Hoi An: Another world.

After a rather depressing morning’s drive along Da Nang’s poorly planned water front, we left the beach and headed a little way inland along the northern bank of the Thu Bon River to Hoi An. What an antidote! In 1999, Hoi An was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This ancient trading city was once Southeast Asia’s most important port and has been visited over the centuries by seafairers from all over the world and settled by several diverse ethnic groups.

You have to buy a ticket to get into the heart of Hoi An.  It helps pay for the ongoing renovations and is the least you can do to contribute to the upkeep of this fascinating place. Our business partner, Phong from Ho Chi Minh City was somewhat insulted but kindly paid the $9 for his two guests to join him on a tour of the city.

The streets were quiet in September, no doubt much to the annoyance of the shop-keepers.  It was very warm and humid and there were thunderstorms most afternoons. But it was wonderful to experience Hoi An without the crowds and coach-parties.

Once upon a time, these were the homes of merchants.  Now they are shops that house merchandise. These buildings are fascinating, with their narrow fronts, deep wood-paneled rooms and internal courtyards that were essential in bringing natural light to the center of the homes. What were once bedrooms, now open onto a gallery that animates the upper floor.

Several layers into another of the former merchant houses, this bedroom is protected from the noise of the busy street. The windows have shutters but no glass. Deep overhangs protect the rooms from rain while enabling air to circulate through the internal courtyard.

Some of the most important homes faced the quayside which, in turn, overlooked a sheltered arm of the Thu Bon River.  The homes across the water are located on An Hoi Islet, once an island on the river delta. The ‘islet’ is now a peninsula. The waterfront market brings much-needed activity to a quayside that in former times would have been packed with boats.

This waterfront bar opens onto a tiny sidewalk. Across the street the wide quayside provides pedestrians with plenty of room. So, why not reduce the sidewalk to a minimum by introducing several planters and extending the seating onto the street? An example for us all in how to circumvent building codes !

This is a working boat and Hoi An is a working town. While tourism is an important – no, essential – part of the economy, there is a definite sense that the city, which has a population of 120,000, has a life beyond catering for visitors. Fishing, for one, is an important economic activity for Hoi An.

The covered, wooden Japanese Bridge, complete with its own temple (to the left) is Hoi An’s iconic structure.  It’s in every guidebook and every visitor must visit the bridge and photograph it.  How often do it’s two docents have the bridge to themselves? It was too good a moment to miss.

The Japanese merchants and their families were important residents in Hoi An. But so were the Chinese who built temples that were too big and certainly too ornate to install on a mere bridge.  This may be the city’s only other visitor the day that Philip, Phong and I were there.

When the sidewalks are narrow and, in any case, are full of bicycles and motos, it’s probably safest to walk in the road. Decked out in dark pants and starched white shirts, we blended seamlessly with the locals as they went about their business (Phong is on the left, conducting the tour).

Hoi An is a city full of restored buildings but this new street, just steps from the Japanese Covered Bridge, is built to a simple set of design guidelines.  It works, apart from the light poles. But I feel strongly that we can forgive Hoi An this error (and, anyway, they will no doubt be replaced in due course…)

A typical row of shopfronts. The beautiful, weathered aquamarine wash on the plastered dividing wall was a common color choice.  I was also intrigued by the stone bases on which the wooden columns rested.  I wonder what they were for?

Not all of Hoi An’s temples were designed for maximum impact. This one reflects the intriguing ‘layered’ architecture of the city.  It seems that there is always something just beyond one’s vision, out of reach…

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A Drive in the Country

The term ‘countryside’ conjures a variety of images.  The perfect English village; neat and tidy with its well-kept green, duck pond, ancient church and a pub or two. The French version; narrow streets, quiet to the point of being deserted, especially after sunset. In America, the ‘countryside’ can mean a combination of agri-businesses run by global companies and, much like Britain, weekend cottages for the wealthy urban elite. New ruralism, indeed!

 

A Champa tower near Quy Nhon: Guarding the surrounding countryside

 

While I imagined rural life in Viet Nam would differ considerably from these ‘western’ versions, I was surprised by what I found, as a group of us spent a day traveling through the countryside.

At first, everything seemed as one would expect.  Small, intensely cultivated fields, created beautiful vistas that faded into the verdant backdrop of gently sloping hills and mountains. Centuries-old Champa towers and Buddhist temples were eye-catching landmarks. The boundaries of the low-lying farms were defined by irrigation ditches, trees and hedges.  Homes were often several hundred meters from the road and utterly connected to their farmed land.  People were tending the fields and, yes, water buffalo pulled carts and ploughs and other machinery.

Then we entered our first of many villages that day.  The houses here opened directly onto the road or were protected from the traffic by a small front garden or yard.  Often the yard had an important commercial purpose, as storage for manufactured items or as an area to conduct business.  One of my abiding memories was the creative use of the edges of the warming concrete road surface; our vehicle had to slow frequently to avoid the rice drying in the midday sun.

 

A typical farmhouse, viewed from the main road.

 

The boundary between home and business became blurred. Western planners and urban designers like to talk about ‘mixed-use zoning’, creating descriptive terms like ‘live-work’ or borrowing foreign expressions like ‘atelier’ to broaden their vocabulary. In Viet Nam, the immediate impression was of an organized chaos of potentially conflicting activities, compounded by the sheer number of people that we passed along the road. Crowded homes doubled as stores or workshops and, with children, came creches while the oldest members of the household seemed to work as hard as the younger generations around them.

 

Protection from the hazards of the daily ride to work...

 

Every village we passed through had its share of micro-businesses (as we over-analytic Westerners would say). Potters, weavers, metal workers and mechanics occupied small  workshops along the narrow main streets. Meanwhile, produce of all sorts was farmed in the surrounding fields, although rice seemed to be the predominant crop. Finally, there were the schools and, in some larger villages, local government offices that provided vital employment possibilities and essential services in this communal society.  Manufacturing, agriculture and services coexisted and, crucially, generated a level of energy and activity that I had never seen before in a rural setting.

 

In the front yard of a village potter

 

As usual, young people were predominant, cycling and riding motos from school to home and, probably back again as we approached the lunch hour.  The road seemed impossibly narrow and certainly not sufficient for the drying crops, heavily laden pedestrians, kids on bikes, youths on motos, the occasional truck and our obligatory SUV (with six adult passengers, I’m pleased to report).  Amazingly and despite experiencing similar road conditions in every village we passed through, we avoided mishap.

It shouldn’t be surprising to see so much activity in the Vietnamese countryside. Agriculture, though declining in relative economic importance, still occupies 60% of the nation’s employed labor force.  Most tellingly, although 50% of Vietnam’s land mass is considered to support agriculture and forestry, only 9% has the alluvial soil essential for truly productive farming, a fact born out by our drive through the intensely cultivated fields with their backdrop of silent wooded hillsides.

 

The lunch time rush!

 

We returned to Quy Nhon during rush hour, having spent the day enjoying our ‘not-so-quiet drive in the country’.  What we had seen in the space of a few hours was a society that appears to be striking a balance between its urban and rural economies. While the cities in Vietnam are magnets attracting increasing numbers of people from the countryside, to Western eyes there appears a vibrant, viable rural economy that, in terms of its energy, is uplifting and culturally fascinating – and a lot more compelling than the European or North American versions.

 

One of the many stores along our route.

 

Crossing the Street.

Ask a visitor to Viet Nam to list their first impressions and I will guarantee that ‘the motorcycles’ will be among their top five. The importance of the ‘moto’  to urban or rural living in Viet Nam is unarguable.

Journalist Patti McCracken sums it up perfectly;

‘To the Vietnamese, a motorbike is not just a vehicle, but a bionic limb. A magic carpet. A personal jet pack, able to propel them from their living rooms (where many park their bikes) to any doorstep. Legs and feet are backup forms of transport, used only as a last resort.’

A typical Hanoi street scene.

Motos permeate Vietnamese society. It’s estimated that there are over 20 million, or one for every four Vietnamese.  Virtually all motos are small-engined, lightweight runabouts that can be easily maneuvered, parked and, most importantly, mended when something breaks.   They provide Viet Nam’s disproportionately young population with incredible mobility that helps drive its growing economy and vibrant society.

Mums and Dads wait for school to get out.

From the windows of our taxi, I thought the motos seemed to personify the chaos and noise of the big city, as they buzzed round us on Hanoi’s busy roads.  But when we took to the streets on foot, I realized that motos were the stitching that helped keep the urban fabric together. Parked safely on every sidewalk, motos become impromptu recliners for their owners, especially at the key intersections where folk love to gather. Food is cooked and eaten on the sidewalk throughout the day, often in front of repair shops and ‘hole-in-the-wall’ moto parking garages.  When school’s out, small children don their helmets and leap on their parents’ machine, often squeezing between a younger sibling and several bags of groceries.  And who needs a taxi after a pleasant night out when a willing relative  with a moto is able to respond to your phone call and collect you from outside the restaurant?

In the country, the patterns are a little different but just as compelling to observe.  I was amazed by the endless stream of motos, coming and going, as our car travelled the 30 or so kilometers along the narrow rural road that linked a string of tiny villages.  This was not the sleepy country life I was so used to in Europe or America, but a bustling self-contained economy where motos were used for carrying people and every kind of product and produce imaginable from hamlet to hamlet.

Ho Chi Minh looks on as his 'children' head home at rush hour

It is inevitable that safety is an issue when considering the motorcycle as a form of transport.  Traffic accident statistics tell us that Southeast Asia is one of the more dangerous places in the world to  ride a motorcycle.  Traveling along Viet Nam’s Route 1A, where speeding trucks and buses share the road with motos and bicycles, it is surprising that there aren’t more accidents. In the cities, though, I felt relatively safe once I understood the traffic flow and the avoidance procedures every moto rider must adopt if he or she is to get anywhere in town.

No-one will stop for you as you cross the road but they will avoid you with the minimum of fuss and a good deal of skill. It takes courage to launch oneself off the sidewalk into four lanes of oncoming motos. The technique is to walk calmly and steadily across the road, only stopping in an absolute emergency.  The riders flow around you magically, using their horns as a kind of sonar, so that, by the time you’ve reached the other side, you want to turn round and cross again, the nervous observer now transformed into wholehearted participant.

It's Friday afternoon so even the sidewalks belong to the 'motos'