One of Vietnam's most enigmatic historic sites, Hoi An is a charming confluence of foreign elements and still mirrors the country's bygone era of maritime importance. TNA visits the UNESCO Heritage site in the winter of 2023 to file this destination story.
Vietnam may be an ancient state that dates back over a thousand years but not too many places today bear witness to its passage of time. Next to Hue and Hanoi, Hoi An is Vietnam's last remaining vestige to its long and meandering past, an intriguing confluence of Chinese temples, colonial buildings and even a covered Japanese bridge that remains home to some 120,000 inhabitants today. Every aspect of life in Hoi An in the present age remains rooted to a heritage that stretched from the 15th century, a glorious epoch where the coastal town was etched in history as one of the top trading posts of the South China Sea with maritime trade links to China, Japan, India, Europe and even Egypt. Like all historical entities, its fortunes rose and ebbed and after centuries of prominence it was virtually forgotten for 200 years until conservation efforts began in earnest in the 1990s. When a historic enclave is earmarked for tourism, its impending fortunes and misfortunes often hang in delicate balance, with the latter exacting a more severe toll with devastating consequences to both the site and its inhabitants. From the observation of this writer over multiple visits spanning a decade, Hoi An's future as a tourist-encroached destination seems more bleak than bright at present.
In the early years of the last decade, Hoi An was still a wondrously quaint destination with a myriad of inviting attractions ranging from historic ancestral halls, medieval townhouses, intriguing museums, archaic markets, expedient tailors, vibrant restaurants and tempting street hawkers. At the steps of the town were large tracts of verdant rice fields where farmers still tend to the soil with buffaloes. From these glorious pastoral scenes one can cycle in and out of the city with ease and proceed to other scenic spots like the nearby rivers and beaches.
While the geology of the area hasn't really changed, commercial developments have rendered the region largely unrecognisable. Casinos, resorts and hotels have been sprouting ceaselessly over the coasts that flank Hoi An, and from a simple surveyance on the numerous construction sites one sees along the ride towards Hoi An, it is clear that such wanton developments are far from receding.
In the distant past when one enters Hoi An, the air is palpably clearer. The mood is light and visitors can stroll along its streets and explore the unique sights and attractions with ease. Today Hoi An's entrance is jammed and rowdy, with buses and vans all jostling for a spot to pick up and drop off passengers. Whereas there was no traffic in Hoi An a decade ago, today its streets are continuously and hazardously clogged with cascades of rickshaws ferrying Korean and Chinese tourists on their sightseeing rounds. For better or worse, such a sight is currently more prominent than any building or natural scene in Hoi An.
Beside hotels, an avalanche of shops and restaurants have also descended upon Hoi An, which isn't necessarily a bad thing where choice is concerned, but that also spells competition for the locals and their businesses, which is exacerbated by the fact that even while visitorship to Hoi An has bounced back post-COVID, not many tourists are patronising these establishments, especially when most seem to be serving the same food and selling the same goods. Also there aren't many establishments in the town large enough to cater to mass groups. Thus when tourism isn't quite beneficial to the local economy, the forecast for local run businesses is presently foreboding to say the least.
All is however not lost if regulations can quickly be set in place to control and enhance the situation in Hoi An. From a secret gem of Vietnam it has unfortunately morphed into a monstrously mismanaged holiday joint where it is painfully clear that mass tourism is exacting a heavy toll. Hoi An as a living portal to Vietnam's glorious maritime past with a wealth of cultural and historical heritage needs to be conserved and properly managed for the future to prevent its descend into contrived nothingness brought about by regulatory inertia and insidious capitalism.
Text and visuals by CT