Yes, We Have No Banana Pancakes #8: Hoi An, Vietnam: Vestiges of Interest – Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam: Vestiges of Interest

In which our heroes shop while bombs drop

Another life dream crossed off the list: I got to ride in my first sleeper car, as we took the train north from Saigon (Update: Er tells me those lovely chimes I mentioned last time are actually “lady-boys” hawking their, um, wares, and not straight-up masseuses as I’d naively assumed.). The train wasn’t, strictly speaking, the Orient Express, but it was an express, and we are in the Orient, which is close enough for me. For a good part of the trip, we had the 4-berth compartment to ourselves, but eventually a young Vietnamese woman joined us. At first I feared she was carrying the dread SARS virus, but I think she was just morose… Anyhow, after a pleasant ride full of glimpses into people’s living rooms and rice fields, we arrived in Danang and immediately departed for Hoi An, where we’ve been for more than two weeks.

Hoi An is wicked quaint. The town was inhabited by the ancient Champa civilization and was, from the 15th to the early 19th century, a major trading port for Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Dutch ships, resulting in the great architecture and keen sense of commerce that survives today. The town is over-run with silk-covered lanterns in every imaginable shape and color, and folks are always floating candles in the river. Even their snacks are picturesque: the locals love to eat tiny bright-shelled snails called A’po (or something like that) – they extract the creatures with toothpicks and leave the pretty shells behind in the street. The architecture is a mix of faded blue and yellow colonial structures and beautiful 19th century teak trading houses with terra-cotta roof tiles. The trading houses originally had storefronts with a living area in the back and storage upstairs; at night the storefronts are boarded up with large teak planks. (The Tan Ky house, one of the most well-known buildings in Hoi An, has been the home of a single family for seven generations, but these days the government has decreed that the family has to live in the back while tourists prowl around the front of the house, an intrusion for which they’re paid 2.5% of the price of an entry ticket.)

Upon arriving in town, tourists are given a map titled “Hoi An Vestiges of Interest”; the “vestiges” include Chinese assembly halls decorated with a profusion of painted bas-relief fish, dragons, and gods, the old teak trading houses, the lovely covered Japanese bridge, and the Hoi An Museum of History and Culture, from which we gleaned the following historical insights:

“Champa people had a right recognition on oceans, and structured poly-professional economy….With a convenient geographical location, internal and external elements, reunion of inhabitants, of the genius of culture, of careers’ experiences, Hoi An rapidly became a place where had a lot of goods, especial products. The result of vehemently creative power of a golden historical period is the precious cultural heritage including the ancient town and thousands of relics which have been remained intactly.”

As if the “vehemently creative power” weren’t enough, Hoi An is also the home to about 200 tailors and cobblers – and I think we bought something from them all. Having never before had the chance to sample the ambrosia of bespoke clothing, Erica and I are now suffering from a bit of “retail hangover,” but where else could one buy a suit, 4 pairs of shoes, 5 shirts, 7 pairs of pants, and 15 bags (guess what you’re getting for Christmas) for under $300? If you’re planning a visit to Hoi An, our picks, after exhaustive research, are as follows: Quynh Giao, 15 Nhi Trung St (ceramics), Phuong 1, 15 Tran Phu St (clothing), Minh Hien, 2 Nhi Trung St (bags), and An Nam, 1 Nhi Trung St (shoes). Back in NYC, we’ll be poor, but flash!

Between sprees, we managed to meet some wonderful people in Hoi An, particularly the talented lacquer painters Khanh Bui and Phong. Khanh (La Gai Artists’ Space, 130 Nguyen Thai Hoc St) and Phong (ngai nau gallery, 88 Nguyen Thai Hoc St) update traditional Vietnamese techniques, using eggshells and silver paper in their work, but their paintings are imaginative rather than derivative, and we hope to repay their hospitality in New York someday.

One evening, we took a great boat trip with Mr. Phong (76 Le Loi St). We tooled around amid the round basket boats and the huge nets set out near the South China Sea before settling down to fish. We caught fish steadily, but they were only a few inches long, and we thought that Mr. Phong was throwing them back until he fired up the propane burner, took our fish from a creel in the water, and grilled them up. Luckily, he supplemented our fish with some big crabs he’d brought along, which he even cracked for us: true luxury! The fishing wasn’t taxing enough to prevent conversation, and we explored the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism (“same same, but no Maria”) and discussed the upcoming festival, which had everyone in town in a frenzy of lantern-making. We concluded that the festival lasts either three days or five days, recurs annually, biennially, or never, and commemorates Ho Chi Minh’s 1975 visit to Hoi An – a memorable visit indeed, considering that Uncle Ho died in 1969!

Meanwhile, there’s a war on. We were wandering the streets of Hoi An when it started, and a Vietnamese couple let us watch the BBC in their shop. The wife was against the war because she’d seen first-hand what war does to civilians, but the husband kept saying, “It’s for a reason, it’s for a reason,” which I didn’t know whether to interpret as reassurance or simply fatalism. Lots of Vietnamese people have asked our opinion of the conflict, and all seem to understand implicitly the difference between what our leaders do and what we want. We’ve experienced no anti-American sentiment here (though I haven’t talked to any French or Germans lately), though one tailor shop had a sign reading “Stop Irak War – Boykot USA.” When we inquired, we were told that tourists had put up the sign and that the shop did in fact welcome Americans, but with 199 other shops from which to choose, we took our dirty American dollars elsewhere.

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