Photo: Evening in Hoi An's old town.

Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon

Hoi An on Vietnam's central coast is a town that time forgot, writes John Rowell.

We're halfway over Hoi An's famous covered Chua Cau bridge before we realise that we are treading carefully. Legend has it that an underground dragon stretching from India to Japan caused earthquakes by lashing out when in a really bad mood.

The Japanese solved the problem in the 16th century. Easy- kill the dragon by building a bridge in Hoi An, thereby stabbing it in the heart. "It's all right," our friend Huy smiles, "it's been dead for a long time." We still tread carefully just in case.

Even though the red paint on the entrances is faded to a dusty pink, the timber structure is beautiful under the roof's elegant ceramic tiles, and a small shrine on the far side invites incense offerings to appease the monster lurking below.

The bridge is just one of the many delights in this ancient seaport town, a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its great historic value.

Hoi An is locked in a time warp, and parts are much the same as they were well over a century ago when it was one of South-East Asia's most thriving international ports. The Chinese were the first to settle here, but Hoi An absorbed communities from Japan, Holland and Portugal in its heyday.

It is so compact that you can explore it easily. As we stroll around the town centre the first thing that stands out is the variation in building design, popularly known as the "Hoi An style".

European buildings jostle Chinese temples and stone blends in with aged timber. In Phan Boi Chau Street elegant colonnaded architecture with shuttered windows takes us straight back to Colonial France.

The Chinese temples- called Assembly Halls in this socialist republic- are vibrant with their red and gold ornamentation, flowers and large hanging incense spirals with fragrant smoke drifting upwards to heaven.

But Hoi An is also a bustling market centre with handicrafts like the famous silk lanterns that glow like gems when lit, good wood-carving and the inevitable fake antiques.

Tailoring is famous here, and in shops along Nguyen Thai Hoc Street we see small children darting around small tables fitted with sewing machines while clothing proprietors take time off from their noodle lunches in a bid for custom.

You need to check quality in the finished product and bargaining is essential. We are told that both Yaly Couture in Nguyen Thai Hoc Street and Mrs Thuy around the corner in Le Loi Street are good bets.

As a contrast to haute couture, experiencing Hoi An's Central Market is a must. We grumble a bit one morning at Huy's insistence at a dawn start but are bowled over- almost literally- at the frantic activity of the market. Early mornings are given over entirely to fish and the pace is hectic as boats moor at the dock to disgorge their catches.

Savvy vendors and housewives elbow each other out of the way to get the freshest buys and laden trolleys flash by to stock the stalls waiting inside the covered market.

A fishing industry has always been part of this town on the Thu Bon River, which once attracted large merchantmen centuries ago as a major port, but the river silted up over time and the trade shifted to nearby Da Nang while Hoi An became a backwater.

When we go back later in the day, the market has undergone a personality change and now is groaning under the weight of tonnes of fruit and vegetables- the fish have completely disappeared.

Later that night we relax on the riverside in Bach Dang Street, taking in the lights reflected on the river's surface. We are in Pha Caffe 99, named after its street number. "Seafood is Hoi An's specialty," Huy advises. "You must try it." We do, and it is delicious.

In the culinary stakes, Hoi An has its own distinct character. One family alone holds the recipes to two delicacies- White Rose, a delicate shrimp and pork dumpling shaped exactly like a rose and Fried Wonton, a flat triangular wonton served with a salsa- both equally delectable.

We know if we can tear ourselves away from the magnetic attraction of the town there are other places to experience. Only a few kilometres away Hoi An's lovely Cua Dai Beach beckons with clear water, while 60 kilometres west lies My Son, site of the ancient Cham empire.

There is almost nothing to mar this quaint time capsule. Increasing tourist numbers are putting a strain on local infrastructure, but town authorities are contending with other, unwanted visitors- termites which are attacking old timber already softened by time and periodic flooding. We hope the authorities win.

John Rowell is an Australian freelance travel writer who has had a love affair with Asian culture for many years. Particular interests include the history, culture and cuisine of the countries he visits. You can read more of his travel writing here.

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Last updated on 21st May, 2015.

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