With a camera in one hand and a book (or a coffee) in the other, I always find enticing byways—such as Luang Prabang.
Discovering Hoi An
Hoi An lies just south of what was once the demarcation zone between the warring North and South Vietnam. Yet the history of the city is far older, having been witness not only to conflicts but also to the influence of trade and settlement over the centuries. The river in Hoi An was once a major gateway to the sea, and sailors from China, Japan and Europe visited and often stayed.
The influence of these maritime visitors can be seen all through this UNESCO-listed city, from the food to the stunning architecture. The people of Hoi An are gentle and welcoming, the food as amazing as the shopping, and the surrounding countryside lush and peaceful. What is not to love?
Here are some discoveries from a recent visit, beyond those so commonly listed in guidebooks.
Thu Bon River
The Thu Bon River runs through the centre of Hoi An, dividing the Old Town from newer developments. The river has slowly silted over the centuries, so it is no longer a major trading port; as a consequence, life on the river has returned to how it has always been. Small craft of all kinds ply the waters, with fishing boats setting out at dawn. The countryside is full of rivers and waterways—they remain the lifeblood of this area.
I loved to sit by a balcony and watch the life of the river during the day. Or else, crossing over to an island on the far side, I would look across the waterway to the old town before ambling to all the fishing boats docking for the night.
Hoi An's Basket Boats
Any beach around Hoi An—especially My Khe Beach, known as China Beach during the Vietnam War—is covered with these small round boats. Easily steered by one person (who knows what they're doing—I kept going around in circles!) these boats are excellent for fishing as they are buoyant, and can move in any direction over shallow water.
These traditional fishing boats were designed simply to avoid paying a boat tax, for the shape meant they couldn't be classified as a boat. They are not just on the beaches for tourists, but also on the rivers, sleeping on an island until the tide is right, out at sea beyond the waves, or used to ferry fish from the larger trawlers to the fish markets on shore. (As a side note, I found the beaches a bit boring. But then I'm Australian, and incredibly spoilt in that way.)
Lost in the Countryside
Escaping to the countryside, I found a whole different world. Even in the heat of the day, the streets of the Old Town are awash with tourists, everyone a little fragile in the heat. By contrast, just five minutes away, rice paddies stretch in all directions, fed by the many rivers.
At one point, I found myself at this bamboo bridge seemingly in the middle of the nowhere. At the far end were some equally adventurous souls. It seemed perfectly natural to share snacks and chat in broken French in this idyllic countryside.
Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Anyone?
Besides rice paddies, the surrounding countryside is filled with communal vegetable plots. The land here is so lush and the rain so plentiful that these fertile plots proved an inspiration for me to go back home and start gardening.
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Many are a short bike ride from the centre of Hoi An. (Many tourists stay a little out of town at one of the many resorts along the nearby beaches, catching either a taxi or riding a push bike into town.) If you're brave enough to venture out on a bike, it is the perfect way to explore the nearby countryside, which is filled with quiet laneways few cars can drive along.
So often a cafe or restaurant waits nearby, and many run cooking schools, sourced straight from their own garden.
The Houses of Hoi An
The colours of the houses may have faded with both the heat and with time, but the buildings in Hoi An have a charm all their own. Many of the traditional styles have been touched with influence of many visitors—the Japanese, Chinese, Dutch and French, to name but a few.
The delightful architecture is on every street, many of the larger houses having an open-plan ground floor with stairs leading to the upstairs rooms. These come off an inner veranda which encircles the house. This design not only allows to keep the houses as cool as possible in the heat, but the upper story also acts as a refuge during the frequent times the river floods the town.
Fishing (and Feasting) at Dawn
One morning I rose while it was still dark to go out on a fishing boat in the bay. The bay was filled with them, from the smaller basket boats to the larger vessels which headed out to sea. For them all, it was hard work in the darkness. I quickly lost all sense of direction.
Watching as the dawn broke through the clouds was simply glorious. Once the sun had risen, our guide took us to a local market to buy fresh seafood for our breakfast. The captain proved as adept at cooking as he was at sailing, serving up handmade spring rolls, fresh baby tuna, steamed morning glory leaves and some squid. Delicious.
Exploring the Markets
This was how our breakfast began that early morning—in the morning markets. There are so many markets in Hoi An.
The main ones, in the centre of town, can be quite intimidating. In the fabric section, women latch onto you and won't let go. But if you can push through to chaos and wander ever deeper, you'll find everything for sale, things you didn't know existed, such as devices for making flowers out of carrots.
Then there are the fruit markets, not to mention all the chickens and ducks for sale, fresh meats, nuts, beans, bags and bags of rice. Crossing over the main bridge and heading towards less touristy areas, I found more markets, smaller but just as interesting. I sat at a roadside stall as the owner made me a delicious banh mi (a type of baguette filled with vegetables, shredded pork, pate and a secret dressing) followed by a strong coffee, laced with condensed milk.
Lanterns at Night
Like so many places, Hoi An shows a different character depending upon the time of day. At night, when the Old town is lit almost entirely by candle and lanterns, the place is magical.
Hoi An is famous for her lanterns. It borders on impossible to choose which ones to bring home. It what was once an annual Buddhist festival but now is a nightly event in which lanterns are set free to float down the river, lit only by a candle. Mostly they are the offerings of tourists, collected further downstream and resold again and again. But I like to think some are true offerings, in thanks for the magic of this place.
A Boat Yard
In any place dependent upon tourism, it is often hard to find those industries which were once vital to the city and still keep her running.
A short drive out of town is a boat-building yard, where the skeletons of various wooden boats under construction lay under the sky. The smell of sawn wood and hot tar filled the air, and the site dog happily to followed in our footsteps. The builders took obvious pride in their craftsmanship. A place all the more magical for being unexpected.
Coffee in Hoi An
Finally, don't forget the coffee. All over Vietnam, the most gorgeous percolators drip thick coffee straight into a glass. This is followed by a dollop—or three—of condensed milk. The fruity flavour of the coffee and the sweetness of the milk seemed so appropriate either in the heat of the day, or first thing in the morning before the humidity is absolute. I drank similar brews on the balconies of Saigon and in the markets of Halong.
I have never drunk this style of coffee outside Vietnam, for it seems so suited to that country. The strong but sweet brew is perfect for sipping as I sit awhile and watch the world go by, all the while making a few notes for my next story.
© 2019 Anne Harrison