The lazy traveller's guide to Hoi An


Hoi An is a Vietnamese town on the Unesco World Heritage list. Unlike Penang though, one can afford to be relaxed and lazy when visiting it. In fact, this is a place where one can afford to do absolutely nothing.

Slices of local Hoi An are only an alleyway away from the main tourist strips.

Stepping into the cool of an empty art gallery on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street one afternoon, I found myself intruding on a mother and her daughter napping in the middle doorway. Embarrassed, they quickly got up and showed me the empty dining area adjoining their gallery, which opened onto the Thu Bon River. Despite the many foreigners passing by outside at the rate of one-per-five-seconds, the café felt like my very own private retreat as I drank my ice-cold Saigon Beer and kicked back, letting the sun dry my rain-soaked sandals. I reflected that Hoi An is a sweet little town where one can afford to do nothing, lulled by the yellow-hued shophouses and the endless calls of “Hello! You buy?” from shopkeepers along the narrow tailor-lined streets.

In its heyday (late 16th to early 18th century), Hoi An was one of the busiest commercial ports in South-East Asia which saw traders coming from as far afield as China and Japan. The architectural influence of these cultures can still be seen today in the Hoi An shophouse. However, the “closed trade policy” instated by the Nguyen Dynasty kings in the 19th century was the death knell for Hoi An as a main port for the region, a situation further exacerbated by the rise of Danang Port and the siltation of the Thu Bon River.

Cao Lau, a traditional rice noodle served with lots of fresh aromatic herbs and lettuce, topped with either meat, seafood or more vegetables.

Even though the old town was deemed by the Vietnamese government as a National Vestige in 1985, it was a Polish architect, Kazimierz Kwaitkowsky, who recognised the historical significance of Hoi An and who was largely credited with bringing the world’s attention to this sleepy town. About 300m away from the Japanese bridge on Tran Phu Street is a commemorative relief erected in 2005 to honour “Kazik”, as he was affectionately known to the locals, who had been researching the ruins of the Champa Kingdom in nearby My Son. A chance visit to the old town apparently compelled him to help nominate Hoi An to Unesco as a World Heritage Site.

The Hoi An of today is where tourists cycle lazily on the streets, attempting to blend in with the locals. Motorbikes and bicycles are main modes of transport, all zipping around and honking at each other, harmoniously sharing the road with larger vehicles. Hoi An is considerably relaxed and safe compared to larger Vietnamese cities. This traveller, who did no planning prior to the trip, wandered in the old town along the main streets of Tran Phu, Le Loi, Nguyen Thai Hoc and the riverside Bach Dang Street, where an old dock services the residents of nearby Cam Kim Island, bringing them and their motorcycles to Hoi An market and the mainland beyond.

The old quarter of Hoi An is dominated by traditional “ying yang” tiles measuring 19cm x 19cm, which are joined with a mixture of lime “Adao” (a special glue made of buffalo skin) that serves as waterproof coating and prevents the colour from fading out. The tiles are arranged into concave (ying) and convex (yang) rows respectively from ridges to eaves which bend downward, making drainage easier.

When in Hoi An, the best form of exercise for the lazy traveller is to shop. I was seduced by hand-painted drawings on silk twill pieces at Papillon Noir, a gorgeous boutique on Tran Phu Street spawned by a sibling from the Yaly clothing empire. I also asked local friends if I could make a traditional aodai, the elegant traditional costume of the Vietnamese.

Luckily for me, I was introduced to Madam Huang, a Chinese-Vietnamese who could speak Mandarin – an added boon to be able to communicate freely! The next morning, amidst pouring rain, leaking umbrellas and flooded streets, I sloshed excitedly to the tailor’s and we headed to the cloth market to select a fabric. Picking a white material printed with orange leaves and paired with yellow sateen fabric for the pants, I had my measurements taken in her tiny shop and we talked about changes in Hoi An.

“I am one of the few aodai tailors left in town, and even the more commercial tailor stores outsource their business to me. I really enjoy making aodais, even after 40 years in business, and I like it that I’m financially independent,” said Huang with a smile. When asked how she retained her cultural identity and her mother tongue, she replied, “My father was a headmaster in a Chinese school, pre-revolution, and we were educated in Chinese schools. However, after 1975, the anti-Chinese sentiment saw the shuttering of many such schools. Now there are no Chinese schools in Hoi An.”

Madam Huang.

Still in my lazy traveller’s mode, I chose not to venture out to either Cua Dai beach or take a day trip to the My Son ruins, and contented myself with sitting by the river banks chatting with my friend Thuy Vy about her grandmother’s industriousness during the war years in Vietnam. The many cafés and bars along the main streets also meant that it was easy to find refreshments and food in the old town. In fact, Hoi An is a small town and the range of activities is limited to shopping and enjoying tasty local fare such as Cau Lau noodles and White Rose dumplings.

Tourists to Hoi An will do well to buy a three-day pass worth VND120,000 from the tourism booths which will allow access to any five sites in the old quarter; this includes a number of clan-based assembly halls, museums and some private residences of merchant families that have been converted into interpretation centres. While the museums leave much to be desired, with scant English captions on dusty exhibits, the architecture buff can have a ball of time identifying the different eras during which the shophouses were built, based on the materials used and certain aesthetic influences which give a nod to Hoi An’s past as a confluence of cultures.

When I left Hoi An for Danang, large swathes of luxury leisure developments and golf courses along the coastline became obvious, boasting modernist architecture that stood out like sore thumbs. It felt almost surreal that these multimillion developments were so close to so much history merely 30 minutes away. Yet it gave me a sense of relief that Hoi An has largely escaped the infiltration of big businesses because of its protected status as a historic city. This lazy traveller now knows that, in this corner of the world, escape from time and worldly pressures can still be had.

Veronica Liew is a communications consultant based in Kuala Lumpur (and occasionally Penang). A hobbyist photographer, freelance writer and bona fide Facebook addict, her favourite things to do while travelling are car-spotting, sitting beside large bodies of water and eating.

Related Articles

Jan 2015

An art exchange on Penang’s walls and streets

Penang's art galleries are spilling out onto its streets as its first international street art festival, Urban Xchange, defies tradition.

Sep 2011

No two ways about Integrity

Tunku Abdul Aziz on integrity and transparency in public service. 

Jul 2013

Abenomics – the latest Japanese export

Can Japan’s new economic reform help solve its macroeconomic problems?

Sep 2016

Artisanal, Natural and Organic

The healthy food movement gains traction in Penang.