Thursday, September 25, 2014

Hoi An… Old Houses, Markets, Beaches and Pretty People

From Hue I traveled to the town of Hoi An. Along the way I passed a scenic route called the Hai Van Pass. The pass is a twisty road that passes through the mountains and along the coast of the South China Sea. Honestly, I was enjoying the ride so much that I forgot to stop and take many photos.

The Hải Vân Pass (ocean cloud pass), is an approximately 21 km long mountain pass on National Route 1A in Vietnam. It traverses a spur of the larger Annamite Range that juts into the South China Sea. Its name refers to the mists that rise from the sea, reducing visibility. Historically, the pass was a physical division between the kingdoms of Champa and Đại Việt. - wikipedia

When I arrived in Hue I did not have a reservation at a hotel. I was not worried because I knew that Hoi An was a tourist town and I felt comfortable that there would be many rooms available, especially in the low season. I decided that I would just locate a street with a number of hotels and go door to door until I found one that I liked and that was within my budget.

The first hotel I checked out was nice, but a little bit expensive. The second hotel I looked at was empty, I was hoping for a place that would be a little social. The third hotel I visited looked nice, but quoted me a price of US$50. I told the desk clerk thank you, but that it was more than I wanted to spend. She asked me how much I wanted to spend. I did not have a real figure in mind, so I quickly threw out the number of US$15. I thought that this amount was low enough that the clerk would not make a counter offer and I could easily exit the conversation and continue my search for a budget hotel. To my surprise, she said that she could not offer me a room at that rate at that particular hotel, but that she could offer me the US$15 rate at a second hotel that the family owned. I immediately was skeptical.

I have traveled enough to experience my fair share of "bait and switch" scams. A bait and switch is a form of scam used in sales but also employed in other contexts. First, customers are "baited" by merchants' advertising products or services at a low price, but when customers visit the store, they discover that the advertised goods are not available, or the customers are pressured by sales people to consider similar, but higher priced items - the "switch". Sometimes the buyer is forced into buying the item because they have no other alternative, time pressure or intimidation. Sometimes the buyer is simply taken to a remote location and robbed.

Usually when I perceive that a bait and switch is about to occur… I'm out of there. For some reason, I felt like playing along. It was a nice day, I had time and I sometimes like to play along with these games as part of an adventure. Also, I realized that I was on my motorcycle, so if the situation looked too shady I could simply spin around and head the opposite direction. I played along.

I was told the second locations was about 1 km away. I was introduced to a young man and told to follow him on my motorcycle. He got on his motorcycle, I got on my motorcycle and off we rode. He was traveling pretty quickly. I kept up, but all along the way was looking for an out in case I needed to make a quick escape.  He would slow down every once in a while and tell me that it was just a little further. We wound through some streets, over a bridge, around some monuments and along a river. We eventually stopped at a location that looked like a huge ornate mansion.
The second location actually turned out to be a hotel called the Long Life Riverside Hotel.
There was a nice lobby area...
A coy fish pond...
An indoor/outdoor swimming pool...
The clerk showed me to my room… which was really more like a suite...
There were towels folded like swans…
A desk with a computer and internet connection...
And the bathroom had a jacuzzi tub.

"US$15?"… I confirmed. "Yes", said the clerk. "Okay, looks good to me", I replied.

The "switch" seemed to be better than the "bait" in this situation. I did not have to think about it.

Somethings you just don't know until you go!
After settling into my hotel, I ventured out to try some of the local delicacies. This dish is called Banh Bao Vac (white rose). It is a shrimp dumpling made from translucent white dough bunched up to look like a rose.
This dish is called Cao Lau. It contains a dark pork broth with fat yellow noodles, slabs of tender pork, bean sprouts, fresh greens and crispy croutons.
With a full stomach I ventured out to see the town. I discovered that I was staying on a little island that was connected to the mainland by a bridge.
Hoi An pays tribute to its maritime and fishing history with this golden fishing net that spans across a river in the center of town.
This is the Japanese Covered Bridge's Pagoda (Chua Cau or Lai Vien Kieu). The bridge was constructed in the early 1600's by the Japanese community. The bridge was renovated in 1986 and today, it's a noted landmark in Hoi An.
In Hoi An there are a number of traditional old houses.
A few of these old wooden houses have been restored and preserved. They are simple on the outside, but can be exquisite on the inside.
Some of these old houses have been converted into shops.
In Hoi An there is no shortage of stores selling a variety of trinkets and souvenir items.
And textiles. The town is actually know for producing textiles and tailored clothing. One can walk into a tailor shop one day and have a custom tailored outfit completed with 24 to 48 hours. Since I was traveling light, I elected to not have anything made.
There are also a number of Chinese Assembly Halls. In prior days these assembly halls were used by Chinese merchants for social gatherings and to conduct business.
When I entered this assembly hall there was a photography crew and this model conducting a photo shoot. Supposedly this model is somewhat famous in Ho Chi Minh, unfortunately I did not catch her name. The dress that she was wearing is called an áo dài.

The áo dài is a Vietnamese national costume, now most commonly worn by women. In its current form, it is a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pants. The word is pronounced [ǎːw zâːj] in the North and [ǎːw jâːj] in the South. Áo classifies the item as a piece of clothing on the upper part of the body. Dài means "long". The word "ao dai" was originally applied to the outfit worn at the court of the Nguyễn Lords at Huế in the 18th century. This outfit evolved into the áo ngũ thân, a five-paneled aristocratic gown worn in the 19th and early 20th centuries. wikipedia
I thought that she was pretty, so after the photo shoot I introduced myself and asked if she would take a photo with me. Why not? She agreed.
I continued on my self guided tour and visited this old house called the Tan Ky House.
The design of the house shows how local architecture incorporated Japanese and Chinese influences. Japanese elements include the crab shell-shaped ceiling supported by three beams in the living room. Chinese poems written in mother-of-pearl are hanging from a number of the columns that hold up the roof.
I came across another Chinese Assembly Hall.
This assembly hall had one room that looked like a classroom.
I'm not sure if the classroom was actually being used for instruction or if it was simply laid out to illustrate that previously the hall was used for teaching and by scholars.
At night, Hoi An takes on a different vibe. The shops close and the activity spills out into the streets in the form of a night market. My hotel was conveniently located about 200 feet from the night market. There was food, jewelry, crafts and some household items being sold. 
On the other side of the river there was a street performance that was drawing a fairly large crowd. It seemed like the actors would present some scrolls, then people would bid on the scrolls, then the performers would perform a traditional song or act for the winning bidder. I did not stick around long enough to ask someone what was really going on. I just know that it looked like everyone was having fun.
The next day I hopped on my motorcycle and decided that I would take a trip to the beach. On my way out of town I got a little lost. I pulled over to the side of the street to re-orient myself. When stopping to rest or find directions I typically pull over into a shaded area. Trying to make decisions under a hot sun is generally not fun nor productive. When I pulled over into this shaded area there was a lady a few feet in front of me selling something out of two large woven baskets. When I glanced her way, she smiled back at me. She was such a cute little old lady that I decided to check out what she was selling.
She lifted up the cover on the basket and showed to me what looked like soft round white sheets of dough. I thought that maybe she was selling something akin to Chinese dim sum called cheung fan or rice noodle rolls. I signaled to her that I would take one.  
She served it to me on a plastic plate along with a little bowl filled with a garlic and pepper dipping sauce. It turns out that the item was not soft dough, but was crispy like a chip. I was surprised, but not disappointed. The crispy chip did not have much flavor, but the dipping sauce was sweet, spicy and tangy. I ate it all. I later found out that this food is called bánh đập.
I generally like exploring food in the same way that I explore places. Sometimes you just don't know until you eat it. I thanked the little old lady for enriching my day and took a photo with her.
With stinky garlic breath I continued on my way. I passed by this fishing area where there were what looked like various types of fish traps. I believe that the large circular fences were one type of trap and the square boxy items were another type of trap or a holding bin. 
I rode for a while until I could ride no further. I ended up at a beach called Cua Dai Beach.
It was the middle of the week so there was no body around. I walked along the beach for a while, but I wanted to find a location where there would be people so that I could people watch.
I ended up at another part of the Cua Dai Beach where there were more people. I ran into a production crew that was filming a travel tv show. I talked with the producer for a while and met the two stars. Cool to see that there is independent productions going on in Vietnam.
Away from the beach and closer to the bay I came across a few small fishing boats and more fishing traps.
This boat was washed up on shore and abandoned, it looks like it had seen better days.
After spending quite a few days in the western part of Vietnam riding around in the mountains and through farmland, it was a nice change of scenery to be near the beach. The warm and sunny days mixed with the bustle of the markets combined with the beautiful people made me think that if there was any place at which I'd like to spend more time, it would be in Hue and Hoi An.

But I had an appointment to keep, so I had to start making my way down south toward Ho Chi Minh City.

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