By Lorie Ann Cascaro and Jesse Pizarro Boga
HOI-AN, Vietnam (MindaNews / 5 Feb) – The road to Hoi An, a small city in Central Vietnam, was literally long and winding.
From the south, we took the train to Danang City (where beaches and bridges were the only things of interest), and then hopped on an old bus that drove us to our destination in half an hour.
After the cramped train and bus rides, which we can only describe as blah, we were granted our right of personal space when we reached Hoi An.
When we arrived in the bus station, we found that there really wasn’t much to see. The view from there was an empty Vietnam countryside (with Vietnamese tea and Banh Mi stalls in a corner). We were given the impression that there isn’t really much to see in this small city.
We were wrong. Very.Because as soon as we entered the old town, and as the sun sets, lanterns began to light up streets and corners that appeared bland during daylight.
Hoi An, which means “peaceful meeting place,” prides itself to be hailed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the city (also known as Faifoo), is home to an ancient town with well-preserved houses and trading ports that date from the 15th to 19th century.
It is located by the Thu Bon River in Quang Nam province.
The traffic was considerably light in the streets of the city. There were no cars (except for the Mai Linh brand taxis that occasionally appear out from a corner; they’re from Danang City).
Everyone, locals and tourists alike, rides their bicycle and motorbike. We didn’t have that option just yet from the bus station when we arrived; that was why we were forced to walk a kilometer with our heavy bags.
We didn’t mind, really – because as soon as we found our accommodation (another shared dorm room), we started getting comfortable and found thrills and charms in every corner.
Hoi An seemed dim and is unlike the bigger cities in Vietnam. Other than the relatively few number of street lamps bathing old buildings in yellow, the only source of light were the lanterns hung like banderitas on the streets.
We didn’t need a tour guide to take us around the city. Curiosity, Google Maps, and our weary feet took us to places in this city of 120,000 people.
We followed the lights and were led deeper into the old town where there were old houses and shops and old houses made into shops (Jesse saw an ancient house that was made into a “Converse” store).
Somewhere by the riverside, we experienced what night life was like in Hoi An. The city comes alive at night in unique ways.
There were bars playing Western dance and pop music, but these were somehow overshadowed by the collective local vibe in the atmosphere.
The floating restaurants, for instance were a refreshing change of dining experience. A traditional Vietnamese river boat is docked into the river bank and is filled with wooden stools and chairs.
Faint music from across the river can be heard by anyone in the boat; but the sounds of a guitar played by a local, singing in his language, felt more compelling to visitors. After all, no one travelled all the way here to listen to JLo’s On The Floor. Although we found it disturbing that the river subtly smelled fishy and pungent.
A hand written piece of paper with a list of food items was handed out to us; it’s a typical Hoi An menu. There were Vietnamese specialties like noodle dishes Mi Quang, Banh Bao Vac, Cao Lau, Pho; a filling Com Ga (chicken rice) was also available to order. List of drinks is pretty standard and are the same everywhere: beer, fresh fruit juice, and Vietnamese coffee.
The old ladies selling paper flower lanterns (hoa dang) nearby were also worthy of notice. They were old and their wrinkles were highlighted by the shadows cast from the candles inside the lanterns.
But that’s not to say they’re not strong. If there is someone who defines aging with grace, it’s them.
Locals bought lanterns from the ladies and gently made them float on water after making a New Year wish.
These scenes of old houses, floating restaurants, and dimly lit lanterns follow a repeating fashion throughout the riverfront.
The Old Town continues to brim with European tourists as the night goes on. There were water puppet shows in one corner and a Vietnamese version of Pukpok Palayok; these are probably only a part of the Lunar New Year festivities.
A French photographer, Tardivo Richard, who looks 60-ish, has been in Hoi An for the first time. He expressed his gawky feeling to see how much French influence the city has preserved, such as the baguette bread for sandwiches and architectural designs of old houses. Imagining how the French government tainted a not-so-good memory in this country, he said, for him the Vietnamese seem to have erased that part of their history. “It’s a bit weird feeling to be here,” he said and rubbed his arm to get rid of goose bumps.
At about 11 p.m., something magical happened. The discreet buzzing in the old streets came to an abrupt stop. The crowd literally disappeared as the stores closed, leaving dimly lit alleys empty and almost lifeless. We could clearly hear cicadas like they were the only ones around us.
That was our cue to dash – no, wait – sprint to our dorm. We were too scared to be victims of thieves again.
The beach life
The next day, we rode our rented bicycles to Cua Dai beach, about 4 kilometers from the Hoi An’s old town.
The stretch of the beach was animated by jet skis, parasailing activities, European tourists sun bathing, and Vietnamese playing ball.
There were also Vietnamese hanging out by the shore and clad in their winter sweaters – a beautiful contrast against all the other beach lovers who were dying to take off their underwear just so they can enjoy the sun rays (despite the unusually cool breeze).
After frolicking in the beach, it was time to ride back to the old town before the sun sets.
We were ready to take on the long and winding road to our next stop: Hue City.
[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently based in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]