Indochina Day Twenty-Two
23.02.2020 - 23.02.2020
Lanterns by the river in Hoi An
I slept soundly (possibly aided by the generous 2 for 1 G&Ts I had enjoyed as a night-cap!) but awoke again to the rather pitiful squawks of the bee eater trapped in his cage in the shop across the road.
After breakfast we set out to explore more of Hoi An's sights - but first, some shopping. We had resisted buying anything yesterday as we wanted to get a sense of what was available rather than buy the first thing we saw. Two items had stuck in our heads – well, to be honest, one of them only in my head! But the possible purchase that has struck us both was a large bamboo fan which we thought might be the perfect finishing touch to our newly decorated bedroom back home, so revisiting that shop was first on our agenda for the morning.
Fame at last!
We started to walk in the direction of the shop where we had spotted these fans, on the far side of the covered bridge, but were stopped on the way by a man holding a microphone. He was from a Vietnamese TV news company and wanted to ask us about our views on travelling here during the Coronavirus outbreak. Were we afraid? Had we considered not coming to Vietnam? We explained that we didn't feel it was a particular threat here in Hoi An, so far from the outbreak, and certainly no more so than at home in the UK, so didn't have any real concerns. He was pleased to hear this as he was trying to counter some of the scare stories that were putting people off coming and affecting the tourism industry here. So we agreed to be interviewed by him - fame at last, in Vietnam at least!
Being interviewed for Vietnamese TV in Hoi An
It seems strange now though, in the light of subsequent developments, to recall that we were that blasé about the threat posed by the COVID-19 outbreak. We had no idea at that point, perhaps partly because while travelling we were somewhat isolated from in-depth news coverage, that it would shortly impact all our lives so badly. And of course the tourist sights, restaurants and hotels in the town will now, at the time of writing (early May 2020) all have been completely closed, suffering a far more radical loss of business than they were experiencing back in February.
Shopping for souvenirs
After the interviews we continued on our way to the shop we had seen yesterday, a rather lovely craft shop on the river bank, and after much deliberation over which colour to choose, and which size, bought our fan - about £25 so not at all expensive for such an attractive and unusual item.
There was one other shop I wanted to revisit, Silver Lanterns, back on 'our' side of the bridge. I had tried on a pretty silver ring yesterday, in the shape of a lotus leaf, and thought it would make a lovely memento of our holiday - and the labelled price of $19 seemed really reasonable. So we went back, I tried it on, and still loved it. But when I told the sales assistant I was interested she said it in fact cost $29, as it was larger than some of the others on the display. And this is a fixed price shop, so no haggling. I hesitated briefly, then bought it anyway!
Jewellery maker in Silver Lanterns
Shaping a ring
Shopping over we returned to the hotel (the great advantage of being right in the thick of things!) to drop off our purchases rather than carry them around on what was already shaping up to be a hot sunny day. Then it was time for some sightseeing.
Traditional Art Performance House
We still had two tickets each for entry to Hoi An's paid-for sights and had decided to use one to go to the show at the Traditional Art Performance House. These shows take place three times a day, at 10.15, 15.15 and 16.15, and we got there in plenty of time for the first of these performances. In exchange for our paper tickets we were given a little wooden paddle with a traditional design on it, the purpose of which was to become clear later. Before going into the theatre we had a quick look around downstairs where artists were painting masks - whether for sale or for use in performances I wasn't sure.
Mask-making at the Traditional Art Performance House
The show was very good, with traditional music and three main dances, clips from all of which are included in my video. The first featured the four sacred animals of Vietnam that we had learned about in Hanoi - dragon, phoenix, turtle and mythical lion.
The second dance was performed by three girls using intricate hand movements, reminding me of Indian and Thai dancing I had seen, while the third was apparently a tale about a fisherman and some water lilies.
Musicians playing traditional instruments
Two of the dances
The final piece was rather odd. Two presenters (they reminded me of game show hosts on TV) joked with each other in Vietnamese, their jokes completely lost on the entirely foreign tourist audience, and at intervals someone off stage produced a larger version of the little wooden paddles we had been given on entry, three in total during the course of the sketch. At the end anyone who had a matching paddle was asked to hold it up. Only one person did (or was willing to admit to having one), an American woman sitting next to me who raised her had somewhat nervously. Her guide had previously joked with her, and us, that if you had a match you would be invited on to the stage to dance, but that proved to be a wind-up – all that happened was that she was given a little paper lantern as a prize!
The show ended with a rendition, in Vietnamese, of Auld Lang Syne performed by the whole cast - also rather bizarre but somewhat charming!
The Quiet American
After the show we went looking for coffee and came across a beautiful old house which had styled itself the 'Quiet American café and bar' because some scenes from the film had been shot there. The link to our hotel room, where Michael Caine had stayed during the shooting, was too impossible to resist, and we accepted the waitress's invitation to check out the garden. It was pretty and shady, perfect for our coffee break.
Poster outside, and quiet corner of the garden
After our drinks we had a look around the beautiful interior, which has been decorated to reflect the house as it was featured in the movie, as a brothel and opium den. According to the website ‘200 years in Hoi An’:
‘In the movie, a British reporter Thomas Fowler (played by Michel Caine) sets out to find his friend Pyle, a CIA Operative (played by Brendan Fraser) in an opium den and brothel, which is the scene which was filmed in this very house!’
Inside the house
That website also says that the house has been in the same family for five generations; they are clearly very proud of it, as this YouTube video shows:
Fujian Assembly Hall
Loc had recommend the Fujian Assembly Hall, also known as the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, as worth spending one of our tickets on, so we decided to use our last one there (knowing of course that we could buy more later if needed). It proved to be a good recommendation as there was lots to see and photograph, especially in the myriad of small details of carvings, paintings etc.
The entrance gate
Carvings on the gate
Lantern and roof detail
Like others in Hoi An, the hall was dedicated to the worship of Thien Hau, Goddess of the sea and protector of sailors. It was built in 1697, on the site of a thatched wooden pagoda dedicated to Buddha. This hall too was also originally of wood but rebuilt with today’s bricks and tiles in 1757. The ornate gate is a more recent addition. According to legend the statue of Thien Hau was picked up on Hoi An coastline in 1697.
Statue of Thien Hau
Altar and incense
Main shrine building
Alongside Thien Hau, two other goddesses are worshipped here – Thuan Phong Nhi who is credited with hearing the distress call of ships thousands of miles away and Thien Ly Nhan who has the vision to see those ships.
There were dragons everywhere, and other creatures both real and mythical – fish which represent achievement, turtles for endurance, unicorns for knowledge and the phoenix for nobility. I have no idea however about any meaning that might be attached to the more prosaic animals such as ducks and hens!
There were also a host of beautiful flowers in the gardens and a lovely fish-pond. Although there were other visitors here it wasn’t crowded and there was an air of tranquillity about the complex. We lingered quite a while taking lots of photos!
In the courtyards of the Fujian Assembly Hall
We always make a point of visiting the local market wherever we travel - they are a great source of photographic inspiration! Hoi An's is in a covered hall in the middle of the old quarter, also spilling out into neighbouring streets, and is, despite the large numbers of tourists in the old town, a proper community market.
The Central Market
Food stuffs for sale
The northern part, where we entered, was full of small food stalls. In the centre section we found stalls selling cheap souvenirs such as fridge magnets and chopsticks (and probably much more - I didn't stop to look closely as I didn’t want to be pressed to buy). And in the southernmost area were the produce stalls - dried fish, meat, fruit and vegetables.
In the Central Market
By the time we left the market it was lunch time so we headed for one of the small cafes by the river where we had some decent salads (not a patch on yesterday's mango salad however!) and cold drinks.
Precious Heritage Art Gallery and Museum
I had read about this place before leaving home and it sounded like something we would both enjoy – and what is more, it is free, not part of the old town ticketing system. It is the brainchild and passion project of French photographer Réhann, who has lived in Hoi An since 2011 and devoted much of his time to visiting and documenting the country's many ethnic tribes.
The museum building
The museum, in a lovely old French colonial house, displays his beautiful photographs of the people he has met alongside the traditional costumes of each tribe. Some of these costumes are no longer made, or in some cases are now machine-made rather than by hand, so the ones on display here are precious – hence the name of the collection.
Each photo is accompanied by a detailed account of his meeting with the individual. In several cases he has returned to see them again, taking a copy of the book in which they featured, and sharing some of his profits with them in a variety of ways. Photography is permitted throughout the museum but I tried to take mine in a way that showed the skill and beauty of his images in a way that didn’t directly reproduce them as I felt that would be to take advantage of that permission. My text below is taken from his website, http://preciousheritageproject.com/, but is I think the same as the info alongside the images in the museum.
The Ha Nhi
'The Ha Nhi ethnic group is said to be organised into 2 subgroups : Black Ha Nhi and Flower Ha Nhi. I briefly met the Black Ha Nhi in 2014, and I came across them again while travelling in the Lai Chau and Lao Cai provinces in July 2017. That same trip, I also discovered a sub-group calling themselves Pink Ha Nhi, without it being officially identified. The Pink Ha Nhi stilt houses built on the mountain’s slopes differs from the Black Ha Nhi homes, made out of clay and straw, windowless, airless and whom blackened walls reveals their harsh conditions of living. Indeed, I haven’t seen many elders apart from Pu Lo Ma, 89 and her daughter of 60, the two oldest of the village. They invited me to share their lunch and by doing so, they allowed me to discover the welcoming nature of the tribe. Although my first impression was one of a hardened nature, probably due to a lack of encounter with foreigners.
The cotton indigo costume is one of the most sophisticated of the northern region and the Black Ha Nhi one takes up to 6 months to make, including the stunning large braids made out of real human hair. In both villages, people were wearing the costume within daily life, but again, this time-consuming knowledge tends to disappear. Instead, women now buy cheap quality material directly from neighbouring China.'
'The Mang don’t have a written language but ethnologists believe they are indigenous to Vietnam’s northwesternmost corner. For a long time, they lived a nomadic lifestyle – hence their nickname “The Wanderers”. They eventually settled in 1945 at the Chinese border, establishing some of the poorest villages I’ve ever come across. Traditionally, they lived near a source of water for everyday use but have since been relocated like other groups. Although this resettlement policy provided them with new housing, it also caused the loss of some of their cultural values.
Today the Mang live in isolation from the rest of the world in remote mountainous areas more than one hour walking distance from the nearest river. Their stilt houses still exist but, little by little, are being replaced with concrete buildings. In addition, their traditional costumes are no longer being made. I was able to make contact with them in July 2017. Most of the villagers had never seen a foreigner before and understandably were a bit shy at first, but they ended up being very welcoming. The woman in the portrait was almost blind but moved me with her warmth and kindness. She owned two traditional costumes composed of a vest decorated with silver coins and a thick belt wrapped around the chest. This costume is no longer worn because the new generation finds it unfashionable and too complicated to make.'
The Co Tu
The Co Tu
This is the most prized of all the costumes displayed here.
'For centuries, the Co Tu wore costumes made out of tree bark. They used five types of trees for their solid fiber. After removing the fresh bark, it was rigorously beaten to make it firmer, then soaked in a pungent mixture of water and spices for about ten days, both to give it an aromatic fragrance and to protect it from insects. The final step was to let it dry for a month.
In March 2017, Briu Liec, representative of 94 Co Tu villages in Quang Nam province came to my museum. After his visit, he admitted being “stunned that a foreigner is willing to preserve the heritage of Vietnam’s ethnic groups” and very proud to have his culture represented at the museum. That day, he offered me a bark costume, but it was only the following week, when I visited the Co Tu highlands in Tay Giang district, that I found out that he had given me the last one available, making it a priceless piece of the museum. Clau Nam, who posed in it, is 87 years old and the last person able to produce it, a knowledge passed on by his own father.'
'This group is divided into two groups – the White Thai and the Black Thai – said to have subgroups within each one. You can tell the differences in the two groups by their costume designs and architecture. They are also said to have different physical features, which helps to distinguish them. Both groups live in lowlands, close to the river. The Thai were among the first ethnic groups known to live in the north of Vietnam and perhaps because of that they have greatly influenced other groups around them, such as the O Du, Kho Mu, Khang, Xinh Mun and La Ha.
I went to Nghe An province to meet the O Du but by chance I ended up meeting the Thai and made a connection with the woman in this picture. During our conversation, I discovered that she is married to a man from the O Du ethnic group. I was eagerly invited into their village where I got to feel a strong sense of cultural pride.
I found the Thai people to be open, friendly and resourceful. They used to grow cotton and continue to take great pride in their textiles. The women in each family that I met still own a costume; though I also learned that some O Du make traditional costumes for the Thai. This group seems to have especially good relationships with their neighbours the O Du and the Kho Mu.'
There are many more such stories told in the museum, and also a few models (e.g. of village houses) and information about crafts such as indigo dying and hemp weaving.
In the front room is a shop where you can buy books, prints and postcards. The photos displayed here are from Réhann’s other projects such as Hidden Smile in which his subjects cover their mouths to create a frame for their eyes as they smile, bringing into focus the lines that are left behind after years of smiling, the details written by the wrinkles around the eyelids and marks on the hands. We bought an art card of one of these images, the one that inspired the project, which can be seen on display outside the museum (far left in my photo below).
The Precious Heritage Art Gallery and Museum
Time to unwind
By the time we left the gallery it was mid afternoon. The town was very busy and the sun hot. We strolled slowly back towards the hotel, taking a few more photos as we walked.
On the streets of Hoi An
We dropped in to use our bathroom and pick up some US$ we wanted to change, then headed to a nearby cafe we had previously spotted, Boulevard, which was advertising gelato. We weren't sure how good it would be, so far from Italy, but we figured it was worth a try and it proved to be delicious - especially the salted caramel!
After our ice creams we went to change the money (the old town has plenty of shops offering this service, all at the same rate) and took a few photos by the Ba Mu temple gate, just around the corner from our hotel. This was built in 1626 in the classical Vietnamese style, as the entrance to the temple of the same name, and has recently been restored. The square in front of it is a popular gathering spot for both locals and tourists.
At the Ba Mu temple gate
Then we went back to cool off and freshen up for the evening.
We had dinner at Morning Glory, a well-reviewed family-run restaurant serving traditional dishes. We shared the excellent white rose dumplings, banh bao vac, then I had a very good dish of mackerel in a caramel sauce (sort of sweet and sour) while Chris enjoyed roast duck with a banana flower salad. The desserts were less successful - my waffle lacked the promised cinnamon flavour, while Chris's tropical fruits on shaved ice were not so much on the ice as buried beneath it. But on the whole a very good meal, and very good value at around £20 for a starter, two mains, two desserts and two beers.
To round off our last evening in Hoi An we went back to the bar we had visited last night, Before and Now, for drinks (2 for 1 G&Ts for me, beers for Chris) before a last walk through the old town's lantern-hung streets.
Hoi An lanterns
Vinh Hung Heritage Hotel at night