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Vu Pham Van | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van | © Culture Trip

Hoi An: Exploring Vietnam's Yellow City

Picture of Piumi Rajapaksha
Updated: 5 January 2018

Just south of Da Nang lies the magical little yellow town of Hoi An. It is a coastal town that lies on the mouth of the Thu Bon River. Despite having beautiful beaches and unique countryside villages, it is the unique Ancient Town that will make you fall in love with Hoi An.

Hoi An was once an active and very important Southeast Asian trading port from the 15th through the 19th centuries. During that time, the town was bustling with foreign traders, most of whom were Japanese, Chinese, and Dutch. They took part in all sorts of trades such as silk, china, pottery, and spices.

Throughout the following centuries, trade may have declined, but the city has preserved its culture through its architecture, traditions, memories, and people’s smiles. Now, Hoi An has become a favorite tourist destination among those that travel to Vietnam.

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Walking through the narrow streets, you will find rows and rows of shop houses, typically two-story establishments with homes on the top floor and shops on the ground floor, as well as Chinese-tiled roofs and colorful lanterns hanging from rusty ceilings. You will see men on rickshaws peddling with curious tourists along the alleyways and little local ladies in their traditional ao ba ba, or “street pajamas,” and non laa “Vietnamese conical hat,” selling bright-colored vegetables, little trinkets, or local delights in baskets skillfully balanced on their shoulders on a bamboo pole.

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It all blends so perfectly well together that the Hoi An Ancient Town somewhat resembles an outdoor art gallery that is extremely photogenic and effortlessly alluring.

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A striking detail is that many of the buildings in the town are bathed in a distinctive golden-yellow hue. It is like the city is always wrapped in sunshine. There are three reasons as to why this could be. People in this region of the world believe that yellow is a symbol of royalty and superiority, and thus, they paint significant architectural monuments in various shades of yellow. Also, yellow symbolizes luck, pride, and prosperity to the Vietnamese.

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The final reason is a little more practical: yellow absorbs less heat and thus, it is better suited to Vietnam’s hot and humid tropical weather.

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The Hoi An sunrise is particularly charming—the sunlight illuminates the yellow walls, and the whole city begins to wake up from its slumber. You will hear the sounds of brooms sweeping houses and streets, birds chirping excitedly, bells on bicycles ringing, vendors setting up their stalls for the day, and the laughter of school children as they greet their friends during breakfast.

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Grabbing a banh mi, or “baguette sandwich,” as breakfast, and a Vietnamese coffee on the sidewalk, both adding up to a little over a dollar, will fill you up for the rest of your walk.

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Hoi An has nearly 1,000 ancient houses for you to explore, and of these, 844 are included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. Many of these have been turned into museums, shops, cafes, or artists’ workshops. The city is full of artists, craftsmen, tailors, and shoemakers, to name but a few talents. Tailor shops are everywhere and outnumber all other businesses here two to one. A common travel bucket list item you can get ticked off here is getting an item tailored to your tastes and shape. It will be a great memory to take back home.

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Because of Hoi An’s protected status, there are very strict building regulations in place, meaning it has retained the traditional wooden architecture of the past. The original street plans, including canals, bridges, and old houses with green moss growing over their yellow walls cannot be broken down. Hoi An even escaped the war almost completely unscathed. As you wander through the alleyways you will feel as if you have gone back in time.

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Among the ancient houses, there are many you can visit that are not stores. These are the Phung Hung Old House, Duc An Old House, Museum of Sa Huynh Culture, and Quang Thang Ancient House, to name a few. Some of these still have families living on the upper floor, but they are kind enough to open their doors for you to explore the ground sections, which have been turned into displays of old artifacts, books, and art.

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You need a ticket to get into these homes, and this package ticket can be bought at every entrance to the Ancient Town. With each ticket, you are able to visit five places among the 21 sightseeing houses. It will cost you a small fee of 120,000 VND (5.27 USD).

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Take your time wandering around aimlessly without a destination in mind. This way, you will come across unique alleyways and cafes that you can stop by for a refreshing cup of ca phe sua da, or  “Vietnamese iced coffee.” Take a coin with you, and assign directions to each side. Flip it every time you come across a fork in the road. If you get lost, do not worry, most locals here speak a fair amount of English to be able to point you in the right direction. They are very welcoming so do not be afraid to approach them.

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Hoi An will undoubtedly leave an imprint in your memory, with its gentle demeanor and poetic charm. It will be one of those places you will return to in the future that remains exactly the same as you remember it. It’s a place like no other in this world.

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Vu Pham Van | © Culture Trip