14 February 2011

Hoi An

I’ve arrived in Nirvana, was my first thought as I rolled into the town of Hoi An a few days ago. After a month of noise, pollution, and 90F/32C degree temperatures, this is such a welcome change.

For one who adores heat, I was finding HCMC a bit too much. I’m not sure why that was; not enough time to acclimate? Horrid air quality? Whatever it was, I am glad to be out of there. Hoi An has been overcast since arriving, with temps around 70F/20C during the day, and dipping a bit at night, It’s cool, but not cold. Yet the locals are wrapped up in bulky jackets and knit caps in the evenings and mornings.

Hoi An sits on a river, just a few kilometers from the beach and a forty minute drive from the city of Da Nang.

Hoi An Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site. (UNESCO World Heritage Convention) whc.unesco.org

The World Heritage people go on to say that Hoi An is the only such town in Vietnam that has survived intact for several hundred years. It was a major, international trading port 400 years ago. They have also found archeological evidence of trading as far back as the 2nd century BCE.

I’ve spent the past several days meandering through the narrow, winding streets lined with traditionally designed shops and houses. The influence of the Chinese merchants who settled here is obvious. But there is also the Japanese Bridge, dating from the 18th century, and other contributions from Japanese who moved into the town as well.

There were lots of tourists here over the weekend, both foreign and Vietnamese. Either visitors who come here are different than those in HCMC, or it’s the ambiance of the town that seemingly lowers everyone’s metabolic rate to “slow and leisurely”. Since that is the effect it has had on me, I am assuming it does the same to all. Consequently, I was not at all bothered by the folks wondering and enjoying as much as I was. But it was a lovely surprise when I headed out this morning, Monday, to find nearly empty streets. I had forgotten that not only are there more people here on weekends, but also it was the end of the Tet holiday which accounted for many of the Vietnamese tourists.

I like to explore the neighborhoods of wherever I happen to be. In Hoi An, that means taking a left instead of a right, which puts you in the non-tourist areas in just a few short minutes. Yesterday, in the early evening, I walked through the blocks behind my hotel. All of the front entryways to all of the houses I passed were open. Some folks were inside watching TV; others sat on the front stoops with kids and/or dogs. As I passed, I’d see a serious face looking up at me. I’d smile, do the requisite head-bow, and say xin chao, (seen chow), (hello). Immediately, the person I spoke to grinned from ear to ear and returned my greeting. If it were a mother with a child, she’d encourage him to say hello and wave. Sometimes I’d stop to exchange a few words; me in limited Vietnamese and them in limited English. We’d all end up laughing and waving goodbye. It is the most wonderful feeling to stroll along an unknown street and be welcomed by all you pass.

For someone who is not really driven by the need-to-eat phenomenon, Hoi An has changed me. The food here, no matter where you go, is fantastic! I’ve always have a hard time explaining to people that the “wonderful Vietnamese food” has eluded me in Ho Chi Minh City. I know there are good restaurants there, and I have eaten in some of them, but it has not been that often. I mostly found myself eating tasteless meals. And that simply does not happen in Hoi An. Yesterday, I ordered veggies and tofu expecting a boring meal like I’d get in HCMC. Was I ever surprised. This meal was scrumptious! And the price was at least half what I’d pay for that cardboard meal in HCMC. I find myself eagerly awaiting the next restaurant outing, something unheard of for the gal who prefers to munch on nuts and fruit when traveling.

My favorite part of any day in Hoi An is walking along the promenade that lines both sides of the river inlet that cuts through the central tourist area. Magical fishing boats sit in the water waiting for their next outing. Elderly women, in long, thin, low-to-the-water row boats, wait for a tourist to book a short ride with them. People sit in café’s along the street, drinking coffee and eating. People drive by on bicycles and share the roadway with the motor scooters who are much more well-behaved up here. I want a house on the river so that I can wake up every morning to this glorious scene.