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Old Town, Hoi An

Today we went into town to explore the centre of Hoi An. In some ways it’s a bad day to visit because as it’s Tet it means that most places are closed. On the other hand it gives us a rare chance to get unobscured views of the buildings of the town, one of the main heritage reasons for coming here.

Once an important trading port for the Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese among others Hoi An today is now a UNESCO tourist site, sorry a UNESCO World Heritage Centre that just happens to be packed full of tourists. We decided to have a cyclo tour of the town before then ambling back around at a more leisurely place.

Hoi An is an odd mixture of cultural influences. The design and style of the front of many of the buildings would be equally at home in a small Mediterranean village. Some of the shops and houses still have strong French influences in the signs they have outside but there is equally a very strong Chinese influence. This is seen in the style of the doors, many of which are wooden slatted and Chinese lanterns and tiles abound. The roofs of many of the buildings are made from semi-circular tiles linked together almost forming a wave pattern running across the roof.

Good luck messages are painted vertically in red and yellow on either side of the door frames and other symbols are carved onto doors and printed into the roof tiles. Most doorways have small holders either side for incense sticks. If not, there is usually a little niche between one building and the next just large enough to hold a stick or two.

It makes for a very pretty town and with a little imagination you can still imagine this as a bustling harbour town of yester year. To be here listening to so many different languages and to see the exotic goods being loaded onto ships sailing to different parts of the world must have made for interesting times. Now though large black patches of damp are climbing up most of the buildings and the original yellow paint, which must be blinding in bright sunshine, is flaking away and in need of a fresh coat.

At the river the water level had dropped noticeably overnight. The pavements had already dried out and the river front cafes had escaped another soaking. Even the fishermen seem to get a break for Tet and their blue boats were lined up along the river almost looking as if they were on parade. We ambled through the covered Japanese bridge, with its decorative tiled roof and Stef fell sucker to a lady in traditional dress with a conical hat who agreed to him taking her photo but then charged him for the privilege. A little old chap pulled the same trick later in the day.

We stopped at a café for a drink and to try the local Tet speciality, banh chung. It is a sticky rice cake with bean paste and pork in the middle. There is quite a complicated process to making it, mainly because it has to be steamed for ten hours. Whilst I was glad we had tried it I don’t think either of us would seek it out again.

From here we started our amble back through town stopping to visit the Tan Ky house. It has been handed down through seven generations and the current occupant opens it up to visitors. It is a beautifully restored house with heavy dark wooden furniture engraved with mother of pearl designs.

As we were making our way back to the shuttle we bumped into some familiar faces, Vivien and Jason who were on our boat trip in Halong Bay. They off down to the beach to enjoy the sun and sea and although it was also our next stop we didn’t see them again. The beach was evidence that a major holiday was taking place because it was pretty full of local people. There is a stretch of beach which is lined with restaurants and simple shelters where people can come and cook their own food. Here whole families had de-camped from town for the day and large groups of young people were milling around.

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On the beach at Hoi An

Stef has mused several times on the sociability of the Asian culture. People here seem to gain comfort and reassurance from being in large groups all huddle together. Whether it is just a habit that has formed from high density accommodation is hard to say but it is almost as if they are afraid of solitude and space. Another, to us, strange habit is that when they go for a swim in the sea they go fully clothed. With the heat, wet clothes dry out pretty quickly so maybe it is us that are the strange ones changing into different clothes for a swim!

Walking up and down the beach there was a steady stream of local ladies plying a variety of wares. If you wanted to you could have bought anything from pineapples, snacks, Tiger Balm (an Asian cure all), jewellery and other trinkets through to getting a massage, a manicure or a pedicure. They were persistent but friendly with it and when they finally accepted that we weren’t going to buy they always parted with “you know my name, you remember me and if you want to buy you buy from me”.

As we were concentrating on having a hard afternoon of doing not a lot on the beach a couple of Swedish guys from our hotel provided a great source of entertainment. They had hired a windsurfing board for an hour or so and were having great difficulty getting up and staying up. I’m not sure who laughed the most at them, us, their wives or the chaps running the surfing school. Every time they managed to stand up, they were just getting their balance when a wave came along and knocked them off again. They had great perseverance and were getting better by the end of their session.

After the beach we had another dip in the pool and again met a family we had been chatting to on the hotel shuttle earlier. They are from Australia although the wife is German. They have just moved to Hanoi where they husband has taken a four year contract with the embassy. Work for him and school for the kids starts next week so they have decided to break in their entry to Vietnam with a trip to Hoi An. You could sense a real mix of feelings coming through from them. On the one hand I felt they missed home already but on the other they were also looking forward to the adventure that faces them.

We recommended to them the place we had eaten at yesterday and as we went in search of a new place for dinner we saw them in there. I only hope they had as good a meal as we had. We carried on round the road and a little further up into the beach village and went to My Dong. The food here was probably even better than the one by the hotel but it also looked a little more hygienic and the people running it were very friendly. It made for another relaxed and lovely evening.