The new side to Vietnam's Hoi An

Tuesday - 04/10/2011 21:04

IF YOU want to get an idea of how much Vietnam has changed since the destination rocketed to the top of the traveller hit list this century, take a look at Hoi An.

When I first visited, in the late 1990s, it was a sleepy fishing village on Vietnam's central coast a couple of hours south of Hue that was the place travellers congregated to board the Reunification Express for the overnight journey to Hanoi and most of those people who found their way into Hoi An f-rom Highway One only stayed a day.

Back then the only up-market accommodation was the Hoi An Hotel, the Central Market was a collection of tattered fabric awnings stretched over stalls made f-rom wooden crates, the "tourist police" would loiter on street corners demanding visitors pay an "entrance fee" to see the sites and the Mermaid Cafe was the only place to eat.
How things have changed.

The market now sprawls across several blocks, with the original grid of aisles replaced by a sturdy building featuring electricity and running water. The only police you see are the ones telling the tourist coaches whe-re to park, and there are dozens of hotels and restaurants on the streets that stretch f-rom the beach to the historic covered bridge.

Hoi An is still enchanting those streets lined with historic Chinese houses are so perfectly ramshackle they look more like a film set than a thriving neighbourhood but f-rom mid-morning until sunset the heart of town seethes with tourists who want to climb over a settlement that's been around for more than 2000 years.

I've been back to Hoi An a couple of times since that first visit, and on my last trip, I took a different approach to exploring. I rose with the sun to wander the market and the streets radiating f-rom the riverbank while they were still the domain of the locals.

Once the tourists appeared, I retreated to the neighbourhood on the eastern edge of town.

The big block to the east of the Central Market is Hoi An's Colonial Quarter and this quiet neighbourhood bounded by Hoang Dieu, Nguyen Duy Hieu, Pham Hong Thai and Phan Boi Chau streets has retained a peaceful atmosphere with a community feel.

Life is slower here than a few blocks to the west, whe-re the tourists command everyone's attention, and while there are still shops, a few restaurants and bars, and even a couple of hotels, it's quiet enough to hear those sounds you miss in the parts of Hoi An invaded by hustle and bustle.

Sitting at the Heritage Bar at Life Heritage Resort, a serene hotel occupying a riverside garden in one corner of the quarter, you can hear the buzz of the fat insects feeding on the yellow flowers that decorate the shrubs and the mechanical clacking of an old bicycle chain that turns as a schoolgirl pushes a pair of worn pedals.

Cars are banned f-rom Phan Boi Chau St the avenue that marks the heart of the Colonial Quarter, established by rich French traders in the 1900s, who built grand villas on the long blocks between the road and the river but cyclos are allowed and the pedal-powered taxis drift silently past houses painted an imperial shade of yellow.

One of the original villas, the property at No.27, was built by a French family who used it as a home and office for several decades before it became an ice factory and was then saved f-rom decay to be restored and turned into Brothers Cafe, now one of the town's most famous eateries and the place to go for dinner at dusk.

A few years back, the authorities recognised the value of the Quarter's colonial architecture and passed a rule stating historical facades had to be saved when a building was demolished or renovated.

Two of the hotels Life Heritage Resort and the Ha Na Hotel were designed to fit the aesthetic.

Those who spend their time in the Colonial Quarter won't miss out on the retail attractions, and if you want some clothes made including winter coats and jeans I recommend Clothes Shop 24 at 277 Nguyen Duy Hieu St.

When it comes to handmade footwear, visit Thanh Sinh at 307 Nguyen Duy Hieu St. Au Viet Glasses at 309 Nguyen Duy Hieu St is the spot for frames with or without prescription lenses, and Bac Viet's at 10 Pham Hong Thai St is the place for handcrafted silver jewellery.

Otherwise it's a five-minute walk to the Central Market f-rom Life Heritage Resort and another five minutes to the intersection of Le Loi and Tran Phu streets, the neighbourhood whe-re the bulk of tourist activity happens.

Hoi An is a tourist haunt but, by basing yourself in the Colonial Quarter and picking the times to venture into town, you can avoid the crowds and see the settlement as the tranquil fishing village it has been for centuries.

Read more: http://www.news.com.au/travel/world/the-new-side-to-vietnams-hoi-an/story-e6frfqai-1226153538943#ixzz1Zoq5Dg4y

Author: Sarah Nicholson


 Key: hoi an, viet nam
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