My penchant for rummaging through abandoned buildings for fun started in Hoi An. This may seem strange given that I’m from London, a city with an abundance of construction sites and neglected structures. But the development boom in Vietnam has spawned ongoing projects, which means you don’t have to venture far to encounter the curious ruins of a half-finished building, forlorn and forgotten in time.
Often, these structures stand in isolation, encircled by scrubland in undeveloped neighborhoods or quiet suburbs. You’ll sometimes find them rotting in the midst of a built-up city, unhidden and exposed. They may go unnoticed by travelers or be looked upon as eyesores by locals, but for a select few, they invite fascination and evoke a sense of wonder and adventure.
The act of discovering and accessing these areas, branded “Urban Exploration” (or urbex), has been somewhat of an art for decades, gaining momentum in cities like London, Berlin, and New York. That said, there are varied definitions across the board. In Scenario magazine, Maria Mackinney-Valentin romantically describes the movement as “a celebration of decay and everyday poetry, with a touch of melancholia and a rush of lawlessness.”
People participate in urbex for myriad reasons. Some are driven by the goal of uncovering and documenting a hidden world disconnected from “everyday” life. Some aim to preserve the history of a location abandoned to the elements, catching a moment of rapid decline. A few explorers take a philosophical stance, viewing these forbidden areas as symbols of capitalism’s encroachments on our rights, and urbex as a reclamation of these structures before they are permanently closed-off to the public. And then, of course, there are those who seek the intoxicating thrill of accessing an uninhabited and restricted location.
A portion of each of these motivations resonated with me as I stepped into my first abandoned space in Hoi An — a desolate building site situated along the popular Cua Dai Beach. Dark and silent, the hulking buildings loomed eerily among swanky resorts and palm-fringed streets, like something out of a horror film. I peeked through grime-stained windows into idle, decrepit rooms and walked through doorways that resembled gaping maws to explore the remnants of what was once a five-star hotel and resort. According to rumors, it had been deserted by developers when funds dried up.
I wandered up a flight of weed-mantled stairs to a concrete balcony overlooking the ocean and caught a glimpse of a luxurious world swallowed up by vegetation and tidal waves, like the vast swaths of Cua Dai beach that have fallen victim to coastal erosion. There was something hauntingly beautiful about the juxtaposition of a half-collapsed building decaying against a dreamy seascape of crashing waves and rugged rocks.
Despite the wide-open entry point, I felt a sense of excitement and suspense in entering a sequestered place that few people will see or set foot in, an area no longer monitored for safety. Fumbling around in these environments isn’t without its risks, though. Explorers often encounter wild animals, flimsy construction, aggressive inhabitants, or vengeful ghosts. (I’ve heard stories of each.) After all, even with little to no tangible restrictions in sight — aside from the usual collapsed fence — most of these spaces are intended to be inaccessible to the public.
Fortunately, my urbex experience was less loaded with danger and more akin to a comedy sketch, failing to serve as any kind of cautionary tale. It involved being chased out by distant barking of dogs, only to watch a security guard leisurely pull up on his scooter and fall asleep in a broken-down guard post minutes later.
My second outing led me to another well-known urbex spot in Hoi An — an expanse of land on Hai Ba Trung comprised of overgrown plant life, a complex of disused buildings and what appears to be an unfinished water reservoir. I kicked my way through overgrown weeds and brambles and perused the weathered buildings, trying to make sense of what was left behind. A factory? An old school? A hotel? Locals attest to the unfulfilled destiny of a “water plant,” but as I made my way through what looked like an old warehouse, I found all sorts of technical equipment and machinery and was tempted to imagine that it was designed for something more interesting, like leather or shoe production — both of which require large amounts of water to operate.
I considered the possibility of it being another failed project, abandoned mid-construction once funds ran out. Locals have informed me that many half-completed buildings dotted around Hoi An are a consequence of this fate, but the charred walls told a story of possible devastation caused by fire, with insufficient resources most likely preventing renovations. Uncovering the narrative behind this space was challenging due to a lack of information and local knowledge, but exploring, wandering, and investigating these derelict areas was just as exhilarating as discovering them.
Returning to the energetic pavements of Hai Ba Trung, I thought about the number of people who regularly exit the water puppet theatre — a popular tourist attraction across the street — without ever noticing or acknowledging this mysterious spot. Many of us are unmotivated to invest our attention in something that is seemingly rundown and languishing. Why should we care about that which others have chosen to forget about?
If these neglected spaces provide a window into a city’s culture or history, I wonder what they reveal about Hoi An. Perhaps they represent a town full of aspirations and lofty promises, which occasionally fall into ruin as a result of climate change and financial setbacks. Or maybe they’re indicative of an overzealous response to an exploding economy, a prevalent desire to build something prosperous in a rapidly growing, unsaturated market coupled with a fatalistic belief that anything is possible. The sense of ambition and the desire to create is almost tangible in Hoi An, and these structures are physical representations of these sentiments. They allow us to peel back the many layers of a city, wonder, explore, ask questions, and find answers, all while catching a moment of rapid decline and a glimpse into the complex history that lies beneath an alluring facade.
All photos were taken by Jose Manuel Barrera