SE Asia: PART XI

Hoi An

Sunday-Thursday, February 21-25

From one World Heritage Site to another is where we next traveled via a three-hour bus ride from Hue to Hoi An. On the way we drove through Da Nang, a city booming with modern skyscrapers, luxurious hotel resorts and gated communities fronting the sea. Glad we were continuing through this growing metropolis. Forty minutes later we arrived in Hoi An, which was quite a contrast to the newness of its northern neighbor.

But still featured the scooters (incidentally, following a funeral procession seen in the distance)…

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A former major port, this prettied-up town appears a bit like a Disney theme park for adults with its clean streets bedecked with ornamental lanterns, picturesque building attractions, foodie restaurants, and silk tailoring shops in abundance.

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Yet, it also offered a respite from the urban atmosphere of previous cities partly due to its lack of towering office buildings and more open landscape. Although, resort hotel complexes along the river are changing the low-swept profile located just outside the protected Old Town.

For anyone desiring a relaxing and sanitized excursion in Vietnam, this is the place. It’s also where we enjoyed some of the best meals we had during our entire trip.

We landed at a guest house owned by a wonderful woman named B’Lan. Being welcomed by her and her staff of Mr. Khain and Tam is a bit like being enfolded into a happy family gathering. With hugs and a huge smile B’Lan took us next door to for an early evening beer and chat

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where we also met Thuong, a high school mate of hers who reminded us of a friend back home.

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With a prosperous tailoring shop and two guest houses and three children studying in the U.S., B’Lan represents the industrious nature of the Vietnamese. She said she’d really like for her children to come home but knows the better job opportunities are in the states; so, B’Lan is resigned to once-a-year visits and phone calls.

While enjoying the view out at the river we noticed a boat setting lights on the river.

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B’Lan explained today was the New Year’s first full moon (Tet Nguyen Tieu) and the most important one of all the year’s full moons. Adapted from the Western Chinese Han Dynasty, Tet Nguyen Tieu is a time to offer thanks for good fortune and pray for family and friends. This two-to-three day celebration is also known as the Lantern Festival, which explained the floating candle-lit glow on the river.

Feeling fortunate to have happened to arrive in Hoi An on this particular day, we explored the night festivities as we entered into the spirit of the Year of the Monkey.

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But, man, it was packed! Bus loads of Chinese tourists flooded the streets as did locals and westerners such as us. We managed to weave our way through and around throngs of celebrants as we, too, took in the sights and sounds.

We passed by one of the hallmarks of Hoi An’s Old Town, the Japanese Covered Bridge. Constructed in the 1590s to link the Japanese community with the Chinese across the stream, it was crowded with the night’s celebrants. We were happy just to look at it standing in our own mob scene.

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Unable to resist purchasing a candle, we opted to buy from someone who was competing with the numerous, hard-to-resist children who attracted the majority of buyers;

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and, we set one afloat in honor of some family members.

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We passed a play being performed, and I noticed that the wooden ladder-type structure around one woman’s neck was the same worn by some prisoners in “Hanoi Hilton”. Just wish I could understand Vietnamese. Actually, wouldn’t it be wonderful to speak ALL the world’s languages? But, with that sword I assumed it wasn’t necessarily a happy ending…

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Another sidewalk vendor whose wares we perused was an artist who stamped a tattoo on Max’s arm.

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The image is a bit ironic considering that will probably be the closest we get to owning a little pup due to Max’s allergies.

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After about three hours of wandering through the lit city

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and a chowing down on a delicious meal accompanied by political art on the wall

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we crossed the bridge back to the peninsula and our much-quieter street and guest house.

 

Monday, February 22

We had heard Hoi An’s environs feature some great day-trip exploring, so we rented a scooter to do just that.

Heading towards the coast we rode through the Tra Que Vegetable Village. Only a few miles NE of Hoi An we spotted rice paddies located between the De Vong river and an alga pond on either side of a dusty, main road. We rode just a bit down a dirt lane between the paddies and pond but decided to turn around because it just seemed more of the same.

Just another mile or so was the beach Cau Dai. Having read about the persistent beach vendors we weren’t surprised to be accosted by waving parking attendants trying to get us into their lots. Finding one close to the sand, we paid the US$1 fee and walked to sea where surf and sun worshippers spread out before us.

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There were also these tubby fishing boats that seemed more like kids’ surf toys than fishing boats; yet, these bamboo bobbing boats must be effective because we saw many of these outside family homes when riding back from the coast.

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Having to snap a surf photo for my surfing brother and nephews

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we also wanted to document the irony of lifeguards sitting behind a ‘No Swimming’ sign while watching tourists frolic in the sea.

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Deciding to return the next day with suits, we retrieved our scooter and rode back to Hoi An for more sightseeing.

We thought we’d try once again to find the Vegetable Village since it was a noted attraction. So, we turned back onto the dirt path between the paddies, passed an alga pond,

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and were rewarded with the unveiling of a lovely neighborhood.

Growing lettuce, coriander, basil, and other greens used in Hoi An’s special dishes such as Cao Lau, small plots…

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and then an expansive one nurtured thriving plants.

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Back to the Old Town to view its historical structures.

As an example of a 15th and 16th century trading port in SE Asia, Hoi An’s Old Town showcases architecture with Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese styles. The integrity of the original buildings–many constructed of wood–remains due to Hoi An’s decline as a port in the 19th century. Similar to Germany’s medieval Rothenburg, another town that escaped modern development, Hoi An’s economic stagnation became its future savior as tourists flood its streets today.

Although they all started to run together without the benefit of a guide’s knowledge, they were lovely to walk into and through.

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Many featured gates which ushered us into a sunlit patio, which led into darkened rooms, some with altars for worshiping various gods, such as:  Quan Cong Temple, a confucian temple dating from 1653 and named for a 1st century Chinese general who symbolizes and is worshipped for traits of loyalty and integrity; and, the Assembly Hall of the Fujan Chinese Congregation transformed into a temple to worship Thien Hau, a god from the Fujan province.

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One included an old tale displayed in its original script

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and translated for foreigners.
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These old buildings were enchanting with their outdoor areas bedecked with potted, flowering plants and brightly painted surfaces. Again, reminding me of an adult theme park, but one comprised of cultural artifacts as opposed to gaudy rides.

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Adding to the floral scenery were bright orange fruit bushes later identified as kumquat. Being a sign of fertility and fruitfulness, many of these miniature trees were carefully tended by nurseries then delivered to homes and businesses for the Tet holiday. Later, they are picked up for another year of professional nurturing: the more fruit, the luckier you are.

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Further down the road we toured the Tan Ky (“Progress Shop”, so named by the owner in the hopes of fostering prosperity) House. Built in 1700s by a Vietnamese merchant, this home was inhabited by the same family for multiple generations who lovingly maintained the home’s original features.

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One of the most interesting displays was a wall noting previous water levels reached due to flooding. Like many of the Old Town’s structures, the Tan Ky house backed up to the street running parallel to the river allowing for easy loading and unloading of trade goods; hence, the propensity to fill with water on fairly regularly.

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The site also featured a boatload of tourists, causing me to quickly scan the interior and exit, soon to be followed by Max.

Just down the street was the market selling the usual exotic (to us) vegetables,

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noodles,

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and flowers.

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Looking forward to a more solitary experience we opted to explore the Carpentry Village. Located on the other side of Hoi An  we crossed another bridge (one just opened and only available for pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, and animal-drawn carts). The route was suppose to be fairly obvious, or so we thought.

Not so much… of course we got lost and tried to ask directions to get re-oriented. That failed, but, no matter as we just liked riding around on narrow dirt lanes that wound through small neighborhoods waving to people as we scooted past. Eventually we rode out onto an open space where, once again, we were greeted with lime-green rice paddies

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and the occasional farmer and his water buffalo.

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Tuesday, February 23

Wanting to actually go swimming we decided to return to the coast and join the other sunbathers R&Ring on the white-sand beaches.

After two hours we’d had enough of lying under a beach umbrella and taking dips in the ocean, so we retrieved our scooter and picked some main roads leading west. With no plan other than to just ride and stop when we saw something interesting, our trail ended up being a circuitous loop with no sight-seeing involved. Just as well as sandy grit and salty skin were playing havoc with our bodies, and showers beckoned.

 

Wednesday, February 24

Our last day in Hoi And was spent wandering around the Old Town on foot (they actually convert some popular tourist walks into pedestrian-only ways, removing the likelihood of being mowed down by a car, scooter, or bike). The most fascinating part was life at the river as we, along with a perched rooster,

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watched women disembarking from a river boat.

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Our days of lounging were drawing to a close but I can’t describe our journey in Hoi An without giving you the names of two foodie destinations that made our mouths drool:  Morning Glory, whose excellent cuisine we devoured for lunch (reservations needed for dinner) and where we enjoyed one of our favorite dishes, sauteed morning glory (similar to spinach); and, Hola Taco, a fusion of Asian and Mexican dishes that may seem an odd choice when in Vietnam but, trust me, it’s oh most definitely not.

And, some Vietnamese coffee and Cau Lau is a must.

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Next, our last destination in our five-week sojourn…

 

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