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Andy’s Travel Diary

Friday, 16 Feb 2007

Location: Hoi An, Vietnam


Were we really still in Vietnam? No karaoke bars, no motorbike hordes, no tall and ugly hotels. It felt like Laos - no wonder we took an instant liking to Hoi An, even though it was only six o'clock in the morning.

Note to self: Stop getting buses or trains that arrive at some ungodly morning hour. Night transport is great to save money on accomodation, but even if you are lucky enough to sleep the whole way (and Diazepam helps believe me), you arrive at your destination with a cloudy head, black rings around your eyes, feeling like you haven't slept a wink, and then having to contend with badgering touts trying to rip you off.

I can't deny however that overnight buses which arrive early in the morning are perhaps the only chance i will ever get to see these countries at that time of day. I should add - in a sober state.

The scenery we passed to reach Hoi An was unlike anything i had seen in Vietnam up to that point. As the sun peeped over the horizon and rose above a landscape of paddy fields, water buffalow and small lakes, the surrounding dusty villages, largely passed over by the progress sweeping the cities, began to wake. Women were busy cooking bowls of Pho (noodle soup) for breakfast, men were sweeping their shops or houses, and a group of mad people had decided to play badminton.

Once rested and fed on some unidentifiable noodle soup with flourescent orange pieces floating amongst the shrimp, eggs and vegetables, we set off to explore the town.

Hoi An is a delight, one of my favourite places so far. Spared the destruction suffered by much of the country during the Vietnam Wars, the town is one of Asia's best preserved trading ports, and one of the oldest setlements in Vietnam. Hoi An was an important centre of 16th and 17th century trade. Merchants from Portugal, Holland, India, China and Japan came to trade spices, fabric and precious metals and left their mark architecturally and atmospherically. It is the fusion of foreign and indigenous styles, the French quarter, the Chinese pagodas, the Vietnamese houses and the eight hundred buildings of historical interest which have survived into the modern day that contributed to the town's status as one of Vietnam's four UNESCO world heritage sites.

As trade slowly moved northwards, to the larger and more industrial Danang, Hoi An faded, leaving behind a quaint port plied by small fishing boats, an old town unchanged for centuries and a lifestyle unspoiled since the seventeenth century.

On our second day we bought a multi-site ticket which gave us the freedom to expore the culture and history of the town more deeply.

None of the sites in Hoi An are spectacular, they reflect the intimate nature of the town. Our first stop was Tun Ky house; a chance to finally see inside a traditional dwelling. Seven generations from one family have lived in this Japanese and Chinese inspired merchant house which used to trade agricultural products in the eighteenth century. We sat in the reception room listening to the owner tell the story of the house while his wife brought round green tea and Ruth and I tried to stifle giggles for no other reason than we find everything funny. Afterwards we were allowed to walk around. Many of the sites i had visited recently revolved around death and violence. It was refreshing to be shown a simple house with its beautifully decorated interior of dark wood, its light courtyard for ventilation, the ornate mother of pearl engraved furniture, and its carved doorframes infused with symbolism and meaning, such as the carp which represents prosperity.

Further down the same road was the Japanese bridge. La Vien (a bridge of friends from faraway countries) as it is also called, is a small and decorative bridge. The structure is unique as the only covered bridge in the world with a buddhist pagoda attached to its middle. As the symbol of the town, the bridge demonstrates just how important foreign influences are to Hoi An.

Likewise, the influence of foreign communities is also reflected in the five chinese assembly halls which dot the town, and were built to serve the Chinese migrants that were once so important to trade and commerce coming into the port. We visited the Cantonese Assembly Hall which was deorated in bright colours, dragon coiled pillars, tiered roofs and huge chinese lanterns. Out back was a traditional chinese garden with small bridges, carp filled waterways and elaborate fountains.

Other than these designated sights, the whole town itself is worth seeing. It was a pleasure just to walk around the charming maze of narrow streets and alleyways with their graceful, one-storey pastel coloured buildings and shops of weathered wood selling fabrics, silks, chinese lanterns and furniture. Renovation has been undertaken slowly and faithfully.

The pace of life is much slower than the rest of the country and we found ourselves regularly drinking tea and ejoying a delicious cake outside one of the many delightful pastry shops. We did more than enjoy the food on offer however, we decided to learn how to cook it...