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.
We docked in Danang very slowly on the morning of March 6 because it was engulfed in thick fog that made the dock invisible until the last minute. The weather had been poor all the way from Hong Kong, & worse, Rick had a bad cold that started on our third day in Hong Kong. It was not gone by the morning of March 6, but he was not about to miss Vietnam just because of a cold.
Those old enough to remember the Vietnam War (called, predictably, the American War in these parts) will recognize the name of this city. This is where the U.S. marines landed & was the location of a large air base in addition to its harbor. Some of the passengers who were Vietnam veterans did not go ashore here.
We did not see much of Danang, however, because we spent the day on a private excursion to Hue (pronounced “hway”), the Imperial capital of Vietnam from the beginning of the 19th century until the end of World War II. It became the Imperial capital when the first Nguyen emperor moved the capital here from Hanoi in 1802 & its status came to an end when Bao Dai, the last Nguyen emperor, abdicated in 1945. Hue is about an hour and a half drive northwest from Danang. But our first stop was Hai Van Pass, located high in the mountains. This is said to have a spectacular view, but it was completely fogged in the day we were there. It would have made sense to skip it this day, but I imagine the tour company has an arrangement with the folks who run the tourist rest stop. There were some structures a couple of hundred years old designed to control access to the mountain passes & also a couple of bunkers built by the Americans. A Vietnamese couple was waiting for the fog to lift so they could have wedding pictures taken.
As in Indonesia, the most popular mode of transportation here is the motorbike. One of our guides told us that until about 20 years ago it was mostly bicycles, but you see fewer of those today. Some carry improbably large loads on a motorbike. We saw one fellow on a motorbike dragging a 20 foot bamboo ladder behind him. Some of these pictures are a little unfocused because taken from a moving van, but still worth seeing.
On the road to Hue we passed a fishing village and what appeared to be a Christian cemetery. The fishing village is probably Lang Co; if so, the large bridge in the background replaced one that was the first structure bombed by the Viet Minh in 1947. Many buildings in Vietnam had small shrines in front.
Our first stop was for a ride on a “dragon boat” on the Perfume River, which runs through Hue. We had read that this was very atmospheric, with lots of small fishing boats and locals transporting goods by boat, but almost the only boats we passed were other “dragon boats,” all of which said “Tourist” in large letters on the side. The people operating our boat were busily trying to sell souvenirs to the passengers. Maybe other parts of the river are more interesting, or maybe the river’s ambience has changed, but we found this a little disappointing.
Our boat trip ended at the Thien Mu Pagoda, which is a monastery. Built in 1601, this is the oldest pagoda in Hue. It features a 7 story octagonal tower visible from the river & a 2 ton bronze bell cast in 1710 which can be heard for miles.
We were able to go inside the temple of the pagoda & in the back was a large patio filled with bonsai trees. Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who immolated himself in Saigon in 1963 to protest the government’s repression of Buddhists, was a resident of this monastery & the car he drove to Saigon is on display here.
We had a delicious Vietnamese lunch at a good restaurant (we did not eat the squid). Outside a long tailed lizard stopped for a picture on his way down a tree.
After lunch we went to the main attraction, the Imperial City. This citadel was built at the beginning of the 19th century, & was the home of the emperor & his family for about 150 years (although beginning in 1885 the French were really in control). It was all but destroyed during the French & American wars after World War II & although restoration activities are ongoing only a few of the hundreds of buildings that were here are now intact. In particular, during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong occupied the citadel for almost a month & it was all but destroyed by American bombs & artillery. The citadel is surrounded by a wall more than 20 feet high & 60 feet thick, the front of which along the river is centered by Cot Co, a flag tower first built in 1807 that now sports the flag of Vietnam, a yellow star on a red background. There are gates through the wall near the end on either side of the flag tower. [Note: I (Rick) am finding it difficult to identify some of these pictures, so some of this may not be accurate]
The Ngo Mon Gate, the inner gate to the compound, has on its top the Five Phoenix Watchtower, where the Emperor sat on state occasions. It has a bridge through a large pool that is full of large goldfish. There are five openings in the gate: the Emperor alone used the center one, the mandarins & the military used the openings flanking the Emperor’s, and the outer two openings were for elephants.
Walking inward from the Ngo Mon gate you come to the Thai Hoa Palace, originally built in 1805 & reconstructed in 1833, which was the Emperor’s throne room. His golden throne is on a fairly high platform, where he sat wearing a gold tunic & a crown with 9 dragons under a gilded canopy. This was the only major building in the Imperial City that was not damaged by bombs. Unfortunately, you cannot take photos inside, but it is nicely restored to its former glory.
Behind a high inner wall is the Forbidden Purple City. The Emperor was the only man allowed to enter this compound populated entirely by women; the death penalty awaited any other man who entered here. It originally had some 60 buildings erected over the first third of the 19th century but almost all were destroyed by bombing during the Tet offensive in 1968. Next to the wall to the Purple City are the two Halls of the Mandarins, where nobles & military officers would dress in ceremonial robes for official ceremonies.
Our last visit was to the Royal Theater. Originally built in 1826, this was a venue for opera. It was remodeled in the mid-20th century and restored at the end of the century. The Hue college of music was here from 1952 to 1990 and since its final restoration it has once again become a venue for traditional music performance. As you can see, it is quite beautiful on the inside, though fairly plain outside. After this visit we exited the Imperial City through another elaborate gate, which may be the Cua Hien Nhon (“Gate of Humanity”).
Our last stop in Hue was the Dong Ba market. As with most such markets there is a wide variety of goods for sale, mostly food but also clothing and other wares. There is also much bustle & confusion. We could only walk through, no time to shop here.
Leaving the market we began the long drive back to Hue. The traffic in this area is pretty bad & our driver put a lot of effort into his horn. Few usable pictures came from our trip in a moving van, so I will include here some of the flowers we saw this day. It was a long and tiring day, so we went to bed early to renew our energy for another full port day tomorrow.