Sunday, October 30, 2011


Three hours drive south of Hue is the old port city of Hoi An. This architectural gem of a town was an important sea trading port from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Chinese, Japanese, Portugese, Indian, Javanese, British and American ships all stopped in Hoi An, or Faifoo as it was called, and many merchants stayed permenently. Because of these many outside influences, and because Hoi An remained a "non-strategic" location for most of the 20th century, the town is still filled with wonderful old multi-cultural residential and commercial buildings. Since UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in the 1990's, cars are banned from its streets and the center of town has taken on a very tourist-centric edge. All the visitors and fusion restaurants don't take away from the beauty, especially on an early morning stroll before the Venice-in-summer-like hoardes descend.

Several of the old houses still belong to their original families. Most have been turned into museums to benefit from the tourist trade, such as the Tan Ky house, above. The house exhibits elements of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese architectural influences... and a few funny modern touches like the "happy day" curtains below.

Even if it is for the benefit of tourists, it was great to see a house this old still used by its inhabitants. An ancient family temple mixed with 19th century mother-of-pearl Chinese-Victorian furniture mixed with a 1960's rotary phone... Hoi An may feel a bit like a Disneyland version of old Vietnam, but it is still a living, breathing city underneith the surface.

A glimpse into a barber shop off a small alley.

The food in Hoi An was interesting. In general central Vietnam is a spicer version of the cuisine in other parts of the country. This might be attributed to the fact that until the Viet people pushed southward from northern reaches of country starting in the 13th century, the area belonged to the Champa civilization. The Chams were Indianized through trade via Java and used Sanskrit as their language and Hindu as their religion. Their food was undoubtedly influenced by the spices of India and the East Indies as well.

A common theme was grilled meat wrapped with herbs, pickled vegetables and chilis in a rice paper spring roll like concoction. Salt, lime and peppers feature heavily as opposed to vinegar which is a more northern device for livening things up.

Seafood, of course, is also a staple. This crab was really good.

Even before Hoi An became a Vietnamese port-of-international-call, it was a center of trade for the Champa from the 3rd to the 10th centuries. In the mountains about an hour from town are the ruins of Cham religious center, My Son (pronounced mee-sun). Above, they are seen around 1900 when they had already been abandoned and their tower summits stripped of their layers of gold. The Cham people remain an official minority in Vietnam and most practice Islam since its arrival through the same trade routes that brought Hinduism centuries earlier.

My Son was the longest continually developed Hindu religious complex in Southeast Asia (from the 4th to the 13th century) and was used the Cham to make pilgramage from the lowlands twice a year. The architecture is reminiscent of the glories of Khmer design at Ankor, but of course much smaller and using slightly different techniques. It was a real surprise to see a culture like this in the middle of Vietnam, which I did not associate with Hindu or Indic culture at all. Sadly the already ruined ruins were further damaged by US bombing during the war.


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  2. Gorgeous wood shop fronts and that fruit got my mouth watering! All my favorites!

  3. It is so sad to see history blown up like ISIS is doing in Iraq now or the US did to this beautiful place just because the American war lords sought to murder My Son's freedom loving residence. Such evil people...