Hoi An

I arrived in the ancient trading town of Hoi An by overnight bus, and after working up a quick sweat finding my bearings, checked into a room in the old quarter in town. Once known as Faifo, this city was for centuries an important port of call for many trading nations. The old quarter retains this sense of history by preserving the old buildings, and one can easily imagine Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Persian, Indonesian traders walking its streets, trading wares.

The heat here was relentless, with sustained 100 degree temperatures and high humidity for most of the time I was there. However, one must carry on, and I managed to explore the city, albeit having to change out of sweaty clothes several times a day.

The photogenic old town, with its yellow walls and historic houses, just oozes charm. I visited the Tan Ky house, currently occupied by the seventh generation of the same family that owned it two hundred years ago. Like many other historical sites in the old quarter, the family’s house is open to the public for several hours a day. In traditional Chinese and Japanese styles, the wooden interior welcomes you with its grandeur, the dim light framing the family portraits therein. With no windows, all natural light comes through the open courtyard in the middle. After a cup of tea I was able to wander around the ground floor, spying an octogenarian who most likely was born and will die here. As the region is prone to flooding, an ingenious pulley system exists to lift furniture up onto the second floor, and when not in use remains hidden, unobtrusive in the ceiling.

Besides traditional homes, other sites include the Museum of Trading Ceramics, which showcases old pottery from centuries of trade, an old Japanese covered bridge, and various Chinese congregation halls, with elaborate statues, altars and gardens.

At night, the streets here are filled with shops selling lanterns, their dim colored glow illuminating the alleys. Hoi An is a shopper’s paradise, filled not only with housewares, but mostly with tailors who will create made-to-order clothes in an afternoon. At first not wanting to purchase anything to make my pack any bigger than it already is, I was eventually wooed by one of the hundreds (no kidding.. hundreds) of tailor shops, and got a suit, a hooded corduroy jacket and two pairs of pants made to my specifications. I’d like zippers here, make them the same color as the piping, and can you hem this in a little? No problem. A hundred bucks and a day later, I found myself throwing out various useless items I’d been carrying around since Thailand to make room. Teehee.

Waking up at four in the morning, I caught a ride with the easy riders for an excursion to nearby My Son, a Hindu temple complex from the Champa kingdom that was destroyed by the Americans during the war (the Viet Cong used the ruins as a base, and the Americans were stationed nearby.) The remaining brick ruins showcase different art styles and architectures, Buddhist, Hindu, and others. Had I not had a guide to point the various details the morning sun’s heat would have had me running back to the breeze of the motorbike much earlier. In fact, the site is quite interesting despite being much smaller than those at Angkor. The most amazing detail is the brickwork from hundreds of years ago — it has withstood the elements and looks newer than the replacement bricks put in twenty years ago during repairs. This was also my first time encountering the incredible mimosa plant, whose leaves fold when touched. Too cool.

The ride back to Hoi An was enjoyable, riding through rice fields and seeing local, uniformed kids riding to school on their bicycles, on cell phones or in packs, gossiping. We stopped by a rice paper factory, cotton mill and pottery factory to see how those products are made. A fun diversion and photo opportunity, but at this point all I could think about was getting something to drink. After an ice cold Nuoc Mia (pressed sugar cane with lemon and ice), my newest addiction, I was dropped off at my hotel in time for a deserved nap.

Hoi An is definitely worth a visit, despite its prominence on the tourist track. It really is a beautiful, charming and walkable town. In making my way up to the north of Vietnam, I have found that I’ve abandoned most hope of getting off the tourist track. The heat and humidity here have worked a spell, depriving me of motivation, and I’ve become all too happy to let someone else organize my transport. It’s all a little too easy here; I’m determined to take my next trip to Vietnam off the beaten path.

With a sigh, I boarded a bus for the short ride north up to Hue.

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