YOUR INSIDER'S TRAVEL GUIDE BLOG TO HOI AN
IN VIETNAM 🇻🇳 SINCE 2008
HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL HOI AN
HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL HOI AN TOP THINGS TO DO IN HOI AN, VIETNAM
Hoi An has something for every kind of traveler: UNESCO World Heritage Sites, custom tailoring, unspoiled beaches, gourmet restaurants, traditional crafts, and much more.
This picturesque town is a wonder and a beautiful example of a Southeast Asian trading port straight out of the fifteenth century. So far the authorities have avoided the temptation to allow modern development to intrude on Hoi An as the city’s attraction comes from the combination of its French colonial architecture and old-world charm. Once the commercial capital of the Cham Empire, Hoi An is now the garment center of Vietnam. Whether you’re looking for a reproduction of your favorite ensemble, an outfit clipped from a fashion magazine, or simply a tailored suit, Hoi An is the place to shop.
It’s easy to arrive in Hoi An and be overtaken by your quest for a new wardrobe as your sightseeing agenda falls by the wayside, but don’t miss out on some of the ancient treasures tucked away. In addition to the countless old houses featuring well-maintained traditional architecture, there is a wealth of colorful markets, grand halls, natural formations, stunning pagodas, and fishing villages just a motorbike ride away.
This may be a traditional city better known for its shopping and historic architecture, but that does not preclude the presence of quality restaurants, innovative cuisine, and informative cooking classes. The food scene is alive and thriving, a magnet for gourmets and amateur eaters alike. While in town, make sure to try the town’s specialty, Cao Lau Hoi An, made from. Top off you’re touring with a trip to the coast and a dip in the ocean at the nearby Cua Dai beach, or a visit to Thanh Ha village – 3 km to the west of Hoi An – where friendly villagers are more than willing to teach you traditional pottery.
Hoi An is most picturesque during Tet Nguyen Tieu, which usually falls around 15 January. This marks a hugely important festival in Hoi An, and residents always put enormous effort into making it the most colorful, meaningful, and cultural festival in Vietnam. It is the time when good food, traditional music, and performance art are on every corner, and hundreds of lanterns hang on almost every street. If that’s not impressive enough for you, then stroll to the river, where thousands of lanterns float toward the ocean. Get yourself a lantern, make a wish, and drop it into the drink. Who knows, maybe your wish will come true!
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HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL HOI AN HOI AN MORPHING TO KEEP UP WITH CHANGING TIMES IN VIETNAM
A stunning UNESCO World Heritage, Hoi An for world travelers.
Just recently, Vogue Australia writer Edwina Hart described the quaint town as one of “Vietnam’s dreamiest destinations”, “skirted by lush rice paddies and mere moments from the unspoiled sands of the coastline’s best beaches”.
Rumour has it that the celebrated Japanese-covered bridge in Hoi An’s old town is scheduled for renovation shortly, but till that happens, the show continues on a daily basis for curious tourists. The bridge, one of the last few surviving temple bridges in the world, was built in the late 16th century to connect the Japanese and Chinese trader enclaves on adjacent ends.
To combat increasing sewage flow issues in the bridge’s vicinity, a new wastewater facility with a total daily processing capacity of 2000m3 was completed after 19 months of construction. The total expenditure of approximately 1.1 billion Japanese yen came from Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) scheme. An estimated 1000 residents in five surrounding wards will benefit from this change.
Hoi An: Vietnam’s Most Livable City?
In October 2018, the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) sponsored 178,000 euros to fund a community-focused master plan which aims to transform Hoi An into a bicycle-friendly city.
The master plan, which was born through mutual collaboration between the People’s Committee of Hoi An and Health Bridge Canada (https://healthbridge.ca/), aims to introduce bicycle lanes and bicycle sharing schemes throughout the city. The master plan is being helmed by Health Bridge Canada and is the newest plan to enter a greater umbrella scheme known as the “Vietnam: Livable Cities” project. Other key elements of the scheme include another master plan that aims to create 79 new playgrounds for children by 2020 and to ensure that every child has access to a playground near their home.
In an effort to promote occupational efficiency, the Hoi An Center for Cultural Heritage Management and Preservation launched an audio guide system for visitors in November 2018. The system will be available in six languages including Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, French, and English, and was described by vice-director Mr. Pham Phu Ngoc as the first time that modern technology is being used as a tool to educate visitors about Hoi An’s history.
Hoi An at the Forefront of Environmental Initiatives in Vietnam
Cu Lao Cham, a group of eight islands 20 km off the coast of Hoi An, has been steadfast with its efforts to keep the islands plastic-free. Ten years ago, Hoi An’s Party Chief Mr. Nguyen Su swore that he would “rescue the islands from drowning in a sea of plastic bags”, a potential disaster that might have resulted from a great influx of visitors since the early 2000s. The islands, popular with tourists as a day trip destination from Hoi An’s old town, have benefited greatly from the unexpected birth of a souvenir industry that focuses on biodegradable bags made from materials such as papyrus. In what might possibly be an attempt to mimic Cu Lao Cham’s environmentally friendly success, nearby Da Nang City launched a campaign in November 2018 to encourage residents and visitors to “Say No” to single-use plastic products in a bid to reduce pollution and waste treatment overheads.
The real estate scene in Hoi An is also receiving well-deserved attention from investors who are eyeing numerous projects sprouting in areas surrounding its scenic ancient town. Casamia Hoi An is one of the newest recently introduced projects, sporting villas set in a Venetian-style boardwalk neighborhood located right beside Cam Thanh commune’s beautiful Nipa Palm biosphere reserve area. A mere five minutes’ drive from Hoi An’s ancient town and An Bang beach, wealthy homeowners will also have easy access to their private yachts parked right outside their doorsteps. The property is being designed by a famed architect, Mr. Vo Trong Nghia, in collaboration with MIA Design Studios which is also based in Ho Chi Minh City. Vo Trong Nghia’s work has been described as 21st-century green and sustainable architecture amalgamated with local Asian materials and expression.
City Planning Changing the Face of Hoi An
Construction for one of central Vietnam’s wildest gaming projects, Hoiana, commenced on 17 August 2017 and has been proceeding as planned. The US$4 billion project will cover an area of 1000 hectares and will include retail space, restaurants, and recreational facilities such as a golf course and a water park. After some initial obstacles which involved securing a loan from a local bank, Hong Kong-based Suncity Group finally acquired a 34% stake in the project on 29 August 2018 and has thus become a major driving force and decision maker behind the project alongside VinaCapital Group and Chow Tai Fook Enterprises Ltd. from Hong Kong. Although local Vietnamese are not permitted to gamble in their home country, Hoiana is scheduled to open in 2019 and it is believed that Suncity Group’s expertise in luring high-stake punters from mainland China to its venues in Macau will make Hoiana very profitable.
Last but not least, perhaps the most stunning development pertaining to Hoi An is a recent summoning of investors by Danang City’s Department of Planning and Investment to assist in the development of an urban rail system that will connect Danang International Airport with Hoi An’s city center. The planned 33 km line will run along the region’s sandy beaches and is estimated to cost a total of VND15 trillion (US$650 million), part of which will be funded via the Official Development Assistance (ODA) scheme as well as the Public Private Partnership (PPP) program which serves as a channel for private investors to invest in projects helmed by government agencies.
HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL HOI AN LOCAL INSIGHT: HOI AN
Travel to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, if your idea of fun is relaxing picturesque settings and good beaches.
The city was showing signs of getting overly busy before the pandemic, but such is the price to pay when a gem gets discovered. However, the low season here does not mean bad weather, and if you go soon, it is still empty now in 2022. From May to July, the crowds thin, but the weather remains perfect. Diving conditions are at their best and hotel prices are as cheap as anywhere.
The old part of Hoi An is, of course, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many visitors come for this reason. Entry into the old town is via the Covered Japanese Bridge; the star of so many posters and postcards. It is very pleasant to walk round this part of Hoi An and will afford you many photo opportunities and some of the cheapest beers in the world.
“From May to July, the crowds thin, but the weather remains perfect.”
Over the last 20 years, Hoi An has developed a highly successful tailoring business. In the time the number of tailors’ shops has risen from just a few to 400. No matter which hotel you stay at, they will recommend the “best” one. Truth be told, many are much of a muchness. In fact, many outsource the work to the same central tailoring factories. It is possible to get excellent clothes made at incredibly cheap prices. Some will claim to do the job in 24 hours, but it’s always best to allow three days and several fittings; the stitching will benefit from it. Good recommendations would be Yaly, Kimmy, or A Dong Tailors. The other big industry here is the manufacture of silk lanterns. They are everywhere and really do make Hoi An look special in the evenings.
Hire a motorbike to get around town, it is the best way to travel. A word of warning though, check any bike thoroughly before leaving the shop. Many have no brakes and/or lights, they will change it if you insist, but always better to get it right, the first time. Try different shops.
The most popular beach here is Cua Dai, but it can get overcrowded, and noisy and is suffering from a certain amount of beach erosion at the moment. However, just 4 km out of town you will come across a casuarina-lined white sandy beach, called An Bang. On the way out to it, stop off at Cafe 339 and enjoy terrific food and a family-run atmosphere. This beach is much nicer and has one of the best bars in town, La Plage. Driftwood Cafe does the finest wood-fired pizzas in town, try the Peking Duck Pizza, it’s a real winner. Other nearby restaurants offer fantastic seafood selections. The Cham Islands, just offshore, provide a scenic backdrop.
For a really great wine bar in town, try the White Marble. Downstairs houses an excellently stocked cellar. Upstairs is a superb restaurant. For a better restaurant setting though, there are other really good ones by the waterfront. They make for a very picturesque setting when the sun goes down and the lanterns light up. Possibly the best here and indeed as good as any in town would be Mango Rooms.
“Driftwood Cafe does the finest wood-fired pizzas in town, try the Peking Duck Pizza.”
HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL HOI AN FAMILY TRIP IN VIETNAM – HOI AN ANCIENT TOWN
By Kathleen Brown
Vietnam’s Family trip in Hoi An ancient town
Hoi An is an ancient town where everything seems to move at a languid pace compared to what we’ve encountered in the Mekong Delta and HCMC. For the visitor, it is a journey back in time to an age when many cultures– Vietnamese, Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese inhabited the major port town and each left its imprint. Lanterns, low-slung houses washed in mustard yellow paint, ornate pagodas, wooden assembly halls, and the “famous” Japanese bridge are just some of the remarkable legacy which earned this wonder of a place its UNESCO World Heritage designation.
It is a treasure box of a town full of silk products, woodcarvings, lanterns, paintings, and a story unlike any other. The first thing we notice – there are no horns blaring, it’s all bells, hushed tones, and river breezes. One can’t but help to feel a deep reverence for this ancient place where the ancestors created goods, traded them and enriched the far-away world with silks, spices, wood, rice, and metals. And again, it all occurred because of the geography of the place. It had water, boats, merchants, and traders much like the Mekong region.
Central Vietnam continues to offer remarkable commerce, unique coastal destinations for historic and cultural touring of cities and preserved ancient ruins as well as a gracious and hospitable environment for rest and exploration. It is here in HoiAn that we discover a shop called Metiseko. Described in its own literature as an eco-chic lifestyle, it’s a fashion and homeware destination. But what does this mean?
Metiseko is a French word merge.”Metis,” means a mix of cultures and “eko”, suggests an ecological ethos. The company merges European and Vietnamese sensibilities honoring both Eastern and Western styles and designs. Its clothing, bedding and home design products are 100% organic silk and cotton made in a sustainable and socially responsible fashion.
Prints on exquisite silk with original images, such as dragonflies, bamboo or Asian talismans reflect Vietnam’s unique stories, images and cultural touchstones. Before departing my sister-in-law Anne selects two gorgeous silk infinity scarves intending them for gifts. On second thought— maybe one gift, one gift to self
HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL HOI AN FAMILY TRIP IN VIETNAM – EPISODE 4: HOI AN COUNTRYSIDE
By Kathleen Brown
Family trip in Vietnam – Hoi An Countryside, Life in the Slow Lane
To get a true sense of how people live in the countryside of Vietnam, all you have to do is take a bicycle tour of the Kam Kim Commune and Kim Bong Village, just across the waters from bustling Hoi An. We challenged the chaos of traffic on the the busy Hoi An streets, dodging motorcyclists and bicyclists whizzing by, to make our way to a ferry that would transport us to the island. It was a crowded ride, sitting elbow to elbow with local residents who were going or coming from work. One woman took an interest in our children, and by the end of the short ride she had translated our life story for all the commuters.
Reaching our destination, we peddled down country roads, intersecting rice fields and croplands, encountering water buffalo and peddling through villages and past holy pagodas. We were invited to visit the home of a basket boat maker -85 years old, and still working to support his family. Generations look after each other in this country — grandparents and parents living with children, and caring for each other.
With the help of one assistant, it would take 20 days to weave a circular boat, which would be sold for approximately $200. We then continued on to the carpentry village, to see first hand the skilled craftsmen carving statues of Buddha, furniture with mother-of-pearl inlay, and other trinkets to be sold at the market.
We visited a family whose business was to weave reed mats that would be stretched across bed frames to bring rest to this weary, hard-working community. We saw the fermentation of rice wine to quench the thirst of the neighbours. And finally, we peddled to a boat yard, where three large wooden fishing boats were under construction to be sold to the local fishermen. This stop provided Peter the chance to save a piece of charcoal from the fires, which he would later use as a piece of coal to place under his sister’s pillow on Christmas Eve!
This is an industrious country of hard-working people, who let nothing go to waste – and who revel in family and caring for each other. As our guide explained, the people in this village are poorer than poor, but it was clear that they had riches beyond measure in their family life and caring for each other.
HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL HOI AN FAMILY TRIP IN VIETNAM – HOI AN COOKING CLASS
By Kathleen Brown
Hoi An Cooking Class: With Love From Market to Table.
Ok, I admit it. I do most all of the cooking for my family, but knowing how much our identity as a trans-racial family is tied to food, I thought it would be valuable to immerse ourselves in a Hoi An cooking class to learn to prepare some Vietnamese dishes. A secondary benefit might be other willing and capable hands in my kitchen. I can hope!
As a child, my family’s experience of Chinese food was Chungking chow mien in a can and our Italian was Chef Boyardee spaghetti with meatballs and ravioli – also canned. The American kitchen of the sixties and seventies was a celebration of the freeze-dried, canned, bottled, Swanson TV dinners and automats– a packaging wasteland. Most of the fruits I ate in as a child were canned: pineapple, peaches and pears. Fast forward some thirty years and the 21stcentury has ushered in a remarkable farm to table movement, organic production and an exciting “slow food” movement in the USA, Europe and elsewhere. The defining movements of this century are the internet technology revolution and quite possibly, the fresh, local and “clean food” movement.
Our class appropriately begins in Hoi An’s market. There our guide shows us longan, durian, jackfruit, dragon fruit, water apples, pineapples, peppers, onions, morning glories, coriander and numerous greens–both describing their importance and how to select for quality. Warned about theft in the marketplace, Peter stands like a sentinel at John’s side guarding his camera and our purses. He lets his guard down only to receive tasty samples of dried banana, coconut and peanuts from a kindly, persistent vendor.
The hands-on portion of the class deposits us in a “cooking show” of sorts. Our chef and teacher stands at a cooking table with an overhead mirror before some 45 chefs-in-training, each of us at our own prep and cooking station. Then the fun begins!
Within the two-hour class we prepare our very own lunch, devourit, learning to prepare sauces, slice and chop, marinate, sauté and grill our way into the exciting, yin-yang of Vietnamese cuisine. It’s a sensual tour of sorts — visual, auditory, tasting, touching and best of all, the scent of things, prepared with love and cheer. I believe I’ve inched at least Peter a bit closer to the kitchen counter! Hurray! It’s a start.
HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL HOI AN RÉHAHN: PHOTOGRAPHER TURNED CURATOR FOR VIETNAM MINORITY MUSEUM
Rehahn Images and Minority Tribes in Vietnam
Réhahn isn’t here yet but his work precedes him. The photographer’s Saigon gallery is located at the top of the same narrow staircase that leads to the indie-cool and well-frequented l’Usine café. Just beyond the doorway, giving us a glimpse of l’Usine’s cakes du jour and shiny pro coffee gear, is the gallery aesthetically packed with row after row of Réhahn’s photographs of ethnic minorities and jewel-toned landscapes of Sapa and other wild areas in Vietnam.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Réhahn, I guarantee you’ve seen his work before. His style, a combination of fine-art portraits and documentary, have made him a name to know in the photography world. He has been featured in more than 500 articles and interviews and his biography reads like a who’s who of the international press: National Geographic, BBC, Condé Nast Traveler, Forbes and Paris Match amongst others. Entering his Couleurs d’Asie gallery feels like a step into an intimate space, each of the framed subjects communicating in unison, demanding a tête-à-tête with the viewer.
From the backdrop of a stark white wall, An Phuoc, a young girl with unexpectedly blue eyes, stares out at us. From another wall, Madame Xong, one of Réhahn’s most legendary subjects, covers her mouth with her hand, blunt fingernails dyed a hennah brown. Her eyes, that we can’t avoid staring into, are surrounded by a series of interminable lines each one fanning out and revealing the smile that her hand has concealed.
This photograph is part of a series in which dozens of subjects playfully obscure their mouths behind their hands. Réhahn calls these portraits ‘Hidden Smiles’ and they portray a sort of accidental and utterly ageless beauty. Other lesser known photographs show work-worn hands pigmented with dye, fingertips tinted an unsettling indigo blue. Or an old Cuban woman, head topped with a red flower wreath, puffing on a cigar and staring into the camera as if daring the viewer to cross her (rehahnphotographer.com/portfolio/portraits-cuba).
It has been said that when Réhahn photographs the ethnic minorities of Vietnam, he manages to capture the soul of his subjects through his camera, and standing in the centre of the gallery with each personage vying for attention, this statement runs through my mind as well. These photographs have solidified Réhahn’s career but they are not the only thing that drives him.
A Museum for Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities
In January 2017, Réhahn opened his first museum—the Precious Heritage Museum in Hoi An. With 500 m² of open space, the museum presents photographs that tower two metres high, traditional stories and music as well as the traditional garments and hats from each tribe that the photographer has collected over the course of his research. It is free to the public. For Réhahn, photographing the ethnic minorities of Vietnam has a larger purpose than simply creating a lovely and unusual image for someone’s wall.
Yet, even with this goal in mind there are some critical voices that deem Réhahn’s work to be overly nostalgic. The subjects, in the opinions of some, are exaggerated and posed in a way as to suggest a Vietnam that no longer exists. The fact that Réhahn’s photographs have sold for record prices in Vietnam compounds the issue and despite the assertion that all of the proceeds from these photographs have gone to pay for the museums success breeds conversation and conversation can beget controversy.
Réhahn turns down many interviews for exactly this reason. From his website, these words: “Réhahn is an artist who is passionate about his appreciation of Vietnamese culture and heritage. His work is a documentation of the beauty that surrounds him and is not up for political debate. Thank you for being respectful of the sensitivities within this beautiful and rich culture.” Yet, when Réhahn does agree to talk for an article about minority tourism in Vietnam,
he doesn’t loll in the safe area of camera equipment and photography techniques; he willingly delves into the deepest backroads of Vietnam, the off-path locations where tribes can be found residing on mountaintops and hidden valleys—the places whose very inaccessibility has managed to keep the cultural traditions and craftsmanship of ethnic minorities alive.
A Reluctant Artist; A Passionate Anthropologist
I leave the hushed space of the Couleurs D’Asie gallery and find a table at l’Usine. Réhahn arrives a few minutes later. He shakes my hand and introduces himself with a soft French accent. He apologises for being late. He’s been busy preparing his next trip. Later that day, he is planning on travelling to the Himalayan region of India to meet the Ladakhi tribes. Tribes that fellow photojournalist, Jimmy Nelson, also documented.
In contrast to many of Réhahn’s subjects who look at the camera with bright candour, the photographer has a tendency to avert his eyes as he speaks. Staring at a fixed point in the distance, Réhahn ruminates on Vietnam, cultural identity and why cultural preservation is essential. He is careful as we speak, wary of his words being taken out of context or misunderstood but he makes one thing clear: he has more than just a passing interest in the people he photographs.
Part anthropologist, part artist and in some cases an honorary family member, Réhahn is passionate and protective about the connection he has gained with the people he encounters. When Réhahn photographs the ethnic minorities of Vietnam he enters into their sacred space and strives to become more than just a passing note in it.
He waits for our drinks to come, the café slowly filling with the morning breakfast crowd and the scent of pancakes, before warming into the conversation. “I’m a people person”, he says. “I love interacting. I love culture. Photography is a way to approach people. But, photography is not the main thing in my life. Some people only focus on the type of camera that they use.
I’m not interested in talking about that because I think it’s just a tool.” Being expected to talk solely about his photography equipment is a source of frustration for Réhahn. Asking an artist about their gear is par for the course, but Réhahn is more interested in delving into the deeper picture, so to speak.
“In my work there are two different types of photography”, he explains. “There is fine art photography and documentary photography. I have to do fine art because that is how I get income and that is how I drive my project. I mean, I like to do it but I prefer documentary. “Some people do wedding photography to get income to follow their hobby. Me, I do fine art.
Some people don’t understand, they say, ‘Oh you sell photos of ethnic people and you make money’ and I say, ‘No. I’ve been working for seven years researching, and to create this project I have to sell limited edition photos. That is how I can create my museum.’”
In addition to the museum, Réhahn has launched a free app entitled “Precious Heritage” to document the minority tribes. Once downloaded, it gives access to the stories of all the tribes, the map that shows where they are, their traditional music. You can listen to children singing in their native language or download an iPhone photo background.
“What brought me to this project is that I love culture. I love history and I want to understand. In France, we have many cultural museums, so perhaps it’s part of my culture too to preserve, to keep and to love the history of culture.”
49 Out of 54 Vietnam’s Tribes
Réhahn first came to Vietnam in 2007 with a French NGO called Enfants du Vietnam. He sponsored two girls from Hội An to help them go to school and then wanted to meet them to have a more meaningful connection. “When we came, we fell in love with Hội An and this family. We decided to come back each year to spend time with them.” Réhahn pauses to laugh, “Finally, I said to my wife, ‘It’s better here. Why do we keep going back to France?’ ”
In May 2011, Réhahn and his family moved to Vietnam. They decided to discover a new region of the country and chose Sapa. “I expected to take photos of the landscape,” Réhahn says, “but instead I came back with photos of the people. People wearing the Hmong skirts and the Red Dao hats.” Réhahn didn’t set out to become a photographer focused on the ethnic minorities of Vietnam but he fell in love with the culture, the colours and especially the people.
This was the beginning of what would turn into a project spanning more than seven years. At the time of this article, Réhahn has met 49 out of the 54 tribes that exist in Vietnam. “When I started, I didn’t talk much about doing this project because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to meet the 54 [ethnic tribes]. Now, I have 49 documented so I see that I can finish this project.” These minority villages are not always easy to access. It took Réhahn three years to see one of the tribes because he needed permission from the Vietnamese army. Finally a stroke of luck came his way. VTV (a Vietnamese television station) featured the photographer in a documentary and secured the consent.
“It’s a small village. The smallest ethnic group in Vietnam, only 376 people (according to a 2009 census report). The chief of the village gave me a costume for the museum,” Réhahn says with pride. “I’m also building another museum for one particular tribe that I love—the Co Tu. I use all of my money for the museum. (The money from the sale of Réhahn’s highest priced photographs “Best Friends” and “Madam Xong” went directly to the creation of this museum.) Everything is free all the time so that we can open this information to as many people as possible.”
Completing the Circle and Seeking a Life Reset
The museum is part of what Réhahn calls his “Giving Back Project”. He describes the project as a circle—from the inception of the photograph to the selling of a print to the moment that Réhahn closes the circle by giving something back. He has paid school fees for the children of his subjects, offered cataract surgery and even purchased a new boat for a woman who made her living selling wares in a floating market.
“They welcome me like family,” Réhahn says. “I come every year. I pay school fees for all the kids. They give me drawings, they offer me pieces of pottery. It’s a story, its not only a photograph. It’s not just about the ego of the photographer. It’s so much more than that.”
Our conversation turns away from Réhahn’s work and onto the subject of the article: minority tourism and whether or not it is ethical and beneficial to the local population. Réhahn pauses as the waitress brings another round of coffees. His face takes on the meditative look I’d grown accustomed to. “Sapa is very complex.
The bad kind of tourism is when people don’t even go into the villages to buy the handicrafts or to see the culture.” I’m interested in what Réhahn thinks about experiential tourism. There are travellers out there who are looking for more than just a peek at a culture from the sidelines of a homogenised tour. Some tourists want a trip that transcends.
Réhahn often meets people who come back from Sapa and say they have had an incredible experience when they step off the path and actually immerse themselves into the way of life of the minority villages. “It’s like a reset button. They come and they feel like they’ve learned something. They say that it reminds them of what is important.” This ‘reset’ is part of what drew Réhahn to photograph ethnic minorities of Vietnam.
“I think tourists are trying to find some adrenalin, some type of emotion,” Réhahn postulates. “Maybe some of them are trying to figure out if they’re on the right path. Maybe in their country they are just on the tablet, the kids are just on the tablet and they still don’t feel satisfied with their lives. Then they come to Sapa and it is a bit of a shock when you go into a village and you see people living in a wooden house and wearing a beautiful costume dyed with indigo, some silver jewellery made from French coins and they have a simpler way to live. And maybe it’s a cliché but they seem to be happy. Happy with less…” he trails off.
Culture Disrupted by Technology
I ask him if he thinks the Hmong are really happier with the new interest to their region. He says “yes” after some hesitation. His Hmong friends near Sapa say they have more income. They say that their life is much better than before but it comes with a price. The price will be that some of the culture disappears…
“The world has come,” Réhahn says. “Places still exist that are lost in time; I’ve seen them. But I’ve also found homestays at the very top of the mountains next to China and they have optic fibre technology. And there is zero tourism there.
“So we can’t really say that tourism destroyed the culture. It’s not that simple. I’ve met some tribes that have never seen any tourists and the culture has already changed. It is not so black and white. Sure, tourism can help to destroy it faster when it’s mass tourism, but technology can do it too.”
For example, some of these Northern regions “have access to Western clothes for one dollar—made in China. That’s the real culprit, for the traditional costumes anyway. We can’t say that the culture is just about the costumes, it is also about the dialect, about the festivals and everything. But why would they take a year to make one costume, to harvest the hemp to go through the process of indigo dying and all the embroidery, when you can have a T-shirt for almost nothing?”
Yet, in Réhahn’s opinion much of the beauty of the culture remains and still needs to be preserved. Photographing the ethnic minorities of Vietnam is a way to ensure something will endure.
“In the Dao community, you have these herbal baths, you can look out and see the mountains and be in this really hot water with herbs. I don’t think tourists come to Vietnam to see the rooftop of Bitexco. I mean, if you live in New York or Singapore or Japan, you don’t come to Vietnam to see that.
“I think that when people come here it is to find themselves a little bit, to find their truths, to reconnect to nature, because the landscape in Sapa is probably among the most beautiful of Vietnam. They have culture, landscape, good food, traditional medicine, simple life…but they also have a sense of humour. They are very welcoming. Very enthusiastic. You come to eat with them and they are proud.”
A Family Affair
Réhahn gets emotional for the only time during the interview when I ask whether he himself has ever had a life-changing experience while travelling to visit the tribes in Vietnam. Surprisingly, his story revolves around his young son rather than himself.
“I took my son to a village in Sapa last week. He’ll be six,” he says. “It was our first trip together, just us. He was so happy to be with the children and to be fully connected with me. I really feel like he learned something. I would recommend that for any family. I saw my son playing with the other children in the village, they couldn’t speak the same language but it didn’t matter. That is really special for a little boy. As a father to witness that, it’s beautiful.” Réhahn pauses, moved by the memory.
“Sapa is still the place—and believe me, I’ve been almost everywhere in Vietnam—where you can have the landscape, the tribes, the whole culture in one place and it is really authentic. It’s not like Chiang Mai in Thailand with the Kayan women with long necks. There you go, you pay, you see them but you can still feel that they are refugees. So you feel like they don’t get enough money from that. I went there. I took photos. But I never published because I still don’t know if it is good or not. It’s too hard to understand. There is a lot of propaganda from both sides. I’ve been to Cuba 14 times and I’ve seen many things there as well that I’ve never read in the media. It’s a lifetime’s work and there is always going to be someone who disagrees with you.
I ask what his favourite photograph is that he has ever taken. “The famous photographs are good because they bring people to my galleries and museums. So they are important. My three most famous photos are very unusual, that’s why they are known. I always love my portrait of Madame Xong. She’s like a grandmother. I still have a relationship with her.
“But there is a photograph of one lady who touched me very deeply. Now she is 94. She is from the La Hu, and is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She gave me one costume. She said, ‘I’m old. Take it for your museum.’ She could not speak Vietnamese so her grandson translated. “I’ve never sold this photo but I love it.”
As we finish our coffee and head back to the gallery to get a more in-depth view of his photos, Réhahn summarises his view on his career in a few short sentences: “So now you can understand after this interview why when people come and talk to me to ask me about my gear, what camera I use and all this useless debate, I’m not interested. You can have the most expensive camera in the world but unless you have a connection with the people you’re shooting, what’s the point?”
See more of Réhahn’s photographs of Vietnamese ethnic minorities in Saigon at:
Couleurs by Réhahn
151 Đồng Khởi, Bến Nghé, District 1, HCMC
Or in Hội An:
7, Nguyễn Huệ, Cẩm Châu, Hội An
Precious Heritage Museum
Or download the Precious Heritage app at:
HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL HOI AN TOURISM AND CONSERVATION IN HOI AN
By JK Hobson
The historical city of Hoi An, is one of Vietnam’s most “well-preserved” cities, and was one of the most visited cities.
At one time it was Vietnam’s most prominent port. For that reason, to this day it is considered a melting pot, with architecture reflecting a blend of cultures and historical eras. Chinese shophouses, Buddhist temples, and the Vietnamese rustic skyscrapers known as “tube houses” line the streets of Hoi An. Along with the famous Japanese Bridge, all of these sites serve as a reminders of the many influences that have come together to create the diverse and dynamic tapestry of Vietnamese culture.
According to the People’s Council, in 2017, Quang Nam, home to the iconic Hoi An City, received a record number of visitors with 3.22 million tourists reaching the central coastal province. This record-breaking number of visitors was 21.66% higher than the figures from the previous year, which saw a total of 1.78 million tourists with the city providing services to 1.44 million domestic visitors, according to Vietnam Tourism.
Tourism is good for business but Challenging for Sustainability
Duc Tran was born in Saigon in the late 1960s and was a boat refugee to Malaysia in the mid-1980s. After travels led him through Latin and Central America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, Duc found himself in Vietnam again in 1997. “I found Hoi An was nice, beautiful, and the people are wonderful, so I said ‘hey, why don’t we try and live in Hoi An for a few years?’ Obviously I made the wrong decision because I’ve been here for the last 16 years! [laughs]” He credits his mother’s love for cooking and nurturing for compelling him to open Mango Mango, a restaurant and hotel that takes modern culinary approaches to traditional Vietnamese “soul food”.
He explains that the influx of tourism has been good for business, but has brought challenges concerning infrastructure, sustainability and the natural environment. “There are definitely problems to think about now, like the river of plastic in the ocean.” According to the Global Environmental Facility, between the 120,000 citizens in Hoi An, and the deluge of tourists that visit the city on a daily basis, 75 tonnes of solid waste are created daily. The city’s waste eventually finds its way to the oceans, which has long-term, extending, detrimental effects. Duc says, “We are concerned and we want to be sustainable and support and sustainable ways. For example, there’s a pretty good collective of businesses using bamboo straws. With education, it’s coming.”
Better infrastructure = Happier Travellers
He adds that there are traffic infrastructure problems that need sorting out. “There needs to be more organisation regarding the tourists coming in and out. Often when buses enter Hoi An, there’s not enough space for the buses to park. There’s a bit of chaos and the customers get stressed and actually want to leave Hoi An. Once it’s built-well, functionally, and aesthetically pleasing, people will enjoy with a sense of relaxation. It’s not necessarily a matter of cutting down on the numbers of tourists, but making it manageable.” He also wishes to see more dialogue between the city and the business owners as a means of creating an environment in Hoi An that’s more welcoming to tourists as well as local artists desiring to express their local pride through their work.
Hoi An stands apart from many tourist destinations in Vietnam in that much of its attractiveness comes from its ability to allow visitors to step into a piece of living history. For this reason, local businesses concerned with drawing large crowds of visitors have an added pressure to preserve while at the same time, growing with the times and creating the infrastructure that will make the central coastal city accessible. Duc states hopefully about Vietnamese people’s ability to surmount difficulties, “We are aggressive enough to approach solving problems and create an opportunity for ourselves. If there’s an idea, get it done!.”