It was a beautiful afternoon in Hoi An when I began my walking tour and approached the yellow wall of an ancient house near Chua Cau (Bridge Pagoda) and Cau Nhat Ban (Japanese Covered Bridge). The sun shone on mossy tiled roofs, carved wooden doors, and other old walls down small alleys. Colourful lanterns swayed gently in the breeze and a wind-chime rang out in the distance.
My first stop was the Japanese Covered Bridge, a heritage site that acts as a symbol of Hoi An. According to a guidebook on Hoi An by author Pham Hoang Hai, the 400-year-old bridge was first built by the Japanese in Hoi An and has been restored four times, in 1817, 1865, 1917 and 1986. I was surprised by its unique architecture: a wooden pagoda located within a bridge. In the past, when Hoi An was a busy trade port, the bridge was a place for boats and ships to berth when avoiding storms.
I was in a crowd of tourists walking slowly along the busy Tran Phu Street in the ancient town, lined by beautiful pagodas and ancient houses on both sides that are now shops, restaurants, cafés and hotels. It is said that you can guess the age of these houses by their architecture. For example, a house with wooden walls, two levels, and a balcony was built in the 18th or 19th century, while one with two floors and brick walls was built at the end of 19th century or early 20th century. And if a house has two floors and brick walls in the European style it was built in the early 20th century.
I learned a lot of interesting things from visiting one ancient house that was the Duc An Chinese Medicine House. The 180-year-old residence has been fully preserved and features beautiful architecture and precious wooden furniture, paintings, horizontal lacquered boards and ceramic ware handed down through generations of owners. Duc An House was a gathering place for many patriots in the region during the patriotic movements and anti-French revolts in the early 20th century. Tam, the tour guide, reached to the ceiling and explained that the house has a secret wooden dowel but only its owner knows the exact position. When the dowel is pulled down, the whole house collapses. All of the pillars and beams were arranged and connected together scientifically. Mai, a young woman who lives with her parents in the ancient house, which her family had inherited, told me that in Hoi An a house is not only a property but also a spiritual place, and here was where she could live together with her ancestors and feel the family’s traditional values. ‘I’m very happy to live here,’ she said.
Just a few steps from Duc An House, I entered the Sa Huynh Cultural Museum, which displays objects from about 2,000 years ago that show Hoi An’s history. The ancient people of the Sa Huynh civilisation are considered to be the first owners of the Hoi An trading port, having had trading relationships with the people of China, India, and Southeast Asia. It displays hundreds of objects, including jewellery in gold and precious stones, ceramic vases, weapons, and useful tools from bronze and iron excavated from villages around Hoi An and on Cham Island. The objects on display represent the most unique collection from the Sa Huynh civilisation in Vietnam. The museum also has a rare collection of mo chum (pottery jars for burials) found from 50 different sites in Hoi An that reflect the unique burial rituals of the ancient people.
While walking along Tran Phu Street I came across a small park in a nice location with a modern design and a stone statue of a foreigner. I was curious. The figure was Polish architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowsky (1944-1997) who is known by the friendly name of Kazik by local people. He came to Vietnam in the 1980s in a cooperative program for the preservation of cultural heritage. He contributed greatly to the research conducted during Hoi An’s bid to be listed as a world cultural heritage site in 1999. After he died, the local government erected the monument in 2007 to commemorate his deeds.
An important part of Hoi An is undoubtedly its architectural heritage of ancient pagodas and assembly halls. I visited the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, which was built in 1690 and been restored many times. It’s a great example of Chinese architecture in Hoi An, featuring the sea goddess Thien Hau and goddess Thuan Phong Nhi, who is able to hear the sound of a ship even at a distance of a thousand miles, and the goddess Thien Ly Nhan, who is able to see those distant ships. I was very much impressed by the structure of the gate, which bore a curved roof carved in the shape of dragon, and the main hall, which has a large painting on its ceiling with dragons, unicorns and phoenixes. The ceiling also has incense attached to small papers with words of prayer, hung up by visitors.
For me, it’s truly exciting to wander through the small streets of Hoi An to see relics and the peaceful lives of local people or enjoy some local food at street stalls. I observed a local man sitting on the footpath arranging flowers and animals made from coconut leaves to sell to tourists and once stopped to watch a foreign man perform funny magic tricks. And, of course, I made sure not to miss my favourite hobby in Hoi An: shopping for clothes, scarves, lanterns and souvenirs. I also enjoyed Hoi An by night, sitting in a café by the Hoai River and taking in the riverside town lit splendidly by thousands of colourful lanterns along the streets and floating paper lanterns on the water.