© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Hacking Hoi An for explorers & photographers

3 minutes to read

Hoi An is a famous old town in Central Vietnam. It is packed with history, consists mainly of architectural gems, and looks more attractive than Xanadu. Or so the tourist brochures claim. In reality, it is packed with tour groups, consists mainly of souvenir shops, and attracts crowds of Instagram devotees. The town, unfortunately, has been restored beyond all recognition and converted into a tourist ghetto. Does it mean it should be skipped? No. A skilled photographer could still squeeze a couple of worthy shots out of its streets, and there are plenty of craftsmen to observe at work, but most importantly, it makes a great base for exploring the vicinity.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Hacking Hoi An

If you want to see something relatively undiscovered, you are in the wrong place. But if you would settle for something merely beautiful, or worthy of a shot, you only need to beat the crowds. The easiest way to do it is to avoid the main streets and weave a random itinerary through the little alleys, often so narrow some broad-shouldered westerners may only fit in sideways. This is where all the gems are - buildings that the restoration teams did not know about, miniature family-run cafes in private patios, sunbeams coming in at odd angles from the tiny sliver of sky squeezed between two walls. Another option would be to venture before sunrise or after midnight - walk around long enough, and both would be true. Some unique photographic works have been produced during floods, but it is hard to catch one, and the town now is much more flood-proof. Finally, you can focus on want happens inside Hoi An's workshops or make forays out of town.

Hoi An, Central Vietnam
Hoi An, Central Vietnam
Old Town, Hội An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam
© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Lanterns and pottery

One famous and heavily promoted industry of Hoi An is lantern making. Dozens of craftsmen live and work both in the old center and throughout the modern neighborhoods, and most can be visited. Some, especially the ones located in the tourist areas, may become too persistent, even aggressive, to push their products. Use discretion. The process of fashioning a wooden or bamboo frame, then covering it with colorful silk, is very interesting to observe, and extremely photogenic. Another craft worth seeing is traditional pottery. For that, head a few km west of town to Thanh Ha village. A part of it had already been adapted for mass tourism and has nothing interesting left to see, but walk through it, and you will come across the old workshops, each belonging to a family of potters. Jars, plates and vases are still made on a throwing wheel and fired in kilns, all-natural.

Thanh Ha pottery village, Hoi An
Thanh Ha pottery village, Hoi An
Phạm Phán, Thanh Hà, Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam
© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Fishing the Vietnamese way

Another side of traditional Vietnamese lifestyle, perhaps the most attractive to a photographer, is fishing. Forming an extended "S" along the seashore, Vietnam has been a fishermen country since before it had actually become a country. People here have invented countless ingenious methods of extracting aquatic lifeforms from their liquid, shifting home, and quite a few can be observed around Hoi An. One of them, typical for Central Vietnam, is large nets raised and lowered by a sophisticated contraption of poles, ropes and wrenches, the dome net. Those can be viewed from Cua Dai bridge, and since the river here flows west to east, you will get the rising or setting sun shining through the wet nets and silhouetting the wooden mechanisms both at sunrise and sunset - just choose the appropriate side of the bridge. This spot is clearly of more interest to a photographer than to a casual traveler. For the latter, a nice alternative is to take a coracle ride at Rung Dua Bay Mau. This is a dedicated tourist attraction, so do not expect to feel much like an explorer, but this one is designed mainly for domestic tourists. The trip takes you through narrow canals in the thick nipa palm growth, then into the river, where boatman unrolling long chains of fish traps - another local technology - can be usually seen. Both spots are a few km east of town, within walking distance from each other.

Cua Dai bridge, Hoi An
Cua Dai bridge, Hoi An
Cầu Cửa Đại, Duy Nghĩa, Duy Xuyên, Quảng Nam, Vietnam
© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin
Rung Dua Bay Mau, Hoi An
Rung Dua Bay Mau, Hoi An
ĐX18, Cẩm Thanh, Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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