Ancient Town Hoi An in photos

This blog posting will be less tell, more show.

First a quick intro: Hoi An was a major shipping port in the 16th and 17th centuries, with Dutch, Japanese and Chinese traders passing by these very walls. It would have become a much bigger city, but in the 19th century, the river silted up and big ships were no longer able to pass through. The town  languished until its 1999 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site turned it into one of SE Asia’s most popular tourist destinations.

IMG_0043The tourists are here in huge numbers, and that is the one critique I have of this town. Ancient Town is a madhouse and as a tourist myself, I am adding to the mayhem, so my criticism is hardly fair. If it is uncrowded streets and mellow moments you are looking for, get here really early in the morning.

IMG_9752Since Hoi An’s tourist life revolves around the river, we will begin there. Boats are for hire, for short cruises at sunset or for longer tours.

IMG_9991While Ancient Town runs back from the river on both sides for several streets, the riverfront promenade provides a natural gathering place and events are held most nights. A Food Festival was on one night, with two intense and sweating chefs  stirring the pot.

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Further down the promenade, we watched two girls wade into the river, which is really filthy.  Here, they’re gathering around to show off their catch – big black snails.

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As the late afternoon turns into early evening, the light and atmosphere on the waterfront is magical. The heat and sun has been replaced with a welcome light breeze.

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There are outdoor art displays, buskers, food vendors and good old-fashioned people-watching.

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These kids were having a great time pushing each other around on this little bike.

IMG_9760This little one was quite unabashedly twirling her skirt and mugging for the camera.

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I watched this beautiful woman for a minute or two – she never moved. Deep in thought or just enjoying a quiet spot away from the tourist throngs.

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Many Vietnamese carry parasols – an excellent idea now when the sun is so hot.

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I was caught by the expression on this mother’s face. She was showing something to her little children and had their full attention.

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There are so many twisty little alleyways – it would take days to explore them all.

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Great boughs of bougainvillea and flowing shrubs hang over doorways – bright bursts of colour against the ocher walls.
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Hoi An has a number of art galleries, with striking contemporary art by young artists.

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This young man was painting on the sidewalk, and took a moment for a smoke break.

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To enter Ancient Town in Hoi An, you must buy a pass (about $8) that entitles you to the entrance of five old shophouses, or assembly halls or museums. That money goes to a foundation to help preserve the old structures.  I took this photo from the second floor of a Chinese merchant hall. The railings and staircase felt a little fragile, and the walls are dark, but we got a good sense of how the town must have felt in its trading heyday.

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The Japanese Covered Bridge is another example of the carved wood and rolled roof design of the structures in Hoi An.

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Tailor shops and  textile handiwork is huge business  in Hoi An. In this room, a number of young women were at work embroidering fabric. They spoke no English, so I was unable to ask them about their work, but I suspect they put in long hours. If you look carefully, you can see two women sleeping on the floor.

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There are hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An, but only a few of them are well-regarded. In this case, you really do get what you pay for.  Many turn out identical garments in 24 hours or less and they can be of poor quality. Having a suit or dress made here requires careful  research and word of mouth recommendations.

We wondered who the target market is for these bouncy and confident suits.

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I stopped to take a photo of the catchy sewing machine display – an homage to one of the town’s big industries. But then, the model caught my eye. Where did they find this Caucasian mannequin with mussy bedhead and a slightly regretful expression in her eyes?

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The food in Hoi An is fantastic, and the range of restaurants is staggering. Everything from ladies selling sweet potato cakes on the street to reservation-only hot spots with American prices. We ate so well, and darned if I did not take one photo of food. I just kept forgetting – the food would arrive, we’d start to eat and make a mess of our plates and then, I’d remember.  You’ll have to take our word for it.  This was our view from a favourite restaurant.

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And now, a sunset and evening tour of Hoi An:

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Lanterns are a big deal in Hoi An. The streets are strung with them, people buy small floating lanterns with candles to launch on the river, and they are for sale everywhere. This display proved to be an irresistible backdrop for a holiday photo.

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The bridge over the river is adorned with two graceful signs –
especially beautiful when lit at night.

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Good-bye Hoi An. Thank you for giving us such a relaxing and elegant vacation.

The exquisite beauty of perfect Hoi An

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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This was not a sight we expected to see…

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.)

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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.

 

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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.

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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.