25 May 2010

Discovering Hoi An

The ancient town of Hoi An just south of Da Nang is my favourite city so far although Nha Trang comes a close second!  It has been a real find and not just because they have the best tailors in Vietnam.  It is one of the quaintest little towns I have ever come across in Asia.  The town is set on the banks of the Thu Bon River & was a major trading centre in South Asia during the 16th century.

The streets are narrow and lined with cafes, art galleries, fabric and shoe shops.  Intermingled amongst this are ancient temples and low tile roofed houses adding to the atmosphere of this historic city. 

Intrepid_ Vietnam1-3 The place comes alive at night when the entire area is lit with lanterns and the locals gather to play folk games.  P5230904 One of the fun things we did was to try and join in one of these games and paid for 2 paddles with various symbols which need to be matched to the words of a song sung in Vietnamese.   We were soon joined by two old ladies who basically decided to do a bit of hand holding and (we are positive) claim our winnings if we did good.  The fact that they threw the hand down in disgust at the end was a clear indication that we didn’t hit the jackpot that night!

I have never seen anything quite like this town before and there is definitely a more ‘Chinese’ feel to this part of Vietnam.  Offerings to P5210796the gods are placed at the entrances to the shops, and the tailor has an especially large display!  The gods obviously answered their prayers the day Jane and I walked into their shop! 

P5230881The houses are made of rare wood, decorated with lacquered panels engraved with  Chinese characters.

The Thu Bon River overflows its banks annually and discovering the history of flooding here quite by accident added to the excitement of unravelling the secrets of this place. (more on this in my next post – stay tuned)

We got into town early morning after another night train journey which was not anywhere near as pleasant as our first train trip.  The train was crowded, the happy house (toilet) was anything but happy and the mattresses were filthy.  I was glad to curl into my sleeping bag and escape my surroundings by blogging on my laptop!  Some of you have asked how I find time to blog.  Long bus rides, train journeys, early mornings and late nights are my favourite times to write!  You would think by now I would have learnt the art of doing nothing especially after my time in Cambodia where they have perfected this to a fine art, but old habits die hard…and this is play!

The train station is in  Da Nang and we get in about 5 in the morning where we catch a mini bus to Hoi An.  I’m wide awake and excited.  We are amazed to see crowds of people on the beach doing Tai Chi.  This is after all the coolest time of the day but to most westerners the idea of being up at 5 to exercise on the beach seems quite insane! 

We are thrilled to see the town and wander around till the cafes open for breakfast.  We have decided to have the complete Hoi An experience and get some Vietnamese clothes tailored here.  After breakfast we visit a tailor and set about the serious business of selecting fabrics and designing outfits!  If I hadn’t P5210793shipped my stuff to Sri Lanka this morning, I would have modelled the outfits for you…perhaps when I get to Sri Lanka I will share this experience with you more fully!  Most of it fitted really well and I was happy with the final result…but it did take awhile to get there! 

It was while waiting for my first fitting at the tailors that Jane and I met Alexis and John!  They are two Americans on a parallel but slightly more up market Intrepid Tour.  We compare notes, strike up a connection and great conversation  instantly and invite them to meet us for lunch the next day.

We wake up early on Day 2 as us girls have decided to explore Hoi An by bike.  Our guide, Phuoc’s speciality is doing Bike Tours through Vietnam so we know we are in for a treat and we are not disappointed. 

Intrepid_ Vietnam2-2 The two hour bike ride in 35 degree heat with almost 100% humidity (that’s what it feels like OK) is hot but the views are worth every bit of the effort.  We bike through green paddy fields and go cycle down to the river to catch a glimpse of river life.  Fishing nets are strewn across the river and we learn the nets are lowered at night when the air is still and the fish at their most prolific.  On the way back we stop at a little roadside stall for drinks.  Sitting down at the tiny table we sip Vietnamese iced coffee and chat to the friendly locals in Hoi An who are incredibly curious as to where we are all from.  People are always a little dubious when I say I am Australian.   But your skin colour, they say..was your mother born in India?  I confess to my sub continental roots…and try to communicate that the first Australians were actually black.  They aren’t buying it.  We need a few more black Australian travellers in Indo China..people here think you aren’t a real Australian unless you’re white…so come on mate..get on the road!

That afternoon, Alexis and John come by our hotel and we decide to go to the beach for lunch and a swim!  We are served by a very cheeky waiter who seems to have mastered a lot of Australian colloquialisms'.  We are continuously surprised by the level of English in Hoi An.  It is quite different to that of Saigon and many of the people here have not only mastered enough to communicate quite well, they have also acquired a sense of Aussie/British humour.  We order a variety of seafood and end up with the best barbequed squid we have ever eaten!  We chat for awhile with our new friends and compare notes about what we have done so far. 

Intrepid_ Vietnam3-2John can’t stay for a swim because he has an appointment with a tailor!  After lunch us girls walk down to the deck chairs for a bit of R&R.   It wasn’t long before we are in the water and get to know Alexis a little better.  

She is an independent film and TV producer who has her own company and has travelled the world going to many international film festivals.  She  discovered her passion for film while studying political science in the East Coast!  She had even spent a semester at Berkeley but our paths had not crossed.  Small world.  Her most recent feature film, MISSISSIPPI DAMNED premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival 2009 and has gone on to win numerous awards!  Check out her website….and the amazing stuff she has done!


We exchange emails , say au revoir and make tentative plans to hook up again in Hanoi.  I have a feeling we will see each other again… 

Jane and I rush back for another fitting at the tailors.  Most of my stuff has come out quite well except for the dress I designed myself.  Ok…it was a rip off of something I saw in Saigon.  The front of the dress is a mix of black and shocking pink, but I wanted just plain black at the back.  My instructions have been lost in translation and I end up with a dress that is shocking pink at the back!  I am prepared to write it off to another travel experience gone wrong but Jane is determined I will have my dress.  She negotiates on my behalf, I pitch in myself and before we know it they have agreed to redo the dress.  I know I must be getting ripped off even though 1 pair of silk pants, 3 cute tops and 2 silk dresses costs me less than I would pay for one cocktail dress in Sydney! .  We come away happy…and rush back.  It’s time for our Vietnamese cooking class! 

Cooking is a huge part of the culture here so of many travellers sign up for a cooking class at some point.  You shop for your produce at the market and make your own dinner or lunch under instruction by an expert.  We have opted for a mini version….and have cut out the shopping ..who wants to bother with doing groceries anyway??   We are cooking a 5 course meal which includes sweet and sour chicken soup, fried spring roles, fish in banana leaf, aubergine in a clay-pot and green papaya salad.  We get there around 6 pm and don our aprons.

Intrepid_ Vietnam-8 Our teacher, Han is a blast.  She has taught herself English by watching play school.  “Look at Moi, Look at Moi” she says in her best Aussie accent and we burst out laughing!  We weren’t expecting Kath and Kim (sorry non Aussies…Google Kath & Kim please) humour from our cooking instructor in Vietnam.  The class continues in this vein and we are truly amazed as she sings Jonny Cash songs and has us in stiches with all the Aussie culture she has picked up.   She has surely done her research well and we are all ashamed of the fact we have only mastered 2 Vietnamese phrases so far…

We order cocktails so we can drink as we cook.  A couple of hours of hard work..and lots of “chop chop” later, our handiwork is revealed. 

P5220847 We can’t believe the mouth watering flavours of the food we have produced..and tuck in.  I can’t wait to get back home and impress you all with my recently acquired culinary skills! 

Yea right …:)!  Till the next post…


Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” - Cesare Pavese

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