In the light of day the bare dusty roads and rusted rooves could serve as a backdrop in an old Western film. After 6 p.m., however, the clamour of frivolous tourists swarms the town. Then, as night sets in, the lantern-lined streets of Hoi An illuminate the yellow-tinted Ancient Town. Power lines dangling overhead are maniacally intermingled and laced with vivid pink and fresh white bougainvillea. Their verdant leaves provide a necessary shade in a place where the heat of the day stretches from 9 a.m. ‘til 5 p.m. In the heart of the modest city, yellow-painted French colonial style buildings appear almost ornamental, their wooden-slatted doors resembling portals into the 19th century. French and Chinese architectures fuse, waltzing together toward the famous Japanese bridge. Lax locals and curious tourists roam the streets nonchalantly or weave in and out of one another intrepidly on motorbikes.
Although Hoi An is on its way to becoming a major tourist destination – being listed by Travel and Leisure as one of the top ten cities in Asia in 2016 – the city is still steeped in tradition. Just outside the Ancient Town at two o’clock every morning a hive of activity is found as local farmers and traders conglomerate in the fresh produce market. It’s refreshing to see that just five minutes out of the city centre the market carries on day in, day out without being stricken with the imprint of the massive influx of tourism. When I go with my parents early one morning to witness the action first-hand, we’re pleased to find that we’re amongst the only tourists there. Local vendors peer at us curiously and we peer inquisitively back at them, dissecting chickens with their bare hands. A woman playfully asks us if we want to take a chicken home. I think she enjoys the idea that she can vex us with her fresh chicken guts. She isn’t used to Westerners venturing into her workplace.
Tourists in Hoi An seem to stick to the beaten track. That beaten track is within the Ancient Town, which was an international trading port between the 15th and 19th centuries. The Hoi An Ancient Town is hence now UNESCO world heritage listed, which protects it from the destruction of unremitting construction. Yet further outside of the city, on the beachside stretch to neighbouring city Da Nang, it is blatantly evident how unprotected areas are already falling victim to the rapid tourism takeover.
Many outsiders consider the boom in tourism a positive sign of development. However the rate at which it’s currently progressing in Vietnam is not coherent with maintaining the local culture. To give you an idea, 2016 saw a 26% increase in the number of tourists compared to 2015, and tourist arrivals in April 2017 were up 34% compared to the arrivals in April 2016. Yes, the Ancient municipality of Hoi An is protected, but as tourists numbers continue to creep up and construction continues to spread laterally without any further implementation of conservation, we begin to witness an increasingly commercialized, westernised misrepresentation of the country. Due to the limitation on construction in the centre of Hoi An itself, expansion of the international hotel industry extends north to Da Nang in order to accommodate for the influx of travellers.
Foreign visitors seem to turn a blind eye to this reality, thus jeopardizing the livelihood and culture of the cities as well as the small towns on the outskirts. Presently, the 35km drive between Da Nang and Hoi An is a contradiction of palm-tree-lined pearly sabulous beaches quickly becoming obstructed by the eyesores of hotel, casino and commercial centre construction. Even in the supposed ‘low season’, hotels are currently at capacity. In the coming years this sort of westernisation will have hijacked the fringes of Hoi An. We will continue flooding into the already tourist-teeming Ancient Town, which will eventually become an obscure sort of enigma surrounded by a region trampled by the kind of commercialisation we are used to back home.
That’s what we tend naively to call ‘development’. Many Westerners are only too happy to hide away in their resorts, which we consider to be a symbol of progress in an otherwise impoverished country. We claim that the locals should consider themselves lucky that we have graced them with our presence and sprinkled them with our dollars, yet we fail to consider whose pockets that money is ending up in. For locals, the western idea of development is intrinsically a wave of globalisation hitting Vietnam, a wad of foreign investment that will come at the price of forfeiting local culture.