|Illustration by Trịnh Lập|
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
The news that Hội An's authorities plan to charge domestic and international visitors entrance fees surprised many this month. Needless to say, most opposed the decision, deeming it ridiculous and unfriendly.
The good side of all the opposition is that it showed that people love Hội An. In a strange way, the announcement served to highlight how much people appreciate the ancient town.
City authorities say that Hội An has more than a thousand heritage relics in need of restoration, and 80 per cent of gate money will be spent on these purposes.
Travellers have complained about the move, citing that even the ancient royal capital city of Huế, which has many palaces and tombs of great historical value, is not making such a decision.
As much I love Hội An, like so many other Vietnamese who have visited this lovely town, I don't want to pay this fee, not because I don't believe the relics must be preserved, but because I don't consider myself a tourist.
I'd rather pay local street vendors, restaurateurs, hotels, beach shops, or tailors for their services. I don't see how they are going to decide who's Vietnamese, and who's international to pay the varying appropriate fees?
Going to Hội An many times, we sometimes just take a walk on a winding little lane, not necessarily to visit a particular ancient home or pagoda. We have favourite tailor shops that have made us really neat linen clothing since the 1990s, before the express tailoring one-hour service became trendy.
Chatting with local vendors while eating sweet bean curd for less than a dollar is one of a million charming little things you do in Hội An without paying excessive fees.
If the powers that be want to make Hội An a snobby little gated community to cash in on tourists, they will eventually kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
From the 16th and 17th centuries, the town was an international port of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese merchant houses. Unlike a closed city, Hội An's atmosphere was accepting and welcoming, its people generous and entrepreneurial; it was a melting pot of the old world and slowly fell into oblivion in the 19th century and most of the 20th.
When it was opened again to tourists and recognised by UNESCO in 1999 as a World Heritage Site, I saw its status as a contemporary centre with nice cafés, restaurants, exhibition spaces and local artist studios.
The positive side of preservation is that Hội An's authorities have managed to keep most of the city's developments under control, as well as keep the old houses, the Japanese bridge, and the Chinese pagodas in good shape.
We agree that we need to pay to preserve ancient relics, and pay fees to keep the streets clean, and to keep vendors on the street while we enjoy the beauty of the city. It's hard to put a precise value on such things.
In the summer, you can sit in a café in the ancient town, and see creative people passing by, such as musicians, singers, painters, or designers. Besides its creative shops and studios, Hội An also has a material market, popular with designers.
Hội An may not be a city of students, but it has an open spirit, and down-to-earth approach to people from everywhere, which instantly puts visitors at ease.
How can the authorities decide how and which local residents can enter the old town and how? It will damage the city's melting pot spirit.
How can they tell the difference between a Vietnamese from elsewhere in the country, or a Vietnamese from a Chinese or a Thai, a Japanese or Korean? In Hội An, there are already a mix of people of Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese heritage from previous generations.
Will a tourist from, say, Laos or Cambodia have to pay 1.5 times more than a Vietnamese? Why? This is not only discriminating, but it also divides the community.
Change of plan
Amid the controversy, Hội An People's Committee bowed to public pressure and decided to hold off the plan to collect entry fees from every tourist beginning on May 15.
According to Trần Ánh, secretary of the city's Party Committee, the mixed opinions about the plan expressed the affection and responsibility of the locals, domestic and foreign tourists for the ancient town.
He said Hội An would have discussions with residents and businesses to devise an acceptable solution.
The local administration will hold a press briefing to make public the plan once an agreement has been reached.
Ánh argued that the city would attempt to collect funds from travellers for conservation without concerning them, and that similar models are being considered for various other tourist attractions in Việt Nam and abroad.
Currently, travellers only need to purchase tickets for specific sights in Hội An, while the rest of the old town is freely available to explore.
The ancient town is renowned for its charms. If a better study can be made on how to engage visitors in preservation, I believe it could win the hearts of many.
If people do not feel ripped off, they will support and accompany the city on its journey, not only Vietnamese living in the city, but Vietnamese everywhere, and others, who want to preserve the beautiful gem for generations to come. VNS