Posted by: kim | July 24, 2007

Hoi An: a pleasant surprise

Spent three relaxing days visiting the appealing town of Hoi An, a few kilometres from the central Vietnam coast. The whole place is a world heritage site with much to explore within a small, almost completely walkable area. The colourful walls, Chinese influenced architecture, alleyways, bouganvillea and rich blue skies are very pretty, although the midday heat really does make you want to go inside after about ten minutes! Luckily every street corner has people selling bottled water.

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During rainy times, the streets flood with river water so that the whole place resembles Venetian canals. For this reason you won’t see any carpet on the ground levels in summer, and the floors remain as dull, unappealing concrete apart from in the hotels. Above some doorways you’ll see circles that represent ‘eyes’ that protect houses from evil spirits.

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The residents’ sense of style extends from architecture to clothes: Hoi An is famous for its many cheap express tailoring shops, although we didn’t stop to get any clothes done. Outside each shop you’ll see flip-chart pages stuck next to the mannequins with customer testimonals scrawled on them in felt pen. ‘THANKS FOR A WHOLE NEW WARDROBE!” and “WE CAME IN FOR ONE SUIT AND LEFT WITH NINE!” they invariably squeal. We saw an extremely rotund American man dump his clothes at the hotel reception for washing. Rob observed that he’s probably in Hoi An to be kitted up in new clothes.

Hoi An has attracted half a million visitors so far this year, and we keep bumping into the same people we saw further up this skinny country. We saw the loudmouth Australian guy from the DMZ tour who wouldn’t stop talking about Australian inflation rates, house prices and all the great places he’s been to (he was too full of himself to recognise us). We also saw the American couple on our Halong Bay shuttle bus in our hotel lobby — we also saw them in the lobby of our hotel in Hué. “It’s the Tripadvisor effect!” I said to the wife, referring to the popular website where people rate the hotels they’ve stayed at. They nodded knowingly. (Both of the hotels we’d stayed at had received favourable reviews for the price range we’d chosen.)

Our hotel had a small pool with an inflatable dolphin. I had a hard time trying to get up on it (I think it was designed for ten year olds). For just $16 a night we found a really good, friendly hotel with free internet and great hospitality.

When visiting the old centre, you can buy a ticket that lets you visit five attractions. Perhaps a temple/assembly hall, a museum or the famous Japanese covered bridge. Our favourite attraction was the Tan Ky house — seven generations of the same family have lived there for the past 200 years, and the house is filled with enjoyable clutter. We were given a cup of tea and a brief rundown of the place before exploring its ground floor at our leisure.

We also had a peaceful meal at the vegeratian restaurant Karma Waters at Cua Dai beach, just a few kilometres from Hoi An. There, we could gaze up at the stars (after spending weeks seeing starless skies in China, this was a welcome thing).

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On our last full day we got up at 5am to take a tour to My Son, the ancient Champa Kingdom relic site an hour away. This was bombed heavily by US B52s in the late 1960s after the Viet Cong based themselves there. Sadly, there isn’t much left, but what there is left is very interesting and you can imagine what it did look like in its full glory. We got there as it opened at 6.30am, but unfortunately things were taking so long to get going (which is why Rob hates organised tours) thanks to some lovesick couple. We’d already missed sunrise before we’d even set off. Luckily we wandered off as the camp tour guide went on an on for half an hour without letting anyone move around to take photos (“You know, ladies, you may notice some Italian archaeologists at work here. Let me tell you, they are single. If you are interested, let me know and I’ll try and sort something out,” and “We’ll stop here for a minute if anyone wants to visit the ‘Happy House’, know what I mean?”).

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We then bought some souvenirs and gifts. Bargaining is hard, boring work – there’s a phrase in Asia that the sellers say: “Same, same… but different.” Basically if you buy something, they’ll give you something else that looks similar and if you protest they’ll say, “Same, same… but different.”)  Later, at a restaurant we drank tall cool glasses of nuoc mia, also known as sugar cane juice. You’ll see street stalls cranking the sugar canes up and squeezing the juice out of them. Drinking the juice seems an OK way to get energy levels up quickly during the hot weather. Another refreshing speciality is coffee and ice (make sure the ice is filtered) and we’ve had plenty of lemon juice, too.

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Then we went across the river in a small boat with an old barefoot man (which took about two minutes) to the other side where there was a lot of construction and quite a few resort hotels sprouting up.

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