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.

The Laos work-around

We left Luang Prabang with very good memories, but for one small detail: on our last day  Stephen exchanged $200US to Laos Kip (currently trading at about 5700 k to $1 CAD). The lady counted out 1 million, 600,000 kip, Stephen made a joke about being a millionaire, she laughed, and that was the end of it. About 8:30 that night, Stephen re-counted the  money and realized he had been short-changed about $20 US. He kicked himself for not counting it at the counter, but it seemed right at the time and…lesson learned. Except he couldn’t let it go. So he headed back up to the main street and another lady was just closing up. Stephen explained there had been a mistake, and after a bit of conversation, she believed him and handed over the missing cash! Amazingly, this very thing happened to another person who was staying at our hotel, and he also got his money back. It’s a nice little scam – when confronted, they simply hand back the money – it must be a profitable side business. Aside from being astounded that we got our money back, we have no hard feelings. It falls to us to be aware.

The next day, we headed out on our six-hour mountain bus trip from Luang Prabang south
to Vang Vieng. Almost immediately, the scenery grabbed us.

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The switchbacks were a little hairy, but our driver was (mainly) safe, and the road was (mainly) in good condition, so we just enjoyed the view.

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Laos is struggling to pull itself out of a state of truly dire poverty, and we saw some desperately poor houses in some of the mountain villages.  I was struck by the message on this house, on so many levels.

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In other villages, we would see a little more prosperity and comfort.

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A ball game of some sort was in full swing as we drove by.

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And then this happened. We came around a corner to find a tanker stuck in the middle of the road; its axle broken and the brakes gone. The driver had positioned rocks behind the wheels and could not be persuaded to let the truck roll back enough to allow other vehicles to get by (which may have been a spectacularly bad idea anyway). Much consultation ensued – our bus driver and the tanker driver walked back and forth and measured out the distance. Several other men joined in the discussion, and the decision was made: Our guy would try and squeeze through. He inched along, inched along and then stopped.

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The guardrail would have to be removed, which we’re quite sure is not legal. At first one piece came off, then two, then one of the posts, and again, each time our driver attempted to come forward, he was encouraged by a half dozen swampers, waving this way and that, yelling out encouragement.

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This entire endeavour took about two hours, but we all got to know each other a bit better, shared our banana chips, and generally took it in good humour. When all else fails, there are sun salutations.

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Stephen captured it on film – this will give you a better idea of how little wiggle room our driver had to get through. The big trucks in line behind us may still be stuck up there.

We were a pretty giddy lot by the time we got going, and when we arrived in Vang Vieng, it was almost dark. A short story about the hotel we booked – the Green View Resort. We saw it online, it was a tiny bit more than we wanted to pay, but situated on a lake, with swimming and kayaking and we were sold. After we had booked our non-refundable room, we realized too late that it was not even in Vang Vieng – it was 20 km. south. We would have to pay a $30 tuk-tuk fare to get there, and once there, we would be trapped. We were annoyed with ourselves, but decided to make the best of it.  A couple of days of R&R would be perfect.
Then…the fun began.  At the bus station, we told the tuk-tuk driver our hotel’s name and that it was far out of town, but that seemed okay to him, so we hopped in. After an hour of dropping off all the other passengers, our driver suddenly realized he did  not have the foggiest idea where we were going. He returned to the bus depot to settle the day and consult with his fellow drivers. He then went looking for a car (instead of driving all that distance in a tuk-tuk). The car was nowhere to be found, and after watching him on his cellphone, we pleaded to just get out there in the tuk-tuk.   He phoned our hotel owner for directions and set off, stopping at one point at a creek to pour water over his overheating radiator. He then almost ran out of gas. Stephen insisted that we stop to buy beer before we got to the hotel. Once there, he called our hotel again, and within a few minutes we had left the highway and bumped along a narrow rocky road in the pitch black for another ten minutes. We could see steep embankments on either side.

Finally, we arrived -we saw our hotel owner coming down the hill with a flashlight – I could have wept. He took us to our beautiful bungalow, we had showers and came back up to join a few loquacious French tourists for a delicious dinner. All was right again.

The view from our dining room. In the rainy season, all those islands are underwater.
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The view from just around the corner from our hotel.

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We spent yesterday in total relaxation mode. First we walked back up the road to the small village – about 30 minutes – to pick up some beer and snacks. We were a big hit with these little girls, who called out “hello”, then burst out giggling, then “what is your name?”, then more giggles. The driver of this contraption, Natalie, could not have been more than 10 or 11.

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We waved at a woman fishing from the banks on the way back. In the rainy season, the water rises almost to the top of the banks.

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We took out a two-man heavy plastic kayak for a spin around the islands. We were trying to find Monkey Island, although we were advised by the owner not to get out of the kayak, as the monkeys are very aggressive, and we didn’t want to get bitten. Duly noted – but we didn’t see any sign of monkeys on any of the islands we paddled past. We met up with lots of fishing boats and several fishing nets.

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We turned the corner and saw our very first water buffalo – a small herd of them were grazing on one of the islands. As we approached, they started to come down the hill toward the water’s edge, so we moved in as close as possible. This big male was giving us the hard stare, and started to paw the ground a little, so we conceded his territory and moved on.

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Back on dry land!

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Time to head back to our cabin and enjoy the view from our balcony, with a nice cold Beerlao – Laos’ fabulous homebrew, apparently courtesy of a German brewmaster.

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