Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Hoi An (Hội An) in 1991 was one of the highlights of my Vietnamese sojourn. In the intervening years, it has become a must-see destination on the backpacker trail. I had heard of its development into a tourist locale, and was curious to see how much of its historical charm had been lost. It took me five minutes to hate the place. With store owners and street vendors harassing pedestrians every ten feet, I felt like a walking wallet. The broken English everywhere – "Hello, you buy my shop" – added to my feeling of estrangement. I was no longer an expat with decent language skills living in and partaking of Vietnam; I was an outsider, shoved to the other side of the fence from an area I'd grown accustomed to playing in. Sure, sure, the town is beautiful. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason. As a major Southeast Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries, Hoi An's architecture reflects layers of multicultural influences. Its wooden shops and rolling alleys, along with architectural gems like the 17th century Japanese covered bridge all make the town worth a stop. Women in conical hats ply the Thu Bon River (Song Thu Bon) in narrow wooden boats and I'll be damned if it isn't picturesque. Truth be told, I made my peace with Hoi An once the initial shock had worn off. As tourist locales go, the town is better than most. The cyclo drivers are mostly courteous, and the initially aggressive store owners actually take "no" for an answer. Once I settled into the place, I thoroughly enjoyed my overpriced-but-delicious coffee and croissants at the neat riverside restaurant with the English-speaking staff and tasteful decor. Hoi An's beach deserves special mention. It is quite simply one of the best beaches I've been to, with clean sands, perfectly warm water, few tourists, and oceanview restaurants serving astounding seafood at reasonable prices. If you did nothing more than enjoy a beach holiday in Hoi An, it would be all right. But I now begin to understand the negative reports I've heard from travellers passing through Vietnam. For the average vacationer who follows the tourist trail from Hanoi to Saigon, hitting Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay, and Sapa, Vietnam must seem an endless barrage of street touts and price-gougers. The open frankness I enjoy in the Vietnamese character, when applied to tourists, becomes a direct assault on your wallet. It could wear anyone down. Just remember that basing your opinion of Vietnam on places like Hoi An leaves you with a warped picture of what the country is about. These places are worth visiting to be sure; they're tourist locales for a reason. The thing to do is go in, take your pictures, and leave. And then rent a bike, go out and explore the country.