Vietnam: Hoi An – City of Lanterns

I am hoping for a 5 day respite in Hoi An without any agenda. Our most ambitious plan involves having 2 custom shirts made for Steve and a lantern to take home. We have a comfortable hotel, great room with a balcony, full buffet breakfast and bicycles. We’ve gotten acquainted with the hotel’s happy hour and their Pina Colada is the best I’ve ever had which probably has something to do with using a whole fresh pineapple and fresh squeezed coconut milk. A liquid step in the right direction.

We are just 1 long block from the Old Quarter historic district, far enough to not have noise or lights and yet easy to walk to. We try pedaling through town but we are off the bikes as often as we are on them; streets packed with vendors, market stalls, shoppers, street performers, long chains of Chinese in individual rickshaws. Very busy.A twenty two person caravan – no kidding

Worn out
However, if I went earlier in the day, the streets were more inviting. I could stop and breathe the colors; the magenta sprays of bougainvillea flowing over balconies, lanterns strung across streets and the Thu Bon river running alongside.

Walking the side streets
Rice noodles drying in the sun

We take the bikes for a ride out of town. Friends we met on the Dragon Pearl told us to go to “hidden beach” which of course has no signs or directions. They also told us to do a sunrise kayak trip. Both ideas capture our spirit. So we ride toward the beaches on the East Vietnam Sea. An Bang is the most popular so we avoid it. We pedal on a rough concrete trail through sand and grass for quite a while and see several tiny openings coming off our path. I check some out. No hidden beach. We ride some more and take a fork at some point and come to a sign: “Mrs. Trinh beach- Viet food. Free park”. We leave the bikes in the pine forest and head towards the water. We discover our “hidden beach” and are overjoyed. For 110k dongs ($4.70 usd) we get a fresh mango-pineapple smoothie, empty beach, great surf, two weatherbeaten yet fully serviceable palapas with cushioned chaises, and great fresh food. Us alone, sunshine, hot, quenched, sated, happy. Ahhh. Finally relaxed…

Hoi An is a small city that developed into a commercial trading port in the 16th century but existed 2000 years ago when part of the Champa kingdom. It had a favorable location for trade with Europe and the Far East for centuries but was eventually overshadowed by Da Nang’s industrialization and superior harbor.

We are biking everywhere. Way faster than walking and slow enough to really notice the surroundings. We had a great banh mi at the Queen, biked on and found a tiny shop that makes paper with beautiful designs from a slurry of crushed nipa palm fronds.

We ride out of town where small villages are next to marsh lands. Sadly, the typhoon has destroyed many such villages over the years. We are trying to locate the kayak rental place but without street signs, GPS, current address, or a detailed street map it is proving elusive. I notice a beat up and faded sign saying kayak rentals on a pole next to a chewed up sidewalk along an inlet and since we had been circling the area for 20 minutes I decide to explore. Past trash, a junk yard and nondescript huts I pedal on. I am shocked when a quick right turn at the water produces a shack that is the very place we are searching for. Seems the one on the website is gone, hence the old sign and this shop is just getting started. The sunrise tour isn’t yet part of their tours but the guide is willing to accommodate our request. We agree to be ready by 5 am the next day.

Still fascinated by the small handmade fishing craft and the long carved paddle

We get picked up by motorbike (my favorite) in the darkness and meet Lung our guide. We get our gear, go down the rickety stairs to a makeshift landing. The kayaks are in the reeds and have to be hauled in. Unfortunately the sunrise doesn’t look promising. In fact, it is really just dark. What is cool though is seeing a fisherman row under an enormous net to collect the fish. He lifts the net and drains the fish out a hole and into his boat.

The nets are raised and lowered throughout the day and checked often by the fishermen. Once we head into the broad river, it is windy, the water is rough and the current is strong making the paddling in these well worn plastic boats difficult. I feel like I’m not moving and I’m getting fatigued. I’ve gotten separated from Steve and Lung, who is shouting instructions at me on how to paddle. I’m pissed and muttering to myself, “I know how to paddle!”, and put extra muscle into my stroke. Later he tells us that the current was surprisingly strong. We head into a small harbor where the fishermen are unloading their night’s catch. It is a madhouse of fish and people coming off the trawlers, middlewomen carrying buckets of fish, crab, squid onto the shore where the haggling takes place. We witness a heated exchange between two women fighting over a tray of fish, it tips, spilling the fish and a physical fight ensues. It is women who buy wholesale off the fishermen and then sell a bit higher to other women who’ll then sell the fresh fish at the market in Hoi An.

I am totally absorbed in the fish market scene. Women dominated. Local commerce and keeping it fresh, every day…A bamboo thung chai or basket boat is rubbed with resin and cow dung for waterproofing

Fishing vessel with array of high intensity lights to catch squid at night – impressive rigging

We walk through this fishing village, have noodle soup at a place Lung likes and then pick up our boats and paddle into a smaller tributary of the Thu Bon. On the way, we pass a fisherman laying out his net and his wife beating the side of the boat; the noise supposedly scaring fish into their net. We move further into the river and for us, the solitude, beauty and easy glide of the current is wonderfully peaceful.

Kayaking by the nets in daylight is amazing. The nets are spectacular in size and ingeniously raised and lowered by the fisherman pedaling a crank gizmo from a nearby bamboo platform.

Lung treats us to coffee at a local bistro that he likes. We have shared more than a tour, our stories have made us friends. We say goodbye and ramble through town, exploring, dodging motor bikes, pedestrians, scoping out a camera battery, being part of the local traffic and feeling free.

Hoi An is very pretty with some well preserved wooden homes. The main streets are lively. We eat well, go shopping, visit the markets that are selling the fish we saw much earlier and sweat alot, it is really hot. I bike to my manicure which takes us into another non tourist area of Hoi An. We find Heaven and Earth bike tours and sign up for a 21 km ride through paddies and indigenous villages. We’ll get to use true mountain bikes with working gears and we are psyched. Steve is especially looking forward to a bike that finally fits.

It is a strenuous ride and so much fun. Standing up to pedal over huge stones, vibrating over several bumpy bamboo bridges, trying to stay upright on a single track through paddies. At one point the woman in front of me stops abruptly on sand and I’m launched onto a water buffalo dung patty. Luckily it isn’t fresh. We go past irrigation locks, huge aerating shrimp lagoons, abandoned brickworks, and a water buffalo with twins. Part of the ride is exposing us to traditional crafts in people’s homes that tourism helps keep alive. We visit a village that for generations has specialized in weaving brilliantly colored mats but struggles to compete with factory made. We bike to a village known for making herb rice crackers. A rice cream batter is ladled crepe-like over a rice husk fire in an already hot home, then dried in the sun. The same women get up at 2 am to make rice noodles as well and we are treated to sandwiches of noodles and crackers sprinkled with black sesame seeds, garlic and chili dipped in homemade fish sauce. These are so delicious that people travel from Saigon for them. Interestingly both our guides, Tram and Loc refer to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon. We bike on and on, each village devoted to their craft; from inlaid mother of pearl furniture, to paddling the woven basket boats (we literally go in circles with much laughter) to imbibing homemade rice wine with blends fermented with centipede (medicine for chickens) to king cobra, the strongest. No one tastes that one. We visit a traditional 2 story house where an ancestral altar occupies the central space. Sleep areas shift according to age and marital status and everything moves upstairs during wet season. The beds are wooden platforms covered by the very mats we’ve just seen and remind me of our Ha Giang guide Khu’s stories of her sleeping on boards growing up in Sapa. Our young guides show us how people repurpose old armaments from the french colonial era and the “American” war. Again I feel shame. Did Americans really need to interfere with Vietnam’s governance to thwart communism?

95, now blind, she knows the pattern so well that she continues to feed the correct color to her son-in-law’s loom. Wish i could have taken one home
Our cutie pie guides
Our cutie pie guides, Loc above and Tram below
While we bike we engage in long personal conversations. We have equal amounts of questions. I share my observation that women are seemingly doing much of the labor while men are sitting in groups drinking coffee, gambling or holding babies while their wives work. Both Tram and Loc, nod and immediately reply, “It is said that Viet men are lazy”.

We have a couple more days in Hoi An before we embark to Myanmar. We shop for lanterns, get Steve’s shirts and I buy shoes, all made in 24 hours and delivered to our hotel. We venture inside some historic homes with water marks 17′ high, the devastating effects of powerful typhoons and flooding. We mingle in the crowds on these hot nights, enjoy the lights on the river, and allow ourselves to be lured onto the dark evening waters of the Thu Bon.

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