With its centuries-old buildings, lively riverfront, and beautifully distinctive lanterns and flowers, the Hoi An Old Town presents remarkable sights for even the most casual visitors. But like any tourist destination, it has occasional pitfalls that are easily avoided.
There are ticket offices with friendly, helpful, English-speaking staff at all of the major entryways to the Old Town. Each ticket has five passes for entry into the various historic sites, and you’ll also be given a small map that gives you a general idea of where each site is. Do you need a ticket just to look around? The situation is confused to say the least. Mostly you can walk around unhindered but officials sometimes demand to see a ticket even if you’re just walking down the street. In addition, some say the sites must be visited in the first 24 hours of purchasing a ticket, others say you have longer.
Our advice: buy a ticket. Even though the ticket policy is hopelessly unclear, and policing of it incredibly inconsistent and patchy, aggressive incidents are being reported with increasing frequency between tourists and officials. It’s well worth the 120,000 VND fee in any case and purchasing one may spare you awkward and perhaps nasty encounters with ticket agents lurking in key spots (even if you’re not interested in visiting any of the heritage sites).
Japanese Covered Bridge
Regardless of whether or not you have purchased a ticket, the Japanese Covered Bridge is a good place to begin wandering through the Old Town. Constructed in the 1590s, it was originally built to link the Japanese and Chinese quarters of this once thriving merchant town. This iconic landmark is Hoi An’s most famous and, if visiting at night, keep an eye out for couples in traditional clothing posing by or on the water – don’t be shy about snapping a picture of them with the equally scenic bridge as a backdrop.
From the Japanese Covered Bridge you are well-positioned near Tran Phu Street, where you can find all four assembly halls and even a free site or two. Quang Trieu (Cantonese) Assembly Hall is closest to the foot bridge and well worth a visit. Built in 1885, it was a place for Chinese fishermen and traders to meet, worship and rest. Back then there was a wharf out the front. If you stop here, don’t settle for the impressive dragon fountain near the entrance, be sure to head inside and all the way to the back, into the rear garden. I saw many a visitor enter the main courtyard, walk around once or twice, and leave without ever seeing the impressive statues or mural behind the building or any of the numerous Chinese mystical icons beckoning from the dark inside.
While walking along Tran Phu Street I also passed a converted school at Hoa Van Le Nghia. Dating back to 1741 this site was both a meeting place and a place of worship for the Hoi An-based Chinese communities. The general quiet of this site is in stark contrast to the crowded streets outside its doors and lends a haunting quality to its many portraits and two demonic-looking statues that flank its altar. It is free to enter, less crowded than most, and worth a few minutes if you are not in a rush.
My next stop was Phuoc Kien (Fujian) Assembly Hall. It is usually one of the busier halls, but as with the other popular attractions, well worth a pass to see its intricately adorned, pink gate up close. Phuoc Kien (Fujian) Assembly Hall was a restoration in 1759 of an original Vietnamese buiding (1692) by the wealthy Fujian community in Hoi An. Especially featured are Fujian sea-goddesses and animal statues symbolic of key human qualities such as power (dragon) and knowledge (unicorn). Tucked behind a large bush in the courtyard of Phuc Kien is a large, rusted sign with more history of the building.
Quan Cong Temple
From Phuc Kien you are only a short walk to Quan Cong Temple and its adjacent pagoda (founded 1653). This temple is dedicated to the Chinese General Quan Cong, who was seen as a symbol of loyalty, and includes life-size statues of the general’s horses Bach tho (white horse) and Xich tho (red horse). Even the most minute details of the temple have significance, from the calligraphy poems adorning its wooden beams to the carp-shaped rain spouts on the roof that are symbolic of patience. Entry is free.
Aside from leading you past the assembly halls, Tran Phu Street will take you to the Central Market, directly across from Quan Cong Temple. After a couple of hours in the sun exploring these beautiful buildings, the market offers a wealth of inexpensive food and beverage options where you can sit back, relax and recharge before taking in more attractions. Here you can sample Hoi An specialties such as Banh Xeo and Cau Lau alongside the locals.
Traditional Art Performance (Xu Dang Trong)
Near the market, on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, is one of the better spots to use a pass. Every day at 10:15 and 15:15 Xu Dang Trong hosts a traditional performance of talented musicians and dancers. Ignore the wrong location on the tourist office map and simply follow your ears as they lead you to this visual and musical treat. We won’t go into detail about the colorful costumes, melancholy folk songs, and oddly hypnotic operatic crooning, it’d spoil the surprise. The half-hour performance and chance to win a raffled gift – the bizarre singing bingo is a whacky highlight – are well worth an entry pass.
Mask Painting at Traditional Art Performance House
Head down Bach Dang Street, along the scenic waterway, to the Traditional Art Performance House (not to be confused with Xu Dang Trong). Although the shop is for purchasing crafts, the staff was very friendly and encouraged me to come in and observe the artists as they brought traditional masks to life with vibrant colors and expressive features, free of charge. The masks were beautifully decorated, and I was allowed to observe for as long as I liked without being pressured into buying anything. You can also do one of their 75-minute workshops and learn all aspects of mask making or simply paint your own. The center also offers a paid performance every evening at 17:00 for 5 USD.
For my final stop I continued along Bach Dang to where it rejoins Nguyen Thai Hoc to see the Old House of Tan Ky. Built a couple of hundred years ago by Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese influences are prevalent as the house, which backs on to the river, was often rented to foreign merchants over the years. Here I received an informative but brief tour from a guide explaining the basic architecture of the building, a complementary cup of green tea, and the opportunity to purchase a zodiac charm for good luck. Although I enjoyed the visit, the second floor of the structure was off limits, so I had to content myself with the guide’s description of it and what I could see from the inner courtyard. And, while there were numerous informative write ups throughout the structure, most people were finished with this site within a few minutes, seemingly pushed along an invisible conveyor belt. So if you are looking for a place where you can wander a bit more freely, then I would recommend the 300-year-old, Chinese built Old House of Quan Thang, conveniently located near the assembly halls on Tran Phu Street. Here you will see particularly striking carvings of peacocks and flowers on the teak walls.
Photo: Etienne Bossot
The Wash Up
Whether you purchase a ticket or not, the Old Town of Hoi An has plenty for you to explore and enjoy. But if you have the time, the ticket fee is well worth the opportunity to see these marvelous buildings up close. It may also help you avoid a nasty skirmish. Keep your eyes open for free sites, and don’t be afraid to ask the friendly ticket office agents for help or advice, as they managed to resolve my every issue during my visit to Hoi An Old Town.
by Ryan Christianson