May 14, 2011

Mountains of Marble, Silk Lanterns and China Beach: Hoi An

Rolling into Hoi An just after dawn, the small city of approximately 122,000 people was already awake with activity.  Noticeably the traffic was lighter, the streets smaller but also the architecture, for which Hoi An is renowned, was distinct from elsewhere in Vietnam that we’ve experienced thus far.  We emerged from our 12hr overnight bus from Nha Trang around 7am the next morning, had a quick tour of the old city while riding on the back of a couple of moto drivers looking for accommodation, then after a relaxing morning by the pool and an afternoon nap to catch up on a patchy night’s sleep, we set out to explore the city.

Hoi An is described in the Lonely Planet as a encompassing the ‘flavour of old Vietnam’.  In fact, the old city comprising of an area of approximately 1km wide (6-7 blocks) by 300 meters deep (3 blocks-ish) is classified as a World Heritage Site for its distinct architectural influences of Chinese, Japanese and European cultures.  Technically you are meant to purchase a ticket just to enter this area, which is filled with shops and restaurants, although it is not really enforced unless you enter designated ‘cultural sites’.  As well, no motorised vehicles are allowed in this area, which makes exploring a real pleasant experience along its narrow tree-lined streets.  By night, the streets are alit with brightly coloured silk lanterns which are hung from most shops as well as on the branches of trees and along the footbridge.  In the Thu Bon River, which runs alongside the old city, are several silk creatures which are also lit up at night.  It’s all very magical.

Japanese Covered Bridge

Five kilometres from the town, which itself is inland along the river delta, is the stretch of beach on the South China Sea known as China Beach, where American GIs came for r & r during the Vietnam war.   Today restaurants with their sun loungers and thatched roof huts line the shoreline closest Hoi An.  Although the beach stretches another 30km northward towards Danang, many large resorts either currently occupy or are about to occupy much of this area.  Undoubtedly in the years to come, this area will become much more commercial than it is today.

China Beach (Cua Dai Beach)

Marble Mountains
We hired a motorbike to get to China Beach, as well as to the Marble Mountains which are towards the Danang end of the stretch.  The Marble Mountains are actually a set of 5 marble outcrops that were once islands.  We climbed up the side of the largest mountain following the marble steps that led upward.  Along the way there were pagodas, Buddhist temples, several look-out points, as well as a few caves which had Hindu as well as Buddhist ‘sanctuaries’.  Unexpectedly we actually made it to the highest peak in spite of the heat of the day and were treated to a 360 degree view of the countryside, all the way to the city of Danang and of China Beach and the sea.  After the climb down, we observed the marble sculpting craftsmen at work in the village at the base, carving great big blocks of marble into beautifully polished statues.

Inside the largest cave

Inside the largest cave

At the entrance to the largest cave

Top of the Mountain, China Beach in the distant

Marble Sculpture

Solid block of marble, from the mountain

Although we found Hoi An to be a charming and quaint city, particularly in the old town, it was the villages which dotted the river delta that we found even more interesting to explore.  Narrow country roads there criss-crossed through lush green rice paddies, with bridges suddenly appearing to take you over the many arms of the river—all this as you try to distinguish where exactly you are.   Needless to say, it was tricky to get your bearing, but basically, all roads tended to lead you to the same place in the end!

Hoi An Countryside

One of many tailor shops
Hoi An is a popular spot with the tourists, and it’s easy to see why.  It’s also got a reputation as a good spot to get custom tailored clothing made, with reportedly over 200 tailors in operation, all vowing to have your new clothes done in 24hrs.  But perhaps due to its popularity, we found that the majority of merchants and people in the ‘tourism and hospitality’ field were actually some of the rudest, most unfriendly, and most out-to-rip-you-off that we’ve encounter so far in Vietnam. The amounts themselves weren’t necessarily significant, although one shop attempted to charge us double for the exactly the same ice cream bars that were sold in other shops (and when you are buying 4, that adds up), but it was the principle and it was only here in Hoi An that we’ve encountered it to this degree.  And it was for items that we were probably already paying a premium for to begin with. Our hotel, which was actually listed in the Lonely Planet (but that we didn’t know that at the time we checked in),  got upset at us for wanting to settle our bill at 9pm in the evening.  As we were checking out at 6:30am the following morning, we preferred to have this sorted beforehand, but the clerk thought we were an extreme inconvenience to him.  We met other grumpy hoteliers while searching for a room.  Of course, it wasn’t all bad—we did have great service and food from the restaurant which we ended up eating all of our daily meals at, as well as from the couple who we ended up purchasing our silk lanterns from (watch out neighbours, our house is going to be even more lit up like a Christmas tree!) and from the shop assistant who kindly showed and educated us  about their silk worm farm.  Unfortunately these experiences were overshadowed by the constant pettiness of the others.

Silk Worms, 15 Days Old, at '41 Le Loi' Workshop, Hoi An

Silk Worm Cocoons

Machine which extracts the silk from the cocoons (in metal dish)

Do you see the silk threads being extracted?
So while we found Hoi An to be a lovely place for its distinct architecture, interesting location by the river delta, nearby rural setting, and its good selection of well-priced eateries, we were happy to move onwards after 3 days.  At this point, we are about the halfway point through our travels in Vietnam, both in terms of time as well as distance.  Next stop is the city of Hue.  

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