Exploring the Old Historical Town
Mornings in Hoi An are the best time for exploring the Old Historical part of town before the streets become flooded by bus tour groups from the resorts in Da Nang and towards Hue. Hence, if you do visit try to get there as early as possible to experience the alluring atmosphere of the ancient merchant houses and the locals rushing along to the markets.
The Japanese Covered Bridge
After getting caught in torrential rain on our first afternoon in Hoi An we had decided to leave most of the sightseeing in the town for the following day. Having already purchased our tickets for the Old town – you need these to enter the Unesco preserved section – we headed straight to the Japanese Covered Bridge at the heart of the Old Town. This time the weather seemed to be on our side with sunshine pouring from the clear blue sky. The beautiful bridge is Hoi An’s most famous building and the number one tourist spot. A bridge was first constructed in the same spot in 1590 by the Japanese trading community and has kept its style relatively faithful to the original Japanese design. We noticed some weathered statues by the entrance of the bridge, a dog and a monkey. Tales surrounding the construction of the bridge state that the statues represent the zodiac signs of the birth months of the two Japanese emperors at the time.
Wedding by the Bridge
We gave the guard at the Japanese Bridge one of our Old Town tickets, in order to be able to step into the roofed structure. There was nothing much to see on the bridge itself, besides a small, unimpressive temple in the middle and the view over the murky canal, draining the previous days rain into the river a few meters away. I stepped back out onto the street and made my way along the wall besides the bridge to get a photo of the front, when I noticed a couple having their wedding photos taken. They looked very much in love and her dress was a gorgeous, yet simple traditional ao dai, it certainly gave some additional charm to my photographs. The backside of the Japanese Covered Bridge is rather unspectacular and the tree-lined canal somehow fails to enchant me, after our visit to Kurashiki with similar but much nicer scenery.
Assembly Hall of the Cantonese Chinese Congregation
There were four tickets left for other historical building open to the public. Just a few meters from the Japanese Bridge is the Assembly Hall of the Cantonese Chinese Congregation (Hoi Quan Quang Dong). Stepping though the gate with its brightly coloured dragons we found ourselves in front of a dragon fountain, backed by a traditional temple.
Walking through the temple’s ground we discovered in the back garden a completely over the top mosaic statue of many entwined dragonheads. A wall was adorned with a large relief mural, depicting a snow scene in China, a truly mesmerising temple and unlike any we had seen so far in Vietnam or even in Hong Kong before.
Old Japanese Merchant Houses
Back on the street we strolled along the pretty main thoroughfare Tran Phu, a pedestrian street lined with the stunning old houses that are the leading attractions in Hoi An. Most of these old Japanese merchant houses have been turned into shops, restaurants and other tourist businesses, although of course they were always dedicated to commerce. A large number of these shops sell the standard souvenirs, I still cannot get my head around the owl bags and banana print clothing in all forms and sizes, they do not seem to have any local roots. However, there were also some gems among the tourist shops selling crafts and locally designed items.
Model Sailing Ships
Jerome was fascinated by Hoi An Craft Ships a store that sells model sailing ships to aficionados and even ships them world wide. The vast array of wooden vessels that are handcrafted in the back room, was quite overwhelming and the details and sheer size of some of them incredible. It must take days to finish some of the larger models. Jerome could have spent hours gazing at each one of them, he still has his own sailing boat to finish back home and we were hoping it might give him a push to finish it soon.
Tailor Made Clothes
Another prominent feature of Hoi An are the countless tailors. For a small amount of money compared to back home in, visitors can have all kinds of clothing tailor made. You may either choose from a catalogue of styles and fabrics or bring your own photo and design. I cannot recommend a specific tailor as we did not have any clothes measured and sewn, but there are certainly quality variations with the numerous dressmakers and the prices also may vary accordingly. Do not be fooled by asking in your hotel or guide for the best tailor in town, as they most likely will receive a back payment for the recommendation. To ensure a perfect finish of the garments it is important to not rush the tailor, I would refrain from having a suit finished in 24 hours. Also note that most of the tailors do not sew the clothes in house, they might have them done in one of the sweat shops that nowadays can be found in the adjacent villages to Hoi An.
Hand Crafted Sandals
I have to admit though that I had two pairs of sandals hand crafted, based on the design of a pair that I already own and they turned out pretty good, especially considering the price. I allowed them several days and the results were certainly better than I expected.
Reaching Out Teahouse and Gift Shop
After some shopping I am sure, like us, you will seek some peace and quiet, away from the tourist crowds that can flood the streets of Hoi An Old Town. You should definitely head to Reaching Out Teahouse, a quaint and old-fashioned teahouse where the employees are hearing impaired and the orders and communication is done with little blocks and order forms. Their picturesque dining room and garden transported us straight back to Japan and we could have sat there all day long, sipping tea and coffee and savouring their delicious biscuits. Not far away from the teahouse you will also find the Reaching Out Gift Shop. It stocks Fairtrade silk scarves, handmade toys and pottery, plus some beautiful silver jewellery. Every single piece is crafted by artisans with disabilities, and it goes without saying that bartering here is a no go!
In case you do not have the chance to visit the night market but still want to buy some lanterns to take home, then head to the shop on Tran Phu Road near the Food market, their lantern are crafted in the shop and they had a large selection of plain and patterned silk lanterns on show.
Visiting the Ancient Merchant Houses
We visited two of the ancient merchant houses, both located on Tran Phu Road and despite the prevailing stories online of them being just a large souvenir shop and tourist trap we actually found both homes to still be inhabited by locals, one couple looked like they must have been over 80 years at least. It was awkward to be visiting a house where people went about their daily lives, the money from the tickets supporting the costs of the upkeep of these historical buildings. Yes they also had some goods for sale but no one bothered us during our excursion through the houses. I admired the traditional architecture, the influences of both Japanese and Chinese were prominent, including some intricate wooden carved beams and furniture. Jerome found it most interesting to see the flood levels over the last hundred years and it was quite frightening to see that half the house was under water every few years. Recent typhoons since we left have brought severe floods to Hoi An and we cannot imagine the damage and sorrow this brings to the locals every year or so.
The Colourful Fujian Assembly Hall
The last of our Old Town tickets gained us entry to the colourful Fujian Assembly Hall (Phuc Kien). This was also my favourite among the many Chinese Assembly Halls that are dotted throughout the Old Town, while we only visited two, the design and architecture differed significantly in my eyes, the sherbet colour scheme quite different to the traditional red and gold. It came across more like a pop art temple than an ancient meeting place for Chinese expats.
Lunch at Samurai Kitchen
Hunger took over after hours of sight seeing in the Old Town and Jerome started to also get weary of the historical buildings and houses. The food market was just around the corner but the prospect of having Japanese food sounded like the better deal to him. Samurai Kitchen served authentic Japanese home cooking and to Jerome’s delight they even had his favourite dish, Udon noodles. The restaurant was rather small and while we had to wait for our lunch to arrive the tasty home made fare made more than up for it. Jerome kept himself busy reading some of the books that were available to guests and to top it off, he got a portion of kakigori (shaved ice) at the end.
Our Next Destination in the Old Town
Our next destination in Hoi An Old Town was the food market followed by the fruit and vegetable market but not before we quickly peeked into the Quan Cong Temple.
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