Colourful lanterns for sale in Hoi An (photo: Natasha von Geldern)
Vietnam isn’t just the sound and fury of hawkers in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh trying to sell you cheap rubbish. Somewhere between those mighty cities, Kwok W Wan visits a friendly textile town that was once the ancient crossroads between Japan and China.
I first experienced the difference when sharing a taxi from Da Nang airport to Hoi An with the taxi driver’s family. They asked if I minded but how could I refuse when they smiled like cartoon teddy bears?
Most visitors to Vietnam only visit the busy cities of Hanoi to the north or Ho Chi Minh to the south. Da Nang, a couple hours flight from Hanoi, is nearly halfway between the both and is the closest airport to the Unesco World Heritage town of Hoi An.
This charming place almost seems to like visitors, unlike the bigger cities which seem hell-bent on taking your money and then charging for the privilege.
Hoi An’s character became apparent as I went for a leisurely walk around the street market by the town’s main river. Under a string of naked bulbs, people were selling all the wonderfully-shaped fruits of south-east Asia: Shiny mangosteens, red shaggy rambutan and bright-pink dragon fruit with green horns.
No-one was hassling me to buy anything, so I took my time and selected some lungan from a family stall, listening to the gentle hum of chit-chat.
Maybe the calmness of the night market lulled me into a false sense of security, but I forgot the cardinal rule when buying something in Vietnam: I didn’t haggle. I handed the little girl the amount she asked for without even thinking such an innocent child could be capable of ripping me off.
Her Mum, a rotund weather-beaten woman, said something to her daughter. The child turned around sheepishly and the mum repeated what she said. The little girl turned and handed back half the money I gave her. I looked at her mum and said thank you. She just smiled and as I left I was sure her daughter was blushing.
Although Hoi An has a thriving tourism industry, the Japanese covered bridge in the old town was as close as it got to being crowded. The bridge was built in the early 1600s by the Japanese community and is the most popular tourist site in the town.
As I approached on foot, tuk-tuk drivers, who elsewhere in Vietnam chase people for fares, just parked beside the road and lazily asked me if I wanted to go anywhere. Even more shockingly, they actually took “no” for an answer.
I crossed the bridge, walking under white paper lanterns, and visited a small wooden shrine midway across. On the other side I found old stone homes and shops, all standing in casual desolation.
Further along were quiet streets with abandoned meeting halls, expansive grey courtyards and faded paintings on the walls. I entered a few of these open spaces and found decorated buildings, paint flaking and crawling with mystic creatures.
I imagined that under these auspices the town elders stood and chaired discussions with their community; this was where the issues of the day were debated and agreed on.
Near the Japanese covered bridge was a better preserved Cantonese assembly hall. Inside I saw colourful ornate fountains and gardens. The walls were adorned with paintings of Chinese folklore and there were several tables and chairs for meetings.
Many of the surrounding buildings melded architectural influences, as blue Chinese dragons danced along red Japanese roofs.
I also visited several open houses and walked around the dusty rooms while the residing families tried to keep out of the way of snap-happy foreigners. One house had turned the backroom into a gift shop, where every surface was covered with trinkets.
Its history as a major port town means textiles from all around China and Japan have long passed through Hoi An, which developed a regional clothing industry.
Tailors still make up the majority of shops, each adorned with numerous headless mannequins wearing the latest in Hollywood fashions.
One morning over breakfast an American man and his Vietnamese wife recommended I go to Yaly’s for some cheap tailored clothes, telling me they are the best in town.
Yaly’s have two branches in Hoi An and are known locally as master tailors. The façades of both shops look more like abandoned colonial mansions than clothes shops.
Inside are stacks of rolled materials, including reams of all the colours and patterns you can imagine. Assistants take your measurements while other customers swan around in their new outfits – dressed for a ballroom in the sweltering heat of the whitewash walls.
Dotted around the shop are international fashion magazines. I picked out the coat I wanted (as worn by Matt Damon) but decided to change the colour and add some extra buttons. The assistant took notes and told me to come back for a fitting.
They take great pride in their work and when they don’t, the marauding owner makes sure they know that it’s his reputation on the line and orders them to do it again. I went in thinking I might buy a single coat. I walked out a few days later with three suits, two coats and two shirts, all perfectly fitted.
Perhaps that’s the problem when things are too easy. You let your guard down and you get suckered.
To round off my stay in Hoi An, I decided to treat myself with a visit to the masseuse. In typical Vietnamese style, the female staff were beaming with happiness to see me when they were in fact fully booked.
They had to call in another person to massage me and I waited and watched as a heavy-set man rode in on a motorbike. I was instructed to get semi-naked and lie on a table while this man stood over me. I admit now that I felt a little bit vulnerable.
The man rubbed his hands together while speaking to the other staff. He smiled at me but for once that didn’t make me feel any better. His hands were surprisingly warm when he got started and the massage was actually quite good.
I had finally started to relax when suddenly the man started pounding me. He made fists with his hand and rained thumps on the back of my legs. I looked at him and he looked back and smiled. I also smiled while I endured the beating until my fully-paid up hour was over.
I left the masseuse, slightly shaky on my feet, but surprisingly relaxed. As I wobbled back to my hotel, past the colourful lanterns and ancient buildings, I suddenly feared I would fall. I wasn’t worried about hurting myself, but that I would never get up and stay in this delightful town forever.
Kwok W Wan