There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Hoi An and My Son: Part 12 of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 11: Da Nang
On to Part 13: Ho Chi Minh City 
After passing the Montgomerie Golf Links – another sign of the changes in Vietnam – we drove for another 30 km or so across sandy scrubland and through a straggle of modern suburbs to reach the centre of Hoi An in mid-afternoon.

Hoi An, sitting beside the estuary of the Thu Bon River, has been a port since the 2nd century BC. From the 7th to the 10th century it was the centre for the spice trade which brought wealth to the Champa kingdoms, but it its heyday was in the 16th century. The trade winds brought silk, ivory, porcelain and medicines from China and Japan, textiles, weaponry, lead and sulphur from Europe and all were traded in Hoi An. The Vietnamese imperial tax collectors took their cut and everybody grew rich.

Hoi An
In 1639 the Shogun prohibited foreign travel by the Japanese, which left the field open for the Chinese for the next 150 years. In the late 18th century European traders began to gain concessions on mainland China and no longer needed the Vietnamese middle man. At the same time the Thu Bon started to silt up, and the great days of Hoi An were over.

Left behind by history Hoi An avoided serious destruction in the French and American wars and set about reinventing itself as a tourist trap. The somewhat self-consciously fossilised old town became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999 and has since grown a thriving crop of hotels, many of them along the road from the old town to the beach.

Our driver dropped us by the Japanese bridge, originally constructed in the 16th century, but rebuilt several times since. In keeping with Hoi An’s tourist trap status you have to pay to walk across it. As there is a perfectly adequate footbridge nearby we did not bother.

The Japanese bridge, Hoi An
We wandered round the pleasant streets of the old town with their Chinese...

Chinese style, Hoi An
... and Japanese buildings.

Japanese style, Hoi An
Some are open so that we could wander in and look at the old wooden panels and roof beams. On the first really hot day of our whole Vietnam journey we marvelled at the old house’s ability to remain cool without air conditioning.

Cool, dark panelled interior, Hoi An
The Chinese residents grouped themselves according to their place of origin and built themselves Assembly Halls.....

Chinese Assembly Hall entrance, Hoi An
 to act as both community centres and places of worship. Behind attractive and colourful gardens....

Chinese Assembly Hall, Hoi An
 are meeting halls and Taoist temples very like those of Guangdong or Hong Kong.

Taoist Temple, Chinese Assembly Hall, Hoi An
Hoi An is undoubtedly pretty, peaceful and calm. We had been warned that it can be busy in the morning when the tour buses arrive, but we spent two afternoons there, and it was never crowded. On the other hand, a high proportion of the people we saw in the streets, whether walking or riding hired bicycles, were western tourists. The old town is the central part of a small city and tourists are always a visible presence. The streets are full of restaurants which are mainly aimed at foreigners, as are the shops.

Apart from this 'pop-up' restaurant….

Mobile Restaurant on the move, Hoi An
 …the town seemed to have given up on gritty reality in favour of presenting an image to visitors, and that is not our sort of town. We did find some more interesting areas the next day, but our first afternoon was a case of ‘this is nice,’ followed by a slow dawning that it was too ‘nice’ to be true.

The next day we drove an hour or so in-land to visit My Son. We travelled up the valley of the Thu Bon, through paddy fields green with rice and over long rickety bridges, some of which retained the structures of their wartime guard posts. The American War raged across this region; villagers were herded into selected districts without regard for the farmers need to work their fields, and the cleared areas were declared free fire zones on the assumption that anyone still there was Viet Cong. Those killed were deemed to be the enemy, regardless of age or gender, and the success of a mission was judged on the basis of body count. In 28 speeches between 1964 and 1968 President Johnson referred to the need to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Vietnamese people if the American’s were to win the war. Maybe he was right, and it was in areas such as this the American military made their most strenuous efforts to ensure they lost.

Through paddy fields green with rice

16 000 people died in this small area, Minh told us, while the Americans lost 54 000 in the whole war. He did not say only 54 000, but the inference was there.

Vietnamese war memorial and cemetary
between Hoi An and My Son
All is now peaceful and the Vietnamese, being a resourceful people have gathered up the shrapnel and spent shell cases melted them down and turned them into useful artefacts which they sell at roadside stalls.

'Spears into ploughshares'
Re-used ordnance stall between Hoi An and My Son
From the 4th to the 14th centuries My Son was the religious centre for the surrounding Champa cities and the burial place of Champa kings. With the fall of the Champa, My Son was deserted, forgotten and slowly reclaimed by the jungle. It was rediscovered by the French in 1898 who put some effort into archaeology and restoration between then and 1943.

In August 1969 the American’s came to believe the Viet Cong were using My Son as their headquarters. A week of bombing did more damage than the jungle had managed in six hundred years. Fortunately most of the artefacts had been removed to the safety of the Champa museum we had seen in Da Nang the day before. What was left was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.

My Son is a large site occupying a wooded valley below the Cat’s Tooth Mountains. Despite the best efforts of the B52s there are still several areas of substantial ruins linked by jungle paths. Although the Champa were Hindu, they were not Indian in origin, yet we found ourselves among buildings which felt far more Indian than Vietnamese.
My Son
Conservation work has stabilised most of the structures – though there is still much work to do. Wandering around the ruins and in and out of the larger buildings gave us a sense of this long dead civilization, while the continuous battle against the encroachment of the jungle reminded us how easily a civilization can disappear, even without the use of high explosive.

Minh and me, My Son
Champa building techniques are still being studied, in particular their use of resin mixed with ground mollusc shells and crushed bricks to produce almost seamless joints.

My Son
As in India the carvings are as impressive as the buildings. Detailed depictions of  Vishnu, Shiva and Nandi, elephants and flowers were abundant, some still looking freshly cut, others suffering from various degrees of erosion.

A damaged Nandi, My Son
We were instructed to stick to the marked paths as the area is still mined and littered with unexploded ordnance.

Jungle path between the sites, My Son
Brightly coloured butterflies fluttered alongside the path, I waited patiently for one to sit still long enough to be photographed. Lagging behind Lynne and Minh, I briefly found myself alone on a jungle path.

The Knight butterfly
Lebadea Martha (I think)
What, I thought, if the path was narrower and rather less well made? What if I did not have a guide book in my hand and sandals on my feet, but a pack on my back, a rifle in my hand and army boots on my feet? What if there were eyes watching me from the jungle? What if they were hostile eyes, waiting silently until….? I found myself looking round apprehensively and then peering into the jungle as my imagination created shapes in the dense vegetation. I was perfectly safe, and I knew it, but for an instant I caught a hint of what it might have been like for a GI far from home and surrounded by enemies. I did not envy him.

We returned to Hoi An for lunch and Minh left us in the centre of town with instructions to visit a certain restaurant (sadly we failed to note the name) and eat cao lau. Ever obedient, we thoroughly enjoyed the local speciality described by The Rough Guide to Vietnam ‘as rice-flour noodles, bean sprouts and pork-rind croutons in a light soup flavoured with mint and star anise and topped with slices of pork’. Somehow spring rolls also become involved; they always do in Vietnam.

Lynne eats cao lau, Hoi An
We spent some more time exploring the old town and made a few purchases. One advantage of a tourist town was that I could buy a t-shirt. I had failed in Hue - the XXXXL would not go over my head – but I found an almost identical shirt in Hoi An sized XXXXXL which fitted perfectly.

Then we walked along the river side and looked at the fishing fleet….

Fishing fleet, Hoi An
…and some fishing nets very like the Chinese nets which are such a feature in Kerala, though they are unknown in China.

'Chinese' fishing nets, Hoi An
We photographed a ferryman rowing his passenger across the river…..

Ferryman, Hoi an
….. and strolled through the vegetable market.

Vegetable market
Hoi An
We liked the Hoi An riverside, it seemed connected with Vietnamese life unlike the carefully preserved ‘Disneyland’ a few blocks away.

We arrived back at our hotel, another ‘Disneyland’ consisting of comfortable two storey cabins set in a garden and linked with walkways at ground and first floor level.

We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and lounging by the pool before retreating to our room for a sun-downer on one of our balconies (two balconies - well, that’s how the other half live!). Later we consumed a quantity of pork cooked in a clay pot, grilled duck, sautéed green vegetables, rice and beer at a nearby restaurant.

Back on a balcony for a nightcap we watched geckos skittering about the walls in their ceaseless endeavour to keep us free from insects.

Few reptiles are cute, but geckos are
Ancient House Resort Hotel, Hoi An
In the morning we returned to Da Nang for the hour long flight down to Ho Chi Minh City.

 Back to Part 11: Da Nang
On to Part 13: Ho Chi Minh City

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