Hoi An – A Historical Treasure

DSC05825Going back to my single days, I found that the one thing you can never do on a date is go with expectations. If you bring that baggage along, then you are sure to be disappointed. Well, I found it’s the same with traveling. Expectations are the most dangerous thing to bring with you on a trip. If you go with NO expectations then you can’t be disappointed, but if you build something up you will be disappointed. We had met numerous travelers who gave the impression that the city was not that impressive, nothing to write home about. So we figured we would stay a day or so, then leave. As it turned out, Hoi An was probably one of the most pleasant surprises we got on the trip.
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Wandering the streets of Hoi An is really like traveling back through time, especially early in the morning when no one is about. This is when it’s magical. You will see Vietnamese farmers heading to market in their traditional cone hats, carrying the fresh produce from their farms. It’s quiet, and no signs of modern stuff about. The roofs have the hundred-year old terracotta clay, overlapping like dragon scales, green with algae, and curved in the center from the roof settling. This form of roof tiles are called am and duong tiles, or Yin and Yang, because of the way they lock into each other. Looking down the street you can see house after house with the tiles on them. The stucco on the houses is painted the traditional mustard yellow, and is very well maintained. The shops still open up in the same way they have for hundreds of years, by lifting planks that are stacked horizontally out of grooves. Every morning and night they shutter the entrances open and closed.  As the morning turns to afternoon, the tourists arrive, but not too many to be offensive. There is the wonderful sound of life going on, but none of the constant roaring of motorcycles that you get so used to. All motor vehicles are banned from the historic part of town, and what a difference it makes. For the first time in Vietnam, you can relax, and just walk around. Not worrying about getting run over or hit. Just peace and quiet. There are over 800 preserved homes in the old city, some of them over five hundred years old.

Everything is spreading out from the riverbanks.  We ended up in the twisty old section, which is a protected historic area. Thanks to an agreement the North and the South during the Vietnam war, Hoi An was never bombed. And thanks to an economic down turn due to the river silting up, modernization did not “improve” the city by knocking the historic buildings down and putting modern ugly ones in their place. So what you have is the best collection of historic buildings in Vietnam, a thriving time capsule.

Along the river a lot of the old homes have turned in to nice little restaurants. The houses still have hatches to the second floor with a lift system so that they can quickly haul the furniture up to the second floor during floods, which seem to happen every couple of years. Small traditional boats travel up and down, working the tourist for rides as well as ferrying the latest catch and goods to market.  There are so many amazing buildings that it’s hard to talk about just one. My favorite architectural gem is actually a bridge. Built in the 1600s connecting the Japanese and Chinese communities at the time, it’s built like a tank. There is a pair of dog and a pair of monkey guardians on either end of the bridge. They are believed to be there because they started the bridge in the year of the dog, and ended in the year of the monkey. Others believe they are guardians protecting the gateway to a trapped monster called Cu, who was trapped four hundred years ago. Cu was a huge monster whose tail was in India, head in Japan, and its core was over Vietnam. Whenever the monster stirred, horrible things would happen to Vietnam. SO the villagers devised a trick to pin it down, using a great warrior, and built the bridge above him to trap him forever. They felt bad for such a massive beast still, so they put a chapel on the bridge for the beast spirit. I loved this building so much that I decided to spend a day drawing it. Nothing is more relaxing then having a beer or two, eating local food, and drawing. People come over and talk to you, kids camp out around you, and you meet more people then you ever would if you just walked around. To learn more about Cu, check out my Illustrated tale of his life at:20130119-074609.jpg
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Some other great buildings were the Tan Ky house, which still has the same family in it since the 18th century. The Quang Trieu (Cantonese) Assembly Hall is amazing; with one of the coolest mosaic dragon sculptures I think I have ever seen. In each of the houses you go into you are greeted, sat down, offered some tea, and then told about the history of the house. Then you get to walk around, and discover more for yourself. They always have nice souvenirs in each house that supposedly the sale goes to the family, and renovation of the house. I hope that is true. You can buy a ticket to see 10 houses for a price, and I totally recommend doing this.DSC05758_2

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At the southern end of town is the market, which is off the hook. There is seafood from all over, a kaleidoscope of colors in fruits and veggies, and custom tailored clothes. Anything and everything you could need, it’s Wall Mart, Home Depot, and Whole Foods in one.  We quickly realized that there were tailors everywhere, all bugging you for their business. We had no interest in getting a suit, a dress, or custom made flip-flops, so we ignored them all.

One thing that was not easy to ignore were all the beautiful antiques around. Old buildings mean old stuff, and I love that. We stopped in one shop that had four framed three hundred year old ceramic Confucius Plates showing his four stages of teaching. I feel when you go on a big trip you need a signature piece to bring home, something that sits in your house and reminds you of the trip. Photos don’t do it for me, but artwork does. For Yvonne and I to finally find a piece we both agreed on was near a miracle, because our taste can be very different. So what better way to start our life together in the states than with these great plates? Well, the price for one. The lady told me $900, which is huge, plus shipping. Which could be $400 bucks more, and you may remember how most of my Christmas presents never made it home, a three hundred dollar loss, and many disappointed faces on my Nieces and Nephews. So we walked, but I kept passing the store, they were screaming out to me. Finally I went back in with the goal of renegotiating the shipping, and surprising Yvonne. Well, the wife told me $900, now the husband tells me that she did not understand my English, that it was $2000. Ughh! Now I spent the next three days weighing this decision, sure throw it on the card. In the end, I never made a decision, but we left town on a bus, and it still bugs me to this day.

To solve that problem I went and got an old fashioned shave. One of my favorite things to do. It still makes me nervous, but I love it. I stepped up my game by allowing the guy to do some weird things to my ears. With long needles, he started to delve in my ear, and clean it out. Gross I know, and very strange to have some guy on the street poking around your ear drum. In the end, he pulled things out of there I never knew existed and I could hear the sound of the street again.
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I am not sure how many days we stayed here, possible five or six. Yvonne had gotten a bit of a cold, so she was enjoying some recovery in a nice, quiet environment. That gave me heaps of time to explore, which is what you want to do here. I set up a day tour to go to My Son, an old Cham city that was in ruins. The Cham Empire lasted from the 2nd century to the 17th century, till they got absorbed completely by Vietnam. They were we’re very war like people, who pillaged a lot to get their supplies and food. They fought the Khmers in Cambodia as well as the Vietnamese. There are still over a 100,000 Cham left in Vietnam.

I got picked up bright and early, at 4 AM. Ughh, not a fan of these wake up calls. I grabbed a sandwich and headed off to the ruins for sunrise. It’s great to beat the normal tourists to these places, and have them to yourself. The sunrise was not great or anything, but still very peaceful. The birds are singing, the standard entourage of stray dogs is following you, and history is surrounding you. The Americans, umm, yes, my people, bombed the living hell out of these ruins, because some Vietcong were hiding out in them. Let me tell you, you cannot hide a battalion here. I think it’s a criminal offense to destroy ruins during a war, as bad as when the Taliban toppled the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These things need to be saved for future generations. It’s a crime among many that I feel we committed. Just the same though, they have done a great job rebuilding the ruins. There are still bomb craters around some of them, and a few are no more than a pile of rubble. But it does not take too much imagination of think about how it used to be here.

As I was strolling around I started chatting to a French girl about a certain amount of guilt you carry around from what happened before you were even born. She quickly agreed to my surprise, then I remembered the French were here way before the Americans.
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On the way home we were given the offer to take a boat ride instead of a bus. Call me a sucker, but I will always jump on this chance. I love being on the water, and seeing how life really is. The rivers are still the lifeblood of the nation here, and every inch of it you can see people fishing, scraping the bottom to catch muscles, and growing crops along the banks. We went to a carpentry village on an Kam Kin island where you could see the carpenters at work, carving impressive dragons and warriors, all with hand chisels and wooden mallets.

Our hotel Vin Huy was great; with a nice pool, spotless rooms, and dark wood work everywhere. The lounge area was full of interesting people. I met a German bartender who had a million interesting stories named Karl. We hung out a few nights, him with his six-pack, and me with my Beer Saigon, shooting the shit.

We also met a very old British gentleman named Des. Des was a true traveller, in his eighties now, he had travelled from England to India overland in the sixties, using whatever method was possible. He brought a drawing pad wherever he went, and drew. His style was very realistic pen and ink, and he drew everything from buildings to ferns. He had an amazing memory, and went through his trip in the sixties practically day by day, recalling everything from the temperature to smell of the docks. It was hard not to be blown away by him, still living life to the fullest, at that age. His face was badly bruised because of a nasty fall, but it did not stop him. People were offering him chairs to sit while he drew the Japanese bridge, but he refused them all, saying that it would screw up his angle. Ha ha, I would take the chairs for sure. He does a drawing a day minimum. Des was a true inspiration. He inspired me to start my blog series Thirty Day Challenge – Sketches from the Road.  I would do a drawing a day, no matter what was going on. You can see the sketches at these links.

DSC05792The last day we rented some bikes and rode to the beach through the rice paddies, which was a whopping 3 kilometers from town. The An Bang Beach was gorgeous, and even though we had a group of annoying café owners all screaming for your business, to the point of running up to you and grabbing your arm, it was really pleasant.  There were probably ten spots to eat, each with their own beach beds out front and parasols. To use the beds you just need to eat the food. Well twist my arm, which the old lady did, but I would be buying beer anyway. The beach was soft and light, deep, and wide. The waves were a decent size to make it fun to body surf, and it was just so relaxing.  I watched a fisherman take his round basket boat, about five feet in diameter, out into the surf. I have seen these craft a few times, and I am always amazed that they work at all, let alone be sea worthy. You have to paddle back in forth to move forward, because other wise you just go in circles. They remind me of the Merry-Go-Rounds, round and round you go. He muscled his craft over large waves and was out in the ocean quicker than I could get my kayak out.  Sadly my camera would not focus at all, so my pictures are fuzzy to say the least. The biggest surprise was the food was excellent, absolutely delicious. Again people told us the beach was ok. I am not sure where these people are going, because I could find nothing wrong with this beach at all.

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Again, all I can say is if I was going to choose to live in Vietnam, I could find my self a nice 400 year old house in Hoi An, and truly settle in. It’s my favorite city in Vietnam.

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