Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hoi An Taylor

Two things I learned mid-way through my tour of 'Nam:

1) Hoi An is probably one of the most beautiful cities in all of the country.

2) Getting there via a Camel line night-bus from Nha Trang is not such a great idea.

Earlier, I wrote about how efficient and stress-free the Fula/ Pula buses were.  On this journey, I met their bizarro world counterparts, the Camel bus line (or to use their full name, the "You'd wish you ridden a camel instead bus line").  Not to get into all the nasty details, because #1 is the memory I am taking away from all this, but the bus was filthy and smelled like feet. For 13 hours, the driver was reckless, even by regional standards.  And they crowded the aisles with local villagers sleeping on the floor, making it impossible to reach the (possibly working) bathroom.  Not that this mattered, I guess, since I woke up to find- first thing in the morning- a toddler with his penis in a water bottle and a group of women making "ssssss" sounds, trying to get him to pee into the bottle. Before the little darling had produced a single drop, I had already reached the conclusion that there would be no more overnight buses in my future.
But back to the lovely town of Hoi An, initially a wealthy 16th century trading port, it was all but forgotten when the center of trade moved to Danang in the 18th century. As a result of this commercial amnesia, no attempts at "modernization" were made and the city was left with its original Chinese-style architecture intact. This portal into the past is now a UNESCO world heritage site

The Bus of Bad Smells dropped me off on the outskirts of town. Mercifully, a man with a piece of paper with my name on it and a scooter was waiting to whisk me away to my hotel. It was located across the Thu Bon River from the old town.

At the early hour of 9am, I was able to purchase a city ticket that lets you choose five items from a mix and match menu of museums, temples and cultural performances. Due to a combination of my questionable map-reading skills and their highly flexible opening hours, the ticket did not initially prove  as useful as I'd hoped. Instead, I followed Lonely Planet's recommended walk through the small old town district, soaking in the quiet morning hours in the open-air market and atmospheric narrow lanes that led up to it.

I watched as shop keepers opened up for business. Lots and lots of shop keepers. The beautifully restored ancient wooden homes now primarily serve one of two purposes. They are either stores or restaurants (or possibly restaurants with a store tucked away in the corner). Both are aimed squarely at the many tourists, both domestic and international, who visit year-round. The majority of them houses tailors who are able to churn out anything the fashion world has dreamt up. It is possible to get a tailored suit, a made-to-order ball gown or a shiny new pair of pimp shoes (or cute boots, if that's more to your taste) within a 24 hour period. It is a clothes horse's nirvana. I heard of a couple that brought in some magazine photos and a book of measurements and left with a bridal gown, some tuxes and all their bride's maid dresses, all for something around $200.

Across the Chau Cau or Pagoda bridge (aka the one in all the travel brochures) the story changes slightly and the tailors are replaced by art galleries and souvenir stores. In different circumstances, the existence of a town that essentially doubles as a grand outdoor mall, could be off-putting, but it is so damned charming , that it is easy to overlook its flaws.

After some strolling, I put my city ticket into use with visits to an ancient home, three temples and a traditional dance performance. That may sound like a lot to do in an afternoon but no one place requires more than 20 minutes for a thorough investigation so there is no danger of cultural fatigue setting in.

Also, it did not hurt that midway through my temple tour, I grabbed a cold beer, hired a small boat (which the ladies let me row) and cruised up and down the river, people watching.

The cultural center where the dance performance took place is also a handicraft factory (funny how that works out...) so it is a good place to see typical goods being produced, laugh at their prices and then go elsewhere to find the same thing at a fraction of the cost. For me, it was a fascination with the cheery lanterns that I'd been seeing all over town.  At the cultural center, I eyeballed an $8 blue beauty.

And then bought its cousin the following evening from a street corner vendor for $2.

But there was only so much strolling, lantern pricing and cafe sitting a girl can do, so on the second day, I took a morning tour to My Son (pronounced me-sun), the site of a complex Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva and constructed by the Cham people around the 4th century AD. After an hour's drive in the rain, we reached a remote area surrounded by very verdant jungle. There, after some walking (also in the rain), we came across the first grouping of ruins, in a setting straight out of an Indiana Jones film. At this time, this is the most impressive section of the complex, but this was not always the case. The US military, despite pleas from European scholars of antiquities, bombed this area heavily, destroying 50 of the 70 temples, included the grandest ones. There are still bomb craters visible alongside the remaining temples.

The rain worked in our favor, keeping away the usual crowds who could easily overwhelm this small site. In exchange, we got a prevailing sense of calm and the chance at some pretty atmospheric photos.

By the afternoon, we were back in Hoi An and I was due for a fitting. I had not come prepared with magazine cut-outs, but I'd managed to find some funky fabric and a long dress that was calling my name. The way I figured it, I may have rolled into town on the ghetto bus but, at least, I was going to leave there in style.


  1. I like the ending paragraph... Making lemonade out of lemons. Waiting to see a picture of the long dress you had made.

  2. Woman .... I am starting to read your blog about Vietnam...all you are saying seems pretty similar with India ;-) and I do promise that I won't tell anyone about your crazy shopping ;) the pix atrium great.may favourite is the one from the street market. Was the bus ride so bad?

  3. And I forgot to tell you how much I love the laterns pix ....great combination of colors. And some other thing ......Fula Pula is the bus company name? :-D

  4. Roland, I should have had someone get a picture of me and the seamstress, with the new dress of course. She was a trip and would have had me design an entire wardrobe if I given the chance. I still have not worn it, but once I do, perhaps I can get a photo and add it to the post.

    Laura, there were some similarities between the two, no question. In general, I think Vietnam is easier for the solo traveler (particularly female travelers) but the night bus was awful (or at least, the Camel bus company).

  5. Your writing is so excellent and evocative, Berti! All of these Vietnam posts are so fascinating. I also love the lantern pics and the Hindu temple photos are gorgeous. Thank you for sharing your adventures with us!

  6. Julie, thanks so much!! You are way too generous. I just wish that we could catch up in person and not via fb, blogs and/ or other assorted technologies. Miss you!!

  7. I suffered and laughing when I read your adventure the night in the bus, but I enjoy a lot reading it.
    I am very proud of you, your Mom