Why I Didn't Love Hoi An, Vietnam
Is Hoi An as great as they say?
Every time I expressed my concerns about Vietnam, about the pollution, the lack of walkability, the difficulty in making friends with local people, or the overwhelming tides of western tourists, I was told to wait for Hoi An. Hoi An, I was informed over and over again, was the best place in Vietnam. The city that makes the crushing mug of motor fumes worth the layers it ripped from my lungs. A South East Asian treasure.
In fairness, it’s prettier than Ho Chi Minh City. It’s quieter and more manageable than Hanoi, doesn’t suffer Da Lat’s torrential rains or Hue’s abundance of pursing cat-callers. It isn’t difficult to understand how it came to become a favourite amongst foreigners travelling in Vietnam.
Yet, it’s exactly this popularity that makes it utterly unbearable.
I would take walks at 6am, heading to the old town in the hopes for quiet streets, maybe a chance to watch locals set up their businesses for the day or squat over bowls of breakfast pho as they do in other parts of the country. Even at this early hour, I couldn’t catch a glimpse of authentic local life. ‘Models’ roamed the old town’s colourful lanes, the professional photographers they hired off Airbnb Experiences squatting in the gutters to perfect the angle on their so candidly flourished skirts. Backpackers wander off their night buses, bleary from the Valium pills they choked down so as not to have to face such an unimaginable prospect as 6 hours in a sleeper bus. Already, tailors attempt to corner you into their shops, and naive tourists let them take them for their worth.
The hanging lanterns strung between sun-kissed shopfronts have their charm, and the stylistic decay of the old town adds intrigue and the prospect of history in a city that was once a commerce capital of Vietnamese tradesmen. Evidence of historic wealth is unmissable here as it is in any similar coastal hub, the architectural indulgences and artistic markets are reminiscent of days when the city was actually populated by Vietnamese people, people who cared about their home city, rather than tourists and those seeking to profit further from them.
Walking through the old city’s streets, you’ll find vestiges of Chinese influence. In the 16th century, Hoi An was a crucial trading point in the South China Sea, with enterprising tradesmen settling in the city from China in particular, but also from Portugal, the Netherlands, India and Japan. The night markets, that draw crowds en masse as the burnt orange sun creeps lower over the burnt orange street sides, display art that mirrors this historically diverse influence, and tat that mirrors that sold on the cheapest stalls in the tackiest of Chinatowns. The famous Japanese bridge in emblematic of the city’s diverse history, and the crowds of sunburned tourists in uniform banana shirts that surround it are perhaps a better representative of its modern state. Built in 1590 to connect the Japanese and Chinese sections of the city, bringing together communities that coincided peacefully in this important medieval trade post.
A stroll along the river front will bring you glimpses of paved walkways, designed precisely for the ambling of the Frenchmen that flattened the city’s roads. Lined with pretty buildings whose amber paint breaks away at the door frames, it makes for an idyllic spot to drink iced coffee or expensive cocktails, to indulge in the tackiest of the Hoi An nightlife. In the weeks I spent in Hoi An, I never once saw a group of Vietnamese friends on a night out in this ‘strip’. Americans dance in bars with ‘Apocalypse Now’ references painted across the walls, drunken Brits and Germans and Italians jostle for space at the bar, and crowds of Danes pay exorbitant fees for nos gas balloons. I have no problem with people enjoying a fun night out, but my continual struggle to find Vietnamese people amongst the crowds prevailed.
We started walking far down the river, almost out of town, to dead empty bars. Here, we could talk to the bartenders, not busy with the bustle of the main tourist traps. They were from Hanoi, Saigon, or nearby small towns, having heard that Hoi An was an easy place to pick up hospitality work. I had yet to meet one person from Hoi An.
Eventually, I started to give up on the city. Beautiful as its crumbling, colourful colonialism may be, and as much as I loved exploring the back alleys and the hints of Chinese and Japanese architectural influence, the omnipresent hoard of heavily sweating, pig-pink tourists became too much. I ventured further and further into residential areas, and then out into the rural villages that surround the villages. Here, you can find glimpses of local life, in between the tour groups that are bused out to indulge in the poverty-porn that plagues the tourism industry in Asia.
My favourite part was the suburbs. I could work in cafes alongside young Vietnamese entrepreneurs, become privy to daily realities. It may not be pretty, it may not be historic and intriguing, but it was the furthest I could get away from the shopping tourists or the perpetually plastered backpackers.
The problems that I found with Hoi An were my ultimate gripe with Vietnamese travel in general. With Thailand, Cambodia, Laos. The hyper-commodification of daily life in Vietnam, with tradition and custom and heritage becoming a spectacle to be briefly ogled at by crowds for a quick buck. Vietnam is one of the world’s most interesting and beautiful countries, with an extensive, multicultural history and wonderful people. Yet every time I visit it becomes less and less authentic. Every village and town between major tourist destinations has become accustomed to visitor, to their willingness to shell out for vastly overpriced tours, to their lack of regard for authenticity.
My childhood memories of sitting on the back of cattle trucks that rattle through paddy fields are lost. Of sucking sugar cane with local children as we were thoroughly ignored by farmers getting on with their days. Of a Vietnam where you could simply live alongside the locals without any kind of spectacle being expected.
Beautiful, it may be. Yet Hoi An is another victim of its own success, and it becomes more unbearable by the year.
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