The Trouble with Hoi An

In July I traveled to Hoi An in central Vietnam to work on a feature for The Word magazine and to shoot a villa property for the Montgomerie Links Golf Course along China Beach. It was a strange trip. I’m not sure that I actually enjoy Hoi An. As many have said before me, it’s been seemingly killed by tourism. Sure, the beaches are nice, but real Vietnam it isn’t. It’s an idealized version of the nation. A preserved tourist town.

I feel like everyone that comes to and hates Hanoi expects what is found here in Hoi An. Streets closed to traffic. English-speaking street sellers. Lots of western eating options. Boats on the river. A cute little bridge. Schoolgirls in ao dai riding bicycles to class. The not-too-distant sea. A popular Vietnamese restaurant that owes more to its Caribbean influence than anything local. And more. But it all lacks soul for me.

It was moderate fun for a few days, but it quickly began to grate on me. There’s only so many times a man can be expected to refuse a freshly tailored suit, some sugarcane juice on the river, first second or even third lunch, dinner, drinks, snacks, trinkets, postcards, kites, motorbikes, fruits, vegetables, peanuts, etc. I was haggled harried. All I wanted to do toward the end was hide away in my hotel. Though even there my gentle proprietor wondered if I’d like to rent a motorbike or a bicycle or take a tour of the ancient ruins or book a bus to my next destination. I’ve never in my life felt more like a walking wallet.

Some people complain about it all over Vietnam, but having lived here for three years I’ve never felt more assaulted than in Hoi An. Which is a shame really because it could be such a beautiful little place.

8 thoughts on “The Trouble with Hoi An”

  1. Tricky one this…I like Hoi An but I like it knowing and excepting what it is, so I entirely understand your point and wouldn’t disagree but still…

    That said, I haven’t been back there since I returned to Vietnam, so it’s been a couple of years so there might have been considerable change.

    And as it happens I’ve just booked a hotel there for our honeymoon. But that’s mainly because the folks are over and it’s an easy place for them to get around, eat food that they’re comfortable with etc etc. I’d have been hankering for Con Dao otherwise.

    If you can afford to do Hoi An expensively, and I meant very expensively then I guess you don’t get all that “buy a suit stuff”.

    What you said about Hanoi – the people who don’t like Hanoi like Hoi An. Very true and I also find Hanoi a great filter…I like people who like Hanoi.

    In particular the old quarter is not everyone’s cup of tea. Basically I think people do want the Old Quarter to be like Hoi An. They don’t want meat being sold on slabs, or animals being skinned in markets or traffic for that matter. They want tailors, and coffee shops and tourist tat.

    They think they want “real” but they don’t, not really. Living here is different the Old Quarter becomes wall paper – you rarely go just to look.

    Me? I just want to swim so I am stopping out by the beach. The olds can take the hotel bus in if they want to shop and get a pizza. I want to do a motorbike trip too.

    And, as much as I’d take Hanoi over Hoi An, any day, I’ve spent a long, hot summer here without a break. A little bit of fresh air and a sea breeze would go down well right now.

  2. Steve,

    I’d be interested to hear your take on it when you return. Staying on the sea is the way to go. But if you do happen into the town for an afternoon or evening, it would be good to hear how you’ve seen it change. Or not change. When’s the honeymoon?

  3. Honeymoon is first week in November. Wedding on evening of October 30th. You’re invited if you’re around.

    We’re staying at the River Beach Hotel which seems to be the cheapest (parent-friendly) hotel on the beach. I want to hire a bike when I’m there so me and missus may go touring and leave the olds to soak up the sun.

  4. You know I don’t think this article gives Hoi An the credit it deserves. Why compare to Hanoi??? They are entirely different places. And to say it is not Vietnam… give me a break, Hoi An is in Vietnam people !! The author did not say where he lives but good on you if you live away from a tourist town. I moved here 5 months ago and this town has a magic and beauty that grows and grows on you. The Ancient city is quaint and interesting and Yes full of people desperate to sell to you. They have had a tough year and it doesn’t help when they all choose to open tailor shops and spread the wealth so thin. But get to know the people of Hoi An and you will understand and know this quaint little town for what it really is. They are good people with hearts of gold and lots of time a wealth of knowledge to share. Spend a little time here and the Ancient city becomes but just one of it’s many places to roam.

  5. Michele,

    Thanks for taking the time to write. First off, I compared Hoi An to Hanoi because I live in Hanoi; I can’t help but make that comparison because a lot of times when I think of Vietnam, Hanoi is the first place I think about. It’s just the way for me, right or wrong.

    I can certainly appreciate your love of the town, but I do still believe that a certain sense of it has been lost on me, because of the desperation on the part of the sellers that you mention in your post. Of course, there will always be touts and hawkers, but I’ll say again that in Hoi An, I’ve never felt less like an individual and more like a walking wallet.

    It’s a shame, because it is a beautiful place and I’m sure if I took the time to meet and talk with people I would find them very friendly and enjoyable. In general, I find that Vietnamese people have very friendly and talkative dispositions, but in Hoi An, it was these very qualities that allowed them to take the most advantage of me (and other tourists).

    And I’ll stick my original statement. I still do not believe that Hoi An is the real Vietnam. At least not its ancient quarter. On that we’ll have to agree to disagree.


  6. let’s hope the area doesn’t die a second death by golf tourism, then.

  7. Lovely photos, and your words really caught the strange disconjunct in tourist towns. Im curious about the difference with hanoi now.

  8. Wonderful photos as always. I found your thoughts on Hoi An interesting. I haven’t yet been to Vietnam, but I went on a school trip to China some years ago and in all the tourist towns and sites, I had a similar feeling that it was somehow empty or unreal. Even visiting the famous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, as horrible as it sounds I felt no soul in the place. Crowds of tourists endlessly shuffled around inside and ouside, with tourist stalls congregating right outside the doors.

    It’s not the fault of the tourists who truly want to see a beautiful and holy place, nor of the locals who seize an opportunity to support themselves. I feel that many of these ’empty’-feeling tourist locations are due to, as Steve Jackson says, tourists who don’t want to see the ‘real’ place, but want to think they have. (Poor wording to get my thoughts across, sorry.)

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