Hội An is a UNESCO World Heritage city just south of Da Nang, with more than 2,000 years of history. It was once a principal port for the spice trade with Indonesia from the 7th to the 10th century and a major international port as well. Multiple cultural influences have shaped Hoi An throughout the years–from the Cham Kingdom, whose people came from Java, to Arab and Chinese traders, and the Vietnamese who settled there relatively recently.
Our day began at Quang Trieu Assembly Hall, a building built by Chinese from the Guangdong province. Chinese fishermen and traders would use this hall as a rest stop and to exchange goods. Many of the statues you see are scenes from Cantonese musical dramas.
The main street of the Old Town is Tran Phu. We strolled past old, heritage hotels, tourist souvenir shops, and teahouses until Wang stopped us in front of a larger, wooden building. The Old House of Tan Ky. Seven generations of the family have worked to preserve this ancient house.
The house features a triple-beam structure that stands for heaven, earth, and human, and five round blocks to represent the natural elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth): features of Eastern philosophy.
We then went a few houses down to Duc An Old House, which has been run by the same family for 400 years. It became the most successful bookshop in the 17th Century and carried famous Vietnamese and Chinese texts, as well as political works by Rousseau and Voltaire, to name a few.
In the 1900’s it became a Chinese medicine dispensary. When anti-French revolts and movements began, the house became the darling gathering place for youths and intellects.
What was most interesting to me–and something you won’t find through pure research on the web or in tourist books–was that some of these houses were also used as opium dens. Upper floors were furnished with cushioned seats or beds for you to cozily drift off into ephemeral bliss.
But such things were not meant for us to experience, so we made our way to the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, or Chùa Cầu. The bridge was built to create a link with the Chinese quarters across the river, and now connects Tran Phu St with Thi Minh Kai street.
Sculptures of a dog and a monkey sit at one end of the bridge as symbols of sacredness in Japan and of the years many of the Japanese Emperors were born. A roof was constructed so that it could be used as a shelter from both rain and sun. It is the only known bridge to have a temple built inside it, which honors the God of Weather, Tran Vo Bac De.
We walked down towards the Thu Bon river, where the boats were. Hội An is a city to experienced at night–when lanterns light up the river like twinkles of starlight. The sun was waning, and a few of the villagers had already set afloat tea lights in colorful paper “lilies” on the water.
Our tour included a “bicycle” tour of Hội An: the bicycles were actually a hybrid of stroller and bike. We kicked back in our chairs, while someone else did the peddling for us. Down Bạch Đằng street we rolled, passed various street vendors and brightly-lit restaurants.
Boat vendors paddled up and down the river, seeking to make eye contact with a curious tourist who’d be willing to buy his wares. We rode past the local markets; a cornucopia of vegetables, meats, fish, and fruit poured onto the streets, splayed out in baskets or on small planks of wood.
My favorite part Hội An was the lanterns. Maybe a third of the shops we passed were lantern stores that hung a curtain of paper lanterns, of psychedelic shapes and colors. It was wonderful.
Another popular craft you’ll see in Hội An were the 剪紙 [jian zhi, Chinese], or paper cutouts. The streets were tiled with meticulously snipped and intricate cards of boats, flowers, dragons, and pictorials of Vietnamese lifestyle. We bought several of these to gift to family members, and a few for ourselves to take home and admire.