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Who Does Hoi An Exist For?

Ancient houses, beautiful beaches, great restaurants and plenty of places to take long strolls have given Hoi An a reputation for being one of Vietnam’s most charming destinations. But as the number of foreign tourists has exploded, there are some who remember the “old Hoi An” and want nothing to do with the new one. These were the feelings of Barbara, writer of the Dropout Dairies, who just published a post titled, “What the Hell Happened to Hoi An?” where she complains about the town's noise, tourists and commercialization. But Hoi An is a paradox - these complaints stem from the same root that has helped to preserve the old houses and culture. Simply put, the cultural heritage displayed in Hoi An has been carefully tailored to the tastes and nostalgias of foreigners.

Prior to 1990, Hoi An was deeply impoverished and it was only in 1982 when Kazimierz Kwiatkowsky, a Polish historian, petitioned Hanoi to preserve the town. They listened and the town was designated a national heritage site in 1985. By 1990, when tourists started to slowly make their way to Hoi An, there was only a single hotel with 8 rooms. 5 years later, this number would increase to 8 hotels with 100 rooms total. The town received a huge boost on December 4, 1999 when it was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site based on “an outstanding material manifestation of the fusion of cultures over time in an international commercial port” and “an exceptionally well preserved example of a traditional Asian trading port.”

With this new status, Hoi An tourism increased exponentially and topped 1 million visitors in 2007. From 2005 to 2010, the town saw an 19% annual increase in tourists.

As much of Hoi An’s charm comes from its authentic appearance, it’s important to note that the ancient culture seen there today is for the benefit of tourists. In the 1990s, the town identified its ancient culture as its strongest hook with which to lure them. In the transition from major trading post to agrarian economy, the town's ancient culture was lost and by the time tourism started developing, many of the important cultural features of the preceding centuries were no longer widespread.

This meant that as Hoi An developed its tourism industry, it had a blank slate for creating its new image, one that would bring in the hordes of tourists.

And that’s exactly what it did.

Preying on the nostalgia of European, North American and Japanese tourists, the town revived its 17th century character, when it was at its peak. But just as in the 17th century, the town’s current culture has been continuously molded by outside influences. Hoi An has not recreated its past, rather, it has identified specific elements of it that appeal to tourists.

Just as in the 17th century, Hoi An’s current character is a representation of foreign interests rather than local ones.

Barbara captures this well in her piece:

"As I walked, I was bombarded with more noise – crude gangsta rap lyrics from a seedy-looking bar – as well as the garish light spilling from all the commercial enterprises: tailor shops, lantern shops, restaurants and bars with names like Meet Market. The streets were crowded with tourists, some talking quietly, most talking over-loudly about the hard bargains they’d driven and which bar had the cheapest beer."

Detest it as much as you like but this is globalization at work. This is the market economy in which we willingly or unwillingly participate. Once impoverished locals are smart to take advantage of the influx of westerners just as western companies take advantage of Vietnam’s developing economy.

This is how the globalization game is played. We want to experience the old culture but only if we can then retreat to the comfort of our air-conditioned hotel rooms with flat screen TVs.

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