimate building within a large compound and is dedicated to Thien Hau, goddess of the sea and protector of sailors. She is the central figure on the main altar, clothed in gilded robes, who, together with her assistants, can hear the cries of distress of drowning sailors. Immediately on the right on entering the temple is a mural depicting Thien Hau rescuing a sinking vessel. Behind the main altar is a second sanctuary housing the image of Van Thien whose blessings pregnant women invoke on the lives of their unborn children.

Further east, the
Hai Nam Hoi Quan
(Hainan Assembly Hall) has a more colourful history. It was founded in 1883 in memory of more than 100 sailors and passengers who were killed when three ships were plundered by an admiral in Emperor Tu Duc's navy. In his defence the admiral claimed that the victims were pirates; some sources maintain he even had the ships painted black to strengthen his case.

Exquisite wood carving is the highlight of the
Trieu Chau
Assembly Hall
. The altar and its panels depict images from the sea and women from the Beijing court, which were presumably intended to console homesick traders.

Merchants' houses and temples

Tan Ky House
 dates from the late 18th century. The Tan Ky family had orig- inally arrived in Hoi An from China 200 years earlier and the house reflects not only the prosperity the family had acquired in the intervening years but also the archit- ecture of their Japanese and Vietnamese neighbours, whose styles had presumably influenced the aesthetic taste and app- reciation of the younger family members.

At the junction of Le Loi and Phan Chu Trinh streets, the
Tran Family Temple
 has survived for 15 generations (although the current gen- eration has no son, which means the lineage has been broken). The building exemplifies Hoi An's construction methods and the harmonious fusion of Chinese and Japanese styles. It is roofed with heavy yin and yang tiling, which requires strong roof beams; these are held up by a triple- beamed support in the Japanese style (also seen on the roof of the covered bridge). Some beams have Chinese-inspired orn- ately carved dragons. The outer doors are Japanese, the inner are Chinese. On a central altar rest small wooden boxes containing the photograph or likeness of the deceased together with biographical details. Beyond, at the back of the house, is a raised Chinese herb, spice and flower garden. As at all Hoi An's family houses, guests are received warmly and served lotus tea and dried coconut.

Diep Dong Nguyen House
 with two Chinese lanterns hanging outside, was once a Chinese dispensary. The owner is friendly, hospitable and not commercially minded. He takes visitors into his house and shows them everything with pride and smiles.

Just west of the Japanese Bridge is
Phung Hung House. Built over 200 years ago it has been in the same family for eight generations. The house, which can be visited, is constructed of 80 columns of ironwood on marble pedestals. During the floods of 1964, Phung Hung House became home to 160 locals who camped upstairs for three days as the water rose to a height of 2.5 m.

Ong Hoi An Pagoda and around

At the east end of Tran Phu Street, at No 24, close to the intersection with Nguyen Hue Street, is the
Ong Hoi An Pagoda
. This temple is in fact two interlinked pagodas built back-to-back: Chua Quan Cong, and behind that Chua Quan Am. Their date of construction is not known, although both certainly existed in 1653. In 1824 Emperor Minh Mang made a donation of 300 luong (1 luong being equivalent to 1½ oz of silver) for the support of the pagodas. They are dedicated to Quan Cong and Quan Am respectively.

Virtually opposite the Ong Hoi An Pagoda is
Hoi An Market
(Cho Hoi An). The market extends down to the river and then along the river road (Bach Dang Street). At the Tran Phu Street end it is a covered market selling mostly dry goods. Numerous cloth merchants and seamstresses will produce made-to-measure shirts in a few hours but not all to the same standard. On the riverside is the local
fish market
, which comes alive at 0500-0600 as boats arrive with the night's catch.

Cua Dai Beach

A white sand beach with a few areas of shelter, Cua Dai Beach is a pleasant 20-minute bicycle ride or one-hour walk from Hoi An. Head east down Tran Hung Dao Street or, for a quieter route, set off down Nguyen Duy Hieu Street, which peters out into a walking and cycling path. This is a lovely route past paddy fields and ponds; nothing is signed but those with a good sense of direction will make their way back to the main road a kilometre or so before Cua Dai and those with a poor sense of direction can come to no harm. Behind the beach are a handful of hotels where food and refreshments can be bought.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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