Day 16 – 18 Hoi An 9-11 March 2010
We used a hotel transfer from Danang to Hoi An, approximately 30kms South. Danang seemed like just another Asian City, whereas everyone raves about Hoi An and says it is a “must see”. It proved to be so for us. The love affair with the old-world charm of sleepy Hoi An started with the charm and elegance of the Green Fields Hotel. Granted, it has seen some better days and the cold wind whistled between the French doors to the balcony but the room was excellent value for $31 a night. Not such good value was the included breakfast but the lack of excitement at the buffet was more than made up for by the amazing fresh-backed baguettes. One can make anything into a great meal by stuffing a variety of ingredients into these wonderful bread rolls that are so common around Vietnam.
The Streets of Hoi An
Hoi An is a small town by Asian standards. The central part of town is UNESCO World Heritage classified and rightly so. 19th Century French influence predominates but there is lots of evidence of buildings dating back to the 15th Century. Many aspects of the town operate as they have done for centuries and commercialism and tourism, though rampant, do not conflict with the ambience that flows throughout. Just walking around, stopping for coffee or browsing the shops is an absolute delight. The markets yield more aggressive salespeople but the usual good nature prevails so a laugh or a polite “no” gets one by. The traffic is also very manageable. We had no problem cycling around amongst the other bikes, scooters and cars. Only a couple of times did we try to ride on the wrong side of the road. I’m OK with riding/driving on the right except when it comes to entering a major road from a side street when instinct takes over and I try to drift over to the left.
Hoi An is famous for its cuisine, with regionally distinctive dishes and local variations on many Vietnamese favourites. We signed up for a cooking class, paying $US25 each. This gave us the exclusive attention of the Chef of the Hoi An Hotel for the morning. First, we strolled downtown to the markets and he gave us a guided tour of how the fresh vegetable, meat and fish markets operate. The fish species were all represented back home in WA but were a mixture of Northern and Southern species, much as we find in Shark Bay. There were Spanish mackerel sitting alongside yellow-tailed kingfish.
After the markets, we cycled about 2km out into the fields to a vegetable garden, where we were shown all the various herbs and spices being grown. As we went, we sampled the fresh herbs and at one point, stated our mutual dislike of coriander. This proved to be a good move, because he immediately eliminated coriander from the cooking that was to follow.
Once into the kitchen, we washed up, doned aprons and the real chef’s hat and it was straight into it. The menu consisted of Hoi An Spring Rolls (the best variety I’ve tasted), some Xeo Cake (a rice flour omelet with pork and bean sprout filling) and some tiny finger foods made by wrapping blanched spring onions around carrot, green papaya and pork.
Between dishes, we learnt to cut fancy table decorations from vegetables, making carrot florets and roses from tomato skins. I showed Christine up with my skills at tomato peeling to produce a near-perfect rose but failed dismally with the carrot flowers.
While we cooked and prepared, other large tour groups came through to see the vegetable garden and we had to show off our prowess and skills. We had a fantastic time, learnt a hell of a lot and loved every mouthful when it came time to dine on our creations. This was an experience to rival the best of our tourism jaunts anywhere and I would thoroughly recommend it. (Christine really talked it up to a French couple the following night, telling them they should do it until he revealed that he was in fact, a chef.)
The cooking here is Hoi An is distinctive and of a very high standard. However, we went to one charming little restaurant one night and I ordered a chicken in a peanut type sauce. It turned out to be incredibly salty and I was unable to eat it. Since it represented the loss of around $2 and Christine’s meal was big enough for two, we said nothing and shared hers. Later, when the waitress arrived and asked after our meals, I did comment that it was too salty. She seemed upset but went off. When she bought the check, she had not charged for it and had discounted the bill as well. The rest of the staff were assembled near the kitchen area, looking miserable. We felt so bad that we rounded the bill up and ended up paying more than we would have anyway. We fell for the “old salty food trick of Hoi An”.
Another incredible Restaurant is the “Café des Amis” down on the waterfront. This place is run by the famous Mr Kim. It does not have a menu, instead, Mr Kim decides what you will eat and how. We indicated that we wanted some good vegetables and something with some crispy noodles. Mr Kim told us not to worry and that he had been an official food tester for the Generals in the South Vietnamese army. He rattled out a heap of instructions to a waitress. The food began to arrive, wonderful spring rolls and other small entrée sized things, followed by a terrific dish made around pieces of shark, some crispy noodles and seafood (Mr Kim was very keen for us to have seafood), a wonderful vegetable concoction and finally, some incredible crème caramels. At each dish, Mr Kim would arrive to show us how to dip things into which special sauce, or what eating instruments to use and generally how to avoid making Vietnamese fools of ourselves. Three large bottles of Tiger helped everything down and I started to wonder if we had enough to pay for all this. Finally, we asked for the bill but the waitress said “No bill” and looked over to Mr Kim for advice. He thought for a while and said 230,000 dong ($A13). We protested and reminded him that we had had three large Tigers but he said, “Is included.” We paid 250,000 Dong and left well content. Everyone coming to Hoi An MUST eat at this famous and amazing place.
We usually go out of our way to avoid tailors in SE Asia. Experience has shown them to be very aggressive in their marketing techniques and persistent to the point of following you down the street. In Thailand, the tailor touts see us coming and call out “Gday might. You shike my hand might.” Hoi An is the home of tailors in Vietnam.
Our hotel had an offer that if you stayed two or more consecutive nights, you got a free shirt made at a local tailor. Of course, there is no such thing as a free shirt and we knew that there would be little chance of having one shirt made without buying anything else. However, Christine wanted a couple of simple formal dresses made so we decided to give it a try. As soon as we entered the shop, girls appeared from all directions to drape Christine in material, pour through fashion magazines and measure her. Basically, if you have a picture of it, they will make it. All this and a guarantee of the first fitting that evening. She ordered two dresses and the shirt and we got the price down to around $80. The girl taking the final measurements was fascinated by Christine’s bust and I think she really wanted to give it a squeeze to see if it was real.
We went back, full of apprehension but to our surprise, the shirt and one dress fitted perfectly and the other dress needed slight alteration for length and fit. Christine was very impressed with the standard of finish. The alterations were made as promised and we went away much impressed. We could probably have got the same things a lot cheaper, especially as we didn’t have to work too hard to get them down to $80 but the fact remains that we got a bargain in Australian terms.
As well as tailors, the streets of Hoi An abound with shoe stores. They advertise the ability to copy any shoe in existence. Now that Christine had two new dresses, she needed some new shoes (of course). Shortly after entering the first shoe shop to enquire, it was obvious that we would never be allowed to leave without buying.
Out came the catalogues. Christine pointed at some shoes with heels in the book so the girls then produced a big box of heels of all shapes and sizes. We went through these until the right height and shape was located. Then came the leather samples, huge bunches of the stuff in every conceivable colour and texture. A quick set of measurement was made and a rough outline taken. Throughout all this process, we were unable to get even a hint of price. “No worry! I give you best price.”
When it did finally come down to price, we were staggered and agreed to pay $50 for two pairs much too easily. Once again, it is a question of value. We could have worked our way down much cheaper but $25 a pair for custom made shows is amazing.
We were told to come back in around 6 hours and true to their word, the shoes were ready and fitted perfectly. Having spent many unproductive hours trying to find shoes that fit Christine I am now prepared to come to Hoi An for the shoes alone. It is worth it.
My Son is a significant archaeological site some 40kms out of Hoi An in a narrow mountain valley. The Cham people came from Java and settled the area between the 3rd and 14th Centuries, constructing an extensive temple-city and fortification in the valley. While not on the scale of Ankor Wat, My Son is similar in many respects. Its builders were Hindu and the Southern Indian influences are obvious. The endeavor and skills of the people is to be marveled at; the intricate rock carvings in particular are quite astounding.
Unfortunately, the whole site took a battering during the Vietnam War. The US saw My Son as a major Viet Cong stronghold and bombed it continuously. Of the original 60 significant structures, only 25 remain. Evidence of bomb craters is still plentiful and we were given warnings about not venturing too far off the given paths and into the jungle because of the ever-present land mines. Vietnam is still suffering a considerable annual “mine toll” which reads like our road toll. All this from ordinance which is often 40 years old.
The trip to My Son was terrifying. Christine insisted on sitting in the front seat of the bus so she could get a better view. I wanted to crawl under the seat as trucks, motor bikes, buffaloes and pigs came within a razor’s width of the bus on all sides. The twisting climb up into the mountains contained numerous blind corners but these meant nothing to the driver, if indeed he could even see them. The bus could only go so far before we transferred to an ex-US Army jeep for the last stretch. I think ours was 40 years over-due for a service.
The ruins themselves are spectacular. Set in a lush jungle environment, the towers of the temples are dotted around over quite a large area. Almost all the statues have been stolen over the years and mostly adorn house gardens in Hoi An. Some statues of Shriva remain, though headless. The site was crowded with tours, though not unbearably so and there was a good mix of guided commentary and free exploration. Despite the site being under UNESCO protection and control, there is little attempt made to restrict access and people are free to climb on things and pose for photos etc. I worry that such a freedom will lead to further rapid degradation but it is a relief to be free of the often over-protective restrictions so often encountered. Even public liability in Vietnam is restricted to a well-meant “very sorry” when a tourist is maimed or injured. There is an expectation that people are responsible for looking after themselves.
On the bus ride up, we were convinced by the organizer that we should partake of a river cruise on the way back instead of the bus. Thinking that this might be a suitable diversion, we paid up. Unfortunately, this actually meant riding the bus nearly all the way back to Hoi An and then getting on one of the oldest boats in Vietnam to putt-putt along a dull and murky river. We were given a basic “chicken and rice” lunch (washed down with a beer of course) and forced to disembark at the word carver’s island to pretend to be interested in wood carving and shell inlay. We did in fact buy a small wooden box that we will use to “put things in” and leave it on a shelf somewhere to get dusty. The highlight for us was an amazing display of cast-net throwing by a local. He could through a huge circular cast net so that it snapped out to its full extent. He made it look so easy.
Overall Impressions of Hoi An
• Hoi An is on of Asia’s little gems. It is a must-visit place and I sincerely hope that it retains its character as Vietnam grows into the modern era.
• Allocate at least 5 days to Hoi An. It is a top place to kick back an slow the pace.
• Choosing a place to stay in Hoi An is not difficult. Cheap but good hotels abound and the town is small enough that anywhere within walking of the market area is fine.