Danang, Vietnam (Day 2 – Hoi An)
On March 7 we visited Hoi An, an ancient city just south of Danang that escaped war damage & thus still displays its ancient heritage. Driving south from Danang we passed the remains of the old American air base & Marble Mountain. At the foot of Marble Mountain were several places producing & selling countless marble statues of all shapes & sizes, some 10 feet tall. We stopped at one, but didn’t buy any.
We drove south along the water. Miles & miles of beaches line the ocean between Danang & Hoi An, and there is a lot of construction underway, mostly resort hotels & luxury apartment buildings. The Chinese have built a large casino that is only open to non-Vietnamese. Our guide said China is so big & Vietnam is so small that they cannot refuse anything China asks. On the way we also saw some fish farms. All you can see is the sticks that are part of the fences sticking out of the water in a pattern.
We exited the bus & walked the rest of the day in Hoi An. It is a lovely small city with streets covered in lanterns (a local craft specialty) in many colors. One thing we have noticed elsewhere in Southeast Asia that was first pointed out here is the profusion of electrical & telephone wires lining the streets above ground & often obscuring the view. It is amazing that these confusing wires don’t cause more fires. One guide told us that there is so much confusion in the wiring that when something goes out they just string a new wire rather than trying to figure out which old wire is the problem. It reminded us of Robert DeNiro’s character in the movie Brazil. Many buildings display the red flags of Vietnam & the Communist Party.
Originally called Fai Fo, Hoi An was an important port in the Asian maritime trade for more than a thousand years. But its heyday was the 16th & 17th centuries when Chinese, Japanese & European ships regularly traded here. Many Chinese & Japanese merchants actually settled here & developed strong ethnic communities, but most of the Japanese left in the mid 17th century when the Japanese government prohibited foreign travel. After that the Chinese community became dominant & more Chinese immigrated here. The town’s fortunes began to wane in the late 18th century when the Thu Bon River that runs through here began to silt up and stifle sea trade. Danang became the dominant port & Fai Fo, renamed Hoi An in 1954, became enough of a backwater that the French & American wars of the mid 20th century passed it by, leaving its old architecture intact.
Our first visit was to the assembly hall of the Chinese immigrants from Fujian province. The Chinese immigrants were organized into communities based on their province of origin & each had an assembly hall. The Phuoc Kien (another name for Fujian) Assembly Hall was first built in the 17th century. They dedicated it to Thien Hau, goddess of the sea & protector of sailors, in thanks for arriving here safely over the sea. A 200 year old papier-mache figure of the goddess is flanked by her two assistants, who supposedly can detect any boat in distress for many miles. There is also a large model of an old Chinese junk. There is a flamboyant red gate in front of the temple, which was added in the 1970’s.
A second room in the back is dedicated to Van Thien & the “12 heavenly midwives,” who help her decide the gender & fates of children. Couples & pregnant women come here for assistance.
We visited a smaller Chinese temple or assembly hall (can’t remember exactly) where a couple seemed to be waiting to take wedding pictures. Oddly, we saw them posing for pictures in several other parts of the town as well, so we aren’t sure what they were really about.
One unusual practice in Vietnam is the wearing of face masks. Most of the women & girls you see outside (& some of the men) wear long sleeves, hats, gloves, masks & scarves even when it is 95 degrees out. This is not religious, it is because pale skin is considered attractive here & dark skin is not, so people go to extremes to avoid getting a suntan.
One of the features of Hoi An is a series of several houses that are a couple of centuries old, called (predictably) “Old Houses.” We visited one, Quan Thang House. It was built in the late 17th century by a ship captain from Fujian province in China. Today it is occupied by a very old woman, deaf & almost blind, who is the seventh generation descendant of the ship captain. It had a lot of finely carved wood & stone. In the kitchen two women were preparing a kind of dumpling that we were served later for lunch at our restaurant. Out back was a small cage filled with angry chickens.
Our last visit before lunch was to a shop that manufactures & tailors silk fabrics & embroiders pictures. They showed us silk worms at work & how they unwind the silk & spin it into thread. Some women were weaving in one room & some young women were embroidering in another room. Upstairs was the tailor & the shelves of beautiful silk cloth. Our tablemates, Bill & Robert, bought a silk shirt & robe, respectively. It was about 11:30 AM & they were measured for the clothing. Robert’s pure silk robe was only $50, & that included delivering it to our ship in Danang before the gangway went up at 4:00 PM. It arrived on time & fit him perfectly. Pretty impressive.
We started off toward our luncheon restaurant. First we came to the Japanese Bridge, originally erected in 1593 & renovated several times since, which is the symbol of Hoi An. It was built by the Japanese community that lived on the other side of this bridge at that time. It is quite small.
We walked down to the Thu Bon River, still picturesque with fishing boats even though it is no longer the busy international trading center it was in the past. We saw women carrying baskets hanging from sticks on their shoulder (most were not delivering anything, just looking for a few dollars from tourists who want to take their pictures) & others working on small boats. This river floods every year during the rainy season, sometimes getting high enough to damage even the old houses above.
We had a delicious Vietnamese lunch in a restaurant on the other side of the river. They had a “weird food” counter that included such delectable items as jellyfish salad (we didn’t have any). After lunch we had free time, which we spent walking around, shopping & looking at the many flowers around town.
On the way back to Danang we stopped at what the U.S. soldiers called China Beach. I’m sure it looks a lot different now. There is a fairly new female Buddha on a hillside overlooking the beach & rows of chairs with umbrellas.
We drove further down the beach to a fishing boat mooring. In addition to more conventional boats in the water, the locals here use tiny bowl shaped boats made of woven material or some kind of wicker. We have no idea how a round boat is maneuvered in the water, but we could see some fishermen out in the water hunting fish.
We returned to the ship and our two day stay in Danang came to an end. It seemed like a very full two days & we felt we had seen & learned quite a lot.