The UNESCO town of Hoi An is a gem. It is diminutive (2-storey buildings, narrow lanes), compared to other Vietnamese cities. A historic trading centre on the Thu Bon River, it is full of old Chinese clan assembly halls, merchant houses and temples. Some of the streets are, mercifully, restricted to bicycles and pedestrians only! It was a pleasure to stroll along the river, visit some of the elaborately decorated temples and stop for a drink in one of the many, chic-type restaurants. However, Hoi An is a mecca for tourists. Not just backpackers, but bus loads of tours who come for the shopping and "authentic" experience. Known for its tailors, it is saturated with shops selling cloth, especially silk. Nathan had 2 suits made and Marti got a dress (cotton). But, frankly, it was shopping overload for us.
The art galleries were a different story. I was particularly impressed by the laquer paintings of a young man, Ang, and spent some time with him, talking about art and drinking beer by the river. He is extremely talented and was recognized by the government a few years ago as one of Vietnam's top emerging artists. I think he could make a fortune in New York, but here his paintings sell for about $200! He originally studied architecture and we visited his house, which he designed. It is beautiful. He took into consideration the light and the climate, and it is bright and breezy, with balconies off the rooms and a lovely garden with a waterfall that slips over the rock wall with a soothing trickle. I bought a diptych from him and we celebrated our last evening with him and his wife in a riverside restaurant.
Another treasure is the My Son ruins of the Cham empire, 45 km west. Similar to Angkor Wat (evidence of Indian influence rather than Chinese), little is known about the culture and much of the site was destroyed over the centuries, most recently during the American war. There are huge bomb craters and most of the towers have toppled. However, UNESCO is slowly restoring some of the monuments. There are still some exquisite carvings on the walls. Despite the tourists roaming over the site, My Son was fairly tranquil and it was lovely to walk under the cool jungle canopy, out of the sun.
Hoi An's other attraction is the nearby beach -- some 30 kilmetres of white sand, palm trees and the warm waters of the South China Sea. We bicycled there (4 km) almost every day. Although there are some resorts, there is plenty of space for those seeking a quiet spot to relax, read, swim and eat. Yes, the Vietnamese women would set up their portable restaurants in the shade with tiny plastic chairs and haul out their soup pots over a small charcoal fire, assemble the noodles and all the toppings and serve you!
With modern technology (Internet and cell phones) we got together with a Dutch-German couple who I met in Luang Prabang, Laos, then again in Saigon. Had an interesting dinner with them at Cafe des Amis by the river, under the tutelage of Mr. Kim, who worked as a chef in Europe.
We have become comfortable here, but unfortunately time is running out, so we will soon make our way further north to Hue.