A million moons ago, when we were marooned by the rain in Tonga and seriously considering building an ark, we met a few travelling Norwegians who asked us about our plans and on finding out that we were going through Vietnam, turned and said, ‘Just wait until you get to Hoi An. It is the most beautiful place that we have ever been to. ‘ (Isn’t Norway beautiful??) ‘You won’t want to leave’. We nodded and smiled and politely registered their opinion but at that point in time, we had no idea. Hoi An was just two syllables that sounded a bit like an Asian condiment. We didn’t forget though, and despite trying our utmost not to arrive in a place with high preconceptions, it was a good thing that Hoi An met and surpassed all our expectations.
It’s picture postcard old style Vietnam in all it’s glory: hanging baskets, multi-coloured lanterns, mollusc hats, Chinese temples, ancient tea shops..it’s every cliche that the camera-wielding tourist could ever want. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and for a modest fee, you buy an admission ticket that allows entry to five heritage sites, including a traditional musical concert or stage play. To be fair, it is a steal, although hard to know what to choose as the town is saturated with historical buildings. We were lucky enough to catch a traditional music performance in an old wooden hall, decorated with bright lanterns and guilded Chinese calligraphy. Virtuoso musicians on bamboo flutes, zithers and animal skin drums; operatic singing; and traditional dance-drama.
Another string to Hoi An’s bow is the proliferation of shops offering tailor-made clothing, and there are more than 200 tailors in town. Obviously, Celyn and I being the high-flying yo-pros that we are, we bought five trouser suits and some snakeskin moccasins each (um…) OK, so we might not have splashed out, but you can find some beautiful clothes, including handmade shoes and silk ao dai (the traditional Vietnamese tunic and trousers).
At one end of the Old Town is the grocery market, a walk through which is akin to running a gauntlet. It is definitely the domain of the female and there are hundreds of women sellers, all sporting the typical woven hats to protect them from the sun, clucking and cooing at one another while they barter back and forth. Women carrying two heavy baskets balanced on their shoulders saunter past, some sleep in the shade of their stall, others call out for you to come and look at their wares – ‘Hey lady, lady. Come buy something’. How can you resist? All the while, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians push for a passage through, which was near impossible and every so often you would feel a light tap on the back of your leg and turn to see a moped carrying a family of four patiently trying to run you down.
The actual food in the market was plentiful; greenery and bright vegetables everywhere, live chickens in cages, baskets of ducks with their legs and wings tied shaking and quacking nervously amid the chaos. Hoi An is famed for it’s food and cooking courses and we had planned to do one – an excursion that started in (semi-)disaster but ended rather well. On one of our two precious days in Hoi An, we arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed at a course that we had booked the day before only to be told that the chef was ‘too tired’ and couldn’t be bothered so could we come back tomorrow? We were leaving the following morning so were turned out into the streets rather like Oliver Twist when asks for more gruel (we hadn’t had any breakfast). All was saved in the afternoon as we managed to find a restaurant with space on a short afternoon course and, as it was pricier than we had hoped, we did this strange ‘sharing’ of the work. I.e. The chef did the cooking, I stood around and looked professional in a nice white apron, and Celyn was put through his paces as he scribble down everything that was being done. Still, with a finished menu of fresh spring rolls with pork and shrimp, grilled fish in a banana leaf with lemongrass, and pork in a clay pot, we left feeling thoroughly educated and very full. Nyom.
Hoi An was beautiful by day, but magnificent at night. All the shops had hanging coloured lanterns which lit up like luminous balloons when the sun set. Little girls bedecked in gorgeous traditional silk dresses sold candles in coloured card which were set afloat and bobbed on the dark surface of the river. Music floated down the streets and people gathered on the illuminated bridge to watch the reflections below. In the darkness, with only lantern and candle light against the inky blackness, you couldn’t tell where the ground met the river or the river met the sky. It had this sort of other-world-ly feel. Either that or it was like the Green Fields of Glastonbury just after sunset.
I think the pictures speak for themselves.