Photo: Detail at the Museum of Trade Ceramics.

Self-guided tour of Hoi An’s old town

An entrance ticket for the sights within the UNESCO World Heritage old town is required. Here's how we'd suggest approaching the various things to see.

Inscribed by UNESCO in 1999, Hoi An “is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century... The town reflects a fusion of indigenous and foreign cultures (principally Chinese and Japanese with later European influences) that combined to produce this unique survival.” What you see today is a townscape built during the 17th and 18th centuries, which still includes 1,107 timber-frame buildings and a street plan that once allowed customer access from the front of them, and convenient off-loading of goods from boats on the river.

The iconic Japanese Bridge.

The iconic Japanese Bridge. Photo: Cindy Fan

The entrance ticket is technically required to enter the old town, but really it is only checked when you go inside one of the 22 buildings or points of interest on the list. The ticket is 120,000 dong, with tear-off coupons allowing entrance to five places. It's valid for 24 hours, though the time period seems to be somewhat flexible. The ticket seller assured us we could use it for our entire stay, be it days or weeks. We never encountered a problem as we used it over the course of a few days.

The proceeds are supposed to be reinvested in the old town, paying for renovations, upkeep, staff and the few families who actually still live there – they open their ancient houses for viewing – as well as funding the street entertainment you see in the evening, such as folk dancing, singing, traditional games. It helps keeps the tradition alive. On the other hand, the town is taking on a Disneyland-esque quality to it and having to pay just to wander the streets in the evening on the way to dinner or cross the Japanese Bridge seems a bit much. We wouldn’t mind the fee if the sights provided good information (they don’t) and they didn’t allow vendors selling tacky souvenirs inside them. The staff manning the ticket booths, which you’ll see at all the entry points into town, have been known to be aggressive. Overall they have toned it down since the ticket was first introduced in 2014, no doubt because they simply can’t stop the hundreds of people flowing through.

A merchant hang out, back in the day (Phuc Kien Assembly Hall).

A merchant hang out, back in the day (Phuc Kien Assembly Hall). Photo: Cindy Fan

So is it worth buying the ticket to see the sights? Absolutely. Buy one and see at least five of them to start. It’s hard to recommend which five to choose as many of them are beautiful, detailed and old. Want to see everything? You’d have to buy more than four tickets and it would take three days – and even if you are culturally inclined, this is too much as there are some that should definitely be skipped (Hoi An Museum, we’re looking at you). During the evening of the full moon festivities, you can visit most without buying a ticket.

In summary, our itinerary suggestion for the first-round ticket would be to select one or two of the old houses like Tan Ky House, one or two assembly halls, a museum, take an obligatory photo at the Japanese Bridge, then check out a music performance or handicraft shop.

Hoi An is best experienced on foot.

Hoi An is best experienced on foot. Photo: Cindy Fan

The full list of sights included on the ticket is:
Old houses: Tan Ky; Duc An; Quan Thang; Phung Hung;
Assembly halls: Quang Trieu; Trieu Chau; Phuc Kien;
Structures: Japanese Covered Bridge;
Museums: Museum of Trade Ceramics; Museum of Sa Huynh Culture; Museum of Folk Culture; Museum of Hoi An;
Traditional arts: Handicraft workshop; traditional music performance;
Communal houses: Cam Pho; Minh Huong; Quan Cong Temple;

Opening hours vary between each sight. The old houses tend to close off sections for lunch, though they will still take your ticket and allow you in, though half is temporarily off limits, and they tend to shut up as early as 16:00. Others close for lunch outright. Most close at 17:00-17:30, but the odd one, like the Ceramic Trade Museum in the heart of the old town, is open until 21:00. Go figure.

If the walls of Duc An House could only talk ...

If the walls of Duc An House could only talk ... Photo: Cindy Fan

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 in them, 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. A shophouse built by a Chinese merchant in the late 18th century, Tan Ky House is over 200 years old and one of the most beautiful, well-kept architectural examples in Hoi An. The two-storey building has apartments connecting the front Ngueyen Thai Hoc Street, serving as a shop, to the rear Bach Dang Street, conveniently on the riverbank to make for easy transfer of goods from ships. Keep your eyes peeled for the woodcarvings on the beams and pillars, and for the markers in the kitchen showing years when the flooding at one point almost reached the second floor.

If the walls of Duc An House could talk, what a story they would tell. In its past life incarnations, it was a Chinese traditional medicine shop and a bookstore. At the end of the 19th and early 20th century, after protests against taxes and when anti-French revolts began to break out, it was a popular place to buy books and newspapers with progressive ideas and became a meeting place for patriotic intellectuals. See the traditional medicine cabinets at the front of house, while inside rests stately, carved wood furniture.

Quan Thang, one of the oldest houses in Hoi An.

Quan Thang, one of the oldest houses in Hoi An. Photo: Cindy Fan

Quan Thang is one of the oldest houses in Hoi An. Built by a Chinese merchant in the late 17th century, the shophouse is a typical example of the houses that connected two streets. Note the beautiful inner courtyard wall’s mosaic, a scroll-shaped design decorated with fragments of Chinese porcelain.

At Phung Hung House, the emphasis is not on giving a tour, but keeping the merchant tradition alive, with its first-floor gift shop. 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, but it’s more of a second ticket choice, if you buy one.

Quang Trieu Assembly Hall -- come at full moon, if you can.

Quang Trieu Assembly Hall -- come at full moon, if you can. Photo: Cindy Fan

Assembly halls
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 do a fine job building them.

Quang Trieu (1885), Trieu Chai (1887) and Phuc Kien (Fujian) (1757) assembly halls 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. All three are impressive, though perhaps seeing two would suffice. The best time to see them 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 memorable ambience.

Japanese Bridge
The elegant Japanese Bridge has become the iconic symbol of Hoi An and it survives the thousands of tourists that cross it each day, a testament to its very solid construction. Built in the 1590s by the Japanese community, who played a key role during this era in developing the town’s architecture and infrastructure, the bridge also holds a shrine to Tran Vo Bac De, the Taoist deity of storms and weather. It’s guarded by a statue of a monkey and a dog at either end of the bridge. During daylight hours you’ll be asked to give your UNESCO ticket to enter the bridge but don’t unless you intend to enter the underwhelming shrine within, as crossing the bridge itself is free.

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.

We liked the Museum of Trade Ceramics, not so much for the ninth to 19th century pottery artefacts encased in glass, but for the crumbled charm of the late 19th century house. It has a lovely inner courtyard and creaky upstairs that offers a great view above the walking street. The information is good, giving visitors an overview of how commerce and trade (in this case, specifically ceramics) formed the ancient town. Beginning in the early 14th century until the turn of the 17th century, Vietnamese ceramics were exported across Southeast Asia and Asia, as far as the Middle East and Europe.

The Museum of Sa Huynh Culture explores a culture that dates back 2,000 years and is seen as kickstarting Hoi An as a trading port. 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 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 stop just a stone's throw from the Japanese Bridge. If old pots don't do it for you, the Museum of the Revolution is upstairs. The first room is rather boring -- some old war currency, a lot of pictures of war heroes with little information in English. To the back are some armaments from “the war with America” 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 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. If nothing else, the statues are sort of a hoot, though some of them may return to haunt you in the dark of night.

Don’t waste your time on the pitiful Hoi An Museum.

An evening performance gets underway.

An evening performance gets underway. Photo: Cindy Fan

Handicrafts and traditional music
The Handicraft Workshopis 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 and you can find some pieces here that aren't available elsewhere in town. We found the prices -- even before bargaining -- to be not outrageous by Western standards. There's intricate work in metal, porcelain and soapstone, as well as larger terracotta pots and sculptures. There's a silverware shop at the back with some finely wrought pieces of jewellery, as well as very silly looking dolls. Stop here and Thanh Ha pottery village outside of town (separate ticket required) if shopping is on your to-do list.

At the Hoi An Traditional Art Performance House, there is a performance from 17:00 to 18:00 daily (separate ticket required), which is pretty much what you'd expect. More livelier are the public performances held 18:30-21:30 in the little public square (or triangle rather, the wedge of land as Nguyen Thai Hoc and Bach Dang Street merge at An Hoi bridge). The interactive show and folk games cater to Vietnamese tourists, so foreigners will be lost, but it’s fun to watch the crowd, young and old, in stitches.

On a side note, if you really are interested in antiques and archaeology, there is one atmospheric stop well worth a visit that isn't on the culture tour. Directly opposite the Blue Coral Dive office on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, 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.

Last updated on 12th August, 2016.

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