It’s a bit strange to associate a certain color with a town. But whenever I remember Hoi An I remember a town beautifully bathed in the varied hues of red. I arrived at this ancient town, a short flight and taxi ride from Danang away, just as dusk was settling and the town was lighting itself up. Meandering along the small streets that wound around found myself at the Thu Bon River. I heeded the call of one of the cau lao vendors who had set-up Lanterns festoon the shops and the Thu Bon river is lit-up colorfully with lights and lanterns. After the flight from HCMC to Danang and the 45-minute car ride along the non-descript and grey highway, it was simply enough experience to just sit at my small stool and slurp my cao lau in one of the many street stalls along the river with the quaint Japanese Covered Bridge behind me.
Walking the Old Town
What surprised me most about the Old Town wasn’t its smallness, after all ancient towns are supposed to be small, like cute arte d’ objects but its seemingly laid back atmosphere in spite of the massive tourism industry and the hundreds of souvenir shops and tailors. Even the xeom and cyclo drivers are not as aggressive. Surprisingly, the tailor shops are a little sedate. Sure they call out their services but at least they don’t run after you. More aggressive are the women selling the miniature clay figures and whistles made in the pottery village of Than Pho. In my last night at Hoi An, having a slice of White Chocolate Kahlua Cake at the patio of Tam Tam Cafe, a woman parked her bike at the side and approached me with a bag of the clay figures. I shook my head. She hopped back on her bike and sped away. Now how many people would actually get down on a bike and walk-up to you just to sell you something?
It costs 90,000 VND to enter any 5 sites at the Old Town. It was a challenge trying to decide which one to choose as there were a lot of interesting houses and temples. I was a little tempted to buy another Old Town ticket for an additional 5 sights but decided a peek from the open doors would be enough.
I started out at the Tran Family Chapel, a musty house whose centerpiece was the altar where ancestors and gods were worshiped. I read somewhere that altars have 3 levels with the highest reserved for the ancestors, the middle for the gods, and the lowest for the offerings. Rectangular wooden boxes standing upright held stone tablets detailing the birth and date of the deceased plus some personal items, an old practice that has since been replaced with pictures of the dearly-departed hanging on a wall. I still like the wooden boxes with the biographies because they have stories to tell unlike a single photograph. They’re like a museum-in-a-box. With all my favorite personal effects, I’d probably need more than a box, a chest perhaps to contain my piano and some of my other instruments.
The Hoi An Deparment of Managing and Gathering Swallow’s Nest in spite of it’s royally grand sounding name (how many towns have a department dedicated to nests?) looked like a typical office with nary a bustling activity. Perhaps it isn’t nest-gathering time. I can imagine people lined-up on the streets wearing their conical hats and a bunch of twigs in their arms waiting for the nests to be weighed while overhead swallows circled crying foul.
Chinese presence, like everywhere around the world, is made known through their communities. No, there’s no Chinatown but there are a couple of assembly halls where they congregate according to the province they came from. The Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation looks more like a temple with its plethora of statues and even a Chinese boat. I liked best were the figures behind the altar which represented the 12 ba mu (midwives) each carrying a baby and representing the different skills babies need to learn. It is said that childless couples come here to pray.
Less atmospheric is the small Quan Cong temple dedicated to its namesake, an esteemed general worshiped as a symbol of loyalty, sincerity, and integrity—attributes I wish our own generals or the rest of the military would have. It’s amazing how the Chinese and even the Vietnamese have temples dedicated to highly-regarded public figures especially military figures. It does say a lot about their history and how military conquests played a significant role in their nation’s history. More amazing is these people are worshiped like saints. Small it may be, the temple has life-sized figures of General Chua Xuong, one of Quan Cong’s guardians and his mandarin, Quan Binh, plump and looking a bit jolly which is just my image of mandarins. There’s also a life-sized horse that recalls the real one ridden by him.
More of a souvenir stop rather than a sight to see, the Handicraft Workshop is housed in a large Chinese trading house and rightly so because all kinds of Hoi An crafts were there— sculptures carved out from stone and bamboo roots, the ubiquitous colorful Chinese lanterns that you squeeze so that it folds-in, and beautiful embroidery., one of which I was tempted to buy if not for the high price. The most interesting to watch was the woman weaving a large mat with a loom. Too bad, there wasn’t any musical performance going on when I visited.
Of the five sites, the one I really like best is the Tan Ky house on the street that runs to Bach Dang along the river. It’s really popular as it’s a perfect well-preserved example of a well-to-do home in the 19th century. Past the short corridor that opens up to the center of the house are beautiful panels with Chinese characters formed entirely of birds. An alcove on one side held up an altar. A group of us sat at the sitting room while we were served tea and a young woman detailed the history of the family and the house. Above the entrance is the matriarch while those of the later generations are on the wall of the sitting room. Three beams on the ceiling (representing Heaven, Earth, and Hell) are Japanese architectural influences. A stairway leads to the second floor which is closed though there is a view of the beautifully carved balconies from the small courtyard. There’s a small bedroom on the hall past the courtyard whose outside walls are marked with flood-water levels in the past years the highest of which was 2m in the 2007 flood. The back of the house opened-up to Bach Dang and to the river. The house is quite small but really nice and filled with original period furniture.
The Japanese Covered Bridge is as quaint as Hoi An itself so it just rightly so that it has chosen it to be its emblem. On one side is a small temple dedicated to a dragon which legend says, once lived there. It remains open in the evening when the guardian isn’t around so no need for an Old Town ticket to gain access. Besides, it’s really small and you can see everything by just looking in from outside. The small bridge is guarded by a pair of dogs on one side and a pair of monkeys on the other.
I stayed about two full days at Hoi An and I never tired of walking its maze of streets. Sure, numerous tailors and shops selling all kinds of souvenirs, cafes, restaurants, all vie for space with assembly halls, museums, workshops, and old houses; but there’s always something interesting to see and it always makes for a pleasant stroll. The An Hoi peninsula on the other side is less-interesting as there’s nothing ancient there to see.
The Shopkeeper, the Puppets and Me
The most unexpected thing that ever happened to me was, of all activities, during shopping for some souvenirs. There are lots to be had at Hoi An and everywhere are really good shops for browsing. The little market (currently under renovation) sells everything from fresh food, household stuff, to gongs and lanterns. But it was at a particular shop that caught my fancy with its display of royal clothes and water puppets. The attendant was a mild-mannered guy who happily entertained me, showing me how to work the puppets at the small stage in the corner. He owned the shop and there were lots of curious including some small old-looking gongs. I apparently caught his fancy as he kept touching me all over and I kept squirming. Each time I asked him to take my picture or every time I took a picture and he would look at the lcd display, he would explain “beeyottifulll,” while he touched my arms and rubbed my chest. Anyway, at least he gave a me good discount.
One of my best buys at Hoi An was a “singing bowl” so called because of its beautiful ringing sound every time you hit it with a stick. According to the business card, it was casted from a nearby bronze-making village.
Hoi An is best in the evening. Beautifully lit Hoi An looks so romantic. Lanterns festoon the street and the Thu Bon comes alive with huge animal-shaped lanterns floating on the water while people meander on row boats (something I should have tried). Small colored open lanterns lit with a candle inside which you can buy for a couple of dong from the many children then float it on the river reminds one of Thailand’s Loi Krathong. On its banks, people dine on cheap eats of the famous Cau Lao, grilled pork, and even black sesame soup. Nearby, the Japanese Covered Bridge is lighted up creating a dazzling illusion on the still water that runs underneath it.
True to its image of a heritage town, performances also abound. At the Old Town Booth at the corner of Hai Ba Trung Tran Phu, men and women practice some songs. In front of the Museum of Sa Huyn Culture at Tran Phu is a shy girl playing the dulcimer. I bought a 20,000 ticket for the show at the Performance Center which was on the second floor of a restaurant. There were about 10 of us and nobody checked for tickets. The dances were so-so but the music, especially the ensemble playing of a drum set, the dan bau (1-stringed monochord), the 16-stringed zither, a flute, and a lute were really excellent. I especially liked the flute and the dan bau. The ensemble even played “Jingle Bells” as it was Christmas Eve.
The really interesting show was at the small plaza where a game was being played. As announced by one of the “hosts,” it was a Vietnamese binggo. People sat around in a large circle holding pallets and yellow flags. Game show contestants would get a pallet and hang it on a string strung across the plaza. I really couldn’t understand how the game went on but it drew a sizeable crowd as the hosts seemed to be joking a lot judging from the crowd’s reactions.
I hope Hoi An retains its charm in spite of the massive tourism taking place. It’s one of the towns that I found hard to leave behind.