Late on Wednesday evening, I found my traveling companion for the rest of my trip: my mother. Early the next morning, I dragged my jetlagged partner out of bed, through the airport, onto the plane, through customs, and into a taxi, until we finally made it to An Bang, a little beach town right outside Hoi An in Vietnam.
For the rest of the day, we lounged on the beach. Although, I don’t know if anything that happens in 90-degree weather can be called lounging. Regardless, the view was spectacular and it was nice to sit in the shade. I had my head in the Bangkok Post paper I picked up before leaving Thailand, trying to understand why there was a photo of a Chicago Police Department vehicle (it was an article on Ford fixing problems with police officer SUVs in the US) and laughing at the story about the toothpick prankster in Singapore (see photo below).
On Friday, we headed into Hoi An in the morning, ignoring the advice of our host. We should have listened to his suggestion to wait to explore the city until the evening. It was hot. Brutally hot. Surprisingly, I wasn’t overwhelmed or frustrated in the heat, which is my normal response to being overheated, but by the end of the day I wasn’t quite sure what I had seen. Despite the fabulous iced coffee, watermelon juice, and water I was downing, my brain was in a bit of a fog. It’s only now, while looking at pictures, that I’m able to process what I saw.
Hoi An’s historic old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, serving as a well-preserved example of a 15th-19th century trading port. The old merchant houses and temples, coupled with lantern covered streets and the river setting make Hoi An rather picturesque.
We started with the Japanese Bridge, the emblem of Hoi An, and then began to explore a few temples. I thought I might see some similarities to the wats in Chiang Mai, but these were strikingly different spaces. These are not gilded pagodas, but smaller, squarer spaces with stone statues and outdoor columns. On accident, we happened into Cam Pho Temple, an old village temple that was once used to worship ancestors. Now it is a little derelict, but it’s quiet and the banyan tree in the courtyard evokes a feeling of peace. The other temple we explored was quite different: the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation was originally a traditional assembly hall, but was turned into a temple dedicated to Thien Hau, a deity from Fujian province. The statues of Thien Hau, her guards, and the heads of the six Fujian families are quite striking. Yet, the most interesting things was the prayers hanging from the ceiling. Worshippers write their thoughts on yellow pieces of cardboard and hang them under twists of burning incense. The result is a beautiful scented, if periodically smoky, space.
In addition to the temples, we wandered through an 18th century merchant house, Tan Ky, seeing the architectural influences of Japan, China, and Vietnam in one space. Here, we came face to face with the true power of the river that runs through the city. At numerous times over the past 200 years, the first floor of the house has flooded. In some cases, the water mark on the wall hit one meter. But, you couldn’t tell. Impressively, the building managed to weather this water damage without showing outward signs of distress.
Yet, for all its beauty, Hoi An is clearly trying to capitalize on tourism. The old town is ticketed, as are most of the old houses, museums, and temples. Within the houses, staff give a short overview of the history of the house and then show you the souvenirs on sale. Vendors hawk their wares on the side of the streets and attempt to sell to patrons in most cafes and restaurants. Hoi An, famous for its cloth and tailoring, boasts over 300 tailor shops, catering to the vast number of visitors flocking to Hoi An every day. We regularly popped into the clothing shops, as my companion looked for a particular pattern of fabric and dress, giving me the chance to chat with some locals about Hoi An. By far, my favorite shopping experience occurred when the store owner had her brother, on his motorbike, whisk my mother off to the nearby factory to look at fabric. I grinned foolishly at the idea of my mom on the back of a motorcycle and proceeded to enjoy a peaceful conversation with the store owner over some cold yogurt about how the mercury regularly rises to 40 Celsius.
At 9am, the temperature was bearable. By 1030am, it was scorching. By 2pm, we were puddles of sweat and had had enough. It was simply too hot to meander through the streets, which is normally what I do when I reach a new city. We hailed a taxi to take us the two miles back to An Bang and promptly curled up in air conditioning. A few hours later, we headed back into Hoi An and were pleasantly surprised at the change, both in temperature and ambience. In the evenings, the famous lanterns are lit and the streets of old town are full of people. We settled in for a fabulous Vietnamese meal near the river, lingering until the restaurant was closing and slowly making our way out of old town back to our lodging.
Saturday came all too quickly, but fortunately was a day of relaxation. We grabbed a pair of bicycles, kindly available for use from our guesthouse, and rode the half mile into the center of An Bang village for breakfast and wandering. By now we had learned our lesson and knew to get out of the sun by 1pm. Yet, by the time we finished our coffee, mango, and pastries, it was only 1030am and it was heating up. Two hours later, after exploring the shops, my shirt was drenched. Such is life here in Southeast Asia and I’ve given up hoping it’ll be cooler. I refuse to check the weather. Instead, we’re adopting the Mediterranean siesta model, avoiding the outdoor world in the mid-afternoon. (Although, I think the hottest part of the day is 10am-4pm, which is basically the entire day so I’m still accepting that I will be melting most days.)
Shortly after 4pm, we headed out to the beach to enjoy the peaceful sand and water at its prime. Refreshed and salted, we once again enjoyed the sites of Hoi An for the evening, particularly focusing on the night market and the array of beautiful candles floating down the river.