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
Read 4 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (12)
- All stories
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (7)
- Cambodia (22)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (13)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (16)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Malaysia (7)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (72)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (31)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (20)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (15)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (16)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.