The Venice of Vietnam

The Venice of Vietnam

Tourism in Vietnam has been on the rise for many years. Long established on the radars of so many, the country has always offered majestic natural landscapes, cultural discovery and historical significance.

I go regularly, as I find much of the country holds rare and often surprising beauty, the citizens warm, friendly and welcoming.

One of the jewels of Vietnam is Hoi An, on the country’s central coast. On a recent trip, I was keen to see the city, known for its well-preserved old town, dating back to the 16th Century. It’s an ancient time capsule cut through with canals, which was once one of the country’s most important port cities. Hoi An’s history is a true melting pot, reflected in its architecture, a mix of different eras and styles, from wooden Chinese shophouses and temples to beautiful French colonial buildings and intricate Vietnamese tube houses. 

Hoi An is well and truly discovered, now a part of the majority of tourist itineraries, and therein lies the problem. A very big one. More than 4.5 million visitors now come to Hoi An each year, with the number increasing exponentially.

The old town itself is only a very small area of the city. It comprises of only a few streets, in a central, (mostly) traffic free zone. This is what all the tourists come to see. The whole of the town has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One would consider that a positive thing, with strict building codes and preservation of the buildings in their original state. 

But how does such a small, heritage listed old town cope with this number of tourists? Hoi An doesn’t. Many of the visitors are day-trippers, coming in on huge coaches, spending only a few hours in the town, crowding the streets in large tour-guide led groups, snapping endless photographs with every kind of intrusive selfie stick, scrambling over each other, more concerned with the taking that perfect selfie than actually seeing the building or temple they are in front of.

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The old town is suffocated every day. The beauty of the architecture and the old buildings is almost impossible to see, they have all been swallowed up, overflowing with cheap, tacky souvenirs, which spill out into the street, every nook of the beautiful buildings vomiting out all manner of junk.

Everywhere are the lanterns, the famed symbol of the old town. As beautiful as they are at night, there are thousands of cheap, poorly made ones in every second shopfront, sold as authentic to any willing tourist, but far, far from it.

There have been many recent articles about the impact of tourism around the world. The problem with Hoi An isn’t as much about residents being driven out, it’s about how the residents have “adapted” to tourism and how it has changed the nature of the city, most likely forever.

Realising that the tourist dollar is easier to obtain than earning money from original, traditional crafts, many of Hoi An’s residents are playing the game. I saw several old women, in traditional dress, walking through the old town in their conical hats with shoulder poles, normally set for the markets. Now, they stop for eager tourist’s photographs and receive money for doing so.

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The adapted use of traditional round basket boats used by fisherman is another example. In Hoi An, I saw these zooming down the river packed with tourists, having become a sort of amusement park ride.

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There are so many clothing tailors in the old town, and the spruking of tourists is relentless. Everywhere you hear, “Buy from me!”, “we shine your shoes” “make tailor clothes”, “you want massage?” 

If you really want to “see” the ancient town, dawn is the only time of day when you will get a sense of what it once was, as then, it’s mostly devoid of tourists, except the keenest of photographers.

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Venture there from mid-morning onwards and it becomes the frenzied, money-grabbing tourist-oriented mecca where all semblance of history disappears right before your very eyes. 

If you thought this article was going to praise the town and romanticise it with a comparison to the unique beauty of Venice, you were wrong. The comparison with Venice is all about ugliness. Venice is a city utterly ruined by tourism. There, residents have been forced out. In Hoi An, the residents remain, many of them embracing tourism in the worst way, by exploitation and realising the value of the dollar. 

The other, unfortunate similarity to Venice is the smell. All around the canals, Hoi An stinks. There is garbage along the shores and the stench of sewerage from the drains. This and the refuse of millions of tourists makes wandering through the town very unpleasant, particularly during the relentless heat of the day.

Sadly, Hoi An is tourism at its ugliest. This was the worst example of the result of mass tourism I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly, the worst in Asia. Much control is needed and regulation necessary. I could not visit there again, I was repelled by the old town and how it had lost its historical beauty almost entirely.

What a shame this is. Hoi An is yet another city that looks to be unsalvageable from uncontrolled tourism. So many cities have gone down this path, as more people travel to tick off places of cultural significance from their bucket lists. If you want to see Hoi An, I suggest you stay well outside of the city, and venture in just after sunrise, wander the old town when you still have a chance to have the streets to yourself, with the souvenir shops closed so you can really see the beautiful buildings as you should. Then leave well before the ferocious hordes arrive after gorging on their late buffet breakfasts.