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Hoi An Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vietnam Travel Report

Wolfgang Holzem

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Hoi An (Vietnamese: Hội An) is a beautiful city in Vietnam about 30 km to the south of Da Nang. The Old Town of Hoi An is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage List. Hoi An is also commonly used as the base for half-day trips to a cluster of abandoned and partially ruins of My Son, another UNESCO World Heritage Site in the west of the Central Highlands.

Covid-19 Situation Report for Vietnam
1,546
Confirmed
2
Confirmed (24h)
35
Deaths
0
Deaths (24h)
2.3%
Deaths (%)
1,411
Recovered
5
Recovered (24h)
91.3%
Recovered (%)
100
Active
6.5%
Active (%)

Hoi An, once known as Faifo, with more than 2,000 years of history, was the principal port of the Cham Kingdom, which controlled the strategic spice trade with Indonesia from the 7th-10th centuries and was a major international port in the 16th and 17th centuries. The foreign influences are discernible to this day.

The culture and heritage is mostly from the Cham people whose kingdom originally stretched from Hue south to Phan Tiet (south of Nha Trang). The Champas were most likely originally from Java. The original Cham political capital was Tra Kieu, the commercial capital was Hoi An and the spiritual capital was My Son (Hindu). The Cham people were Hindu, and by the 10th century the influence of Arab traders to Hoi An resulted in the conversion of some to Islam.

The second major influence was Chinese, first by traders, then by escaping Ming Dynasty armies, who after settling in Hoi An for some years, moved further south and created Saigon as a major trading port.

The third and last major influence of culture and heritage was from the Vietnamese and is fairly recent and only came after the Cham lost control of this area. For a tourist wanting Vietnamese culture and heritage, Hue is a much better destination than Hoi An.

While the serious shipping business has long since moved to Da Nang, the heart of the city is still the Old Town, full of winding lanes and Chinese-styled shophouses, which is particularly atmospheric in the evening as the sun goes down. While almost all shops now cater to the tourist trade, the area has been largely preserved as is, which is unusual in Vietnam, and renovation has proceeded slowly and carefully. It’s mercifully absent of towering concrete blocks and karaoke parlours.

The culture and heritage that UNESCO WHS status for Hoi An Old Town was trying to preserve is long since gone. Since 1999, when UNESCO status was awarded, there has been a massive increase in mass tourism, with the result that most houses have been sold to speculators and shop owners to be used for commercial purposes. The community and with it their culture and heritage is gone and in their place are shops, restaurants, art galleries, etc. There are hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An, all selling similar low value products to ever smaller numbers of Western tourists. The hawkers are distressingly aggressive, and organized crime groups use watering hole attack strategies. Your name and a file might be passed by your tour bus operator, your hotel, or the taxi mob, to the gangs pushing women and drugs. Western backpackers are a steady source of income for these groups.

UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status also applies to Hoi An Old Town, but in reality this status, like all other UNESCO designations, has not been accompanied by enlightened site management.

The main thoroughfare in the Old Town is Tran Phu. Just south of the Old Town, across the Thu Bon River, are the islands of An Hoi to the west, reached via Hai Ba Trung, and Cam Nam to the east, reached via Hoang Dieu.

Get in

By plane

The nearest airport is in Da Nang which has domestic connections to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Can Tho, and Dalat and some international flights to Bangkok, Singapore, Siem Reap (for Angkor Archaeological Park), Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong and charter flights to China.

A taxi from Da Nang airport to Hoi An costs about USD22 using a taxi with a meter. This is one occasion where haggling to set a fixed price is cheaper than going by the meter. Air conditioned minibus taxis cost USD5 per person to the airport (there are no minibuses from the airport, you must first go to the city). The journey takes about 45 min.

By train

There is no railway station in Hoi An. The nearest is in Da Nang (+84 511 3750666), which receives several trains a day from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Nha Trang, etc. Train tickets can be booked online or bought from most travel agents and hotels.

By bus

From Da Nang

There is a public bus #01 from Da Nang’s bus station to Hoi An’s bus station. The bus runs roughly every 20 minutes from around 05:30 to 17:50, and the trip takes slightly less than an hour. The fare is 18,000 đong, see DanangBus website. While many of Vietnam’s bus ticket collectors/conductors are honest, this route is not generally blessed with them, and foreigners will get ripped off if you give them a chance.

Know the correct fare and don’t get bamboozled. The official fare is posted on signs on the left outside the front entrance door, and above the driver. Try to board through the front door (even if the collector invites you to board through the back) and look at the prices (take a photo to drive the point home). The collector might try to tell you baggage is extra, but it is not, unless you have a suitcase that literally takes up a whole seat. The collector might show you a 50,000-đong bill handed to them by one of old ladies taking the bus: this is a scam, the ladies get a bundle of money back later to confuse tourists. If you give a larger bill expecting the correct amount of change, you instead be charged 30,000 or 50,000 đong per person and the collector will pretend to not understand when you complain. The best technique appears to be ignoring the collector’s claims and having each passenger hand him 16,000 đong in exact change (or 20,000 đong if you don’t have smaller change and are willing to take the loss). He will tell you it’s wrong and ask for more. Ignore him and keep holding the money out. After a few minutes he’ll come back and take it.

The bus makes a loop through northern Da Nang and passes through downtown Da Nang. If you’re staying in Da Nang, your accommodation should be able to point you to the nearest stop.

The bus stop closest to the train station is in front of 155 Lê Duẩn road (GPS 16.0704,108.2147), marked with a bus stop sign (leaving the train station cross the square and walk down Hoàng Hoa Thám road and turn left at the next intersection with Lê Duẩn). As of January 2018, the bus stop at 355 Lê Duẩn road still says the 01 bus stops there, but it doesn’t anymore. Keep walking 500 meters more and you will get to the correct one at 155 Lê Duẩn road. There is no longer a particularly convenient bus stop coming from Da Nang airport; the nearest appears to be near the Museum of Cham Sculpture (270 Trần Phú; GPS 16.0620, 108.2232; about 35 minute walk or 3 km taxi).

In Hoi An, the bus ends at Bus station67 Nguyễn Tất Thành, Hoi An. This is about 1.5 km northwest of the old town centre, about 15 minutes walk (though the first couple of minutes are not very pretty). The return buses leave from there as well. A xe om from Hoi An bus station to the old town should be around 10-15,000 đong.

On the return trip, the #01 bus passes within 700 metres of the Da Nang train station. Nearest stops are at 166 Lê Duẩn and 79 Ông Ích Khiêm.

There is a shuttle bus direct to Danang airport (120,000 đong, 1 hour).

Other destinations

There is no shortage of travel agencies and private buses travelling to and from Hoi An to destinations such as Hue, Hanoi, Saigon, Dalat and Nha Trang. Guesthouses can arrange tickets for a extra charge, although they may not release the ticket to you until after you check out.

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Former founder of Asiarooms.com and now reporting mainly on the Asia Pacific region and the global Coronavirus crises in countries such as Thailand, Germany & Switzerland. Born near Cologne but lived in Berlin during my early teenage years. A longterm resident of Bangkok, Udon Thani, Sakon Nakhon and Phuket. A great fan of Bali, Rhodes & Corfu.

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Travel by Train in Vietnam

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Although more expensive than buses, trains are undoubtedly the most comfortable way to travel overland in Vietnam. There is one major train line in Vietnam, the 1,723 km (1,071 mi) trunk between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, on which the Reunification Express runs. Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is more than 30 hours, and overnight hops between major tourism destinations are usually possible, if not entirely convenient. It’s a good way to see the countryside and meet upper-middle class locals, but unless you are travelling in a sleeper car it is no more comfortable than buses.

Air conditioned soft or hard sleeper is recommended, and purchasing as early as possible is a good idea as popular berths and routes are often bought out by tour companies and travel agents well before the departure time (hence being told the train is sold out at a station ticket window or popular tour company office does not mean there are no tickets available–they’ve simply been bought by another reseller). Booking at the train station itself is generally the safest way, just prepare on a piece of paper the destination, date, time, no. of passengers and class. However, unsold tickets can often be bought last minute from people hanging around at the station–a train is rarely sold out for real, as the railway company will add cars when demand is high. Commissions on these tickets will drop away as the departure time draws nearer. Tickets can be returned before departure for a 10% fee. There is also an official Vietnamese Railways website, which has an English version and accepts payments by international bank cards.

Be cautious when using a travel agent to purchase your train tickets, since there is nothing printed on the ticket saying the class you are booked in. As of July 2019 tickets (now termed ‘boarding passes’) do indicate the class of ticket.

This results in a common scam with private travel agents where you will pay them to book a soft-sleeper ticket, they then book you a cheaper hard-sleeper ticket, and you don’t know you’ve been scammed until you board the train and your berths are in the lower class.

By then with the train on the verge of departing it is too late to go back to the scamming agent to demand compensation. With the new boarding passes this scam is less of an issue although buying your ticket directly from the train station remains the best option.

In addition, there are shorter routes from Hanoi leading northwest and northeast, with international crossings into China. One of the most popular of the shorter routes is the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (with a bus service from Lao Cai to the tourism destination of Sa Pa).

Always try to buy your tickets at least 3 days in advance, to avoid disappointment, especially during peak holiday season, during which you should try to book at least 2 weeks in advance.

If you are sensitive to cigarette smoke try to book a seat in the middle of the carriage as people smoke in the areas at the end of each carriage and the doors are often left open.

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Historical Facts about Vietnam

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Vietnam’s history is one of war, colonization and rebellion. Occupied by China no fewer than four times, the Vietnamese managed to fight off the invaders just as often. Even during the periods in history when Vietnam was independent, it was mostly a tributary state to China until the French colonization. Vietnam’s last emperors were the Nguyễn Dynasty, who ruled from their capital at Hue from 1802 to 1945, although France exploited the succession crisis after the fall of Tự Đức to de facto colonise Vietnam after 1884.

Both the Chinese occupation and French colonization have left a lasting impact on Vietnamese culture, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese social etiquette, and the French influencing Vietnamese cuisine.

After a brief Japanese occupation in World War II, the Communist Viet Minh under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh continued the war of independence against the French. The last Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in 1945 with a proclamation of independence following soon after. The majority of French had left by 1945, but in 1946 they returned to continue the fight until their decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The Geneva Conference partitioned the country into two at the 17th parallel, with a communist-led North supported by the Soviet Union, and Ngô Đình Diệm establishing a capitalist regime and declaring himself President of the Republic of Vietnam in the South supported by the United States.

South Vietnam would be plagued by numerous domestic problems, including corruption, nepotism and electoral fraud. Diệm, who was a Roman Catholic, enacted laws that discriminated against the Buddhist majority in favor of the Catholic minority, which led to the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức self-immolating in protest at a busy intersection in Saigon in 1963.

US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew during the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the South Vietnamese government.

This escalated into the dispatch of 500,000 American troops in 1966 and what became known as the Vietnam War in the West (the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War). What was supposed to be a quick and decisive action soon degenerated into a quagmire, and U.S. armed forces withdrew following a cease-fire agreement in 1973.

Two years later, on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese tank drove into the South’s Presidential Palace in Saigon and the war ended. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese and over 55,000 Americans were killed. Vietnam’s war against the United States was one of many that they have fought, but it was the most brutal in its history.

Most of the nation’s population was born after 1975. American tourists will receive a particularly friendly welcome in Vietnam, as many young Vietnamese are admirers of American culture.

After unifying the country, the communist government proceeded to root out the remaining capitalist elements in the south. Many business owners were killed while others, known as the boat people, became refugees and attempted to escape to Western countries, resulting in the establishment of Vietnamese communities in the United States of America, Australia and Canada.

The ethnic Chinese, long resented by the ethnic Vietnamese for their perceived economic clout, were particularly hard-hit by the purges.

Following the collapse of the state-run economy, the government implemented market-oriented reforms and introduced capitalist elements in 1986 with a policy known as đổi mới. This policy has proved highly successful, as it spurred impressive economic growth and infrastructure development.

Discriminatory laws against the remaining ethnic Chinese were repealed, and many have used their business acumen to contribute greatly to the revitalization of the Vietnamese economy, also regaining some of their previous economic dominance in the process.

In recent times, some former refugees or their descendants, most of whom were raised and educated in the West, have also returned to Vietnam in order to take advantage of new economic opportunities.

Today, Vietnam is widely considered to be one of the rising stars of ASEAN with a young population and vibrant economy.

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Stay safe and avoid Scams in Saigon

Wolfgang Holzem

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In general, Saigon is a safe city, with violent crimes such as armed robbery being relatively rare. The most common crimes faced by tourists are pickpocketing and snatch theft from motorbikes.

Scam artists operate on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. A person will strike up a friendly conversation claiming they’ve either seen you at the airport or some other tourist place where they work.

Usually they’ll be with other family members who will join the conversation very naturally and once they find out where you’re from they’ll mention that another family member is moving to a city in your country.

You will be invited over for food at their house to help console a worried grandmother or to give advise to their family member. Once you arrive at the house however the family member is not there, or the grandmother has suddenly fallen ill and had to go to the hospital. You’ll be presented with various business opportunities, legal or not, or asked for financial support for the suddenly sick grandmother.

Hotel scams are very common, even in the mid-range price level ~USD20-70. The hotel will remind you that you should place your valuables in the room safe or the hotel safe. Lock up everything that is more or less valuable.

Don’t hold up expensive things near the street or leave them out on the table while you’re having a meal, especially in District 1, especially around the backpacker area. Petty theft is a big problem, and a lot of times it’s done by people on motorbikes. It’s easy to prevent by not giving thieves the opportunity.

Don’t buy sim card before the immigration at the airport, they will charge you $10 for a sim card. After immigration and baggage area, you can find sim card booth. They sell sim card for $6 only.

Don’t buy coconut more than ~USD2, real-price is ~USD0.5. If you are forced, call police: +84 8 3829 7643, +84 8 38299835.

A favourite trick is for the vendors to strike up a conversation with you, let you hold the carrying-stick, take a picture, and while you’re distracted open a coconut for you that you really didn’t ask for.

Also, the prostitutes on Bui Vien and Ton That Tung will try to rob you. Usually, they’ll approach men acting like they’re up to normal prostitute business, but they are to pickpocket.

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