Published: January 16th 2010January 2nd 2010
The waterfront at Hoi An
Lanterns and conical hats... that was my first and overriding image after arriving in Hội An, an historic town set picturesquely on the Thu Bon River, just a few hours south of Huế. The bus dropped me on the edge of town in the early evening, so after checking in to my hotel I wandered down to the historic centre, strung out along the river bank. At night, it was alive with colour... small, traditional shops were lit with hanging red and white lanterns, children carried candles along the river banks and light spilled out from restaurants and art shops lining the quaint, narrow streets. But it had been a tiring day (it started on the back of Mr. Thu's motorbike!) and it was late, so I headed back to my hotel and resolved to re-visit once I'd been refreshed.
But before doing that, I went to the beach. I hadn't spent a day on the beach since I was on the island of Diu in Gujarat back in October, so I was more than ready to receive some rejuvenating solar energy. Cua Dai Beach is only about 5km east of Hội An, so I hired a bicycle and rode
A conical hat in action
the short distance to find a long strip of fine white sand, fringed by palm trees and lapped by some pretty impressive waves. And, to top it off, I parked myself in between two resorts so that there was nobody else in spitting (or throwing) distance all day. The only human contact I had was with the sweet little old ladies who ply the beach with their department store-in-a-basket... one small tray and two bags held cards, tiger balm, pineapples, bananas, crisps, sweets, tennis balls, frisbies, dolls and numerous other things I didn't have time to commit to memory. I opted for a fresh pineapple and watched as the lady expertly sliced it up in front of me - delish! I should add that she was, of course, wearing a conical hat.
After 5 good, solid hours of sun worship, I decided the following day should be spent on more cultural pursuits, so I spent the morning walking around historic Hội An. I have to say it is easily one of the most photogenic places I've been, so much so that I abandoned the idea of paying to go inside any of the well-preserved buildings and contented myself instead
One of the many lantern-lit restaurants
with strolling around the compact network of streets, focussed on the river and a pedestrian bridge connecting the mainland with the An Hoi Peninsula. The town is beautiful and quintessentially Vietnam, if a little touristy. Classy restaurants and art shops are housed in old houses built of dark wood with yellow walls, giving an impressive consistency to the whole town. Boatmen and women pose photogenically on their boats, trying to coax tourists to take a short boat ride up and down the river, and unlike in India, they generally don't ask for money in return for photos. Returning to my favourite theme, food, I'd also note that French imperialism has left at least one amazing legacy... the Vietnamese make fantastic baguettes and croissants! The 'croissants' in India were a slight on the reputation of the good French nation, but the ones here are perfect - flaky, fluffy and served hot, with butter and marmalade. Accompanied by a cup of the sweet but strong, slowly-straining Vietnamese coffee, two fresh croissants rank as another highlight of my trip so far (how shallow am I?!). The rest of my day was spent wandering through the market (mostly stooped over as the tarpaulin roof
The ruins at My Son
was about a foot too low) and forcing myself to walk away from some amazing paintings (although I did purchase a cool Tin Tin souvenir item). For anyone who wants to experience Vietnam's yesteryear, I don't think you'll be able to do better than this charming little place.
My final day at Hội An saw me take a trip out to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site at My Son (pronounced mee son
, as our guide was at pains to point out). Set dramatically in the jungle, My Son is a complex of ruined Cham temples, some built in the 4th century and used for Hindu worship until the 13th century. Now, maybe I'm experiencing temple fatigue, or maybe it was just the way my $4 package trip felt like a school outing ('you have 5 minutes to go to the toilet, NOW!!'), but I didn't really think My Son was that impressive. I found much more interest at sites in nearby Thailand, such as Si Suchanalai or Sukhotai, although the temples are admittedly an impressive feat of construction, being built without any mortar. Worth my dollars, but I'm glad I didn't opt for the sunrise tour and drag
Doing a brisk business at the beach
myself out of bed at 4.30am... I'll reserve that honour for the mighty Angkor in a few weeks' time! Package trip over, dropped back at my hotel at the alloted time, I packed my bags and boarded a bus south, to the beaches of Nha Trang and Mui Ne.
There are more photos below