The Subtle Hues and Cries of Hoi An
Ryan van Velzer samples the intricate tastes and heritage of a Vietnamese town with many centuries-old Chinese and Japanese influences.
In the center of the Old City at the Chinese Fujjien Assembly Hall locals preserve the legend of the Holy Mother; a deity said to watch over the people of Hoi An, protecting sea merchants and fishermen. On her right a man with a good ear listens for the prayers and calls of those lost at sea. On her left, a second man with a good eye watches for the unfortunate lost among the waves. Once an important Southern seaport in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries Hoi An is now a relaxing beachside town where three rivers come together to meet the South China Sea. In the center of Hoi An (which means ‘quiet meeting’) is the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site maintained for its history and unique architecture.
Influenced by both the Chinese and Japanese who settled the Old City, there are a few houses still intact showcasing the merger of architectural styles. The yin and yang of the Chinese-style roof tiles and roofs stand upon Japanese-style crossbeams representing the five elements: wood, fire, water, metal and earth. The houses also maintain elements of Vietnamese architecture including courtyards and a second story where valuables can be stored in case of flooding. Inside and outside the Old City you’ll find many family-owned restaurants that line the narrow back alleys of Hoi An. For locals the small alleys are meeting places where laundry is strung up to dry, neighbors chat and children play. The people of Hoi An seem to take a special pride in their local food, found at nearly every restaurant in the city. Cao Lau, one of the specialties of Hoi An, is made from a paste of rice flour and ash from nearby Cham Island. Water from a special well, The Baley Well, is added to the paste for the noodles and gives them their special soft golden hue. The noodles are served with slices of marinated pork, minced garlic, basil, coriander, banana flowers and rice cracker. Another local dish, White Rose, is named after its elegant and unique presentation. Rice flour and water are used to form delicate rose petals. Small chunks of marinated, steamed shrimp are then placed into the center of each flower. A sprinkle of shallots is then added atop the flowers.
From the Old City travelers can rent a bicycle (1$ a day) and visit the nearby An Bang or Cua Dai beaches. An Bang is the beach most often visited by tourists. It has a beach resort atmosphere with comfortable deck chairs and umbrellas right on the beach where restaurants serve food and beer. The beach reclines gently into the waves. The sand is soft and white and in the distance you can see nearby islands. A few more kilometers down the road is Cua Dai beach, a local strand crowded with teenagers after school, couples on picnics and hawkers selling local cuisine. I visited the beach on Vietnam’s Teacher Day and the beach was flooded with students. Energetic and vibrant, it was a great way to take in the local flavor. For a different take on a day in the life, there are tours that offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of local fishermen. Often taking visitors to the nearby bay. Guests can try their hand at casting out and reeling in fishing nets, just as the locals do. The tour then takes guests through a tour of the palm mangroves. The boat is left behind for small, round basket boats where guests paddle through small rivers that flow in between the palms. The water palms, different from the tall land palms, are small and grow out of the water providing the fronds for the local roofs. Guests are then taken on a tour through the Cam Thanh fishing village, home to about 1,000 residents. At the end of the tour, lunch is provided by the staff. It is a well prepared meal with a variety of local seafood.
At the end of the day we retreat back to the Old City for dinner. There are a number of restaurants catering to those who want local and/or foreign cuisine. The riverside is lit by colorful paper lanterns and everywhere we go music softly plays in the background. The serenity and beauty of strolling beside the river is an analogue to the whole experience of Hoi An — a tranquil, beautiful place for a quiet meeting with family and friends.
Photos by Ryan van Velzer