As a tourist, I’m a sucker for cultural and historical sites, especially those on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. So of course we just had to drop by Hoi An Ancient Town during our three-week trip to Vietnam last month.
In addition to being a World Heritage site, Lonely Planet Vietnam ranks it as the #2 Top Experience in the country, second only to Halong Bay. A quick Google search also returned page after page describing Hoi An as “quaint,” “charming,” and all other synonyms in between.
All these raised my expectations of Hoi An, our last stop in Vietnam before going back to Hanoi to catch our flight home. I was imagining a more spectacular version of fellow World Heritage sites Melaka (Malacca) and George Town in Penang, two historic cities in nearby Malaysia which I enjoyed.
I was wrong. While Hoi An’s old houses with their yellow paint look very picturesque indeed, the whole Ancient Town feels like one big tourist trap. At least in George Town and Melaka, there were still some residences within the heritage zone not engaged in the tourist trade and minding their own business, which gives one the impression that hey, they’re really actual towns. But in Hoi An, pretty much all of the buildings now house souvenir shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, travel agencies, boutiques, tailor shops, you name it — establishments all aiming to divest you of your money. One can’t help but feel like a walking ATM while strolling around Hoi An. The buildings may be old, but the wholesale commercialization of the place just takes away from the authenticity.
Some buildings in Hoi An have been designated as sightseeing places, which require tickets to enter. One ticket costs VND 120,000 (foreigner price; locals pay only VND 80,000), which allows one to visit up to five sightseeing places. We chose to go to some Chinese-style temples and ancestral homes. Since I was expecting something along the lines of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion and Khoo Kongsi clan temple in Penang, Malaysia, I was a bit underwhelmed, as the sightseeing places in Hoi An were smaller in scale and not as well-kept. It didn’t help that once we entered the ancient houses, we were immediately beset by “guides” who recited a few stuff about the place, but whose real purpose was to steer us toward the souvenirs (one home sold embroidered tablecloths).
Hoi An was also more expensive compared to the other stops on the well-worn Vietnam tourist trail. Our hotel outside the Ancient Town set us back USD 30 per night, which is twice the cost of our lovely room at the excellent Jade Hotel in Hue. We didn’t go on one, but food tours in Hoi An cost around USD 40 per person, compared to only half that in Hanoi. I sorely remember one street vendor who overcharged us VND 60,000 (!) for a banana pancake (whaaat).
Now, one might think that I didn’t like Hoi An, but on the contrary, I enjoyed our three-night stay there very much. Not because of its overrated sights, but because of the company and the friendly locals. It’s the people we met in Hoi An that makes it memorable for me. If we had to do it all over again, I’d still go, but as a day trip by motorbike from Danang, where accommodation is cheaper. I’d also skip the ticket entirely and just walk around and soak up the atmosphere. Be sure to stick around until evening, as Hoi An is lovely at night.