Visit to Hoi An
It had been a hard three days of riding by the time our tiny cycling group reached Hoi An. We were on the eighth day of a bicycle trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue. We'd spent the previous two nights in Quy Nhon and Quang Ngai, two small towns unremarkable except for their dust and grime. The last stretch of our ride this day hadn't been particularly pretty. It was hot and dry, with no trees along the way for shade. But the prize for our efforts was worth it--we finally arrived at the coastal jewel of Hoi An.
We discovered that our hotel, a large colonial-style complex called the Khach San Hoi An, was the only one in which foreigners were allowed to stay at that time. During the war, the hotel was used by the Marines, and I'm convinced the large concrete slab outside my room had a previous life as a helicopter pad. These days, it serves as a place to dry hotel laundry. Since the time we visited Hoi An many new hotels have opened. Hoi An is a sleepy little town, especially compared to the hyperactive bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. My favorite part--motorized vehicles are not allowed on the streets so you don't feel you're taking your life in your hands every time you cross one. It's a relief to be able to walk around without fear of being hit by an overloaded, diesel-spewing bus or a careening motorbike.
The cooler weather also came as a welcome relief. In fact, it was so mild in Hoi An that we opted for accommodations without air conditioning, thinking the ceiling fans in the lofty rooms would be enough to keep us comfortable.
We turned in early on our first night, tired from our ride. But in the middle of the night, something woke me up. From a distance, I heard the soft sounds of chanting and the rhythmic ring of a gong. Devout Buddhists at prayer, I imagined. I also heard a strange noise coming from the direction of the hotel lobby. I listened carefully, trying to place it. I finally realized it was the locals cheering as they watched the World Cup soccer game. It must have been 3:00 AM -- and yet they were glued to the live coverage broadcast on the hotel's television set!
The four of us gathered in the morning ready to tour Hoi An on foot. Ahn Nhut, our Vietnamese guide and protector on the road, did double duty as he led us through town. Our first stop was the Hoi An Museum, where we discovered the rich, multi-cultured history of the town.
Hoi An was one of Southeast Asia's oldest international ports, playing host to Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, French, English and American traders as early as the 15th century. To look at it now, you would be hard-pressed to believe the major role Hoi An played in Vietnam's early commerce and civilization. It held its position until late in the 19th century, when the Thu Bon River that linked Hoi An with the sea filled with silt and became too shallow to navigate. As we walked slowly through the tiny museum, we studied scrolls, pottery shards, photographs and other items that trace Hoi An's proud but often forgotten history.
A small courtyard separates the museum from the Quan Cong Temple, our next stop. We removed our shoes and padded quietly through the ornate temple, deeply inhaling the musky smell of burning incense. Filtered sunlight made lacy patterns on the walls and floor. We paused to examine the brightly painted dragons and other intricate designs on the massive doors as we left.
Back outside we moved on to the bustling central marketplace. Like other towns and villages, this is the center of life in Hoi An. Anything you could possibly need or want can be bought here. And although Hoi An's population is only about 60,000, it had one of the largest and best-stocked markets we saw in Vietnam. We explored the bustling outdoor produce area, our eyes wide with wonder. Even after nearly two weeks in Vietnam, so many items were still foreign. We bombarded Ahn Nhut with questions --What's that? We wanted to know about almost everything. "That" ranged from spices to packed molds of brown sugar to powders that have no English translation. We tried to guess--but most of the time, we weren't even close. Ahn Nhut just laughed and did his best to explain.
The array of fresh fruits and vegetables that we did recognize was stunning. Baskets overflowing with bananas, grapes, pineapples and papayas. Piles of coconuts. And then there were the exotic--brownish-purple mango-steens, spiny red rambutans, bright pink dragonfruit, the green bumpy skin that hides the yellow pouches of jackfruit.
We wandered back inside, where sales people yelled a continuous stream of heavily accented English at us, hawking their goods. Several tried to interest me in an ao dai, the traditional flowing silk outfit still worn by many Vietnamese women. Another member of our group, succumbed to the pitch of a saleswoman and bargained for a custom-made shirt. It would be ready that evening, the saleswoman promised as she measured him.
We left the market and made a quick stop to buy water. Major soft drinks like Coke and 7-Up, as well as bottled water, are readily available. For cold drinks, the price was about 70 dong (roughly 70 cents). It was less if we would take them at room temperature.
Our next destination was the Japanese Covered Bridge, guarded on one side by a pair of monkeys and on the other by a pair of dogs. The original wooden bridge was built so the Japanese could connect their neighborhood with the Chinese quarter across the stream. As you walk through Hoi An, the architecture fills in more details of the city's colorful past. The first Chinese settlement in southern Vietnam was in Hoi An. The tiles on the rooftops curve in different directions, depending on the ethnic origin of their designs. And you can still find remnants of the ancient Hindu Kingdom of Champa.
While we were in Hoi An, we made a day trip to Danang. After some of the magnificent places we'd visited, though, Danang was very unimpressive. It was a big city without the charm of Saigon or the beauty of Hue. The port is as industrial as anything gets in Vietnam, adding a layer of grit and grime to an already dirty city. On the other hand, the five mountains that make up Marble Mountain are worth the trip. Huyen Khong Cave is lit by an opening to the sky. An old Vietnamese man perched in the cave, the skin stretched tight over his cheekbones, his red fan moving slowly back and forth.
We left Huyen Khong Cave and climbed all the way to "Heaven," a mountain that's usually closed because the low-lying clouds make it too wet and slippery. But our nimble teen-age guides helped us play mountain goat, and we inched our way to a spectacular view that included Danang, China Beach and even Hoi An.
Tired from our day of exploration, we headed back to Hoi An and cycled the five kilometers from our hotel to Cua Dai beach. We wanted to relax on the clean, white sand--which also meant fending off the child-vendors who sell everything from cigarettes to pineapple.
We tried to take our bikes with us on the beach. But the parking attendants pointed to a sign and told us bikes on the beach are expressly forbidden. After a few minutes of good-natured arguing, we forked over five cents a bike to have them watched and made our way to the pristine shoreline. A few minutes later, though, we caught sight of a herd of cattle ambling along the water. Bicycles are forbidden, but apparently cattle are just fine!
The beaches in Vietnam are dotted with tent-like coverings that hold several rows of lounge chairs. We paid the rental (about 25 cents per person for the afternoon), and plopped ourselves down. Immediately, we were surrounded by kids--buy this, buy that--and a steady stream of beggars. They made a circuit around the beach-goers, returning again and again as if for the first time. You quickly get experienced at dismissing them, waving your hand "no" or simply ignoring them. It sometimes seems cruel or rude by our Western standards, but it's the way it's done in Vietnam.
The food in Hoi An was some of the best we had in the country--and we had some pretty good food. This area is famous for it's "cao lau," a slightly soupy mixture of noodles, bean sprouts, greens, slices of pork and a type of seasoned croutons. Hoi An is said to be the only place "cao lau" can be properly prepared because the water must come from Ba Le Well, which dates from Cham times. Whether or not it's true, the cao lau is delicious!
"Cao lau" was only the start of our gourmet eating in Hoi An. At Miss Ly's the following night, we started with an appetizer of guacamole. Yes, guacamole! The avocados are native to Vietnam--the guacamole is not! But the owners of the tour we were on had made friends with Miss Ly and taught her the finer points of guacamole. Eaten with rice "tortilla chips," it was an interesting change.
The piece de resistance was our dinner at Miss Vy's "Mermaid" on our last night in Hoi An. Let your mouth water over a dinner that started with pumpkin soup, then moved on to crab fritata, marinated eggplant, calamari and grilled tuna with sausage wrapped in banana leaves. Top it off with a plate of fresh papaya, bananas, pineapple and avocado. This was a first class meal that could hold its own with any from the best restaurants in the world!
With stomachs full, we headed back to our hotel. A few more hours and it would be time to say good-bye to Hoi An. We said good night and went to our rooms, ready to hit the road again the next day. As I lay in bed, listening to the ceiling fan whirring softly overhead, I started to drift off. But just before I fell into a deep sleep, I thought, "I think I've found a corner of paradise."
Published on 12/1/96