Hoi An, 3rd-12th March
03.06.2009 - 12.06.2009 28 °C
We stroll down the quaint streets of the old centre where yellow concrete buildings with little french shutters prevail, interspersed between wild west wooden buildings of Vietnamese and Chinese design. The Hoi An Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site - well preserved and exuding rustic charm. Not to mention tailor shops aplenty. The riverside resto's that run along the Thu Bon River are deliciously diverse and incredibly cheap. Locals call out to entice us onto their long tail boats, into their shops, their resto's...
But we soldier on into the riverside market where locals are buying their fresh produce and seafood, and tourists are stuck at the souvenir stalls 'please buy something', 'just have a look'. All the attention is quite overwhelming so we duck into a quaint riverside restaurant called 'friendships' (which conveniently also appears to have the cheapest beer). The 'fresh draught beer' goes down a treat, especially at 50c NZ per 500ml glass! Being the cheapest beer EVER, it's easy to overindulge... And before we know it, it's come to dinner time so we order a 3 course set menu for $3 NZ with all the Hoi An specialities: 1. White Rose - shrimp encased in rice paper, steamed and seasoned 2. Fried Wonton's (Banh Xeo) - covered with sauteed sweet 'n sour veges and prawns, and 3. Cau Lau - doughy flat noodles with croutons, bean sprouts, fresh herbs and BBQ pork slices. A delicious feast indeed! To top it off, every meal comes with a free caramel creme dessert. Needless to say, Friendships has won us over!
In the days to come we get to know the staff rather well and even have our own table out front with pristine river views where we wile away the day watching people, but primarily drinking beer. School girls in traditional Ao Yai dress pile onto the ferries with their bicycles, vendors selling pork buns, peanuts and drinks, while we work our way down the menu. But we get stuck on the best sweet 'n' sour duck ever! In fact, sweet 'n' sour finds its way into most of our meals in different incarnations. So occasionally we branch out to the other waterfront 'al fresco' eateries where we get delish Mi Quang. A fusion of flavours made up of doughy flat noodles with herbs, veges, quail eggs, pork, peanuts, and dried shrimp. This place is truly foody heaven!
Founded as a foreign colony it soon became a major international trading port (during the 17th to 19th century), until the river silted up. So today Hoi An remains a tourist town, albeit a charming one! We purchase a 'Hoi An Old Town' ticket (75,000d each) which enables us access to a choice of heritage attractions. We pick the best of the bunch, starting with a visit to the Japanese covered bridge. Constructed in the 1590's by the Japanese community of Hoi An to provide a link with the Chinese quarters across the stream.
Proceeding to the Museum of Trading Ceramics which showcases excavated ceramics from over 2200 years ago. The Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation, now transformed into a temple to worship the deity from Fujian Province; the stunning gilded chamber teems with history and symbolism, decorated with dragons, paintings, and statues among delicate flower gardens and courtyards. Inside, large incense coils burn overhead. Quite seductive and serene.
Nearby a traditional cultural performance kicks off at the handcraft workshop. Listening to local acoustics and song, we watch dramatic dancing depicting daily village life. At the back of this 200 year old Chinese Trading House, artisans produce silk paintings, lanterns and wooden carvings - including a buddha with over 1000 hands (a six month effort!).
Tan Ky House was built early 19th Century by Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. Their different styles exhibited in their creation. Every wet season (Nov-Dec) the three generations who reside here have to move all the furniture upstairs to escape the flooding. Watermarks on the walls are testament to last years 2m high flooding! In fact, the whole town has to adapt to this periodical flooding. The streets filled with boats while everyone lives on the first floor during the monsoon - a real water world. More museums and temples follow... time to reward ourselves for lasting all day without beer... with more beer.
Hoi An by night is an enchanting place. The lanterns glow bright and fill the shops, the trees, yes even giant lanterns in the river - luminous giant fish, ox, turtle, lotus flower. The lanterns must cast a spell over us for we are drawn to a truly decadent french-style patisserie like moths to a lantern, where we give in to temptation and devour chocolate cheesecake, truffle cake, and tiramisu. Heavenly! The spell has been cast and, against our will, we are drawn back every night without fail. Luckily these are seriously magical desserts!
To get to the Ancient Champa Kingdom (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) 'My Son', we resort to a bus tour. Our young guide 'Spider' elaborates on the plan, for we are 'Spider Team' now. He proceeds to spoon feed us in an amusingly American reality TV-accented broken English, where every sentence is preceded with a 'back in the old days...', and aptly ends his oration with a 'and now it's broken'. Then just in case we didn't grasp his wise words he'd repeat himself in similar fashion. Still, everyone clings to his every word, following a narrative straight out of 'are you smarter than a 5th grader' - funny that. Time for action; a convoy of old seventies US army jeeps (with over 750.000km on the clock) take us to the actual ruins - which resides in stunning jungle.
We break free from our web and explore the different temple groups at our leisure. Since My Son was used solely for praying (during the late 4-13th century), most of the temples were dedicated to the Cham Kings associated with Hindu divinities, particularly Shiva; founder and protector of Champa's dynasties. Unfortunately not to be. The Viet Cong too, used it as a fall out base, with a resulting unparalleled destruction from above. Numerous bomb craters signed off by the Americans remain today. Hence the 'broken' part. Restoration is ongoing for the remaining 20 odd brick ruin-like structures. The site is truly dilapidated and if it weren't for the museum in Danang, it would be hard to grasp the context of this site. Still, the Cham people today remain a substantial ethnic minority in Vietnam with over ~100,000 people.
Back in Hoi An we enjoy sweet strong coffees across the river, a ritual turned daily. Persistent children try to sell us crappy trinkets but by now we've mastered the art of disinterest and they quickly move on to the softies next to us - a couple of Ozzies. We'd heard that frozen yogurt is a local specialty here so we place the order. Two packaged shop-bought refrigerated yogurts come out. Hey at least they could have put it in a bowl to pretend it was real!
Regardless, nicely fueled by caffeine we embark on a mission to the 500 odd tailor shops with the intention of ordering suits and the like. And over the next few days we become true fashion experts on fabric, prices, quality, workmanship, lapels, seams, single breasted, double breasted.. and begin by ordering tailor made woolen jackets with satin/silk lining. Good fun going in for fittings and being treated like royalty over something so cheap. In the end we relinquish the suits; more trouble than they're worth we reckon. The ties however are a safe(r) bet. For just $3 USD you get a sweet silk tie here. Looks tight until you start to pay attention to workmanship, and start discarding one after another for being plain filthy, off the mark, or just plain crooked. One of the ties even truly veers off to the left. How did they manage that we wonder? Sizing up the various ties our Vietnamese lady proudly exclaims 'much cheaper than home'. True enough, but we have a little process back home called quality control so we don't have to sift through hundreds off bogus ties. The lady then pokes fun at Guido for the rather substantial tear in his shirt. 'New shirt, Sir?' bearing a wide and sarcastic smile. Guido kindly defers, he's already wearing a Vietnam quality number 1 shirt. Mmm, perhaps we've been here too long.
Time to explore beyond our usual haunts. We hire bicycles and push on through towards Cua Dai Beach (Hoi An's end of China Beach). We pass pretty rivers, rice paddies, more tailor shops, and end up between the palms on the beach. Chatting to local women who try to sell us oreo's, chopsticks, tiger balm, and pretty much everything! Covered in long cotton pants, long sleeves and gloves they must be sweating up a storm. Back to Hoi An where we finally venture over the bridge to circle Cam Nam Island. Not much there but it's good to look at the old town from a different perspective. Well, surely we deserved our daily dose of 'Friendship' now so we enjoy our roasted peanuts and beer while looking back over the river.
Our last night is when the monthly Full Moon Lantern Festival takes place. Motorbikes are banned from the old town which duly comes alive with even more lanterns than usual, cultural performances, games etc. People emerge from the shadows en masse, and children run around selling floating candle-lit lanterns to set free on the river. A great time had absorbing the heavenly Hoi An.