Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Vietnam Part 4: Discovering Hoi An

On the first cloudy day in Danang, we headed straight for Hoi An, where it promptly started to rain. No matter, as it made the historical trading port all the more atmospheric and magical. Colorful fishing boats (such as the ones pictured above) still line the river, with plenty of hawkers on paddle boats hungrily staring down tourists and aggressively peddling boat tours. This can't be avoided, but after a while, the 40th "no, thank you" uttered becomes tiring.

The hard sell continued in the market and on the street, where local business owners would shout and try to attract your attention from nearly a block away. You can't let this put you off discovering the charming town, however, and must put it down to the new but growing tourism industry. We were asked to fill out a survey by Hoi An's cultural and tourism center, asking us what improvements could be made in order to attract visitors to Hoi An, which I found quite interesting.

Hoi An has a very heavy Chinese influence, as it saw a large influx of Chinese groups settling there in the 16th and 17th-centuries (I get my historical info via Wiki and Lonely Planet's "History" pages, btw, so don't take this as gospel). All the historical houses (which now serve as open-house museums), assembly halls, and temples are emblazoned with Chinese writing, though I was disappointed with the lack of opportunity to utilize my Cantonese and Mandarin there - no one spoke the language. More familiar with French (Vietnam being a French colony between 1887-1940), you would readily hear a Vietnamese tour guide leading large packs of French tourists, speaking accented, but easily understood French.

Silk shops and tailors adorn the streets of the Old Town, where tourists commonly take pages ripped from Elle or Vogue and ask for them to be expertly copied by the copious number of skilled seamstresses who work around the clock to produce lookalikes. An American woman staying at Fusion Maia asked if she could photograph me in my simple Forever 21 shirt-dress/shift in order to have it tailor made in Hoi An. "Sure, so you can have it in silk, rather than this cheap polyester!" I joked. I took a photo of an intricate gown I had fallen in love with on BHLDN, but alas, it was a tad too difficult to make.

We paused for a delicious lunch at Miss Ly - a restaurant located not far from the fresh food market in the Old Town. With Miss Ly herself at the helm, whipping up culinary delights such as those pictured below, her husband (an American) manages the customer-facing side of things with his friendly-but-not-overly-so approach to service and genuine, deep appreciation for Vietnamese food and culture. Though we ate at several notable restaurants in Hoi An (including the well-known and frequently lauded Morning Glory), Miss Ly was our favorite. Their homegrown, home-cooked attitude towards food and relaxed but popular (several people came in to make reservations for dinner while we were eating lunch) setting is a welcome combination to the restaurant scene in Hoi An.

There, we sampled mouth-watering Hoi An specialties, such as plump and flavorful White Rose dumplings (lost in the lower left hand corner in the photo above), cau lau, a type of thick, flour noodles wok-fried in a meaty, flavorful broth with pork and fresh vegetables (bottom center), plus a spicy, zingy Singapore fried noodle (top center) with fresh seafood and greens. After a rewarding but exhausting day trip to My Son sanctuary, we arrived at Miss Ly for the second time, hungry and thirsty. Although it wasn't on the menu, I sorely craved a grilled pork banh mi and apologetically asked the staff if this would be possible. Of course, I was served the best banh mi I've ever had (hands down) within 15 minutes or so of waiting. For dessert, I ordered a banana pancake (crepe to Americans) drizzled with condensed milk, and an iced Vietnamese coffee. Our eyes widened with each sensational bite as we marveled at the sheer freshness of the ingredients that were used - most likely purchased from the market just a few feet away.

The abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit in Vietnam never ceased to amaze me. Whereas vegetables can look dry, withering, and limp in the UK, they were bright, vibrant, and plentiful in Vietnam. Greens were sold in thick, generous bunches - too big for both of my hands to contain - and tomatoes appeared in large wooden crates as a juicy, attractive red. Chickens roamed freely on the streets, with fresh eggs being sold every few feet.

Hoi An will continue to learn and grow as a tourist attraction. But its historical importance for being considered, at one stage, as the best trading port of all of Southeast Asia and the stories behind its previous and current inhabitants will outlive the tacky souvenir shops and tailors so desperately seeking business.

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