South East Asia's best preserved Old Town

19 May 2016

South East Asia's best preserved Old Town

Hoi An’s historic section can look so beautiful at times that it gives the false impression of being fake. There are faux “Old Towns” in almost every country in Asia – areas which have been built in recent years to replicate traditional neighbourhoods with the aim of attracting local and foreign visitors.

But the beautiful little city on Vietnam’s central coast is original and one of the best preserved “real” Old Towns on the continent. Although it has become a major drawcard for tourists, it has not been ruined as a result. Protected as a UNESCO Heritage List site, it remains aesthetically pleasing and historically fascinating.

Particularly during the off-peak times early in the morning or late in the evening, when the streets of the Old Town are sparsely populated, it is easy to imagine that you are back in Hoi An’s halcyon days of the 1700s. Hoi An, with its quaint setting on the banks of the Thu Bon River, is a former sea port which has history stretching back to the 1400s.

In the narrow, winding alleys of the Old Town, the streetscape is almost identical to how it looked 150 years ago. Granted, many of the buildings in this area now house businesses which cater to tourists like restaurants, cafes, tailor shops and souvenir stores.

But the commercialism is not tacky and the atmosphere is laidback. Unlike many other popular tourist towns in South-East Asia, where travellers are hassled from the moment they leave their hotel, this is not a place of pushy touts and hard sells.

Such behaviour would look out of place in a setting so authentic and gorgeous. There are more than 1000 historic timber-frame structures spread across the Old Town’s 30-hectare area and most have been kept in fantastic condition. There are extremely tight restrictions on any developments within this precinct which is what has helped it maintain its original appearance in the face of a booming tourist trade.

The meticulous upkeep of the Old Town is funded mostly by tourists, who must buy a ticket to enter the area. The Old Town’s stone streets are lined by old temples, shop houses, stone bridges, pagodas and a lovely covered market. Most of these structures originate from the 1700s and 1800s. In their architecture you can see the influences of the Japanese, Chinese and European communities which have lived in Hoi An over the past few centuries.

These foreigners, mostly merchant families, were attracted to Hoi An because of its strategic importance as a port which serviced maritime traders venturing between China and South-East Asia. As European nations colonised large swatches of South-East Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries, Hoi An become evermore lively.

It was during this period that many traders from China and Japan moved to Hoi An to set up businesses. The Chinese influence is evident throughout Vietnam, not just Hoi An, particularly in the architecture of its Confucian and Taoist temples.

Yet perhaps the most famous building in Hoi An was built by the Japanese community in the 1590s. The Japanese Covered Bridge, while only petite in size, is a stunning structure. Constructed across a small canal, to provide access between the Japanese and Chinese neighbourhoods of Hoi An at the time, it is among the most ornate bridges in Vietnam.

Displaying precise craftsmanship, this arched bridge has wonderfully intricate woodwork and stonemasonry. This impressive level of architectural detail can be seen throughout the Old Town, in the neatly carved wooden arches, eaves, windows and doorways of the heritage buildings.

These carpentry skills have not been abandoned by the Hoi An locals. Throughout the city are handicraft shops which sell, amid basic tourist fare, some striking handmade pieces at very reasonable prices. Some of these woodworkers will even craft custom-made items at your request.

This type of preservation of ancient culture, seen throughout Hoi An, is the key reason that the city has become one of the tourist gems of South-East Asia. Hoi An’s Old Town is fully deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage List status and the Vietnamese Government, thankfully, has made great efforts to protect this historic area. Delve into its colourful streets and you’ll find out why.