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Gone Faifo, Now Hoi An

Rajen Bali

I was quite enamored with my Danang Beach Hotel and the beaches of Danang. I was delaying my departure for the next stop during my one-month Vietnam trip. My son, Rahul, called and was horrified that I was still lingering in Danang. “Go to Hoi An, it is really fascinating.” Like a dutiful father, the next day I came to Hoi An.

To jump ahead, now that my trip is nearing its end, I have to leave Hoi An in couple of days. But, I do not wish to leave. Hoi An has cast a magic spell over me. I wish to stay on. And on. And on....

Hoi An is about 30 km away from Danang and the excellent highway runs along the sea. But, like the Puri-Konark Marine Drive, the sea only peeks now and then. The seaward side is dotted with many, many high-class resorts – an unending row of them. If there are any vacant lots, to carry the signage of a new resort coming up. On the other side of the road, I passed the famous Marble Mountain with its distinctive elevator and some modest dwellings. On the road, near the Marble Mountain, were road-side displays of clusters of exquisite marble sculptures for sale, in all sizes. Lord Buddha in many forms and poses, rubbed shoulders with ferocious guardian lions, lovely nymphs and sea-maidens, trumpet-blowing angels and mind-blowing imaginative abstractions, All delights to behold. Before we reach Hoi An, a word about Danang. It is one of the largest cities in Vietnam and all the trade and commerce of Hoi An shifted here. I have never seen, anywhere, such a concentration of high-rise star-category hotels as in Danang. And more are coming up. At a rough count, there must be at least 100, or more. Compare this with Kolkata with its paltry dozen or so 5-star hotels!

Going around Hoi An, something appeared to be missing. It took quite some time for realization to dawn. There are NO highrise buildings at all in Hoi An! It sinks in that you really are in a different world. A world with all that is ‘modern’ and required in the present day, but the place is firmly and pleasantly anchored to its glorious past.

And what a past Hoi An- ‘Peaceful Meeting Place’- has. Its history goes back some 2,000 years and it was the principal port of the Cham Kingdom which controlled the spice trade with Indonesia from the 7th to the 10th century. The commercial capital was Hoi An and the spiritual (Hindu) capital was called - do not laugh, please – My Son. To see the ruins at My Son – some 50 km away from Hoi An – there is a plethora of tours available.

In the 16th and the 17th centuries, Hoi An graduated to being a major international port. The Arab traders came in the 10th century then came the Chinese, first as traders, and then sizably numbers of escaping Ming Army, who settled in Hoi An for some years and then moved south to create Saigon as a major trading post. The other significant influences over time were that of the Japanese, the Europeans and the Vietnamese. To its credit, Hoi An has treasured and preserved all these influences, as is clearly evident by just strolling around the old town.

Before it became Hoi An, the place was named Faifo, Fai-foo, Lam Ap and Hoai Pho. By whatever name you may call the place it is a definite Triple-and-half Whammy. There is the Thu Bon River and some islands in the river, the nearby seas and beaches, the perfect mix of various architectures/cultures and – food.

Before we ‘eat and drink’, let us take a look at the architecture, arts and crafts, the river and its boats and a bit more. Since Hoi An has been a melting pot of many cultures over the centuries – as is evident from its superbly preserved architecture – it must have attracted a great many highly skilled experts in carpentry, ceramics and pottery, wood carvers, boat-builders and people with other skills. These good people have not only left their indelible foot prints but the traditions go on till today. There are quite a few villages around Hoi An where you can see these craftsmen/craftswomen at work. Look in wonder and buy if you feel like,

What to do in Hoi An? Perhaps it would not be a bad idea if you share my yesterday. I got up early and enjoyed the dawning of another day from my balcony overlooking the swimming pool. I could not see the sunrise as I was in the wrong direction. A leisurely breakfast by the pool side – the warm baguettes were superb - and I set off on my walking tour.

Just a few minutes down the road, I could hear loud music. It was a Sunday morning concert in a school. Groups of school students were scattered around, half-listening to the enthusiastic young singers on the stage and spending more time in laughter and banter. I sat on a bench, a little away from the blasting speakers. I was soon surrounded by a gaggle of schoolboys and schoolgirls, all wanting to speak in English with me and having their pictures taken with me. After a half hour of ‘conversation’, photo sessions and exchange of facebook/email id, the flock with these flighty ‘birds’ flew away amidst a chorus of ‘Goodbye Rajen’.

I resumed my walk and was hijacked - for the first time in the day – by a spa lady and had a very good foot/leg massage for an hour. Then it was onwards towards the market, the river and the Ancient Town. First major stop was the Japanese Covered Bridge, perhaps the most iconic landmarks not only in Hoi An, but in the whole of Vietnam. Its construction started in 1593 (the year of the Monkey) and it was finished in 1595) the year of the Dog). So is has a monkey and a dog guarding its ends. It is covered to provide shelter and has a small temple at one end. The temple is said to be of the Weather God who is constantly appeased to save the city from earthquakes et al. The Japanese built this bridge to go to the Chinese quarter on the other side.

Having got my pictures duly taken at the Japanese Bridge, I walked along the river taking in the boat-scene, with many picturesque boats of various shapes and sizes dotting the waters. There were side trips to some of the over 1100 ancient timber houses preserved with care in a reverential manner. There are temples to ancestors, Chinese/Japanese temples/pagodas, many art galleries, tailor shops (‘suits made ready in 24 hours’), shoe shops (‘made to order shoes in pure leather/suede, you choose the design’)’ shops selling silks and artifacts, art galleries and travel agencies galore. It is all a strictly walking/cycling zone. At certain times, even bicycles are banned. The couple of hours spent were an enriching and extremely enjoyable experience.

By now it was time to meet my Aussie friend Michael, the Ex-Income Tax Man, who was coming to meet me from Danang. He rolled in astride his hired Honda and we crossed the main bridge to the other side of the river with a row of restaurants and bars. The second hijacking of the day took place when a young lady took me by the hand and insisted that we sit in her restaurant. How could I refuse/resist. We ordered glasses of draft beer priced at 4,000 Vietnam dong. That works out roughly to Rs 12! Interestingly, in Vietnam, good beer is quite often cheaper than water or a coke! We also had a local specialty – Deep Fried Spring Rolls. We walked a bit further down the road, along the river, and came across an open-sided hall with a number of restaurants with red plastic chairs and tables in front of counters. The reviews displayed on blackboards had travelers saying  things like “Best food in Hoi An,” ‘Best Food in Vietnam”,,,,, It really was very good food. I had a ‘White Rose’ (a local specialty of shrimp encased in rice paper and steamed), and another local specialty of slightly soupy flat noodles with croutons, meat of choice and vegetables. And of course a few more glasses of beer. Hoi An is a famed Foodie City and deserves proper respect and treatment. We shall talk about Vietnam food another day.

The rest of the day is a kaleidoscope of a visit to the colorful markets with ladies singing out “You buy something from me” and me succumbing and buying some luscious red grapes and some small boxes made from cinnamon wood. There was the evening river-walk, a half-hour river cruise in a small country boa rowed by an old, old lady with a winning toothless smile, a riverside alfresco meal of a baguette sandwich with all the works (lettuce, chicken, pork, cucumber and assorted sauces) and a hot fried coconut doughnut.

In between, worth mentioning, is the glorious sunset and the whole area turning into a fairyland lit with numberless Chinese lanterns swaying in the breeze and other decorative lights.

By now, the body was sending time or-bed signals. A short taxi ride, my balcony for the last cigar of the day, recalling/savoring the day’s happenings. A few pages of a Ludlum and it was off to Dreamland!

This was just a day in Hoi An. There is much, much more enchantment around.

Go, savor it.