Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hoi An, Vietnam

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The weather gods tripped us up today but in a good way. We were prepared for overcast skies and rain showers but ended up with lots of sun, heat and humidity. We, of course, had neither hats nor sunscreen and our rain jackets were of dubious value.

The six of us met around 8:45 and headed off to meet today’s guide. Sure enough, once we cleared the ship and had our Vietnam entry cards stamped, we found Pho [Foh] holding a sign for us. We were quickly ushered into a waiting Mercedes minivan which could have held as many as 12 people, so we had plenty of room. Our driver, Tee, was in motion immediately and we started for Hoi An, about 45 minutes from the port of Danang. On the way to Hoi An, we passed by the famous China Beach where American service men came for R&R during the “American War,” as it is known here. [For those who remember, it also leant its name to a television show about the Vietnam war]

Hoi An is a town that is over 400 years old. Although not preserved in the manner of Zhouzhaung, China, it has maintained some of the old customs: The area is filled with “trade neighborhoods” where specific trades are practiced and products sold. The tradition is not as strict as it was since there is a good deal of cross-over, but it reminded us of Bali where individual villages specialize in certain crafts [wood working, masks, etc.]. Hoi An also reminded us of Bali because there was no city planning evident; we found livestock mixed with shops and restaurants. The roads leading to Hoi An were in good repair, but the closer we came to the old town, the worse they were. Many in town were torn up as if for re/paving and many had the surface appearance of Swiss cheese.

The old town features an outdoor market which is really no more than lots of contiguous store fronts selling the same goods – produce and textiles, mostly – making it not a whole lot different from the rest of the town. The fact that they were all on one square seemed to be what made it a market.

There are no cars or trucks in the old section, either. The only vehicles visible were bicycles and motorcycles, and there were more than enough of those. Also reminiscent of Indonesia, they were ever-present, swarmed like mosquitoes and did not yield to pedestrians. Crossing streets was an exercise in speed and agility.

We walked through part of the town with Pho pointing out “the sights” such as they were before making our first stop. We entered a small theater with stools about 2 inches off the ground [well, that’s what it felt like to our collective knees]. Soon, a young woman mounted the stage and explained what we were going to see and hear. She introduced each of the five acts prior to the performance. First we had a musical selection by the house band [uher, drums, electric guitar and two other native instruments]. The players were loud and enthusiastic, but the traditional Vietnamese music was not too pleasing to our ears. The musicians played for each act and it all sounded pretty much the same.

The second act was a pantomime/dance by a trio which had one man and two women. The man was made up to look old and he appeared to be “on the make,” but unsuccessfully. There was a more traditional explanation, but it has been lost to fatigue. The third act was a solo singer who screeched something no one understood. She was followed by a woman dancing the Vietnamese “fox dance.” The fox story is an ancient one – a female fox wants to become human and after many years is granted her wish. Of course, there is a condition on the wish: she must keep possession of a pearl or she will revert to her vulpine form. Naturally, she falls in love and her lover hides the pearl so that she can’t find it. Over time, she becomes a fox again. The dancing and writhing were accompanied by shrieks and moans befitting the Hallowe’en season, but it was confusing and not especially enjoyable. Finally, there was a trio of female dancers who balanced fake water jugs on their heads and waved flags. This, at least, was bearable. Everyone took a final bow and we were released to the tropic sun once more.

We visited the Phuc Kien Temple which is not a temple. In earlier days, the town not only had trades neighborhoods but also ethnic neighborhoods. There were Chinese and Japanese sections in addition to the native Vietnamese neighborhoods. The Japanese have disappeared [more on that later], but there is still a sizable Chinese population. The Phuc Kien Temple now serves as a meeting place for them as well as a reminder of their heritage. The architecture is typically Chinese with dragons, red and gold paint and raised doorways to keep out evil spirits. Hanging from the ceiling are spiral incense “sticks” which can take up to a month to burn. Visitors [and perhaps locals] place their names inj the spirals in the hope of living long, healthy lives. There are also small alters where people can leave incense [joss] sticks as an offering.

We visited an ancient merchant’s house. This house had been in the same family for nine generations. In fact, the patriarch died just several months ago. We heard about the house toured the first floor. According to our guide, the family still lives in the house. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the visit was looking at markers commemorating floods in the Thu Bon River behind the house. While last week’s flooding brought only 6 inches of water into the house, previous floods, going back 40 years or so, have flooded the house with as much as 2 meters of water. Last week, all of the furnishings on the first floor were hauled to the second floor by use of a pulley.

We wandered under Pho’s direction to the Temple Bridge. This is a covered bridge that traces its design to a bridge built on the same spot over 400 years ago. The original bridge joined the Japanese and Chinese neighborhoods and was meant as a show of amity. In the middle of the bridge, there is a Buddhist temple. The bridge has been replaced innumerable times for one reason or another but still stands at the same place, a testament to the endurance of Hoi An.

Next, we took a boat ride on the Thu Bon. We sat on hard wooden benches which were not secured to the floor and were subject to tipping if we weren’t careful. We motored up and down the muddy river for 45 minutes, glad for the respite from the sun and for the breeze which cooled us off. The best part of the trip was watching a native fisherman cast his net in the hope of catching dinner. As we approached his dug-out, he proudly showed us the net full of fish he had captured that day. We saw a variety of small boats, different kinds of , and cattle and water buffalo. It was interesting and refreshing.

We finished our day at a silk factory where we got the crash course on silk worms and farming. There was also a demonstration of an electric loom, but the point of the stop was to sell us silk goods and other handicrafts. Like good little tourists, we did our job, buying presents for the children and, later, a Buddha mask for David. The Buddha’s face looks remarkably like Caiden’s, so we couldn’t resist. All of the prices were marked in US dollars, but D used Vietnamese dong which Emily had gotten for him months ago.

After that, we were ready for lunch, so Pho directed Tee to a “good” restaurant where she was sure we would enjoy our meal while she and Tee went to a roadside stand for lunch. Her instincts were good on two counts – we would have worried about the safety of the “local” establishment and we did enjoy our lunch of Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. Double Cokes for everyone except Russ and Ed who had beer. After lunch, we drove back to the ship in Danang, arriving around 3:45, right on time. The highlight of our return, though, was the HAL steward handing out ice-cold towels to revive us after a long day in the sun.

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