Hoi An’s Tourism

Tourists and locals reflected in the canal in Hoi An.

Hoi An, our next destination, is a ‘traditional’ village located 30 km south of Da Nang. Imagine any quintessential tourist village with preserved architecture, art galleries, and traditional restaurants, except in the theme of Vietnam, and you’ve got a good idea of what Hoi An is like. Women in traditional dress pose beneath the curved roofing of old homes and temples. Streets are lit by handmade fabric lanterns of every color, and human-powered rickshaws shout to get past throngs of tourists loitering, buying, staring, and photographing. It is at once adorable and obnoxious, somehow simultaneously catering to every touristic whim while being touristically exhausting.

Lantern displays in Hoi An’s old town.
A floating candle-lit lantern on the canal.

Nearly everyone in Hoi An is involved in the tourism industry, and anything and everything has a price on it. You can pay a man to pull you around in a  rickshaw, for a boat ride on the town’s canal, to take a photo of you in front of a building, to get ‘tourism information’. Even walking around costs money; Hoi An’s pedestrian streets have sometimes-manned ticketing booths at every street entrance, where occasionally people will deny you entry unless you pay. You can stand there as people who are clearly other Asian tourists stream by, but they won’t let you through unless you pay. Here, it’s the inconsistency of rules, both in race and in time, that bothers me.

A man walks past a lantern display in the old town. And yes, you can also buy a lantern here. As many as you’d like.
A woman gets ready for her shift at the inconsistently-manned ticketing booths that charge you to get into old town.

Things are also a distinctly different price for you as a tourist. I arranged a fairly pricey $75 cooking class for our second day there, and in the morning our guide showed us around Hoi An’s market. She was primarily interested in discussing the market’s vegetables and kept us at arm’s length, dodging questions about herself and life here in Hoi An with silence or vague responses like “We’re poor. We need tourist money.” We switched to asking about the market to make her more comfortable and to try and get an understanding for the pricing of things, but we found her responses equally as vague. It was confusing, given that she’s probably shopped this market every day of her life. Then she bought us some snacks for a few thousand VND and it became clear why she couldn’t give us exact prices. Excited to finally have a benchmark for something, I asked her about the price. “Hmmm…” she hesitated, “For you, maybe it would be 20,000 VND.” More than three times what she had paid.

A traditional dish of prepared seafood (snails) mixed with chilis and green onions, available at the market. Our guide was unable to give us an estimated price for tourists.
The snacks she bought for us. For locals, you can get three of them for around 6,000 VND.

Though the rest of the cooking class was pleasant and uneventful, I couldn’t shake the fact that every interaction was an opportunity to put on a show and pull more money from us. We took a boat out to our guide’s small village, on an island in the Thu Bon river delta, to continue with the cooking class. They brought out an old woman and introduced her as ‘grandma’, where all of the recipes come from, and she showed us a handful of tasks in rapid succession before shuffling off exhaustedly. The local ‘shopkeep’, a man who drives his motorbike laden with random goods around the island, paid us a visit to see if we wanted anything. And after the cooking class, the guide invited us on a walk that ended up at the house of an old woman, whom the guide told us was widowed. “She sells vegetables for a living…and we all try to help her by buying something or helping her tidy up around the house. Do you want to come in?” the guide asked as she held the gate open. I was only a little ashamed when I blurted out, “No, thank you.” I was exhausted.

The travelling salesman of the island.
The ingredients of our cooking lesson.
Taking the boat back to Hoi An. The net in the background is used for nighttime fishing.

Part of this is my privilege talking. I can, after all, get onto an airplane and be welcomed in nearly any country in the world with my U.S. passport. It’s in immense privilege to be able to go somewhere and have more spending power than half of the local population. It’s a privilege for people to be excited about you coming to their country. You’re not an immigrant or drain on resources—you’re a gift to the economy and a sign of good times to come.

A woman smiles after we bought two paper lanterns from her to float in the canal.

I also don’t blame the local people for all trying to make money off of tourism. When you see your neighbor bringing in a hundred times what you are by catering to tourists, you’re going to try and do the same. And there’s no way to say who does and doesn’t get to profit off of tourism without being unfair to someone, without shutting out a group of people from the new prosperity. But when everyone does it, when every interaction you have with another human being is a transaction, you’re bound to get transaction fatigue.

Crowds of tourists in the old town.

The next day we left Hoi An, bound for Da Nang by way of a tour bus. We visit ancient Buddhist temples in the marble mountains, where just outside you could buy carved marble Buddhas to take home. We walk through a sacred Buddhist cave, embellished (recently) with scenes of Buddhist hell to liven it up for the tourist crowd. At the entrance to the cave is plaque to Vietnamese fighters. “What does it say?” I ask our guide. “Oh, it’s for soldiers who fought here against American forces. They shot down a plane,” he says absentmindedly, “But if you keep walking, it is more interesting inside. There are scenes of Buddhist hell.”

The plaque commemorating guerillas stationed here during the American War.
A demon roasts humans in a scene from ‘Buddhis hell’. I think this is the sin for eating meat or being a butcher.

We end our tour with a stop at a marble factory, one of those ‘compulsory opportunities’ to buy souvenirs that so common in tours. We take the chance to use the restroom and wander through the store, past gemstones, jewelry, and carved marble of every shape and color. We stop to stare at an ornate marble fountain and a man hurries over to us. “Want to buy it?” he asks.

A marble statue, as always, available for sale.

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