The Magic of Hoi An

IMG_7971Needs must and consequently we have become expert travel hunter-gatherers scouring for travel deals that offer not only ‘x’ amount of nights in quality accommodation but also provide the additional set of steak knives bonuses. A recent trip came from Sunday paper travel page Luxury Escape promotion to Vietnam. The package included eight nights in beachside luxury in Hoi An, eight spa treatments, one cooking class, breakfast and lunch or dinner daily, two night stay in Ho Chi Minh and a partridge in a pear tree – tra- la-la.

The well-preserved ancient city of Hoi An sits conveniently on the coast so travellers can enjoy best of culture, shopping and beach life. Once a major spice trading post of the Orient in the sixteenth and seventeenth century until the river Thu Bon that winds through the graceful city silted up and trade moved up the coast to Danang.

Our hotel room faced the ocean. It is large and light with a day bed on a glassed in balcony. We sleep well, the bed is a wowser comfortable King plus size, oh how I hanker for a King at home, but I digress, we wake to the sight of a couple of brightly coloured wooden pleasure boats with their elegant curved bows cruising to berth at one of the hotels along Cua Dai Beach.

The glass shower stall proved interesting, neither of us had noticed the dinner plate size shower-head high in the ceiling, rather we were mystified by the site and height of the hand-held shower. It was a point of discussion, here we have a capacious shower stall and the source of ablution placed at the height of an average six-year-old. It was days before we found the fire-hose-bad-hair-day shower head in the ceiling and we no longer needed to limbo under the portable jets to wash clean.

At breakfast most mornings we opted for Pho, slivers of beef poached in a delicious broth served over noodles then topped with a generous handful of aromatic Vietnamese herbs. Yes of course you could have bacon, American and crispy, eggs anyway you dang well please and many other morsels, pastries, cold cuts to tempt but we are in Vietnam and Pho it is, with a little bit of Vietnamese equivalent of gravalax on the side.

IMG_7912Our shuttle from the hotel takes us into Hoi An city centre. In the heat we walk slowly through the dusty lane. Small shops, their windows displays of bespoke tailoring vie for our attention with a graceful weather-beaten curved bridge, Chua Cau, that spans a small canal. The small covered bridge guarded by twin statues of monkeys was built in 1590 to link the Japanese quarter with the Chinese community and is still in use today.

It is quiet, as it is the time of day when motor bikes are not allowed in this part of the city. The only transports to dodge are bicycles and Vietnamese style bicycle rickshaws called Cyclos. The buildings are mainly wood with weathered limed walls in fading cobalt blue, saffron and amber. Colour in these narrow streets catches us with every turn; red long fluttering flags, displays of pearl bright lacquered ware, bales of hued silk and Chinese lanterns that delight and defy the imagination in colour and shape.

IMG_7915By the river we watch an old woman plying a single oared flat-bottomed boat across the river. On her head is the traditional cone hat with a slash of red ribbon hanging from it. She is thin but strong easing her heavy craft carefully into a berth beside the food market. The river on this cloudy monsoonal day has a mirror shine.

We drink cocktails and meet a couple of young lads from Welsh Wales walking through the street dressed only in their boxer shorts and ladies silk dressing gowns. Their excuse, not that they needed one, was they had just completed the ice bucket challenge. Groups of children wearing traditional dragon costumes ran to and thro excitedly at tourists and into shops scaring the devil away while their comrades made sure the devil knew they meant business by steadily banging a huge drum lashed to a  billy cart. It was Vietnam’s Independence Day and a time of celebrations that gave these small boys full reign to have fun.

IMG_7924The drums were distant in our restaurant, Faifo Xua is an elegantly refurbished historic merchants home with its own art gallery. Young women graceful in their áo dài: tight-fitting silk tunics worn over long pants, took us to our table. The menu was billed as creative Vietnamese cuisine and the food did not disappoint. I was hard pushed to share my spicy fish and belly of pork clay pot. It was my birthday and desert came as a cake with chocolate writing wishing Mrs Mary a very happy anniversary, instantly there was music, a pianist playing on an old piano and it seemed as though the whole restaurant joined in the chorus, happy birthday to you ….

 The resort style of hotel was perfect we swam and slouched by the pool by day opting to go most days into Hoi An as the day cooled. What will stay with me long after the jet lag and sharing pictures of the trip is the warmth of the Vietnamese people.  Gentle, considerate people well suited to living in a place called Hoi An, which is aptly translated ‘Peaceful Meeting Place.’

 

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Mindfulness in Ho Chi Minh

IMG_7861Ho Chi Minh, (Saigon as it was) is a destination where I could sense my neurons lighting up with alacrity as I observed the city street scenes embracing a culture so different from Australia with its sights, smell and sounds of Asia teasing you at every juncture.

We had visited Vietnam once before, briefly on a cruise with day visits to Ho Chin Minh and Halong Bay, which was simply not enough time appreciate the magic of Vietnam. But enough time, with two hour coach rides into and out of Ho Chin Minh, to be amazed at the Vietnamese dominance and culture of the motor scooter.

The country boasts 30 million motorbikes/scooters equating to 95% of all registered road vehicles. A first time visit to ‘Nam spins you out of our established idea of motorbike usage. Forget Australia’s sights; a drove of newly bronzed backpackers nervously steering their scooters along coast roads hanging for the promise of a cold drink at the beach, men with red bandannas and leather chaps on gleaming Harley Davidson’s ready to throttle up the Great Ocean Road or the local postie wheeling into your drive. On the Vietnamese pot holed roads you will more than likely see Momma and three small children perched precariously behind Poppa as he weaves his way in and out of the traffic. Here too you will see all manner, shape and size of commercial commodities laced to the frame of a Suzuki with the helmeted driver barely able to see the road in front.

In Ho Chin Minh city, the bikes in all weathers create orchestrated chaos, there does not seem to be any road rules at all. Scooters flow into, weave around pedestrians and cut across the line of traffic without signals or sense of fear. While we did not see any accidents the road fatalities are understandably high in Vietnam with 1200 deaths a year. In Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) you can only be amazed that there are not more accidents as the city’s 3.1 million motorbikes, like buzzing ants, fill the roads to overflowing.

Crossing city roads was my senior equivalent of a bungee jump. My guide said walk slowly and steadily across the stream of traffic, don’t stop don’t step back just slow and steady.’ But wait there is a crossing,’ I say ‘why don’t we cross there?’ My guide smiled Yes but the same rules apply as traffic does not stop or slow. A road-crossing phobic can do two things in Ho Chi Minh – stay in the hotel for the entire time and miss out on the bounty of life of Saigon or have faith in a different culture and trust that these bikies know what they are doing. Being one of the most fearful pedestrian when it comes to crossing the road I say proudly I did it, not once but several times and came away with nary a scratch or a bump.

We took a fascinating half-day tour in Ho Chi Minh visiting the Reunification Palace, Saigon Opera House, Notre Dame, Ben Thanh Markets and the War Remnant Museum. Mia, our tour guide of Charms of Indochina Travel Company gave breath and life to the history of Vietnam. No mean feat on a hot and monsoonal day when ones mind is sluggish and body sapped with sweat. Finally we asked if she rode a motor scooter in the city. Of course, she said. ‘But the traffic,’ we say ‘is so horrendous how to do you do it?’ It is about being aware, being conscious of the intention of riders around you and allowing their progress as they allow yours. Being mindful is the key.

 Very Zen I think as I cross the road to my shiny hotel, walking steadily beaming out my mind intention of simply getting to the other side.