19 October 2007

Hoi An

I know I have been in Vietnam two years when the city of Da Nang evokes no other feeling than that of a place an hour’s flight north of Ho Chi Minh City. When I first arrived, all those Vietnam War place-names caused a gut-wrenching reaction, accompanied by mental TV footage of battles, bodies, and protests.

My trip was actually to Hoi An, but one flies into Da Nang. From there, it is a 45 minute taxi ride to the beautiful town Hoi An, which sits along the banks of the Thu Bon River. It was a major South East Asian port from the 17th to the 19th century. I read somewhere that it was not bombed during the war by agreement of all sides, so as to preserve its historical heritage.

The first thing that strikes you, coming from HCMC, is how small, and cute, and quiet it is. One strolls along the narrow winding, tree-lined streets, past two-story, Chinese style houses. The center area is blocked to cars and motorbikes, but even on the streets, it is not busy. Or at least in comparison to the non-stop traffic congestion of HCMC.

And that’s another thing: Ho Chi Minh City. Before I arrived in Vietnam, I read in the Lonely Planet guide that most people in HCMC still refer to it as Saigon. I soon found out that was not the case; both young and old assured me that they generally call it HCMC. However, in Hoi An, it was a different story. Every time I told someone I was from HCMC, (and I told them this in Vietnamese!), they would reply with, “Oh, Saigon.” I soon started telling people I was from Saigon.

Although it is still the rainy season, and I had read that there were often floods this time of year, my friend and I arrived at 8am at the Blue Sky Hotel, to find clear skies and slightly cooler weather than in HCMC. I had found the hotel on the internet, liked the pictures, and called the proprietress. They only had the “Superior Deluxe” room available for $35, which was more than I had planned to spend, but it looked so beautiful on their web page, that I booked it. And I was not disappointed. It was the nicest room I have stayed in, in all of my travels. Large, new, spotless, tasteful décor and a balcony that looked out over a water- spinach lagoon. (sort of looks like a flooded rice paddy).

We had breakfast on the back deck, drinking in the peace and quiet, while they made-up the rooms. Then it was off to meander amongst the charm and beauty of historical Hoi An. I thought I might do some shopping, Hoi An being know for its fabric lanterns, but all I wanted to do was walk and soak in the sights. As it started to heat up, we stopped off for a drink at a café along the river.

Learning from my previous experiences traveling outside of HCMC, I’d packed enough clothing to suit all weather possibilities. I was happy to see that, if the heat continued, I would be able to wear the dresses I had brought, and maybe the jeans and other warmer items could be worn in the evening.

The Mango Room Café was one of the many quaint eating establishments lining the small road that ran next to the river. The owner, although Vietnamese, had lived in the US, South America, and Australia, which was reflected in the decoration and menu. Green and blue walls, red trimming, and platform beds with mats and pillows filled the downstairs. I kicked off my shows, climbed up on the bed/table, sat looking out the window, and drank an ice coffee. I watched the small boats going up and down the river, and at the moored fishing boats parked out front. I noted that the eyes on the boats were white, as opposed to red, in HCMC. It was magical.

We cruised about a bit more, then headed back to the hotel for a snooze. (I had been up at 3am to get the taxi at 4, to get to the airport at 5, for the flight at 6am.)
I lay down on the bed with a book, balcony door and windows open, a soft breeze blowing through the room. I wondered what the hell I was doing living in the insanity of Saigon.

That evening, we walked through the streets, down to the river, then crossed the bridge. The other side of the river didn’t have any of the small shops and cute streets – or at least not that I noticed, but it did have a row of restaurants. We picked the pretty blue one, and walked upstairs to the large, open dining area. There, we sat at a table next to the railing, gazing down upon the river, boats, and people.

I have never been a person driven by food, and every time that I have eaten in restaurants in HCMC, it has been a disappointing experience. Usually sub-standard. Or, if you get a decent meal one time, you won’t the second. Having no idea what to expect in Hoi An, we ordered grilled shrimp and calamari. I had never had such delicious food! Simple, clean, fresh, and unbelievable. And this was to be the norm for the rest of the trip. Every single place we ate, (except for the hotel, where it was limited to breakfast), was exceptional. I was finding that I was looking forward to the next culinary stop, which is usually at the bottom of my list when I travel. Actually, there was one good thing about the hotel food; the bread. Hoi An has its own mini-baguette specialty. Hard crust, oven fresh, individual little loaves. I rarely eat bread, but if I lived in Hoi An, I would eat it with every meal.

Hoi An is experiencing a tourism boom. All the travel books will tell you that in addition to its charm, it is the place to purchase tailored clothing and hand made shoes. Now, when someone tells me you can get an entire new wardrobe made in just two days, I have to ask; what’s wrong with this picture? Apparently, they can do it, but the quality is really poor. There are hundreds of dress shops and shoe stores, and all the samples look like everyone else’s, and of dime-store quality. I can’t understand why anyone would buy anything there, but they do.

Day two started out rather grey, but with no rain. We hopped a taxi to the beach in search of a cute restaurant for breakfast. I’d read that the beaches were beautiful, but I wouldn’t agree. They reminded me of the scrubby, northern California coastline, especially the old Fort Ord area. Give me palm trees and lots of green, and I will say it is a beautiful beach. All the same, I do love the sound of the surf and the fresh air.

The beach was lined with restaurants of the concrete floor, bamboo roof, no wall, variety. And they all were empty, even though this is supposed to be the high season. I think things will get busier in a month. The young woman, who served us at the place we chose, told us it gets packed on weekends. After we ate, we decided to walk back to town which, on the map, was listed as a 4K walk.

The road to town ran along a river. About half-way back we stopped off at a restaurant that was perched over the river. Made of dark wood, and open on all sides, it was filled with white rattan tables and chairs. No other customers were there that early in the day, but the staff was about, setting up. We parked ourselves on one end and ordered ice cream coffee. It was heaven. The river under us, no voices other than our own, and coffee with strawberry ice cream which, by the way, is quite tasty.

Once back in the center of town, we stopped off for another delicious snack, with another spectacular view, all the while scoping out restaurants for dinner. Walking in and out of all the shops, I realized there really wasn’t anything to buy. Other than cheaply manufactured cloths and shoes, I found mostly the same things one can buy in HCMC. Even the fabric lanterns were not a better buy, so why bother buying and lugging them back?

By early afternoon, the rains had started, and just got stronger. Holed up in the hotel, I read and rested. The rains let up in time to head out for dinner. This time we chose a place that advertised cooking classes, which is something else one can do in Hoi An.

As with most of the restaurants along the river, this one was small, with tables right at the front, and no walls to block the view. I looked out and noticed that the river was rising and had actually gone over the bank onto the sidewalk. But then the first dish arrived, sweet and sour fish, and I got too involved with eating. Next thing I noticed was that the river was now flowing right up to the stairs of the restaurant, which was built about a meter above the street.

Soon kids on bicycles were driving through the water, laughing and splashing. The water under the bridge was now almost even with the bridge. The part of the bridge which dipped down towards the street was under water. I watched as Vietnamese didn’t even hesitate, but simply rode their bikes or motorbikes through the water, up to the bridge, and continued on their way. Not so the tourists, who would walk from the other side and come to a dead stop when the reached the water obstacle. Eventually, they would carefully wade through the water, or flag down a motorbike to drive them through, or even carry their girlfriend across. And still, the water rose, even though it was only drizzling.

The final course for dinner was shrimp cooked in coconut milk that was served in a hollowed-out coconut that had been put on the fire to heat. Indescribably delicious! By the time we were finished, there seemed no way to leave the restaurant. Fortunately, there was a side door so we avoided the flood.

Although it was a fun experience, I knew that this amount of water meant that there was serious flooding in rural areas all around us. And those floods are still continuing.

Another reason I had wanted to go to Hoi An was to see the Cham ruins outside if town. The Cham are an ethnic minority group and up until my trip, I hadn’t realized that they are related to the people who built Angkor, in Cambodia. Although the temples are ruins, the Cham people are still around. I had hoped to find some ethnic art in town, but that was not to be the case. And what with all the rain and grey skies, I decided to put of ruins-traipsing for another trip.

The next day out walking, I saw a silk tapestry ‘factory’. I had seen many of the silk embroidery pictures that the tour books rave about, but had never been impressed. Or at least not until I saw the ones that the women were producing in this shop. They looked like photos. All were quite large with scenes of Vietnam, portraits of people, or flowers. Too big and too expensive for my tastes, I looked at the smaller scale, which didn’t have the same quality. They all looked ‘embroidered’. The sales woman explained that that was because of the thickness of the embroidery thread. Apparently, small-scale pictures are all made with thicker thread. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of finished products, but if I had, you would swear they were photographs.

They weather continued to be dismal the next day, our last in town. I had booked a 7pm flight, but my friend and I decided to try and get on the 1:30pm flight. The flight was sold out, but we were sure we could get on stand-by, so went to the airport at 10am. On the ride to the airport, our driver pointed out China Beach. Nothing to write home about. Across the road were the remnants of US military hangers. We also passed by the Marble Mountains, which have their own story and which I will visit on my next trip.

Lovely Da Nang International Airport is about the size of a small Safeway. It was totally deserted when we arrived. The security guy said no one would be there until 12 noon. Across from the airport was a row of dingy restaurants were we went and ordered coffee. I then called Vietnam Airlines and was told I was on the waiting list, but that I would have to get on another waiting list at the airport since they didn’t share information. We talked to several locals and drank coffee until people started to arrive and it looked like the tiny Vietnam Air office was about to open. I put up a valiant effort, getting first on the waiting list and bugging the crap out of any official looking person I could find, but it was not to be. The flight was booked solid.

So we had five hours to kill before check-in time. This time, my valiant effort paid off and they let us check in our suitcases. I actually think they finally acquiesced to get rid of me. I am becoming quite the pushy lady as I get older. Once free of suitcases, we grabbed a taxi to take us to the Cham museum.

The museum was in this gigantic, probably French, building next to the river. It really didn’t contain much, but I was drooling over the thought of going back to the Cham ruins on my next trip. This was when I found out about the connection between the Cham Kingdom and Angkor. The pieces they had, looked like they had been taken from Cambodia.

Outside the museum, I stopped a guide and asked where the tourist section of town was. There is none. So my friend asked the lady at the ticket booth about shopping areas. She directed us down a main street.

I am sure there must be some nice sections of the city, but what we saw was dead ugly. Sort of a 1960’s industrial steel and concrete urban zone. I did notice that there seemed to be no traffic. Obviously, there was, but it was so civilized. One could actually cross the street with out fearing for life or limb. It had crossed my mind more than once since arriving – Wouldn’t it be nice to live in Hoi An? Which would probably mean working and living in Da Nang. I don’t think so.

At least we found yet another beautiful restaurant with great food. Then we went over to the massive riverboat restaurant that was setting up for the nightly dinner cruise. They kindly let us come aboard and get some hot tea. Finally, it was back to Da Nang International.

We boarded a brand new 777. (I think). Shortly before take-off my friend pointed to the movie screen, where all I could make out was some gritty grey with odd lights. She informed me that it was a live picture out the cockpit, or possibly from under the plane. No matter, the purpose of it was so that passengers could watch the take off and landing, just as the pilot sees it. And, oh my god!, was it ever something! I was very loud with all my “Wow’s!” and “Amazing’s!”, and laughing with excitement. It is very strange to look at the screen, then look out the window; a real thrill ride.

I am already looking forward to my next rip to Hoi An, although next time it will be in the totally dry season, which is coming up on us any week now. Until then, I will just have to look at my pictures to relive the feeling of tranquility I experienced in Hoi An.