I left Hoi An with mixed emotions. Hoi An was beautiful. The people were friendly and welcoming. The wonderful surrounding areas, activities, and overall feeling of this once bustling international port turned into not-so-sleepy-but-relaxing destination. However, I couldn’t help but to contemplate the picture that hung above our beds in our room.
According to our host, this picture was taken in the late 70s or early 80s. Our host said: “Hoi An was small and nobody knew about it until a Polish architect wrote about it. Then about 20 years ago backpackers from the West started to show up, and now it is very crowded.”
The Polish man he refereed to was Kazimierz Kwiatkowski. After 40 years of war devastated Vietnam, and the Vietnamese sought international expertise to help with city planning and rebuilding. Kwiatkowski was that resource. His accomplishments in Vietnam were many, but his legacy in Hoi An lives on in many ways. Planners wanted to demolish the city and build anew. The old style cement and clay structures were old and damaged and Vietnam wanted a new beginning. He convinced the powers that be, that Hoi An was worthy of saving as is and could be updated while persevering its classic look, heritage, and culture as a coastal port town. He succeeded, and a few years later UNESCO recognized Hoi An, and more tourists flocked to the city.
What exists now is far from the town that was. “We only have a population of 150,00 but we have over 600 hotels, villas, and guest houses registered,” our host told us. During the daytime bus loads of day trippers flock from Da Nang, swelling the foot traffic and services around the city. Streams of bicycle rickshaws full of people go through Old Town. At night hawkers line the river in Old Town, selling plastic wrapped trinkets. To commemorate their experience, people can light a candle, put it in a paper lantern, and set it afloat in the river. Any number of drinks are available, complete with plastic straws and cups. Neon lights filled lanterns are everywhere. The light pollution is so strong I could only see 10-20 stars at night. The Disneylandification of Hoi An was in effect. The only thing missing was costumed characters, stage shows, and roller coasters. The effects of the previous night can be seen in the river the morning after.
There are strong upsides to the growth. There are few tall buildings, preserving the skyline. The streets in Old Town are foot traffic only in the evenings, and the overall noise level of the city, is comparatively low to other cities its size. With all the money flowing in, houses have been updated (new doors and new paint). More money coming in has facilitated more educational opportunities for children and improved health care. “We are doing much better,” our host born and raised in Hoi An said.
The double edge sword of progress has struck Hoi An. Even though it is not the city it was described by Kazimierz Kwiatkowski, it still holds charm, surprises, and a diversity of experiences. It has made some progress in the areas of city planning, but waste management is a major challenge.
A nice comprehensive guide to Hoi An (Click Here)
These challenge is not unique to Hoi An. Any site achieving UNESCO status is guaranteed to bring a huge upswing in tourism. Are the host sites prepared for the waste and ill mannered tourists along with the money?