Hoi An : Artistry, Age and Beauty by lantern light

Hoi An Travel Blog

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Revolutionary Red (head) ;) I looove the Vietnamese flag and it is EVERYWHERE strung in Hoi An.

Hoi An.  Small and old and quaint.  Perched almost exactly halfway up the east coastal flank of Vietnam.  From friends’ recommendations probably the destination I’ve been most looking forward to in Vietnam.  It sounds like my kinda town.  Heck it sounds like me! “Small and old and qu…” okay, I’m kiddin’!  A step of self-deprecation too far.

I’ve come here on a night bus from Nha Trang the ‘beach capital’ of Vietnam where I strolled around for a mere 5 hours yesterday whilst changing coach connections from Dalat.  Beaches and yet another beach resort are just not on my agenda right now so although included in my open bus ticket, Nha Trang was scratched from my list.

  I stroll along the main Tran Hung Dao street that runs as the main road through what’s referred to as Hoi An Old Town, all the way from east point, where the bus drops me, to west point where Gray arrived yesterday and has a reservation for me at the Hop Yen guesthouse at $5 for the night.  It’s early morning and the street throbs with life; that special confusion of worlds that I like witnessing at the two ‘rush’ points of any given day in any given place; disorientated tourists and travellers whirling lost and overawed, unsteady and fragile on their stranger’s limbs like foals newly arrived into a strange world, whilst the more assured torrents of local life burst upon them and around them.
The famed 'Japanese Bridge'
  Vast hordes of school children dressed in their pressed white shirts, navy blue skirts and trousers and crossed red ’tie’ scarves; bicycles conveying shop owners and market traders hurriedly to their places of work, often heavily laden with wares.  The Vietnamese continue the fine Southeast Asian tradition of being able to balance an entire shops worth of stock, seven stories worth high on the back of their bicycles.  Sh*t, I can’t even balance myself on a bicycle.  True!  Just ask the Angkor Wat Crew (Mike, Gray & Mario).  I think this is a fantastic time of day, always, to be introduced to a new environment.  You just stand on the bank of the waters of the River of Life; nowhere to go except to get caught up in the flow so you just pinch your nose, close your eyes (well, keep them open if you can), jump right in (don’t let the back pack weigh you down too much!) and let the current take you away.
  Into the town.  The city.  The real life blood of a place.

Hoi An ‘Old Town’ was recognised as an UNESCO World Heritage Town sometime towards the back of the 1990s (I think?) and it certainly deserves whatever protection or kudos comes with such recognition.  More so than some other towns and cities I have visited of this selected membership, it has an unity  of charm that weaves together through all the elements that compose both the appearance and spirit of a place.  The look of the place.  Almost all of the buildings here have that certain assured elegance that comes with an unfussed, unhurried aging process.  Like that soft and lasting, unquenchable, undeniable beauty that can often be found in the most tired and worn faces of people in our twilight years.

Performance of traditional Vietnamese music.
  Despite all the signs of gentle, reluctant decay; wrinkles, deep set crows feet, moles, lesions and maybe scars, tissue paper frail skin stretched over determinedly strong bones “those eyes!”, man those eyes they twinkle with so much life and with so many stories that the whole entire edifice; the soul is still burningly beautifully alive!  A little worn and faded by Time and weather Hoi An’s often mildewed, rain stained buildings, wood and plaster and all, shine on into the 21st Century whilst transporting you often to a time many Centuries prior.  The dignified beauty of Age.  Not too polished by over zealous civic authorities chasing an UNESCO badge at the cost of the soul that implies.  This town will not yet be harried to an early grave by modernity; nor yet by its popularity with tourists.
Sooo beautiful my heart nearly gave up with joy on the spot... this has happened to me any number of times in beautiful Vietnam! :)

It’s many small streets are for the most part under populated by traffic (away from the arterial roads anyway) and fit to bursting with the main forms of shop that you will find all over the town.  This means millions of bespoke tailoring shops for which the town is famous but also art galleries, craft shops and other venues of a more culturally, rather than commercially engaging persona.  They of course are still all after your money, but I feel interested to wonder in and out of these little artisan niches all day long, housed as they are often in very attractive Old World architectural buildings, clustered, leaning against and propping one another up.  Yes, the moto-taxi riders are still unfortunately here in abundance.  There are few places of a distance that would justify their need but they’re keen and pestering as ever and if you’re so inclined they’re probably useful for getting to Cua Dai beach about 5km outta town.

  I hear good things about it but again this ain’t my desire right now.

To enjoy some of the many finer temples (predominantly Chinese pagodas here in Hoi An), ‘vielle maisons’ (old houses), museums and other points of cultural interest within the Old Town entrance fees are required.  An easy and efficient system exists within the town whereby for 75,000VND ($4.30) you acquire a ticket that permits access to 5 activities within different categories.  For example; 1 museum of choice, 1 ‘vielle maison’, 1 architectural sight such as The Japanese Bridge (although passage across this looks free to me?) and also 1 performance of traditional Hoi Anian/ Vietnamese culture.

It’s the latter that Gray and I first indulge in.  He went through the rest of his ticket yesterday and will be heading (already?!) out of Hoi An at 13.

River boatman.
00 on a visa run to Laos.  We enter one of the beautiful old buildings where a small crowd sit before a modest stage.  Gray and I, a little late are stood at the back to watch a half hour or so’s run through of some fine examples of Vietnamese music, dance of various forms and even an anguished and passionate extract by a very expressive young lady of a Vietnamese opera.  Powerful stuff, and juxtaposed nicely with the majestically elegance of the final act whereby three pretty Vietnamese ladies perform traditional dance bearing pots upon their crowns and swirling with large fans, held and flourished in their hands.

With Gray departed, Hoi An and I are left to get to know each other better on our own terms.  I float from art gallery, to photographic exhibition to tailoring shop and on and on.

  Circuitously, happily looping back to the bank side promenade along the Thu Bon river.  Sadly I missed what I’m told was an exceptionally beautiful night here last night whilst slumbering on the night bus.  It was the ‘Switch Off the Lights for 60 Minutes’ global power saving gesture and the entire city was apparently lit solely by candle lights and the millions of beautiful, rainbow-coloured Chinese candle lanterns that are produced here in Hoi An and bedeck the streets and shops.  Hoi An actually has such a similar night once a month on the 14th day of the lunar month; candle boats set adrift on the river and such like but I will not get to witness either of these events.  Sad, but Hoi An will burn no less beautifully in my memory for this omission.
A line of tuk...I mean "rick-shaws"! Ya see, Alice, I'm learning all the while ;P

I have intended to take advantage of Hoi An’s greatest claim to fame.  Cheap and excellent bespoke tailoring.  Sick to death of not possessing a smart stitch of clothing to my name for 7 months (although self-professedly a little ’smart-phobic’ when at home)  I go in search of a tailor recommended to me by an FMF (Five Minute Friend) in Saigon.  It takes me an aaaage to find Viet Phi Tailors (not realising they were off the beaten track on the other side of the river) but eventually I do.  The skills of its lively, smiling bundle of energy manageress and tailor Lina were effusively enthused to me.  I describe what I want and make a few jokes (laced with truth) as to the challenge that my form can present in such situations… I’m not so easy to fit-up for sure.

One of many fine Chinese pagoda temples tucked into the narrow streets of Hoi An.
  But she just laughs at such unnecessary expressions, takes 20 seconds worth of lightening quick tape measurements, top to toe (taken down by her attentive daughter) and sends me smiling on my way.  When I pitch up a mere 7 hours later for a trial fitting of what she’s produced everything in trouser and shirt is millimetre and stitch perfect to my form!  A f**kin’ miracle!  Spooky!  How did she do it?!  Not a solitary adjustment required.  With double-stitched trousers for $17 and the shirt for $13 (cheaper can be had in Hoi An but in such matters chasing the bottom line is rarely to one‘s benefit I find) I ask for an identical shirt in black, all to be collected the next morning.  Perfect!

All that’s left for me to do now is relax in one of the many charming bar-restaurants that line the river promenade on either bank and indulge in some of the traditional Hoi An speciality foods.

'White Rose' dumplings. Traditional to Hoi An. "An aesthetic rather than a gastronomic pleasure."
  Another plus for the town, a fabulous food culture!  I try ‘White Rose’ dumplings.  More an aesthetic than a gastronomic pleasure but fine enough.  Like everything here, artistic and delicate.  With glasses of draught beer for 4,000VND ($0.23) a time (the cheapest in Vietnam) it’s a perfect place to unwind by lantern, candle and star light.

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Revolutionary Red (head) ;)  I loo…
Revolutionary Red (head) ;) I lo…
The famed Japanese Bridge
The famed 'Japanese Bridge'
Performance of traditional Vietnam…
Performance of traditional Vietna…
Sooo beautiful my heart nearly gav…
Sooo beautiful my heart nearly ga…
River boatman.
River boatman.
A line of tuk...I mean rick-shaws…
A line of tuk...I mean "rick-shaw…
One of many fine Chinese pagoda te…
One of many fine Chinese pagoda t…
White Rose dumplings.  Tradition…
'White Rose' dumplings. Traditio…
Father & Son : Nah Trang
'Father & Son' : Nah Trang
Many a shape and colour : Chinese …
Many a shape and colour : Chinese…
Mother & Son : Hoi An
'Mother & Son' : Hoi An
An emotionally wrought performance…
An emotionally wrought performanc…
Vietnamese musician.
Vietnamese musician.
Making Chinese lanterns, one of an…
Making Chinese lanterns, one of a…
Uncle Ho ho ho ! ;)
Uncle Ho "ho ho" ! ;)
The Thu Bon river runs through Hoi…
The Thu Bon river runs through Ho…
River boat (abstract)
River boat (abstract)
Flags in the street.
Flags in the street.
Its a hard life as a temple warde…
It's a hard life as a temple ward…
Hoi An