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Published: July 12th 2009
Hoi An, Vietnam
Colorful boats docked on the Thuy Bon River which forms the southern edge of the old town in Hoi An.
Xin Chao, friends! I got a little behind on our blogging, so it’s stretching my memory just a bit to tell you about the ancient city of Hoi An in central Vietnam. I’ll try my best.
We were very excited to go to Hoi An because we heard from so many people that it was a very unique and beautiful city. We had a bit of a hellish ride - 7 hours in another cramped and airless mini-van sitting “skin to skin” with people whose body temperatures were so high I expected to see steam. We hadn’t booked a room beforehand, but we got lucky with a wonderful hotel - not overly expensive, very friendly staff, great breakfast, and a swimming pool to cool off during the heat of the afternoon. We aren’t usually interested in hotels with swimming pools (not that we’ve run across many), but we really enjoyed this one because it was super hot when we hit Hoi An.
Hoi An’s history as a major international port and trading center has made it into one of the great shopping meccas of Vietnam - at least for foreign tourists if not for all Vietnamese. Between the 15th
Hoi An old town
Street life in the old town. The streets are closed off to car traffic but motorbikes still speed by!
and 19th centuries, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Indian, Filipino, Indonesian, Thai, French, British, and American ships all came to Hoi An to purchase silk, paper, porcelain, tea, sugar, molasses, nuts, and pepper. Today, nearly everyone who travels in Vietnam visits Hoi An. The most popular past times are getting clothes made by one of the hundreds of tailors who live and work in the town, and shopping for the brightly colored lanterns which light up the streets of the old town at night. We hopped on the bandwagon and spent part of our visit trekking back and forth to the tailor shop for material selections, measurements, and fittings. In the end, Joe got a pair of cargo shorts and several beautiful silk shirts with embroidered Chinese characters on them. I got a couple of very simple silk skirts and linen shirts.
In addition to getting the clothes, we had fun getting to know the young girls who worked in the tailor shop. One of our favorite things to do here is learn about typical Vietnamese life. So, we are always asking a lot of questions about daily routines, work schedules, social life, dating, marriage, children, etc. The young
Tran Family House and Chapel
The Tran family moved from China to Vietnam in 1700. The family chapel is a house for worshipping ancestors, which is a very common practice in Vietnam. The architecture of the house reflects both Chinese and Japanese stylings. Photographs and stone tablets for honoring Tran family ancestors adorn the walls of the house. One of the Tran family descendents gave us a tour!
people of Vietnam work very long hours. The twenty-something year old girls in our little tailor shop work from 9:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day, although they seem to just sit around the shop most of the time (waiting for customers, I guess). They get up at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. and do a little exercise (which usually consists of going to the beach for a swim) and then head to the market before they go off to work. Most work 7 days a week. The young waitresses and receptionists who we got to know in our hotel in Hoi An work 24-hour shifts. They work all day, sleep on a cot on the floor of the hotel at night, and then get up and complete their shift the next day. No one seems to mind the long hours - they take it in stride as a normal course of life. All the young adults have motorbikes (not surprising to us given the traffic). In their free time, they go out with their friends - sometimes to a bar for drinks. We have not seen any evidence of a drinking age here, although it is fairly uncommon to see
Silk shop in Hoi An old town
Women making silk embroidered art in Hoi An old town. They copy images from postcards or photgraphs, and the quality is exceptional. We never asked, but it looked like their working conditions were very uncomfortable. They were there from morning to evening and they NEVER looked up or got distracted when people came in. I could learn something from their focus!
women drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes - these are primarily male behaviors. Men seem also to play a lot of cards here (for money) and a game that looks like some form of checkers. In the cities, young people seem to marry at older ages compared to their counterparts in the countryside. Some of the 20-25 year old girls that we spoke to joked that they had been passed over for marriage and no one will love them now because they are too old. Of course, we thought this was a hoot since Joe and I got married at ages 38 and 36, respectively. Many young women and men go to University but many others don’t because it is too expensive or they have to work to help support their families.
Most of the young people we meet speak some English (some better than others) and are eager to learn more, especially words that are relevant to their jobs interacting with English speakers. Joe and I have passed many hours here trading language lessons with the people we meet - we teach them a little English and they teach us a little Vietnamese. I get a kick out of
Inside the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation
It took me a while to figure out that the red spiral things that hang from the ceiling inside many pagodas are spiral incense sticks that burn from bottom to top. Offerings of fruit, flowers, and sometimes "Choco-Pie" can be found at the altar in many pagodas. The resident monks distribute the offerings to needy people in the community. We havent tried "Choco-Pie" yet, but Joe has come close many, many times!
teaching the young adults to say “awesome” with an accompanying “high five.” We ask lots of questions about how to say certain things in Vietnamese and how to pronounce words correctly. My absolute favorite thing to do is to learn new Vietnamese words and I’m proud to say that both Joe and I are doing fairly well in this regard (Joe is doing a little better than me). Our command of the Vietnamese language includes: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, check please, how much does this cost?, how much is the bill?, good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good night, no problem, how are you?, what is your name?, and how old are you? We haven’t mastered our numbers or money amounts yet, so it’s a bit of an embarrassing situation when we ask “how much does this cost” in Vietnamese and then cant understand the vendor’s response! Nevertheless, it used to be that only about 20-30% of the people we spoke to in Vietnamese understood us; now I’m pleased to say it’s up to around 50-60%!
People here think it’s pretty cool that we want to learn the language and they seem to have fun giving us lessons.
Shoe street in Hoi An old town
Oh, did I mention that there are also a lot of cobblers in Hoi An? We didnt partake because the last thing we wanted in what felt like 200 degree weather was a pair of handmade cowboy boots!
We can really shock people when we say something or answer in Vietnamese. We often get big giggles, and an exclamation of “Ah! You speak good Vietnamese!” Our guess is that few tourists try to learn the language because it’s so difficult and they’re not here long enough to learn it well enough to be understood. We owe a lot of our success to the patience and graciousness of the young people we meet. We have really enjoyed meeting and getting so many fun, interesting, and warm young adults. Finally on this topic, it’s been an absolute joy to get regular emails from our 12 year old friend Sally and her 10 year old cousin Billy, who we met on Phu Quoc Island last month (I was pictured with them on the beach in our Phu Quoc blog). Sally even invited us to her home when she returns to Hanoi from her summer holiday (not sure yet how her parents feel about that) and I spent a couple hours one night “instant messaging” on Yahoo with Sally and her aunt Amelia who speaks very good English, loves to travel, and wanted to know all about us. I can’t describe what
At the tailor shop...
Joe chooses materials and gives instructons to his attendant at the tailor shop. He became fast friends with this woman and they often sat outside together and chatted while I was busy with my lady!
a delight that was for me!
Okay, back to Hoi An. Unlike some other tourists we met in Hoi An, we did NOT spend our whole visit in the tailor shops! We spent one day touring the historic houses, pagodas, museums, assembly halls, and handicraft workshops of Hoi An’s charming old town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and target of ongoing restoration efforts. We also crossed the famous Japanese covered bridge, which was first built in 1590 by the Japanese community of Hoi An to link them with the Chinese community across the stream. We were initially struck by the very strong Chinese appearance of Hoi An but later learned that Hoi An was the site of the first Chinese settlement in southern Vietnam and many of the ethnic Chinese in the southern portion of the country still travel to Hoi An to participate in regional celebrations held in the city’s numerous Chinese assembly congregational halls. We capped off a successful (but extremely hot) day touring the old town with several mugs of freshly brewed keg beer (which sold for 3,000 VN dong or about $0.17 a glass) and a dinner consisting of all the special dishes
These very attractive Chinese lanterns adorn most buildings in the old town and light up the streets at night.
for which Hoi An is famous, including banh xeo (sort of like spring rolls), cau lau (noodle and pork dish), fried wonton (Vietnam's version of nachos), and white rose (shrimp encased in rice paper).
We also took a half day tour of the ruins at “My Son” (pronounced “me sun”) which is another UNESCO World Heritage site about 55 km outside of Hoi An. My Son contains Vietnam’s most important and extensive remains of a religious center from the ancient Hindu kingdom of Champa, which flourished here from the 2nd century to the 15th century. My Son has been described as a smaller version of other Indian-influenced civilizations such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. One fascinating aspect of the ruins is that some of the brick structures contain no mortar and archaeologists are at somewhat of a loss to explain how the Chams got the baked bricks to stick together! Unfortunately, the Viet Cong used My Son as a staging ground for battle and many of the ruins were obliterated by American bombs during the war. Our tour guide gave us an excellent lesson about the ruins and the characteristics of Cham civilization. We were thrilled with the tour
Cham ruins at My Son
Our tour left at 5 am, which was a good thing because it was brutally hot by 7 am!
for many reasons, one of which was that we were unsuccessful the week before in Quy Nhon after spending the better part of one very hot and frustrating day looking for some Cham ruins on our own!
On the last day of our visit to Hoi An, we took a motorbike excursion to the Marble Mountains, which are located 19 km north of Hoi An on the new China Beach coastal road. The Marble Mountains are made up of five craggy marble outcrops, each of which is topped with a delicate pagoda and represents one of five natural elements: Thuy Son for water, Moc Son for wood, Hoa Son for fire, Kim Son for metal/gold, and Tho Son for earth. We toured the cavernous Thuy Son and were dazzled by the elaborate Hindu and Buddhist temples, shrines, and marble statues built thousands of years ago inside the caves. For many years, the marble inside the mountains was extracted for the production of fine sculpture. However, that practice was discontinued when the locals began to realize that soon there would be no marble or mountains left to attract visitors. Ironically, the hundreds of sculptors and marble factories based around the
mountains now use marble shipped in from China!
We ended the day with some swimming and relaxation at Cua Dai Beach, Hoi An’s local beach situated just 5 km east of the city. We would have gone to the very famous China Beach for our swimming, but there was so much high-end resort development in progress that it was impossible! Things are changing very quickly in this country - don’t blink!
On a more personal note, many thanks to everyone who has sent comments and messages in response to our blogs! We eagerly await them and absolutely love to read them! It makes us so happy to hear from our friends and family back home. We miss everyone!
Chao tam biet… until next time!
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