Straddled almost midway between the two far-flung ends – Hoi An is unmindful of the contradictory but co-existing truths in the annals of the history from the city of Vietnam. Once caught between the twin arms of capitalism and communism, today it lives between its well-preserved past and the vibrant present, both creating magic that leaves you spellbound.
The temptation of being there and done that makes most tourists jump headlong in the two big commercialized cities of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. Flying over the beaches and yellowed rice fields, few realize what treasure lies below the clouds. The city of Vietnam Hoi An one of the most well preserved and now awarded the UNESCO World Heritage city tag is drawing more tourists than before and I happen to be one of them, jostling for my own place.
Having arrived overnight from Ho Chi Minh city (though I still prefer the old name Saigon), the day begins a little lazily on the beach resort of Da Nang. Our body was crying out for rest after having been consumed with too many of people, traffic, pollution of Saigon. Eager to get to the beautiful city of Vietnam Hoi An, a rented, mildly scratched red and black automatic Honda does the trick as we ride cautiously down the chaotic roads, zipping along the palm-fringed road and negotiating with ease the heavy traffic that stayed with us for a while. Once there, I felt that I had arrived somewhere exotic. The city by far is quite small, but as it turned out, it was one great adventure, which was very exhaustive considering the innumerable treasures it had to offer.
The first thing that greets you is silence, romantically wrapped in shades of yellow as you breathe the musky scent of incense. Solitary cyclist in the otherwise empty lanes, peddling between low height houses – the present seems to cut through the middle of history. With no fear of cars running you down, this city makes every pedestrian feel safe.
It is still early and we are hungry. Amidst the flying dust and sounds of the broom on the road, young schoolchildren rush past with bells on their bicycles as one can hear the chirping of the birds. It seems like one great morning symphony.
Finding the nearest café, we leave the order to a young waitress, who in any case was finding it difficult to understand what we were saying. In a few minutes, we are served food as I relish the sight of the morning sun spilling in a bowl full of Cao La. I can taste the orient and the occident in the yellow-tinged fat rice noodles, unique to the town of Hoi An. They say this signature noodle dish is the history of a city in a bowl and I am eager to explore the unique culinary tapestry of this ancient town.
Men in ao ba ba “(street pyjamas)” peddling empty rickshaws tempt us to hitch a ride, but we decide to walk traverse the labyrinth of this ancient town on our feet.
Taking umbrage under profusely flowering bougainvillaea’s in reds and purple standing in a line along the sepiatinted lanes; I catch a few notes of music slithering past the blue windows on yellow walls. The dreamy golden facades, watermarks on the ochre walls along with weather-beaten contrasts of blue and green are coming alive with the Vietnamese sun. Housing nearly 1000 ancient buildings, Hoi an embraces you with its mixed architecture in the city of Vietnam – Chinese, colonial European and the very old Japanese.
My camera is eager to be engaged, as I stand transfixed between the overwhelming juxtaposition of the magic of light playing hide and seek on the yingyang of the terra cotta tiles on the rooftops, casting its impressions on the ground with their silhouettes. There is a story in every angle, history in every detail and poetry in every movement.
The river road of Thuo Bon is slowly awakening, opening its arms to the rising sun as it marks its prominent presence in the landscape of the town. Finding a quiet coffee café on the riverbank, I decide to sit for a while to observe the activities of late morning. My imagination gets to the better of me as I try and visualize boats laden with merchandise sailing centuries ago to and fro from China making a stopover in the today’s fishing village somewhere where I am sitting. The remnants of old days and present-day eateries make an interesting and vibrant collage.
Ordering a ca phe, I decide to try the local Vietnamese take of tiramisu. It really was not my “cup of coffee” as I settled for a simpler version of sweet black coffee with condensed milk Ca Phe Sua Non. Coffee in the city of Vietnam is one good example of how the locals absorbed the French influence and eventually tailored the ingredients with their own to create some great culinary delights.
Intimate experiences in a historic setting are what Hoi An is all about. Being a focal point of trade Asia and Europe, one can find many cultural influences in this small town. After the revolution of 1600 ended, the Vietnamese and Chinese rebuilt the city whilst the Japanese side remained in ruins. The French colonization of Hoi An transformed itself to “Ville de Faifo”. The French- Indochina influences can be seen clearly in its colonial structures of the villas and other buildings in the south side of the old town Walking through the underrated alleys, I find myself in front of a small shop lined with photographs of Hoi An, mostly black and white. There are a few that show Vietnamese people with their faces obscured wearing non la, the conical hats peddling sampans and canoes in deluged and submerged lanes of Hoi An, the city of Vietnam. Intrigued, I walk over and to an old man sitting behind a glass table cleaning an antique-looking camera. Asking about these floods images, he shares his experience of the great flood of 1964.He lay trapped on the first floor of the building without any food or water but with great opportunities of documenting the tragedy and spirit of survival of the town. He said, “floods waters touch our doorstep almost every year but 1964 showers of rain were probably all years merged in one “.
The young boy who had taken iconic shots on a day when “heaven fell to earth”, by now had greyed just like these photographs. I am thankful to be on dry feet. Somewhere I had read “Hoi An is three months of misery, and nine months of sunshine”. Being there in between the suffocating heat and endless rain was timed perfectly, except that warning that echoed in the city of the forthcoming storm expected next day. For now, the sun was shining and the green moss on the yellow buildings had started to smile.
Recharged and rejuvenated, I am ready for the wooden Chinese temples, Japanese merchant houses, and the yellow, which is turning mustard as the sun climbs on top of my head. The influence of sea and spice seem to come alive in the city, which was once part of the spice route and a trading stop.
Strangely I was hungry again and decided to take a break from the lemoncoloured walls and the streaking sunshine. Finding myself a café next to the old Japanese bridge, an iconic structure constructed in the 16th century, this bridge connected the Japanese community with the Chinese quarters. I decide to revisit the bridge when the lights come on.
But for now, I am hungry and tired and could do with some good food. Settling for an extended stay at the café, I decided to go slow and order a bowl of “pho”. Soon enough, a steaming bowl is sitting before me as I close my eyes and inhale deeply the aroma of ginger, coriander and spring onions. Thick rice flat noodles lie interspersed with meat strips and dotted with the greens, the edges of red inside the bowl stand out in utter contrast. Savouring the National dish of Vietnam slowly, the tiredness seems to be ebbing away from my limbs.
It is tempting to try more of delicious French-influenced dishes and settle on “bánh mi” as the main course. The aromatic juicy stir-fried pork tossed with a handful of fresh herbs, lemongrass and fried rice is like a small culinary celebration on my table. The French got the baguettes, which carries a combination of Vietnamese penchant for green herbs and raw vegetables combined with the French influences of meat and pâté.
That is one good thing about being in Hoi An – walk – eat, walk – eat and you could go on as long as you like. This seemed to be the perfect place to do both, back to back.
I try to find my way to the main market through the banana pancake carts and swarms of tourists who seem to have suddenly swooped in the town. From the quieter sojourn, I suddenly find myself engulfed with sights, sounds and smell of endless lines of spices, raw meat and tables laden with fruits. Live ducks quacking, bargaining voices, fragrant herbs, baskets laden with yellow and orange marigolds – smiles, shouts and laughter, the soul of the town lay bare, here in the central market. Holding bags of fruits and spices, I make a quick exit from the market madness.
There is something that happens at almost every corner of the old town. I catch glimpses of girl students. They come in small swarms of white, a few walking and some cycling, their dark hair curled up under the conical hat. If I had to single out one image from the memory lane of Hoi An, city of Vietnam, it would be this young girl dressed in ao dai who slipped so silently in my camera frame. The white moving so slowly against the cracked, peeling yellow wall, the square of her shoulders, geometric shape of her hat and the fluid line of her ao dai – all fall as a pool of reflection in the river, merging the past and present, an allegory of melancholy.
“How much”? – The almost hysterical high-pitched question breaks my reverie of thoughts as I see a young lady showing a photograph of a bridal dress inside a tailor shop. It is then it dawns on me that this city is full of talents, tailoring being a very important one. Hoi An tailors, who can replicate, stitch anything in less than two days record time at less than one fourth the price.
It is then I realize that this ancient city is a haven for couture conscious tourists. Having little interest in getting suits stitched, I take a quick bow and find myself back in a recherché alley where a solitary cat looks up at me questioningly.
Walking through the new streets, I duck in the blue and white ateliers those house museums, cafes and artist workshops. This section of the city offers a different glimpse of history where ancient houses open their doors and I feel as I am entering a different world. Old books, pottery, different works of art on display; one just cannot enough.
By now the darkness has started to descend as the boats light up casting their hues in the river. A few floating candles sail past me as the silk lanterns that dot the city start awakening in their own rhapsody of colours.
It feels that time has stopped except for the spiralling smoke of cigarettes, laced with the strong aroma of coffee; conversations that sound peppy start to fill the streets. Finding myself a plastic chair at a café situated amidst a row of French colonial houses, I have a cold Vietnamese beer.
By now the lanterns have begun their gypsy dance against an inking sky. The lazy rivers lined with merchant houses are all lit up. I decided to revisit the Japanese bridge to take a night shot and find myself lucky to not have tourists around. Jealous, I am for not having enough time in this city and blame myself for underrating Hoi An and not giving it the appreciation and reverence it deserves. The stars above seduce my senses – a timeless city that has not moved on continues to celebrate its cultures and traditions. It beckons me to surrender to its poetic charm. I also knew that the road with its dreadful traffic to Da Nang was waiting for me.
In this pause, I remain and in this pause, I leave, knowing that I have to return, to honour the living history of Hoi An, a memorable city of Vietnam.