Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
First published 3rd August, 2007
An oddity of Hoi An is the bizarre ticket system where, in order to see all the museums, old houses, assembly halls and so on you have to buy three tickets. This leaves people in a fix -- should they splash out on the tickets or just take pot luck and see what they score. We decided to save you the trouble, buy the three tickets for you, see it all for you and let you know what is worth seeing and what isn't. Guess what? You won't be needing more than one ticket -- read on to find out why.
Hoi An remains a kind of 'living time-capsule' of Vietnamese culture, thanks to two factors. One, its success as a trading port for several centuries. Two, ironically, its failure to thrive after Da Nang to the north drew business away over the past couple hundred years.
The old structures here, rather than being levelled to make room for new development, remained mouldering and forgotten throughout the 20th century, while the country was busy doing ... other things. During which time, Hoi An enjoyed the good fortune of not being blown to smithereens. As a result, centuries of history remain remarkably intact. A good deal of money and effort has been put into restoring its original character, and strict measures remain in place to maintain it as a tourist attraction.
One of these measures is the complicated and slightly kooky 'ticket' system that has been put into place for visitors. One ticket costs 75,000 dong, and allows access to:
a) All the old streets of the Heritage Town
b) One of the four museums
c) One of the four 'old houses'
d) One of the three 'assembly halls'
e) The handicraft workshop and traditional music concert, and
f) Either the Japanese Bridge or the Quan Cong Temple.
If you wanted to see everything, you'd have to buy four tickets and it would take about three days. We know -- that's what we did. We found, for the culturally inclined, there's an embarrassment of riches on offer in Hoi An. Some of which are, sadly, not so much riches but just plain embarrassing.
So, we thought we'd give you the low down the hits and the misses on the Hoi An Culture tour.
None of Hoi An's museums are real stand-outs. It's hard to say which is the top pick -- a lot depends on your taste.
The Museum of History and Culture of Hoi An is a real low point. There's an old canon, some canon balls, and a piece of rotten wood that used to be the stern of a trading vessel. There are several, two-thousand year old pots from the Sa Huynh period, but if that tickles your fancy, the Sa Huynh Culture Museum is a better bet. There's also a case full of 9th century bricks and tiles from the Champa period that reminded us of a display at a hardware store. There are some black and white photos of Hoi An taken in the early 20th century that are fun to compare with the streets as they are today. It's actually attached to the Quan Cong Temple, which is also a low-point, but you can sneak in and visit without getting the 'museum' portion of your ticket punched.
The purpose of the dusty, poorly-lit Museum of Trade Ceramics is twofold. First, to show that Vietnamese ceramics made their way everywhere from Egypt to Japan, as proven by archaeological digs on several continents. Second, to show that ceramics from China and Japan have also turned up in archaeological digs in Vietnam. It's of historical interest since it provides a chronicle of the trade routes that have developed in the region since the 1300's.
But, what one finds on display are, for the most part, shards. Broken pieces of relatively old flatware and pottery. Helpful legends in English, French and Vietnamese reveal where the shards were found and what period they date from. A few more recent pieces are largely intact -- they look very much like the blue-and-white china patterns you see duplicated everywhere, but these are the originals.
A good stop for archaeologists, historians, and people who just go nuts over anything people used to eat off of 500 years ago.
The Museum of Sa Huynh Culture and the Museum of the Revolution packs a one-two punch -- an odd juxtaposition of the oldest and newest points on the Vietnamese time-line. The Sa Huynh culture displays focus mostly on pottery that dates back to the first and second centuries -- impressively old, and many pieces have been reassembled and tastefully displayed. There are also some burial urns that are small enough to fuel speculation that the Sa Huynh were very teeny, tiny people. It's a well-lit, well-maintained, and popular stop, just a stone's throw from the Japanese Bridge. And if the old pots don't do it for you, there's the Museum of the Revolution upstairs. The first room is pretty boring and inconsequential -- some old war currency, a lot of pictures of war heroes, with few legends in English. But to the back there some armaments from 'the war with America' on display -- grenade launchers, machine guns, AK 47s, a Colt 45 used by a Vietnamese officer. Even one of the notorious 'claymore' mines with the words This Side Forward written on it. The Vietnamese got hip to this and used to turn the mines around when the Americans weren't looking. The Sa Huynh/Revolution combo makes this a good choice for a group, perhaps -- a bit of something for everybody.
The Museum of Folk Culture is notable for its eerie-looking plaster statues of Vietnamese peasants in various kinds of traditional garb, engaging in various peasantly undertakings. The point here is to document the physical culture of the people -- wooden threshers, shovels, ploughs, etc. Of course, it all comes off a bit kitschy. But there is a good deal here to see, and if you're more interested in folk history than war history (or the history of broken pots), it's the best choice. If nothing else, the statues are sort of a hoot. Though, some of them may return to haunt you in the dark of night.
The 'old houses' were built by wealthy merchants a few hundred years ago, and used to double as store-fronts. Their descendents still live there, but they've opened their doors to tourists (and, of course, tourist dollars). Unlike the museums, there is a 'hands down' winner in this category -- Tan Ky House. It's 200-years old, well-kept, and while, at the end of the day, it's just an old house, we received an excellent tour here. Our hostess spoke French and English, and she gave a very informative rap about the architectural styles incorporated into the design, the history of the family, and how they handle the frequent floods that inundate the first floor. Back in the kitchen are markers showing years when the water was particularly high -- at one point it almost reached the second floor. It was just what we were looking for in an 'old house visit.'
This was especially evident after visiting Phung Hung House, where the emphasis is not on giving a tour, but keeping the merchant tradition alive. The first floor is a gift shop, and there's a group of women at work embroidering table-cloths and handkerchiefs for sale. It's a good place to visit, and the embroidery is quite fetching, so it's not a bad choice for your 'second ticket,' if you buy one.
The Tran Family Chapel is well-off the river, and on our visit, only a Vietnamese-speaking guide was available. After visiting Tan Ky House, it was pretty lacklustre.
Quan Thang House doesn't even seem to be trying. They punched our ticket, gave us some tea, pointed at some pictures, and that was that.
These places exist because merchants from various regions needed a place to hang out and do business. And because they were raking in the dough, they thought, "What the heck, let's go all out and spruce the place up nice."
They all have a similar structure -- an ornate gate at the entrance, colourful plaster bas-reliefs on each side, a central courtyard with meeting rooms on the right and left, and a temple or shrine area at the back. Fountains featuring dragons made from mosaic tile-work seem to be a standard feature. Our top choice would be the Phuc Kien (Fujian) Assembly Hall. It's the biggest and most impressive and it has the most dragons. The Quang Dong (Cantonese) Assembly Hall is smaller, but in many ways similar -- almost a toss up. It has bigger dragons out back. As for the Trieu Chau (Chaozhou) Assembly Hall -- hardly any dragons at all, and not well-kept. It does have a large display case packed with gilded wooden statuettes, which was unique for the genre.
The Heritage Town, The Japanese Bridge, and Quan Cong Temple
You don't actually need a ticket to visit the Heritage Town. Everything down by the river, from the Japanese Bridge to the market is the 'Heritage Town,' and you can just walk around freely. And you don't need a ticket to visit the Japanese Bridge. The ticket will get you into the small, unimpressive temple adjoining the bridge -- on our visit, they just checked it without punching it so we could still get into the Quang Cong Temple. Thought we wish we hadn't bothered. It looks much like the three assembly halls, only it's not as impressive, and its attached to the Museum of History and Culture of Hoi An (see above, a real low-point).
The Handicrafts Workshop and Traditional Music Concert
This place is set in a two-hundred year old building, the interior of which is mostly a souvenir shop, but, on any given day you're likely to see actual artisans at work, and the goods on offer are, in fact, made by them. The quality is generally quite high. You'll find pieces here that aren't available elsewhere in town, and we found the prices -- even before bargaining--were not outrageous by Western standards. There's a lot of intricate work in metal, porcelain, and soap stone, as well as some larger, terra cotta pots and sculptures (if you've got room for those in your bag.) There's a 'silverware' shop at the back, by which they mean jewellery, not cutlery -- some finely wrought pieces, with semi-precious stones, jade, along with some very silly-looking dolls. A good stop if you've got a lot of shopping on your to-do list and you're looking for unique gifts. We also found the sales staff here to be an amiable lot with a light touch when it came to the 'hard sell.'
There are traditional music performances here at 10:15 and 15:15 daily, which are pretty much what you'd expect, but very much worth a listen. Plan your trip here around one of the performance times, and allow plenty of time to hang out and haggle.
So, our top itinerary for the ticket tour -- Tan Ky House, Fujian Assembly Hall, pick a museum, take a look at the Japanese Bridge, and show up at the handicraft shop for one of the music performances, followed by a bit of browsing or buying.
Or, you could just sit in a restaurant along the Cua Dai and watch the boats float by. The culture tour isn't for everybody.
Story by Don Morgan
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