Hoi An: City of Light

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At 7pm the plane touched down in Da Nang in a flood of light. To the left, a thunderstorm raged out to sea, lighting up the sky but thankfully not our eardrums, it was too far away. Below, the fluro-lit bridge sent steams of red and blue light into the clouds and the numerous colorful lights of Da Nang sparkled in the darkness.On the ground, these lights were emanating from a series of tacky, cheaply-opulent restaurants that looked more like casino-strip clubs befitting the suburbs of Las Vegas.  An odd welcome to our weekend in Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage town on the central coast.

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We had arrived just in time for the full-moon festival, an occasion where tourists and locals float colored paper lanterns down the river – well the tourists float, the locals sell. Hoi An is a city of colored lights but unlike neighboring Da Nang with the tacky development, the color comes from the thousands of lanterns hanging from trees, hotels and restaurants throughout the city.

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A woman selling paper lanterns next to the river

Hoi An is a historic trading port that, from the 16th-19th century, was once the center of trade for Vietnam and the region. Inhabited by traders from around the world, the town architecture is a mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and French. As power and money shifted to nearby Da Nang, Hoi An became a sleepy forgotten town. The river silted up and there was very little development, preserving the historic buildings in the old center. The area was “rediscovered” by tourists in the 1980’s-90’s. Charmed by the lack of physical changes since the 1800’s, tourism increased and UNESCO preserved and restored the old buildings.  The town is now a major tourist hub than few visitors miss. Today, the town seems like a shell of what it must have been like. A museum preserved for observation but devoid of life outside the tourist trade. However, Hoi An is still a charming and interesting place with pretty beaches, a relaxed river and wonderful food.

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The historic Japanese bridge in the old town

Zack and I spent a wonderful few days exploring the old buildings which were still standing despite constant typhoons and flooding; bike riding around near-by rural islands where techno music blasted across the sleepy corn fields; walking on the beach with the hundreds of local families that come in the evening to escape the heat and relaxing by the pool, so warm from the sun it was like swimming in a bath.

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Families enjoying the beach at sunset

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