Photo: Evening in Hoi An's old town.

The Hoi An culture tour

One ticket costs 120,000 VND, and allows access to five of the 21 attractions which include: a) Three communal houses; b) Four museums; c) Five old houses; d) Three assembly halls; e) The handicraft workshop and traditional music concert; and f) Either the Japanese Bridge or the Quan Cong Temple.

Photo of The Hoi An culture tour

You can hire a guide at the ticket office for 70,000 VND, which is certainly worthwhile if you want a better understanding of the places you choose to see. During the evening of the full moon festivities, you can visit most of the above without buying a ticket. 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, that 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, here's the lowdown on the hits and 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 low point. There's an old cannon, some cannon balls and a piece of rotten wood that used to be the stern of a trading vessel. There are several 2,000 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 ninth century bricks and tiles from the Champa period that reminded us of a display at a hardware store. Some black and white photos of Hoi An taken in the early 20th century are fun to compare with the streets as they are today. It's actually attached to the Quan Cong Temple, another lowlight, 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, it's 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 1300s. What one finds on display are, however, for the most part shards. 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. So this is a great stop for archaeologists, historians, and people who go nuts over anything people used to eat off 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 timeline. The Sa Huynh culture displays focus mostly on pottery that dates back to 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, the Museum of the Revolution is 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 some armaments from “the war with America” are on display: grenade launchers, machine guns, AK 47s, a Colt 45 used by a Vietnamese officer, and even one of the notorious Claymore mines with the words, “This Side Forward” written on it.

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 peasantry undertakings. The point here is to document the physical culture of the people — wooden threshers, shovels, ploughs and so on. 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.

Old Houses
These houses were built by wealthy merchants a few hundred years ago, and used to double as shopfronts. The merchants' descendants still live there, but they've opened the 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 tablecloths and handkerchiefs for sale. It's still a good spot to see, 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 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.

Assembly Halls
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 they'd spruce the places 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 tilework 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 — you need to side-step the two brightly painted lifesized horses and find your way out into the courtyard at the rear to find the dragons.There is also a large display case packed with gilded wooden statuettes, which was unique for the genre.

The best time to see the assembly halls is on the full moon night, when not only is it free to go and have a poke around, but each one is decorated with hundreds of tiny candles and spirals of incense hang from the ceiling, creating a completely different and far more appealing ambience.

The Heritage Town, 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, though we wish we hadn't bothered. It looks much like the three assembly halls, only it's not as impressive.

The Handicrafts Workshop and Traditional Music Concert
This place is set in a 200-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 terracotta pots and sculptures. There's a silverware shop at the back, by which they mean jewellery, not cutlery — some finely wrought pieces, with semi-precious stones and jade, along with some very silly looking dolls. It's 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.

For evening traditional art performances including some quite elaborately dressed opera singers head to the right of the bridge over to An Hoi by the cao lau stalls on Bach Dang. The performances are held every evening at 19.30.

So, our itinerary pick 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.
If you really are interested in antiques and archaeology there is one stop well worth a visit that isn't on the culture tour. Directly opposite the Blue Coral Dive office on Nguyen Thai Hoc, a famous collector has filled his home with numerous artefacts he has amassed over the years, including a large selection of ceramics . The owner opens his doors to anyone interested at various times during the day and makes a very interesting host.

Or, you could just sit in a restaurant along Cua Dai beach and watch the boats float by. The culture tour isn't for everybody.

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Last updated on 22nd August, 2013.

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