Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Colours of Hoi An, Vietnam

Aug 9th, 2012 - Aug 15, 2012

The smell of seafood and spices hangs heavily in the air as freshly caught fish are brought to the chopping board. Brightly coloured herbs and spices, vegetables and fruit in bamboo baskets line the streets as we wander through the morning market of Hoi An.  Traders call to us in attempt to interest us in their fresh goods but unfortunately we don't have a kitchen.   Only the residents are up at this early hour leaving the streets free of all but a few tourists allowing us to blend with local life. 


The beating of drum and gong resonates in the distance and we allow the pulsations to guide us away from the market through the otherwise quiet streets.  The narrow lane ways are lined with carved teak wood storefronts engraved with characters foreign to my eyes, accented by lush green plants and colourful Chinese lanterns glowing red, yellow, white, orange or purple.


The rhythm of the drums grow stronger as we are lured to a small gathering of people outside a Taoist temple.  Finding a space along the side of the road we are greeted with welcoming smiles.  A religious celebration of sorts?  A group of performers are lined up in pairs dancing in circle, their heads covered with small Vietnamese sun hats decorated with multicoloured circles. Each is dressed in a tunic with a red tabard.  A priest in fearsome regalia leads them hither and thither in a snake trail dance around the entranceway to the shrine. Probably dressed as a protector, the man leading constantly bangs on a small gong, the noise (as Peter had told me whilst we were with him in Taiping) was to ward off evil spirits. The priest dances with the energy of a man himself possessed, his long false beard and makeup masking his true face as disguise lest he anger the evil spirits and they 'know' him. The others follow his looping path, their arms folded, their faces emotionless, with shuffling steps.  

A small brass band prepare their instruments as the crowd stirs; clearing space on the road in anticipation.  A procession leaves the shrine. The band leads off and three monks follow them down the street. 

Two pairs of men carrying a shoulder pole between them, suspended from which are the drum and the gong, come next and then 15 or so people carry a platform from within. 

It was at his point that we realize that this vibrant celebration is actually a funeral.  Family members emerge last with tears in the eyes, the immediate relations dressed entirely in white. They are followed by the assembled mourners from the road.  We join them for a while. Only one shop has opened their doors at this early hour; a jewellery shop which presents a small shrine with pictures of an elderly women; presumably her place of work.  Allowing family and friends to accompany her to her final resting place we drop away from the group. 

The morning was warming and we claimed places on low plastic chairs, drinking coffee and the familiar bitter green tea at a riverside setup where a women dressed in pyjamas (as so many do here) serves hot drinks from the front room of her home.  A small canal diverts some of the waters from the river beside us and is spanned by a Japanese bridge with a tiled rooftop and Buddhist pagoda attached to one side; the gateway to Old town, the former Japanese settlement once divided from the rest of the village.

We cross a larger red bridge adorned with yet more hanging Chinese paper lanterns, perpendicular to the layout of the old town centre, to the opposite side of the river and wander rather aimlessly through the streets as they begin to thicken with people.  It is still only 0730 as we follow the streets away from the main village centre into the residential areas of Hoi An.  Children are encouraged by parents to greet us with smiles, some stoping us in the street to introduce an infant in a sling on their backs to our white faces.  The mood of people has drastically changed now that we are in the southern half of the country.  The desire for our business remains the same but we are no longer faced with unwelcoming glances, comments and downright rudeness we found in the north.  

We follow a river path lined with homes which seem to be constructed with any means and material available, set within thin bamboo forests.   Children playing look up at us, each and every one of them cheerfully greeting us in perhaps the only english word they know.  The positive energy offered here washes away the feelings of trepidation, paranoid sub-text and claustrophobia we got used to in Hanoi.

Meeting one of the main roads back into town, we follow it, facing the traffic as motorbikes and minibuses blaze their horns in passing; overtaking, turning, stopping and starting.  We purchase some fresh fruit to share and bite into the shells of longan berries; the shell cracks easily and teeth peel it down before squeezing fingers pop an aromatic, juicy fleshed fruit, about the size of a cherry but with a more concentrated and sweeter flavour than a lychee. Certainly one of my favourite fruits found in SE Asia and we have taken to buying several hundred grams of them before boarding our longer road journeys.

We are drawn to the side of the road by intense heat cast upon an iron cylinder as it rotates through the power of an electric motor, spitted over a fire.  Granted permission with a nod and a smile from the lady working within a narrow, long room, stretching back from the footpath, we entered her space and were immediately engulfed in temperature far higher than the morning heat outside.  The language barrier restricted us from finding out what the small bean like things were that she was roasting (they could have been seeds or grain too) and we walked away fascinated with the procedure, non the wiser for our curiosity and overwhelmed with the realization that this women spends her entire day within this oven. One of the countless single trader operations across the peninsula.

As the sun rises higher in the sky the temperature too rose to over 30 degrees. The streets of Old Town are flooded with tourists and I am looking forward to our afternoon siesta.  After a late morning brunch from our favourite restaurant we return to the shade of our guesthouse and escape the heat until evening is upon us when the hundreds of Chinese lanterns light the streets and riverside.  

The ratio of Western to Vietnamese tourists just about evens out as the light fails. Mad dogs and Englishmen are the only moving animals in the midday sun but during the evening many families are out soaking up the atmosphere of this exceptionally preserved ancient town. Store fronts offer an abundance of beautiful, quality clothing. Jewellery, art, museums and many restaurants line the streets, their doors and shutters flung wide, allow aromas and laughter to escape into the narrow roads with equal abundance.  A SE Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th century with both local and foreign influence, Hoi An was once the largest harbour in SE Asia which brought it enormous wealth at the time. These days the importance of preserving the architecture (a glorious mix of Chinese, Japanese and French) and heralded as the best example of an 18th century fishing port of the region, has branded Hoi An as a UNESCO world heritage site which amongst other things allows the town to apply for UN funding for the maintenance and upkeep, helping to keep the coffers if not full, at least solvent for the foreseeable future.

We sat in a courtyard and watched characters perform a musical and noisy 'bingo' style game for the kids, which we might have joined had we had the faintest idea what was going on. The cacophony of PA assisted vocals complete with a quartette of traditional string, wind and percussion instruments providing great entertainment for the nationals and prizes for the winners.  People were setting origami boats with lighted candles afloat, down upon the river waters from the bridge and when I learnt from Julian that the litter was cleared every morning by two workmen in a rowboat, I happily parted with my dollar to the elderly women making a living selling them and made my own wish to be taken with the current.

As we sat upon the curb soaking up the atmosphere I found myself entranced by an old woman who sat hunched over a small blanket covered with a handful of merchandise and I couldn't help but wonder why she was not at home being taken care of by family.  Wizened in her advanced years, and short on effort compared to the younger enthusiastic generation of street merchants, she hardly looked up at the people passing by and I never saw her stand. Perhaps for 20 minutes I watched her. I never saw her make a sale, although there were those who donated money from the hearts. She appeared so alone and I longed to know her story but alas, never will. Just another soul in many that I will never get to speak with, another life so remarkably differing from my own.

Tour agents everywhere listed My Son to be the place for sunrise; a site of Hindu influence, ruins from the ancient Cham dynasty who ruled central Vietnam from 200AD to 1700AD and is considered the most important site of the Champa Kingdom.  As usual, we sought out the most cash flow friendly means of visiting the site and hired a motorbike to set off to My Son some 35km from Hoi An.  Our (or should I say, Julians) first time on a motorbike in Vietnam was off to a tense start as vehicles travelling in the opposite direction came directly towards us.  One lane was utilized for three or four vehicles side by side or overtaking and roundabouts could apparently be tackled going in any direction.  No signposts pointed us the right way and at the first major town we encountered a uniformed officer of sorts sent us entirely in the wrong direction lengthening our journey by about 300%.  We found ourselves in rural countryside where children and adults alike greeted us as we passed calling loud 'Hellos' from porches, roadside and gardens. I was quite happy with this experience while Julian (being the only one to really keep a mental map and any sense of direction what so ever) was growing increasingly frustrated. 

Leaving at 0530 was in vain as we missed the sunrise and hit the ruins as the late morning (9am) heat intensified and coach loads of tourists arrived. The journey of 35km had taken us three hours!  The motorbike ride to and from the site was more exciting than the site itself which is in a major state of disrepair and poorly managed. The effect of hundreds of tourists arriving every day and allowed to wander at will through and over the remains, is obviously causing more destruction than preservation.  We visited about half a dozen piles of bricks that day and understand why this is of national importance to the Vietnamese but could not comprehend why this was of enough international importance to be considered a World Heritage site. There are more than 70 temples on the site, built between the 4th and the 14th century. The building was completed without the use of mortar which in itself is a marvel considering the scale of the construction but the damage was done and most of the architecture destroyed in a single week, by the Americans carpet bombing the area during the Vietnam war. We left with a distinct feeling that UNESCO has arrived to the party a little late and it's really a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Nothing but a complete rebuild would bring the site to approach it's former glory and although it's a site of a civilization long since demised, we're not sure the efforts are in vain and limited resources could be better directed elsewhere.

Having spent a few days in Hoi Ans' Old Town we took advantage of the hired motorbike and set off to the beach to find that we had only just touched on what Hoi An had to offer.  We found an additional 5km of city we never knew existed en route to the sea front which is blessed with some of the finest white sand I have ever set my feet upon.  Parking the bike, we wandered across the sand between the hundreds of Vietnamese families who holiday here and basked in the warm waters of the South China sea (or Eastern Ocean as the Vietnamese maps show it) as the sun set. 

Hoi An proved to be a beautiful escape from the chaos of Vietnamese cities where we stayed a few days longer than expected and upon reflection a month later could be among our favourite places in SE Asia thus far. There is a relaxed atmosphere of a holiday town an the gorgeous buildings with pockets of noisy hustle and bustle in the market places. Everywhere you look, the fine and iconic Vietnamese sun hats and brightly coloured pyjamas worn by the women folk are prevalent reminding us we "ain't in Kansas any more".

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