Indochina Day Twenty-One
22.02.2020 - 22.02.2020
A quiet corner of Hoi An
Our room at the gorgeous Vinh Hung Heritage hotel overlooked one of old Hoi An's busiest streets, and had ill-fitting old windows, so the ear plugs with which I always travel came into their own and ensured I got a good night's sleep. But we were both awake early and went down to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the pretty room opening on to that same street. There was decent coffee and plenty to choose from on the buffet (I had some fresh fruit and croissants) but our enjoyment of the view was slightly marred by the insistent squeaky whistle from a bird in a cage outside the shop opposite. I am usually pretty tolerant of the fact that other cultures see things differently from how we see them, and tend to adopt a 'live and let live' attitude when travelling, but I did upset me to see such a large bird (it looked to me like a bee eater) in such a small cage.
Breakfast buffet, and bird in the cage opposite
Exploring Hoi An
In theory you are supposed to have a ticket just to enter the old part of Hoi An, although that doesn't seem to be reinforced and in any case it's possible that staying in a hotel within its boundaries would have exempted us from buying one. But we needed to do so if we were to visit any of the many sights covered by the ticketing system, so after breakfast we walked the short distance to one of the ticket booths on the edge of the protected area. We bought a ticket for each of us (120,000 dong, about £4); they come with five tear-off coupons which you can use to enter any five of the included sights. I had done some research before we left home, helped by my Virtual Tourist / TravellersPoint friend Irene, and had a 'hit list' of five that I thought we would find especially worth seeing, plus a number of others for if we had time.
Tourist security guard
Hoi An developed as a significant trading port, founded by the Cham people. It thrived especially between the 15th to 18th centuries, with both Chinese and Japanese merchants having warehouses here and ships from all over the world coming to trade in silk, spices, paper, Chinese medicines and more. The Japanese left in 1637, when the country closed in on itself and the government forbade all contact with the outside world, but the Chinese remained, establishing the assembly halls which still stand today. But in the 19th century the Thu Bon River silted up, making the port less accessible. Trade shifted to nearby Danang and Hoi An was left largely forgotten – one reason for the fortunate preservation of its old merchant houses.
Another reason for this preservation is that after being damaged during the Vietnam War the city was saved from destruction through the efforts of a Polish conservation expert, Kazimierz Kwiatkowski, who was working in the country for the UNESCO-backed Polish-Vietnamese Monument Conservation Mission. Kazik, as he was known in Vietnam, persuaded the authorities to restore the old city rather than replace it with modern housing. As a result he is something of a local hero and is recognised with a statue on the main street through the old quarter, Thran Phu.
Today Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site (listed in 1999) and a tourist mecca. This is both its attraction and its weakness. So many visitors come here that it risks being overwhelmed, hence the ticketing system. Perhaps ironically, given what was to follow, we found ourselves being grateful that the Coronavirus was keeping Chinese tourists away and starting to deter others too, so the town wasn’t as busy as it might have been.
The Japanese Covered Bridge
The Japanese Covered Bridge
This bridge is something of an emblem for Hoi An. It was constructed in the late 16th century by the Japanese community to link it with the Chinese quarter. Although it has been altered and restored over time it retains its traditional appearance.
You need to use one of your Old Town tickets to actually cross the covered bridge, but in fact better views can be got from the river bank or nearby modern bridge, as when you are on the covered bridge you of course can't see it so well! I'd read that it can get very crowded so we made sure to get some photos early on in our explorations. Actually, it was fun also seeing the many Vietnamese tourists who dressed up for their visit in traditional costume, mainly but not exclusively the women.
Visitors at the Japanese Covered Bridge
Cantonese Assembly Hall
This was another sight that I had read tends to get very busy, and it is near the bridge, so it made sense to go there next. There are a number of these assembly halls in Hoi An, each of them built by a section of the Chinese community to serve as both place of worship and gathering place. This one is also known as Quang Dong or Quang Trieu and was built in 1885 to serve the Cantonese Chinese community. At first the goddess Thien Hau was worshipped here, as well as Confucius, then later Guan Gong and the Cantonese ancestors.
The Cantonese Assembly Hall
Our early visit paid off and apart from a small group of Australians, who didn't stay long, it was pretty quiet. I enjoyed photographing all the details in addition to the main features. There were 'no photography' signs by the main shrine but the Australians were ignoring them and were in turn ignored by the local women watering the flowers and tidying the displays of offerings, so I didn't feel too bad grabbing just a couple of quick shots.
As well as a tourist attraction this is still a place of worship. Coils of incense hanging from the ceiling had cards attached with prayers, and incense also burned in front of the several altars which carried offerings of fruit, money and the seemingly ubiquitous Choco-Pies.
Side altar with incense coils
In the central courtyard is a striking dragon fountain, the dragon made from ceramic pieces.
I also loved the detailed relief paintings of birds, animals and what I took to be either historic or legendary scenes.
Selection of wall reliefs and paintings
The goat statue in the rear courtyard is a symbol of Canton / Guangzhou.
Goat statue, and small statue nearby
Phung Hung house
There were a couple of the old merchant family houses on my list of sights to 'spend' our tickets on seeing, of which this was one. It lies to the west of the Japanese Covered Bridge, but we circumvented the need to use a ticket there by crossing on the footbridge and following the river a short distance.
Roof details, Phung Hung house
This house was built in the late 18th century and has a mix of architectural elements – a Chinese-style balcony, a Japanese roof and a framework in the Vietnamese tradition. I had read that it was one of the more impressive old houses in Hoi An and so it might be, but our visit was marred by an insistent young guide who followed us around urging us to look at the many craft items for sale. It felt more like a shop than an historical attraction and we rather resented having had to use a ticket to see it!
On the balcony, and family shrine
On display in the Phung Hung house
We were finding Hoi An a wonderful place for photography – not just the colourful ancient buildings and lanterns but also lots of photogenic small details and some great street photography opps too, both of locals and of our fellow tourists.
Signs in Hoi An
Local woman with pet cat
Many people, both locals and tourists, were wearing the traditional Vietnamese conical hat, the nón lá. There is a legend attached to the origins of this hat:
Once upon a time, during a torrential downpour of rain that lasted weeks, flooding lands and homes and disrupting rural life, a goddess descended from the sky. She was wearing a giant hat made of four large leaves stitched together by bamboo sticks. This hat was so large that it guarded the people against the rain, allowing the people to return to a normal life.
The goddess taught the people how to grow crops, and one day during one of her stories, mankind fell asleep listening to her soothing voice. When they woke up, she was gone.
To honour her, a temple was built, and the people followed her lead and took her lessons to heart. They went into the forests to find leaves similar to the ones that she had worn, which they stitched together on a bamboo frame. This became an indispensable item, essential for the farmers in the paddy fields, the women rowing passengers across rivers, and anyone travelling miles under the scorching sun.
Taking it easy in Hoi An
Cyclist, and traditional straw hats for sale
By the time we had walked around a little more it was mid-morning, so we stopped off for a coffee at one of the several branches of the Hoi An Roastery coffee shops.
Hoi An Roastery coffee shop
Beside the river
After our coffees we crossed the river to the far side to see the sculptures that line the far bank (which we found rather dull and disappointing) and enjoy the views from there of the old houses, which were great. There was a short shower while we were here, so we took shelter under a porch and carried on taking photos - there was so much to see and capture. What follows is a selection of some of my favourites - feel free to skim through while I indulge myself!
Boats on the Thu Bon river
By the river
Typical old houses
Ferry woman, and fruit sellers
Boats and lanterns
When the sun came out again
When the rain had passed and we had taken as many photos as we wanted, for now at least, we crossed back over the river in search of lunch. We checked out a few places along the bank and settled on one called Everyday, where we secured a shady table (the sun was out by now) by one of the windows, with a great view of all the activity on the street and river beyond. The food was as good as the view - I rated my mango salad with beef as one of the best dishes of the entire Indochina trip!
Lunch with a view
Tan Ky House
After the meal, and relaxing further over another coffee, we went to the nearby Tan Ky house, which we found much more worth expending a ticket on. The atmosphere was tranquil and the displays very interesting.
In a courtyard of the Tan Ky House
This was the first merchant house in Hoi An to be listed as a historic monument. Like Phung Hung it was built in the late 18th century and has been in the same family for seven generations. They are clearly very proud of it. There were old family photos on the wall, a small shrine to their ancestors, and an interesting sign describing the stele at the grave of Tan Ky, who built the house. It tells of a wealthy man who was generous and benevolent, who loved nature and avoided ‘trivial things’. It goes on to say that:
‘At the news of his death many poor peasants cried and said, “Since Tan Ky’s arrival, we’ve been treated well and eaten well. Thanks to his virtue we’ve had neither floods nor droughts for many years. Whenever we wanted to block a cave or widen a stream, he always helped us with rice and corn. Such a man of virtue we have never seen in our lives.”’
Family shrine, and old photo
The house was built in the Vietnamese style (the family are ethnically Vietnamese) but with Chinese, Japanese and even European influences. It served as both home and business premises – its rear faced directly on to the river-bank where goods would be unloaded and winched up to the higher floors on pulleys for storage. These pulleys were also used in times of flood (not uncommon here) to lift valuable furniture off the ground floor where it might get damaged.
In the Tan Ky House
Tran Phu Street
With the sun now shining bright and warm we walked further east on Tran Phu Street, the main street of the old town, finding plenty more to photograph as we went.
Old houses on Tran Phu Street
Chinese All-Community Assembly Hall
We came to one of the relatively few free sights in the old town, the assembly hall for the general Chinese population of Hoi An, which was built in 1773. It was dedicated to the sea goddess Thien Hau.
The Chinese All-Community Assembly Hall
As well as being a meeting place for Fujian, Cantonese, Hainanese, Chaozhou and Hakka congregations, it served as a school for Chinese students. The building is relatively modest, which perhaps explains why there is no charge to visit, but we liked the peaceful atmosphere and beautiful shades of blue on its walls.
Shutters and lantern
I took lots of photos of architectural details here. It's a subject I love to photograph and the blue shades set them off so well.
Roof detail, and old bell
There were some excellent contemporary photos of Hoi An on display in one side chapel, and some faded old photos in the other. In addition to Thien Hau, Confucius and the Chinese heroes in the war against Japan are also worshiped here.
We then wandered back to the hotel to rest up for a bit before our 'Twilight Bites Jeep tour'. Loc met us at the hotel at 4.30 and we walked to the edge of the old quarter where we were picked up in an old US Army jeep which had been on 'official use only' during the Vietnam War. It provided us with an interesting means of transport for the evening although it did strike me as somewhat strange and not entirely comfortable to be using a war relic as a tourist attraction.
In the jeep
The idea of the tour was to introduce us to some places where tourists might not normally eat, and to some local specialities. We drove out of town and took a narrow lane past paddy fields and fish farms, stopping to photograph water buffalo as we went.
Water buffalo near Hoi An
We had a walk along the beach, where locals and a few tourists were enjoying themselves in various ways - picnics, a tug of war, tentative paddling... It wasn't warm enough for swimming and in any case the waves were high and the current strong.
Beach near Hoi An
We returned to the jeep and drove to another beach area and to a local seafood restaurant, Minh Vinh, where the fish and shellfish were swimming in plastic bowls with a piped supply of ever-changing water. We had clams, prawns and squid washed down with beer, or in my case, as I was pacing myself, soda water. I also passed on the clams as bivalves don’t always agree with me!
Minh Vinh restaurant
Seafood at Minh Vinh
Then it was back to the jeep and onto the next stop, a small local restaurant called Hoang Local Foods, back in the newer part of the town, where we tried the Hoi An speciality of White Rose Dumplings (so-named because their shape appears to have rose petals), and also Cao Lau, another local dish of noodles with pork, again with beer (I had some this time!). Both were very good, but I couldn't eat all my noodles as I was starting to get full.
Hoang Local Foods
We drove to the edge of the old quarter and had a walk there before tackling the final stop of the evening, another local restaurant, Bale Well. This one is on the fringes of the tourist area so pretty popular with them as well as with locals. Here we were served spring rolls both fresh and fried, pork skewers and pancakes which were more like thin omelettes.
Pork skewers at Bale Well
Pancake at Bale Well
By now I was definitely getting full and couldn't manage to eat a lot, so I wasn't sorry when it was time to leave. Loc walked back with us almost to the hotel, where we said our goodbyes.
Chris and I then headed back out for a night cap at a bar not far from the hotel. I fancied a gin and tonic, and ended up with two, as the bar (somewhat oddly named Before and Now) was having an all-evening happy hour on cocktails and mixed drinks! We got a table near the door so could keep an eye on all the activity on the street as well as enjoy watching a bit of football as the TV in the bar was screening a Spanish La Liga match.