What to say about Hoi An? The whole town is in a state of transformation. You might think that this would be tough for a UNESCO town, included on the basis of her historical significance.
Architecturally, ‘old town’ is a charming combination of various nationalities congregating here over the centuries to trade and do business. Europeans, Chinese, Indians and Japanese have consequently left their mark through the constructions left behind. Most of these buildings are charming and well maintained especially in light of the recent tourist boom.
It’s still a beautiful place, an old city by a riverside with a more than OK beach nearby, home of the Cham in past times, with archaeological remains nearby and a coffee culture of cult proportions, which of course, I love. However, man, has it changed in the 23 years since my last visit. Another Ubud, Bali not quite, but getting there.
It’s sad to say that more often than not it’s really not a good idea to return to a fondly remembered travel spot. The new Hoi An is almost unrecognisable from the old. Many would point out, I’m sure, that nostalgia always brings these types of comments and they’d be right. Somewhere, something was always better 5, 10, 20,30 years ago. Or just BEFORE. I constantly hear such remarks about my current base, Istanbul. Oh, you should have been here BEFORE – it was much BETTER! Well, maybe.
But the pace of change in Hoi An is in superdrive. Construction is everywhere with new hotels and restaurants and beauty salons and souvenir shops and tailors proliferating everywhere with little planning and environmental consultation. New traffic lights, bitumin and bridges.
At one section of coastline, a massive beachfront hotel stands abandoned, in disarray, a wreck above ground. Big bites of bricks and concrete cascade into the sea, the result of coastal erosion.
And don’t get me wrong, Hoi An’s success certainly brings a certain financial advantage to many locals. Holiday makers, domestic and foreign, bring prosperity for locals who know how to capitalise on the influx. And an influx it truly is.
Nigh-time in Hoi An is a magical place. Lanterns light up the streets and throw beguiling shadows on walls of rustic yellows, blues and pinks. But the tour buses have also arrived and it can be more than a little frustrating making your way through the crowds. Daily, buses expunge multitudes of visitors from Korea and other Asian locations not to mention the Europeans, Americans, Australians etc. that descend to make merry. And why not, the locals are friendly, the food is fabulous, the beer is cheap and the weather right now in January, perfect. It’s also Tet, or Vietnamese New Year, which means lots house painting and cleaning and neighbourhood get togethers for food and karaoke and putting old grudges to bed. Orange and yellow flowers are everywhere and signify cash and thought to bring good luck. Cumquat trees, with fruit that symbolises coinage, and marigolds, are faves.
It’s true to say also that a friend who lives here raves about the expat contingent in resident here. She speaks of a real sense of community. But she no longer visits the old town unless guests visit.
For me, Hoi An has already reached her tipping point. If not another ‘paradise lost,’ just yet, sadly it feels pretty close.