Published: July 1st 2012July 1st 2012
Possessing an impressive historical and cultural legacy, Hoi An is a mosaic of various cultures. Its Old Quarter is redolent of an ancient period, along with a sense of timelessness. Its historic buildings, attractive tube houses, and decorated Chinese community halls have earned it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In efforts to protect the Old Quarter character, stringent conservation laws prohibit alterations to buildings, as well as the presence of cars and motorbikes on its streets. This makes it the perfect place for a very long visit on foot and I am enjoying it supremely. In addition to its many monuments, the town has a wide array of delightful shops, offering everything Vietnam is famous for, as well as excellent roadside coffee houses. Combined with Hoi An’s laidback atmosphere, this creates an ideal setting where one can relax and unwind, or like me, explore in depth street by street.
I start with the House of Phung Hung. Built in 1780, this house has been home to the same family for eight generations. The clan made its fortune in perfumed woods and spices, and also sold porcelain and silk from the shop out front. Supported by 80 hardwood
columns, the house shows a distinct Chinese influence in the galleries and window shutters. Japanese influence is evident in the glass highlights, while the general layout is very much Vietnamese in style. One of the town’s prominent landmarks, the rust-colored Japanese Covered Bridge was constructed in 1593 by the prosperous Japanese trading community, who were based on the west side of town, in order to link it with the Chinese quarter farther to the east. The bridge, which is roofed in grey tiles, combines grace and strength in its short span across a tiny tributary of the Thu Bon River. I move on to the Cantonese (Quang Dong) Assembly Hall and the Museum of Sa Huynh Culture, as well as two more houses, Tan Ky and Quan Thang. I am offered green tea in one of them.
The Tran Family Chapel is an ancestral shrine that was established more than two centuries ago to honor the forefathers of the Tran family, and the Museum of Trading Ceramics is housed in a traditional timber shophouse with balconies and wood paneling. I very much enjoy this museum dedicated to Hoi An’s ceramic trade, which flourished from the 16th
Many pieces on display were recovered from shipwrecks, some near Cham island off the mouth of the Thu Bon River. Talking about shipwrecks, the next monument on the list for this busy morning is the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall. A flamboyant building, this assembly hall was founded by merchants who had fled from the Chinese province of Fujian after the downfall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644. The temple complex is dedicated to Thien Hau, Goddess of the Sea, who is regarded as the savior of the sailors. She presides over the main altar in the first chamber, and is flanked by attendants who are said to alert her whenever there is a shipwreck.
We finally reach the Central Market where the pace is frantic as I have witnessed in every Vietnamese marketplace. This lively market occupies two narrow streets that run south from Tran Phu to the banks of the Thu Bon River. There are stalls selling all kinds of fresh produce, kitchen utensils, and other equipment. To the east of the wharf is the market specializing in fresh seafood and meat. The main draws, though, are Hoi An’s popular fabric and clothing stores, which specialize in exquisite
and inexpensive silks. In one of them, I see the silk worms at work and one very persuasive Vietnamese sales person is trying to convince me to buy a silk suit that she can custom-make for me after taking my measurements in less than a day. I am impressed, but decline. After lunch, we visit a few more monuments throughout town, but I won’t bore you with all the details.
The highlight of the late afternoon is a boat trip on the Thu Bon River with visits at a boat manufacturing workshop, a wood sculpture workshop, and a carpentry. I document the latter with lots of pictures for my dad to show him how the Vietnamese people work the wood and make furniture the old-fashioned way. I should let you know that my father was a very talented carpenter before he retired. It is slowly getting dark and the sunset is barely visible through the clouds as we cross the river. The lights come on over the city and Hoi An looks magical. I say my goodbyes to Mr. Tommy for the night and decide to stay in the Old Quarter for a traditional Hoi An dinner. It is
a seven course meal, but I feel so ready. We start with Cao Lau (noodles with beef and pork, accompanied by lots of vegetables), followed by very light white rose Hoi An dumplings, fried wontons, vegetable spring rolls, countryside pancakes, fried sticky rice, and a piece of Hoi An cake with green tea for dessert. I walk back through the lit streets, an exciting and peaceful walk at the same time. It’s a perfect ending to another perfect day.
Sunday morning sees me up bright and early for the trip to My Son – Beautiful Mountain. Located about 50 kilometers from Hoi An, and a religious center between the 4th
century, the Cham site of My Son became known to the world when French archeologists rediscovered it in the late 1890s. Traces of around 70 temples may still be found at My Son, though only about 20 are still in good condition. The monuments are divided into 11 groups, the most important of which are Groups B, C, and D. Group A was almost completely destroyed by US bombing during the Vietnam War. What a shame! The most striking edifices are the famous Cham towers, which are
divided into three parts: the base represents the earth, the center is the spiritual world, and the top is the realm between earth and heaven.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple complex of My Son is set in a dense, vegetated valley beneath Hon Quap or Cat’s Tooth Mountain. Although centuries of pillage and more recent bombings have taken their toll, the ruins provide a glimpse into a fascinating culture. We stroll through the various groups, but spend most of our time among the temples of Group B, situated at the center of the complex. Those structures are remarkable for exhibiting elements of both Indian and Javanese art. The main sanctuary, built in the 11th
century, was dedicated to King Bhadravarman, who built the first temple at My Son in the 4th
century, and to Shiva. One of the most unique structures in this group of monuments is a temple whose roof is decorated with an image of the god Vishnu being sheltered by a 13-headed naga.
Mr. Tommy tells me during lunch that Angkor is much bigger, more impressive, and the structures are amazingly well conserved. Angkor has been on my “top ten” list forever
and I cannot help it but smile. I will soon be able to add it to my “check” list with other great sights such as Machu Picchu, The Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, and many more. In the afternoon, I decide to relax and bike to Cua Dai Beach, about 3 kilometers away from my hotel. On the way, I see many rice fields with hard-working Vietnamese people, and take some beautiful shots. The white sands look out onto the islands of the Cham archipelago, making it a popular destination. I take a refreshing dip and fall asleep on the beach. When I wake up, it is time to head back to the hotel, take a shower, and walk one last time in the Old Quarter of Hoi An for dinner, and to enjoy the cultural and architectural mix of this beautiful town with character. As I am finishing dinner, I see lightning and hear thunder shortly before it starts pouring rain like I’ve rarely seen before. At this exact moment, the street sellers come to the restaurant equipped with foldable rain coats of some sort. I buy one for a dollar, put it on,
and walk back to my hotel. I have to admit that it is very efficient and I barely get wet except for my feet and flip flops that are moving in about 3 or 4 inches of water. Still, there is a certain calmness about the rain flowing through the streets of Hoi An. Tomorrow will be a whole different story when I head to Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon.
There are more photos below