Hoi An

Hoi An school children

The flight to Da Nang from Saigon was about an hour, on a very nice, clean Vietnamese Airlines flight. A bus met us there and drove to Hoi An, a city of 1.5 million, about an hour away. Situated on the Thu Bon River, it is home to a centuries-old trading tradition between the Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. It's compact and visitors can see a lot in a day, though we saw plenty in the two alloted us. It has the feel of a sleepy, charming beach town, and it is well known for its shopping, particularly its tailoring and shoe-making. I had 3 cotton shirts made. It took them 24 hours, and they fit perfectly.

The first day was gloriously sunny and hot, so we opted to skip the beach—we could go there tomorrow, if we wished—and delved instead into the old market.

With its smaller population, the tourists here are more noticeable than in Saigon, and it was certainly a popular destination. The old streets are lined with French colonial buildings, with colorful stucco, mildewed facades and louvered shutters on the windows. There are balconies with plants spilling over the side. There are also elaborate Chinese temples cum meeting halls to explore. We enjoyed our walk and poke around the market. We stopped for some “fresh beer” (bier hoi), a young, yeasty, refreshing draft that cost about $.25 a glass. Later, we had a pricy but delicious dinner at uber-designey Mango with Alan and Cynthia, and enjoyed a walk back to our hotel along the river. The tide was in, and the street was wet as the river topped the bank in a couple of places. It was just as lovely in the dark as in the light.

I woke early our second day in Hoi An. I walked to the central market, stopping en route to photograph a few buildings. It was grey and drizzling; there would be no beach visit. At 6 am the riverfront was bustling with activity and only 1 or 2 tourists to observe the real labor and commerce taking place in this ocean of plastic raincoat-wearing conical hats. People were smoking and you could smell the charcoal braziers that were firing up to make breakfast as people haggled over the first catch of the day. It was mostly women. Many sat on straw or plastic mats and deftly scaled and filleted fish from tiny to large with nothing more than ordinary scissors. Tubs of live shrimp, crab, and fish filled the ground. Some women pounded fish or shrimp into paste, then added herbs and formed this into little balls for frying or soup. It was packed tight and I had to choose my footing carefully. A few yards away, under the warehouse roof, other vendors were readying their vegetables and meat stalls, and restaurant stalls were heating large pots of broth for the mornings’ soup. My own breakfast came from a stall with a line so long it told me its offering must be good, and it was: a baguette sandwich of sliced pork, mystery pate, and vegetables that cost less than half a dollar.

At 8:30 am the group met to walk back to town to meet a hired
guide who would take us around. We first walked through a well-preserved merchant house from the 19th century, with its beautiful details, courtyards, and family shrines to favored gods. This private home is still lived in by the 7th generation.

From there we walked through the drizzle to the small but intricate Japanese Covered Bridge, built over a small estuary to join the Japanese and Chinese communities. Dating from the late 16th century, the bridge is Hoi An’s oldest surviving structure. This elaborate bridge has a small temple built onto one side at is guarded by statues of monkeys at one end, dogs at the other—commemorating, we think, the 5 years between the years of the monkey and dog when the bridge was constructed.

The Fujian Chinese Congregation assembly hall was magnificent, with elaborate carvings, ceramics, colorful papier mache statues of gods, and food offerings to the gods—including a whole grilled pig. Incense hung heavily in the air as we gawked at the often overwhelming display of color and texture near the shrine to the sea goddess, to whom merchants would pray to protect their lives and their goods. And their money. They also have a money god, to whom they pray, who sat at the sea goddess’ side. At least they’re upfront about it.

Hard to believe it was not yet noon! We next hired a boat which took us slowly down the river to two islands devoted to crafts. One made pottery, the other was devoted to mother-of-pearl inlay. The ceramics were basic tourist bric-a-brac; they also made roofing tiles. (The richer you are, the closer you can stack them on your roof to create a buffer between you and the oppressive heat.) We watched an old potter throw some basic pieces on a wheel kicked by a helper, who also wedged (kneaded) clay to remove the air pockets and make it supple for the potter—hard work! I thought how my electric wheel in our basement, which is largely unused, could change their lives considerably. Most of the pieces are unglazed and wood-fired; we looked deep into some well-used but empty kilns. The clay is collected from the region, transported in boats, and emptied by hand onto large, central piles. It appeared to be a tough existence for the locals. I tried my hand at one pottery stall and threw a small cup. The wonderful old woman potter there with the engaging smile is pictured with me at the top of this blog as well.

Lunch was fantastic, a small restaurant suggested by Hue, our guide: Ba Le Well. We gorged on spring rolls, grilled pork, and banh xeo (stuffed rice crepes)—all of which are wrapped in bibb lettuce leaves and dipped into an array of sauces. It was delicious and truly memorable. And probably $2.

After lunch, Susan and I returned to Yaly, to try on my shirts. I was assisted in this by the lovely Thuy. To have one’s shirts buttoned for you by a small, attractive Asian woman in a dressing room was not unappealing. They fit perfectly but more importantly I looked GOOD! A little more shopping—two calligraphy pieces—and a visit to another Chinese Meeting House, and then it was back to the hotel for a nap, which somehow eluded me.

At 6 pm we were given a lesson in Vietnamese cooking by the handsome chef Bup (“Not Bob, like Dylan!”). The six of us who participated joined in making whole fish grilled in banana leaves, spring rolls, and squid salad. Bup singled me out for my knife skills. You try dicing a shallot with a cleaver. It ain’t easy.

I believe I slept fairly well that night....

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