Discovering Indochina–Hội An, Vietnam

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Continuing south from Hue, next we would visit Hội An next.. Though I had never heard of this place, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it must be interesting. (See the listing here.)

But first, we enjoyed the elegant buffet breakfast at our Hue hotel before we departed for Hoi An. When we get into the dining area we see carefully carved ‘fruit sculptures.’ Here is a watermelon carved into a flower, using the red, white and green of the melon as part of the design. 

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I am not sure what fruit this is, maybe some kind of pumpkin. It is about the same size as the watermelon. A flower is on one side.

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A swan is on the other.

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This is a Vietnamese breakfast, noodles and greens, ready to add the soup broth.

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Travel from Hue to Hội An 

After breakfast, we board the public bus to Hue. It is modern, clean and confortable, with a good air conditioner. It is run by a private bus line.

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I took a few snaps along the way. Here is a man using his motorbike as a work vehicle, transporting  many bags of something, as many as he can load on.

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A military graveyard, one of many that we will see along the way, each with a few hundred graves.

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I think this is a private household for some wealthy person, built in the Chinese style. in 1986 the Vietnamese Communist Government instituted marketplace reforms where a person could operate on the individual profit motive. Since then the economy has grown steadily and rapidly to where Vietnam is an economic power in Southeast Asia. So you will see a number of houses of wealthy people. There is quite an income gap between the poor and the rich, though.

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Below, a graveyard with Chinese-style graves. Ancestor worship is important for the Vietnamese culture, so much so that, traditionally, they do not celebrate a person’s birthdays. These are considered as unimportant. What is important is the date that your grandfather (or father) died, along with the stories about his life. As a child you will learn the stories of the earlier generations from your father or grandfather. You will pass them on to your own children.

If you can, you will have the grave near your house. Otherwise, in a graveyard like this.

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Rice fields. Many are seen along the way. There is a difference though from India. Here, along with the rice, you see areas where they are growing the greens and other vegetables they use in their daily cooking. These are important in their diet, so you will see their growing areas. In India the fields are only rice (or peanuts or some other crop), with no ‘kitchen garden’ that is a part of the growing area.

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More Chinese-style graves.

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Another military graveyard. I think that if you die away from home, you cannot, per Vietnamese tradition, be buried in the home graveyard. I do not know why this is.

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More rice fields, with mountains in the background.

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Christian graves. I do not know if the traditional ancestor worship was added together with Christianity.

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We stopped for a break near the ocean.

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After a few hours we arrived at our hotel in Hội An, the Golf Hội An Hotel.

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Nice place, clean, well-appointed rooms, good bed, wi-fi in the rooms.

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Hội An is a small, quiet city, probably the most peaceful place on this tour. The World Heritage Site is the Old Town, which as been kept like it was 100 years ago (in terms of the buildings and streets, not the shops or lights at night). It is a place to walk and ride bikes. Cars are banned in much of the Old Town area.

History of Hội An

It turns out, too, that Hội An has an ancient history. The city possessed the largest harbor in Southeast Asia in the 1st century and was known as Lâm Ấp Phố (Champa City). Between the 7th and 10th centuries, the Cham (people of Champa) controlled the spice trade between Southeast Asia to India and Europe. With this came tremendous wealth.

The Cham were people of whom I knew nothing. It turns out that they ruled what is now southern and central Vietnam for more than 1000 years, from about the 7th century through to 1832. They must have been in Central Vietnam earlier, given their history in Champa City, and since the first temple building in nearby Mỹ Sơn was about 400 CE. Their roots seem to be from Indonesia. They were Austronesian-speaking Malayo-Polynesian people who somehow became Indianized, using Sanskrit and worshiping Siva. I had never heard of any Hindu connection in Vietnam before, so this was quite a surprise to me. The spread of Indian culture at this time may have been through Cambodia by land, since this was before the period of South India Tamil expansion as a maritime power throughout the Indian Ocean and China Sea (about 1000 CE). It may have been by sea, since the Cham were sea-going people. Their economy was based on sea commerce, not on farming, which was the main livelihood of the other groups in Indochina. 

I have done some research and surely the Hindu traditions came from North India, since the  Sanskrit language was used in ancient Cambodia and Vietnam; if it was from South India, they would have brought Tamil. I think the expansion of the Gupta Empire around Southeast Asia around 300 CE was one of the sources, but with this timeframe, there must also have been earlier export of these ideas. In Cambodia it is said that Hindu and Buddhist ideas first started to arrive around 400 BCE. Hinduism had certainly arrived in Java, Indonesia by 200 BCE. Hinduism had a second wave, and got stronger in Cambodia about 400 CE. This would be from the Gupta Empire. This is what I have found out about the ancient history of Hinduism in Southeast Asia so far. Maybe someone can tell us more?

The former harbor town of the Cham (now Hội An ), at the estuary of the Thu Bồn River, was an important trading center in the 16th and 17th centuries, where Chinese, as well as Japanese, Dutch, and Indians, settled. It was through here that Christianity penetrated Vietnam in the 17th century. It was considered by the Chinese and Japanese as the most important trading center in Southeast Asia, if not all of Asia. During this period it must have been one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. Now it is just a small city, peaceful and quiet. In the 1800s the river entrance silted up and the harbor in the city became unusable for blue water ships. Then the harbor moved to the nearby city of Đà Nẵng, now mainly known in America for its airbase during the war. Old Town in Hội An was accepted as a World Heritage Site in 1999.

Into Hội An

After a short rest, we headed out to see the town and have lunch. We each chose one of the bicycles that were waiting for us as part of our “adventure” tour. It is a small city, very walkable and bikable. We rode to the Thu Bồn River (Vietnamese: Sông Thu Bồn).

Though it is not now an ocean harbor, there are many boats. River traffic is still quite important in Vietnam. Also this river is used as a part of the tourist trade. Many tourists visit here each year.

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On all the boats you will notice two eyes in front, I guess so the boats can avoid obstacles.

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We parked our bikes and lunched at a nice café that looked out onto the river. Our Gecko guide, Quan, sits at the head of the table. We thought Quan did an excellent job as a guide. His English was good, he would answer any question put to him, even personal ones, he knew much about the places we visited and about Vietnamese history. Everything on the tour seemed well organized.

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Art on the restaurant wall.

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One of the dishes served was a seafood crostini. Yum!

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By the river a group of boat drivers waiting for customers plays cards. I think, like the Chinese, the Vietnamese enjoy gambling. And they really do wear that kind of hat.

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Shops on the waterfront.

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From there it is close to the market.

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This market is for the people of Hội An, not tourists. Sometimes when you travel to places like this, you will find markets where there are no local people as buyers. To me these ‘tourist markets’ are not nearly as interesting. These local markets have to do with real people and their real lives. Is that another card came? I guess business is slow. 

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Nap time, sleeping with the squash. The hats are useful for this, too.

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What do we need for dinner?

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Maybe we need some eggs. The ones in the middle have some kind of brown crust on them. To their left are some smaller spotted eggs.

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This is a local fruit, I do not know its name. The fruit meat is white with black specs throughout it.

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Tables of jewelry and necklaces can be found at the market.

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Also decorative household items. I think these are for the tourists.

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Need a fresh chicken?

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Markets like this are great places to wander around in. You are not sure what you will find, and all of it is interesting.

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Colorful incense burners. Tourist products I think.

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In the shop areas you see quite a few westerners.

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Hội An is a famous place for tailors. Take a photo of something you’d like (the more detailed the better, even the latest high fashion from the magazines), or chose from a sample they have, and have it made to your exact measurements in one day. The cost depends on the quality of the tailoring, for $30 – $200 for a man’s suit, depending on the tailor. Quality varies though, so it is best to have someone with you that knows where the good places are.

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Down on the river there are two small boats. The river is so much a part of life here, these boats are used kind of like bicycles, just to get around. You will see even small children, 10 years old or less, happily rowing themselves around in these boats.

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Near the river is a man making metal baskets. It had never occurred to me that they were made in such a fashion.

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Here is his storefront.

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Walking from the river into Old Town.

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One thing they sell to Westerners is shoes.

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This is a place where locals (and adventurous Westerners) eat. Maybe you are taking a chance, eating in one of the open restaurants, but maybe you will have the best meal of your trip.

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In Old Town there are several of these, I think they are Chinese meeting halls.

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Inside the gate.

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Lanterns across the street. Probably looks good at night!

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A temple.

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It looks like Confucian figures in the temple. I think the ancestor worship in Vietnam existed before the Chinese came here, and that it made it easy for them to adopt Confucius. Confucius is about, in part, respect for your elders. This fits in nicely with the native beliefs.

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Back into the market area. Many things to look at, many shoppers looking.

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One of the ladies of the market.

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Another gives us a great smile.

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Westerners enjoy a meal. This place overlooks the river. You can see a baby carriage on the right. I am surprised how many people bring babies on trips like this. 

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A ferry loads up, to cross the river.

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Stone beasts adorn the entryway.

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What is in here?

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I think we have an ornate Vietnamese dragon.

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After our first foray into Hội An, we headed back to the hotel on our bikes. Easy riding. Not much traffic, either. 

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Now it is night and we walked back to Old Town. The lanterns are lit now. It is a pretty sight.

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The storefronts are lit as well. It is a good time to shop.

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This store features handmade lanterns and lamps. Pretty.

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Clothes for my lady?

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More lanterns.

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We decide to eat at this restaurant, open to the street.

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Many people are here, all seem to be enjoying themselves. We are, too.

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After dinner we start walking back to the hotel. Oops, a motorbike drives up onto the sidewalk and hits me from behind. And runs over my foot. This is the second time my foot is run over by a motorbike in Vietnam. The driver does not say “Sorry.”

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Playing cards, passing the time. Next to them is their household shrine.

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A wedding dress shop. This gets confusing for the bride, I think. Red is Chinese for good luck. The modern Westernized bride wears white.  Maybe I will compromise and wear pink?

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They like the lights at night.

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The photo below shows a strange place–I don’t know if I understood what was happening. On screen it looked like characters from a video game, like computer generated people, but the people sitting at the tables were watching it like a movie. The whole audience was young men. I don’t think beer was on any table. You can see that the place was packed.

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Finally back to our hotel. Goodnight all.

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Good day in Hội An, quiet and peaceful after the days before. This place feels good to be in.

Note that there are cheaper hotels that are further away from Old Town, but the easy walk to and through Old Town is what you want here.

Related Posts

Earlier parts of this series can be found here: Hanoi , Day 1,Hanoi, Day 2, Hue

If you enjoyed this post, you can find other travel articles here:Touring and Travel in India

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