Photo: Evening in Hoi An's old town.

Introduction

Yellow houses draped in bougainvillea, shopfronts lit with a glow of silk lanterns, fisherpeople hauling up baskets of slippery fish from their boats -- life in old town Hoi An looks like a postcard of a classic Vietnamese riverside town. In 1999, the old town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in an effort to preserve its core of historic architecture, a stunning mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and European styles. The listing gave Hoi An the resources and impetus to better protect and maintain its buildings, and to market itself as a tourist destination. It worked, and the town now attracts visitors by the droves.


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The tourist trade is now Hoi An's bread and butter, and just about every business in town is geared to it. Restaurants offer menus of local specialties and American breakfasts, tailors offer suits made in less than 24 hours. It can easily feel like one giant showcase with little in the way of an independent life of its own. Yes, it's a big tourist trap, but even so -- it shouldn't be missed. Most people who visit are charmed, and even cynics will likely seek an excuse to justify liking it.

Historians believe that Hoi An was founded more than 2,000 years ago as a primitive port for the Sa Huynh people, thanks to evidence from archaeological excavations that have also pointed towards early trade with the Han dynasty in China. Through to the 15th century, the port was absorbed into the kingdom of Champa and was known first as Lam Ap and later as Faifo. During this period, it developed into a prosperous trading port visited by trading fleets from as far afield as the Arabian peninsula. As a hub of regional trade, Hoi An brought considerable affluence to the Champa kingdom, evidence of which can be seen at nearby My Son.

The number of traders visiting Hoi An escalated as the centuries marched on, with the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French all making an appearance, along with the ever-present Chinese, Japanese and Indians. The majority of Hoi An's most beautiful buildings were constructed from the 15th to 19th centuries.

Hoi An's star began to fade as trade slowly moved north to the larger and more industrial port of Da Nang. Today, little trade occurs aside from tourist boats, and only small-scale fishing boats use the port commercially. The foreign visitors are no longer traders, but tourists. Many visitors pass through quickly, catching a glimpse of the colourful atmosphere, and perhaps having a rush order put through on a suit or a dress. However, those willing to stick around a little longer will be rewarded. The town hosts a dozen or so engaging historical attractions, and the area offers beaches and ruins worth some daytrips. And most importantly, those who linger in town will get to see the real life lurking behind Hoi An's fading facade.


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