Walking through the streets of old Hoi An is a photographer’s dream – you can feel like a creative genius just by showing up. Ancient Town is filled with museums, Chinese and Japanese shophouses, art galleries, assembly halls and pagodas, bridges, old wells and masses of flowers. Every street is intersected with dozens of alleys, so you could spend a couple of days happily wandering and see a different sight at every turn. The 17th century merchant halls are now filled with Tiger Balm and silk scarves, but otherwise the area is a living museum – beautifully preserved.
Look up and see lanterns swaying in front of a crumbling roof; look down an alleyway and find bougainvillea spilling over a doorway and look straight ahead…and you’ll see this:
Oh yes, the tour groups have discovered Hoi An as well. Wiry chain-smoking drivers wheel flocks of tourists through the narrow streets like oversized toddlers on an outing. Vietnam is solidly on the senior tourist radar and Hoi An is one of its most popular destinations, with very good reason. It’s small, walkable, flat enough to cycle out to rice paddies and the beach, filled with amazing restaurants and hotels and shopping and day trips are varied and affordable.
There is so much to tell you about Hoi An and area that I’ll do two blog posts – beginning with the countryside. There is as much to see in the area around Hoi An as there is right in town. Our hotel is about halfway between the ancient town on the river and An Bang Beach on the ocean. This has worked out perfectly for us, as we’re tucked on a quiet side street and can hop on one of the hotel’s (rusty, squeaky but free) bikes and make a quick escape. About five minutes from here we come across this scene:
Just outside of town, there are rice paddies for many kilometres on both sides of the highway. We’ve discovered the joy of hopping on one of the many small roads that run through them and being transported into the most green, serene world you can imagine. Every ride is different – you never know what creature you might run across.
These guys gave us a wary look, and we gave them a wide berth, but going on the theory that cows are docile, we felt comfortable enough.
The water buffalo are a slightly different story. I’m quite sure they would not do us any harm, but their horns are intimidating, so they were fun to watch from a distance. We first saw a big male, submerged up to his ears in a mud-hole, and then realized we were in the middle of a herd. As we rode on, so did the buffalo, leaving their grazing to head for water.
We were getting quite blasé about water buffalo sightings and then we came upon this man. Traveling around in the paddies can feel like being in the middle of an Asian silk painting – so timeless and peaceful. That man on his water buffalo has been around for hundreds of years.
This was not a sight we expected to see…
We were heading down that stone wall to see the tomb of a Japanese trader who is buried in the middle of the rice paddies. (on dry land – more on that in a minute). This man was ahead of us and he suddenly stopped, put a cage down and called out a command. This macaw emerged from the cage and then took off – flying and swooping before landing again and waiting for treats. It was quite the sight; even more remarkable that the bird didn’t seize his opportunity and fly to freedom. Stephen spoke to the owner for a bit – apparently the bird is just 7 months old, so the two of them will grow old together.
As we were walking back, the macaw flew about and landed on Stephen’s shoulder. He started pecking at his hat, then spied the better prize – a silver necklace. Before he could lacerate Steve’s neck, the owner called him off.
The Japanese tomb is visible in the above photo, a low flat stone structure on the horizon to the right of the bird. It holds the remains of a 17th century Japanese trader, as a testament to the historical friendship between the Japanese and Vietnamese. Interestingly, the massive rice paddies, which are mainly in water, are interspersed with squares of dry land and home to random tombstones, small homes and vegetable patches.
We have found our routine while we’re here – up early and out by 8:00 am to hit the rice paddies for our dose of zen time. Then, when we have gathered enough nerve to hit the highway on our bikes and compete for space with dozens of motorcycles, scooters, delivery trucks, buses, minivans and assorted and sundry other vehicles, all of them speeding and honking and passing one another…we head for the beach. So far, so good, but you really need to be on your game, as regard for the safety of others is not at issue here in Hoi An. We were told the driving here is the worst in Vietnam (an unscientific opinion) but I’m inclined to believe it. Anyway, just another 10 minutes from rice paddies to beach and this is our reward:
We stake out a sun bed and thatched roof shade (ours for the day for the price of an iced coffee). We bring a book and a towel, and alternate between swimming in calm, delightfully refreshing water and sitting on our sunbeds, reading or napping. When we’re hungry or thirsty, we eat or drink. It is quiet and civilized and such a tonic – our first real beach time since we’ve been travelling.
The beach has lots going on besides lazing about. We ran into a family who brought this massive inflatable beach pool with them from their home in Switzerland. The kids and Dad were having a grand time. We must have stood there for 5 or 10 minutes while the same scene repeated itself. Dad fills pail with water from the ocean and pours it over his son. Son shrieks. Every time. We had a good laugh with the mum and she let me take a photo of the goings-on (similar scenes repeated daily on beaches around the world.)
These distinctive round basket boats were on shore – possibly to be rented and taken out, or maybe they are simply fishing boats, but no-one was around to talk to about them or their history.
The one downside of the beach and also of Hoi An, is the persistent and aggressive nature of the vendors. They walk the beach and come up into the restaurants with very similar wares – fans, little dolls, tiny china cups, place mats, plastic jewellery – cheap stuff that nobody wants. A simple “no thanks” is ignored. Most of them speak English quite well and the line is always the same, “Where you from? Canadians help me feed my children. I need money for my family.”
By not buying, what you are doing is not turning down the chance to buy a lacquer mirror, you are refusing to help her family. It is very difficult, because although the line is the same, the circumstances are likely legit for most of the vendors – they are poor and struggling. We talked to Ming for a few minutes.
Ming was quite forthcoming about her situation. When she found out we had two sons, she told us we were doubly lucky. Having a son is important in Vietnam – a family with only girls is at a disadvantage. She has three daughters and seemed so disappointed by that – once they are married, they will go to their husbands’ homes and she will be left with no-one to care for her.
We told her we would have been happy to have a daughter as well, but now we were lucky to have a daughter -in-law. She was unimpressed – girls and women have less value here. So much more to talk about on that subject, but at another time. It left us feeling so sad for Ming – she has spent her life being devalued because she’s female.
There is still a culture in Asia that crosses all economic levels – the cherished boy who is brought up to be catered to and waited on and becomes spoiled and lazy. We have heard the anecdotal stories and witnessed some examples of it already – groups of men, young and old, hanging out during the day and doing little.
This is not the case in every family, of course. We have met many gentle and hardworking young men and devoted family men. But it does say to us that cultural understanding is so complex, and we would need to be here for a long time to make sense of things, or at least not believe they are wrong just because they are different.
See you in Ancient Town Hoi An in a few days.
8 thoughts on “The exquisite beauty of perfect Hoi An”
Hoi An has also been one of my favourites, although it has become quite touristicky lately as i can see from your pixs!!Women work very hard in Nam if the country was run by women alone, it wpuld be an economc power in the world!!!!
It is so touristy – wait until you see photos of Ancient Town. You’re right – women work very hard here, and from a young age. Our hotel has delightful staff – all of them under the age of 30. They are all women except for an old security guy who hands out the bikes, but otherwise sits in the shade and smokes. There is a young guy who works front desk and the dining room, and he’s sweet but useless. The young women swirl around him and get things done, and he picks up the odd dirty glass off a table, but otherwise seems lost.
I don’t understand how encouraging boys to do nothing is considered by their parents to be a good thing. The boys and men who are like that do not look happy. We watched a small boy kick his mother in the leg until she handed over what he wanted – her camera. Once he had it, he didn’t know what to do with it, but the adults all laughed and so the pattern is set.
I loved the first picture in you blog! It looks like the kind of street I’d love to wander down. On a more serious note, in regard to the cultural differences that you spoke of, I would agree that the issue is very complex and partly because of that, people are slow to change.
Hoi An is just full of streets you would love Heather – but the challenge is that Ancient Town has become so popular it is hard to see anything in a reflective and peaceful way.
And as for the likelihood of people changing (individually, never mind culturally) you must see this all the time with your practice. I would love to know if there is a conversation happening among women (as there is in India and Pakistan), to improve their status. Or at least reduce the “Little Emperor” syndrome.
Also one of our favourite places in Vietnam. We found the food in Hoi An very good. The giant baskets were a treat to watch in action. The dexterity with which the fishermen kept them from capsizing was astounding.
Once again we are reliving Vietnam through your fabulous photos and your informative descriptions. Thank you for that.
Thank you Eveline – it will be fun to catch up with you at some point to swap impressions of Vietnam.
We still haven’t seen the basket boats out at sea – we have one more day here, so hopefully we’ll still have the chance.
And the food – oh boy, it is hard to keep the pounds off – even though they serve lots of vegetables and small portions of meat, their plates are large and everything is so delicious.
Catching up on the blogs, I must admit I’m quite behind…Hoi An looks beautiful, I remember my dad having great things to say about it after his travels around Vietnam. Daughters and women seem to be devalued all over the world! Glad we are living in a more progressive country although the inequality still prevails. Happy to be your daughter from another mother 😊 See you both in a few weeks!
Dear Alanna – thank you for such lovely words – it means a lot to me. Looking forward to seeing you both soon. xoxo