What The Hell Happened To Hoi An?

I walked through the dark streets of Hoi An, the ancient trading port in central Vietnam, seeking some of the peace I’d found there five years earlier.

My head was pounding and my mood was foul, the result of an eight-hour bus trip during which I was blasted with the dubbed Vietnamese soundtrack of Skyfall, a Jackie Chan movie and two rounds of a Vietnamese variety show called Paris By Night. As well as the demands of three-year-old Miss M, who wanted to run up and down the aisle for the five hours she was awake, an option I viewed as very dangerous.

I wanted, no NEEDED some serenity. And serenity was what I remembered from my two previous visits to the World Heritage-listed Hoi An, known as Vietnam’s “ancient town” for its 600-year-old houses and pagodas.

As I walked, I was bombarded with more noise – crude gangsta rap lyrics from a seedy-looking bar – as well as the garish light spilling from all the commercial enterprises: tailor shops, lantern shops, restaurants and bars with names like Meet Market. The streets were crowded with tourists, some talking quietly, most talking over-loudly about the hard bargains they’d driven and which bar had the cheapest beer.

I tried to get my bearings so I could head towards the river, a place I remembered as perfect for a quiet evening stroll. I didn’t have a map, relying only on my vague rememberings of how the town was laid out.

As I drew closer to where I thought the river was, the noise levels increased. I turned the corner to find the riverfront as crowded as the Gold Coast during Schoolies Week.

As well as the milling crowds, there was a Vietnamese man screaming into a microphone, promoting some kind of Punch and Judy show. Further along, another screecher, this one seemingly promoting a sideshow game. There was a pedestrian bridge across the river and on the other side of the Thu Bon River, a place that was completely dark last time I was here, was a strip of new ancient-style buildings containing still more brightly-lit restaurants and bars.

I. Was. Horrified.

The old riverfront area, viewed from the newly developed area on the other side of the river.

The old riverfront area, viewed from the newly developed area on the other side of the river.

All the charm and peace seemed to have been developed out of Hoi An, a place I had been yearning to return to for years.

I fled to a pricey wine bar and drank some New Zealand wine, hating myself for seeking comfort in such a non-Vietnamese setting. But I couldn’t go back to our hotel yet. I needed to unwind from the horrible bus trip and our even-worse dinner.

Yes, dear friends, I led my unwitting family into a tourist trap for our first meal in Hoi An. I thought it was a good option because I’d found the recommendation on an obscure Vietnamese website. Darling Man had agreed to trust my research because the dish I was chasing, known as bánh bao bánh vạc in Vietnamese and the very touristy White Rose in English, was more a Chinese dish than a Vietnamese dish. And so he deferred to my supposed greater wisdom (which in this case was simply the result of hours wasting Googling Hoi An food options.)

Hoi An's White Rose

We were given the tourist menu even though Darling Man spoke to the waitress in Vietnamese. And as I tried to tempt Miss M to eat something … anything … Darling Man realised that the Vietnamese people behind us were being charged far less per dish than what was printed on our English menu. He wanted to leave. But we’d walked so far, carrying Miss M most of the way, and there didn’t seem to be any other restaurants nearby.

We ordered and ate under a cloud of polite tension, Darling Man vibrating with outrage over the expected overcharging, me feeling pretty ticked off that I’d been tricked by the Internet.

After we paid the bill, which was – thankfully – less than the advertised price, Darling Man and I agreed to take a bit of a break from each other. He caught a taxi back to our hotel for some air-conditioned television viewing. I went looking for Hoi An’s charm. And I just could not find it.

Has Hoi An changed so much in the past five years or have I?

 

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7 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.

25 Comments

  1. Talon says:

    I imagine the answer to your question is: Both. I’m so glad we avoided it. With so many people telling me I just had to go, I figured it would be as bad or worse as what you described. So sad to return to a place and see it so utterly transformed.
    Talon recently posted..Exploring Malaysian food

  2. Franca says:

    It’s very sad going to a place after a while and find it completely changed and commercialized as a response to the increasing tourist demand. I wish people would leave the places as they are without ‘westernize’ them like it happens in many cases. It’s very sad.
    Most people travel to see and experience the local culture, I wish everybody would think in this same way.
    Franca recently posted..Kai3 Studio, Bangkok

    • Barbara says:

      I don’t think it’s the tourists who “Westernise” a place, Franca. It’s the local people responding to demand. I’m sure some locals in Hoi An are worried about the tourists. It’s not for outsiders to force our opinions on a place so all we can do is wait and see what happens. The old part of Hoi An is World Heritage-listed, so the buildings can’t be knocked down or radically altered, so that part of the town’s charm will remain. 🙂

  3. Paige Conner Totaro says:

    I read somewhere that the number of tailor shops in Hoi An had gone from 60 to more than 600 in the course of a decade. People figured out they could make money from tourism, and I’m sure it will continue to grow until the scale tips, and tourists get fed up with how uncharming it has become and stop going, or it becomes not worth the degradation of the town to the locals to fight for tourist dollars. I don’t see the latter happening any time soon. But it should, or they really run the risk of the former.

    When we were there in March, we had this discussion many times. We felt more like walking dollar signs there than any place we visited. Which I can certainly understand, but it does take the charm away, for sure. We found a few places there that were exceptions, like the wonderful Minh Hien vegetarian restaurant, but more often, the rule was that tourists were for exploiting. Honestly, it was in Hoi An that I really began to question the ethics of tourism in general, and have serious doubt about whether the risks ever outweigh the benefits if tourism in a place like that. Does it really raise all boats to bring in tourist dollars? Or does it accentuate the disparities of wealth and contribute to corruption?

    Anyway, clearly, it’s a good question. And the answer probably is simply, money. Which brings good and bad with it. I sure wish I could have seen it in its charming days.

    • Barbara says:

      Did you know part of the reason Hoi An is so well preserved is because the river silted up and trade dried up? The local people couldn’t afford to change/develop/modernise their town once they lost the commercial lifeblood of the town.
      The ancient buildings of Hoi An are still there and there is still a lot of local charm. And I imagine the local people will be able to deal with whatever life throws at them, whether it’s more tourists or a decline in tourism as a response to the overcommercialisation of the town.

  4. budget jan says:

    I visited Bali over thirty years ago with a girlfriend and stayed for a month. Several Years later B.H. and I visited for a month. It was wonderfully exotic and natural. I would dearly love to return but we are just not game to!
    We stayed 5 days in Hoi An in April 2011. B.H. was not well and Hoi An was a nice relaxing place to be. On the night of the full moon celebrations there were a lot of people along the river and the (traditional?) card game or some sort of game of chance was in progress. Apart from that it was a laid back kind of place.
    I had some clothes made with the benefit of being able to get one of my favourite blouses duplicated at a reasonable price. I also showed the tailor a photo of Katie Holmes in a magazine and had the dress duplicated exactly – pity I don’t look the same as Katie in it…
    I might add Hoi An to the list alongside Bali, of places best left to glorify in the memory.
    Anyway, I know where you are coming from. It is disappointing to return somewhere special and find it changed.
    budget jan recently posted..Tuesday in Townsville: Strand Jetty

    • Barbara says:

      I bet if I visited Townsville I’d be shocked at the changes, Jan!
      Don’t write off Hoi An just yet. If you plan to go there, just be aware it’s much much more commercialised than it used to be. I don’t begrudge the local people’s efforts to earn money from tourism. I just worry about what will happen when the overcommercialisation starts putting people off and less tourists start visiting.

  5. I had heard that tourism had arrived in a big way there. I haven’t been to Hoi An for 15 years. Back then it was the most amazing place. I’m planning a visit back to Vietnam soon, I bet it’s changed a lot since then.
    21st Century Mummy recently posted..May #WorldColours – Blue

  6. Melissa says:

    Aw, man, that sounds rather heartbreaking! I want to know what happened next… Were you able to breathe a bit having space from Darling Man? Where to next?
    Melissa recently posted..Comment on Beauty and Altitude Sickness at 11,200 Feet in Cusco by Melissa

    • Barbara says:

      Stay tuned, Melissa! We worked out how to enjoy Hoi An. Even Miss M enjoyed it! I just need to find a bit of time to write about what happened next.

  7. Expat Phil says:

    It’s all about me me me.. Yes Hoi An has changed, (hasn’t everywhere?) but it is still the most charming city in Vietnam.. you obviously visited on a busy full moon night.. visit now (June) and you’ll see far fewer people in the old town. All over the third world foreigners are charged more than locals.. is this some surprise to you? It’s not specific to Hoi An.. and why should some old woman who earns $3 a day pay the same as some destination hopping tourist? You haven’t lost Hoi An – the local Hoi An people have lost Hoi An.. but many have attained a new-found affluence… it is they that should be lamenting the loss of any tranquility in Hoi An.. loud drunken backpackers and such.. but Hoi An certainly still has plenty of tranquil moments if you visit the town for more than one night..

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks for visiting my blog, Expat Phil, which as you spotted is about me me me … and my family. If you were more than a one-time visitor you’d be aware that my husband is a local and that’s why he was annoyed at the prospect of being charged tourist prices.

      If you care to visit my blog more than once, then you’ll probably discover that we did stay more than one night in Hoi An. Hopefully you’ll return to my blog with a more positive and friendly tone, too.

  8. Expat Phil says:

    So Vietnamese don’t try to charge foreigners different prices in Saigon or elsewhere? I mean- why is this comment even in your blog? It happens everywhere.. Saigon & Hanoi Taxi’s.. even on the official entry price to The Citadel in Hue.. Surely your local husband would already know this.. What about Hoi An’s walking streets with no bikes or cars? anywhere else like that in Vietnam? Nice beach only 4kms away.. no mention.. How about the crime in Saigon or Nha Trang compared to the safety of Hoi An? My comments were negative because your review is negative.. actually I think Hoi An is doing a pretty good job at maintaining its character despite its commercial success..

    • Barbara says:

      Why is this comment on my blog??? Well, Phil, it’s because it’s my blog and there are no rules about what I can and can’t write about. I hope you don’t go around spraying your negative attitude to everyone you meet. Or are you just a keyboard warrior when it comes to narkiness?

  9. Expat Phil says:

    Ok.. you went to Hoi An.. it’s busier than before.. and they tried to charge double pricing like they do everywhere.. fascinating.. you win..

  10. Sarah says:

    I visited Hoi An for the first time last year (April 2012) and initially I was disappointed as coming straight from Hanoi, it seemed more touristy to me. But we ended up loving it, and with three kids with us (youngest 15 months and eldest 10) it actually gave us some time to relax and take a bit of a slower pace. Everyone was very friendly, although it was disconcerting to have the locals take our baby out of my arms and then take her on a visit into the kitchen! (Which happened almost every time we sat down to eat). But even then, I came to appreciate the help.
    Interestingly, I had some of the yummiest food and some of the worst food in Hoi An.

  11. denise says:

    I see what you mean, but it doesn’t upset me, and in fact, we, especially as bloggers, should not be upset about it. I wrote a couple of blog posts about Hoi An and both got a few thousand hits, which means I’ve made lots of people want to visit.
    The locals homed in on a business opportunity, which is fare. I am not saying it’s right, but it’s just the natural flow of things with regards to tourism.

  12. Snap says:

    I love Hoi An…I don’t remember it being like this on any of our three visits, however, we didn’t frequent the tourist strips much late at night (and our last trip admittedly was 2 years ago). Opting for cafes in the backish streets. I empathise with you hopping off a long VN bus ride.

    I hope the locals do try and preserve its charm and I think if you’ve never been there before, you wouldn’t be any the wiser 😉
    Snap recently posted..Road Trip – Pak Chong to Khon Kaen

  13. […] We were tired and miserable that night and Hoi An had NOT made a good first impression. […]

  14. Karen says:

    an old post – but we have found a difference even from 2012 to today. We managed to arrive just in time for full moon festival (accidentally). The place was full of people shouting and screaming. As we walked across the new bridge we found hundreds more bars and restaurant had shown up. A foreign man was touting on the bridge, offering us cheap cocktails. When I declined he decided to offer “weed” and I declined again. He then says “ketamine?” . Disgusting. Why are they trying to turn hoi an into Thailand. What a shame….

    • Barbara says:

      Ugh, how horrible. My advice is to avoid the river area at night. Instead, wake up early and walk around the old town before the businesses open, then hire some bikes and cycle around the town, the beaches and the vegetable village. Hoi An hasn’t lost all its charm. But it’s such a rude shock to expect charm and be confronted with shouts and touts and other awful things, isn’t it?

  15. Michelle says:

    Wow, this is heart breaking! I was there in 2003 and it was the most lovely town. Barely discovered. We stayed in a gorgeous place outside of town in the rice paddies for 12USD a night and made friends with wonderful local people everywhere we went. There was a light festival of some kind the weekend we visited and local people from all around came in for it, not a bunch of Western tourists. What a shame…

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