Blog // Tales from the trail
It suddenly made sense why the small, nondescript restaurant on the way out of town was busy all of the time. Choosing it on our last night because it was close enough from our guesthouse to walk to in the rain and we were not disappointed. It transpired that 'Mermaid' was actually the first restaurant in this very touristy town, which although was an ancient trading town, only opened up to tourism in the early 1990s - Vietnam still unbelievably experiencing food rationing up until this point. Ms. Vy opened the restaurant to continue her family's tradition of catering to the local stall-holders after her parents retired. The restaurant was a success, however it wasn't until a tourist passerby stopped in for lunch towards the end of 1992 to sample whatever was on the menu that day, that her fortunes really changed; Vy was open enough to listen. Vy is no longer a shy, young girl but a powerful woman in town with 4 restaurants, a renowned cookery school, a glossy international cookbook and a soon-to-be-open restaurant in Melbourne to her name. Her food is outstanding.
But going back a bit... We arrived in town after another insane 12-hour night bus during which I woke up a number of times to see us driving on the wrong side of the road (Keith claimed he saw us on the wrong side of a dual carriageway at one point), or swerving back in after an aborted overtaking manouevre or because the driver had stopped again for a cigarette, a wee or just a chat at a favourite eatery along the route (I suppose I should just be grateful that he was keeping himself awake!). We were groggy and stiff as we disembarked (again being shouted at to do so in the very abrupt Vietnamese way) into bright sunlight at silly o'clock in the morning. Jumped on by a number of eager moped drivers, we quickly left the scene of general chaos and sought refuge in a local coffee shop across the road to wake-up and get our bearings. One of the moped drivers patiently waited outside for us (although pretended not to!) and we agreed to both pile onto his rickety bike, bags and all, because the heat was already starting to build.
We were staying at a home stay about 2km outside of town; the perfect distance to get in, but also to get out quickly. It was a fun experience with each family member having a role to play in the newly-opened business. The lady, Ly, behind the idea had a full-time job in the local hotel to attend to, so it was left to the non-English speaking members of the family to tend to guests whilst she was away, often with comical gestures. Dad has his tailoring workshop in the back; Granny takes the kids to school on the back of her bike, buys the breakfast and makes breakfast; her 10 year old son tidies up when he's told to and generally keeps his 2-year old sister out of trouble, who by all accounts rules the roost, screaming at insanely high-pitched levels when she doesn't get her own way; Keith falling foul of this when he tried to gently tried to persuade her not to steal the cards from the game we were playing - he was mortified! The highlight was having Ly show us first-hand to make 'Pho Bo', Vietnam's national dish, which we ate with the family that evening, the dogs polishing off the bones once we were finished.
Hoi An ancient town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, however was a very important trading port used by the Chinese and Japanese in the 16th and 17th centuries. The attraction of it is that it looks almost the same now as it did then. The old low-rise buildings are unlike any other we'd seen in Vietnam; the ochre walls, large entrance gates and shutters on the windows of the old traders' houses presenting a very charming and sophisticated image.
As a visitor to the ancient town, you can purchase a ticket allowing you to enter any 5 of the 21 number of preserved ancient sites - namely key trading family houses, temples, the Japanese bridge and other heritage centres.
By day the town is relatively sleepy, it being so hot outside, however it truly comes to life at night, particularly near a full moon. It is lit up by beautifully coloured lanterns and candles, which hawkers sell to passersby so that one can make a wish and set it free on the river - very popular with the Chinese.
This is in theory a lovely idea and undoubtedly atmospheric, however the environmental impact of hundreds of tea lights in cardboard houses floating down the river every night was a little worrying, not to mention that the atmosphere was s a little ruined by the constant hard-sell by the ladies keen to finish for the night. Nevertheless, we enjoyed many an evening sat along the river, eating really delicious food (Hoi An has quite a few specialties that are only available in Hoi An, as water from a very particular well is used to make the noodles) and drinking 'cock-tails' on the lantern-lit roof-top terraces.
We hired a moped one day and took a day-trip out to My Son, once a site of religious ceremonies for Kings of the ruling dynasties of Champa between the 4th-14th centuries and which was regarded as one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in South East Asia. At one time the site had over 70 temples on it, but unfortunately it suffered major destruction during a single week of US carpet bombing during the War. Now only a small cluster of damaged temples remain, however restoration work is ongoing by a number of consortiums after it was also recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our 45km journey took advantage of the minor roads through sleepy villages and rice fields. We arrived just as the majority of the tour buses were herding people back in for their return journey to town (yessssss), but it was midday and boiling hot so we didn't hang around for long ourselves, the site showing little of its former glory, although the surrounding hills are lovely and lush green. Not before long we were back on our way 'home' when sudden black skies appeared and so we made a hasty Pho stop. This presented the opportunity for us to watch and learn a Vietnamese card game being played rather fiercely on the table next to us by a group of ripped, topless boys knocking back cans of energy drink. It involved, from what we could gather, players taking it in turns to slam down cards on the table as hard as possible, making a harsh slapping noise. The boys, egged on by their backing players then argued about who slammed the cards the hardest before an agreement was reached, the winner taking it all. Presumably there was more to it that we hadn't gleaned with our limited language (one black ice coffee please - no sugar) but for now we're sticking to our version.
Hoi An is on the coast of the South China Sea and provided a good opportunity for Keith to try out some 'SCUBA' for the first time. Blue Coral diving, as I'm sure most other dive companies do, offer try dives - down to 6-8 m for 20 minutes for first-timers. The day of diving took place off the Cham Islands, one of Vietnams' marine protected areas. According to Steve, the owner of Blue Coral, the area is still controlled by the military who want to know who is visiting at all times. While management of the marine park was apparently a little haphazard, it was good to hear that destructive fishing methods, known to other SE Asian areas are not used here, and the divers had noticed coral regeneration and increasing numbers of fish over the years. A great morning of diving was had, Keith happily claiming he had cracked it, followed by lunch and relaxation on a white sandy beach.
The journey home was a little more exciting; as the boat turned around leaving blue sunny skies behind, more sudden black skies appeared again and we started to head towards the doom. It wasn't long before strong winds picked up and heavy rain began reducing visibility to about 20 metres. Luckily, the boat captain knew his way back to port, otherwise we had all joked, we could sail straight into our respective guesthouses.
Any visit to Hoi An is not complete without a visit to a local tailor or two. It is certainly not hard to miss them; tailors making up the majority of all shop fronts not dedicated to cultural attractions or restaurants. When in Rome... We opted to get a few things made - long-sleeved shirt things to be exact to keep ourselves protected from the sun - so that we could immerse ourselves in the experience of tailor-made clothes. We found the whole experience a little deflating, perhaps summing up our feelings towards an over-touristy town and the disenchantment that can bring to locals, maybe feeling lost or isolated in their own home. We were pleased with the end products, after a round of fittings where things didn't look quite right but almost begrudgingly they were fixed; the (faux) friendliness seeming to have stopped once were through the door and committed customers, similarly to how one felt walking past the candle sellers or once sat at a table in a restaurant on the river - the proprietor already back at the door trying to charm the next customers. The over-developed beaches were also sad to see, no space left for the general public but all bought out by hotel developers or beach bars of some sort, sand bags protecting many of them from aggressive erosion.
We did have a really good time in Hoi An, but felt some of the time that we were buying into an experience or running through the motions that the local people (particularly the younger generation) didn't really believe themselves anymore, jaded by the over-saturated market and lack of non-touristy things to do. Still, it is a exceedingly charming place to visit and we would recommend it because it is unique; perhaps though it is a victim of its own success and has become a little spoilt by the very industry that got it started up again 25 years ago.
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