In Vietnam: The Quiet Pleasures of Hoi An
By Dalia Miller
Photos by Kip Miller

“What you buy from me?” asks an enterprising villager in a faded blue shirt standing over her cache of red rambutans.

Hoi An’s afternoon market is bursting with a profusion of exotic tropical fruits.
It is a warm and lazy afternoon in Hoi An, but the town’s tropical food market is bustling with activity. Women young and old are balancing baskets of exotic fruits that dangle beneath carrying poles on their shoulders. Several sit on benches behind mounds of magenta dragon fruits, spiny durians, purple mangosteens, yellow jackfruits and brown sapodillas, all artfully arranged near more familiar piles of mangoes, pineapples, coconuts and papayas. One wizened matron peeks at us from under her nón lá (conical bamboo hat) and proceeds to slice a huge dragon fruit for us to sample. It is white and speckled inside, but not nearly as tasty as the sweet and sour passion fruits that had bewitched us at the Rex Hotel in Saigon. Wandering deeper into the market, we finger piles of locally grown basil, mint and cilantro picked just hours before, their fragrance still fresh and pungent. Heaps of crabs and shrimp, small fishes on ice and chicken parts are being weighed and piled into sacks as chattering housewives load purchases on their scooters. Our guide tells us that we will be returning to this market tomorrow before our scheduled cooking class. What could be better!

A village woman showcases her artfully arranged baskets of fruit.
Sleepy Hoi An is a welcome change from the frenetic pace of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), a megalopolis of ten million where we had just spent three action-packed days. In this city of industry and commerce, endless swarms of motorbikes and scooters race, stream and weave in unrelenting rhythms, often only inches apart, and crossing a downtown street can be a daunting task. While it is as glamorous as Vietnam gets, Saigon had us yearning for a slow-paced town where we could get up close and personal to the people.

Frenetic Saigon pulsates with a continuous stream of motorbikes.

We take a quick flight to Danang, located on the slender waist of central Vietnam. Our guide Huang, my personal favorite of our entire time in the country, welcomes all six of us with a big smile and sparkling eyes. “You are going to love Hoi An,” he promises. ”You will wish that you could stay a whole week.” Huang has a mesmerizing voice and a quick wit. He knows his history and his English is impressive. I am immediately drawn in. “It’s going to be interesting,” I mutter to myself. We pile into our mini van and journey south to Hoi An, about 30 kilometers away. The coastal drive is lovely and we pass one luxurious resort and wedding palace after another, all fringing the South China Sea. Apparently, suburban Danang is the place many Vietnamese choose for a beach vacation or to get married. “Be patient,” says Huang, “we are almost there.”

In 1999, Hoi An was officially named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More than any other locale in Vietnam, it boasts a rich and diverse history that includes Chinese, Japanese and French periods, each bequeathing cultural icons that coexist today in a unique mosaic of art, architecture and customs. The town was fortunate to escape bombing in the war and remains completely intact. We hear that it is also one of the few places in the country where tourism has been seamlessly integrated into the daily lives of the people.

“Hoi An once had the largest harbor in Southeast Asia. It was known as Champa City, home of the Cham people who controlled the spice trade in the 11th century and became very wealthy,” Huang explains. Situated at the estuary of the Thu Bon River that spills into the sea, Hoi An was later ruled by the Nguyen lords and soon became the most important Vietnamese trading port on the South China Sea. By the 18th century, Chinese and Japanese merchants considered Hoi An to be the premier trade conduit between Europe, China, India, and Japan, particularly for hand-painted ceramics.

In Hoi An, golden burnished buildings are a legacy of its multicultural past.
All at once, the old town comes into view: a jumble of mottled buildings bathed in golden light, its narrow streets filled with colorful pagodas, temples, meeting halls and family shrines, a handful of museums and countless handicraft stores. Interspersed are numerous restaurants, bars and hole-in-the-wall eateries outfitted with tiny plastic chairs and tables clustered right on the sidewalk. You can tell at a glance that tradition plays a big role here. We can hardly wait for our walking tour tomorrow.

Sidewalk eateries are filled with customers seated on tiny plastic chairs.

Huang makes a strategic stop at Yaly Couture, a stylish emporium that can make custom clothing and shoes for its patrons in just two days, delivering them neatly packaged to one’s hotel. Two floors are packed with bolts of exquisite silks and other fabrics suitable for suits, shirts, dresses, and you name it. “You choose a style. We make for you,” announces one of the salesgirls. After browsing and deliberating, we get measured and soon our orders are in place for very modest sums. Hoi An’s women and even men are accomplished tailors. “Of course, they learn their trade from an early age,” clarifies Huang. “The people here can make anything. They will even copy your prescription glasses from a pair you already have.”

We unload our luggage at the Anantara Resort, a sprawling property on well-landscaped grounds abutting the river at the edge of town and featuring elegant accommodations and a huge outdoor pool. Huang has promised to take us to lunch at a riverside eatery known for Hoi An specialties. This is a town to explore on foot and we stroll past several enterprising laundresses who hawk their services, pushcarts with knock-off designer shirts, a tiny stall displaying locally made silver bracelets, and shops packed with bamboo and silk lanterns. Everywhere, burning incense adds atmosphere to an already exotic retail experience.

Colorful silk and bamboo lanterns are the signature craft of Hoi An.
Dao Tien is situated on two terraces with the lovely view of the river. Part of a new restaurant group, it is operated by a husband and wife team whose cooking is known throughout the country. Chef Le Quoc turns out many signature dishes, including “money bags,” crispy wonton skins filled with juicy morsels of pork and herbs, and mi quãng , a piquant pork and shrimp dish in a tangy broth. Huang tells us that a couple of families in Hoi An make special “secret recipe” cao lau rice noodles using water from Ba Le, a centuries-old well that gives the noodles a unique chewy taste not found anywhere else in Vietnam. Another unexpected ingredient is a sprinkling of ash!

Delectable “Money bags,” are the favorite local appetizer.

By early evening the light on the muddy Thu Bon turns golden and the town shifts into high gear. Strolling tourists and locals gather near the Japanese covered bridge (Chua Cau), the town’s most renowned landmark at the western end of the main street. It was built around 1593 to link the Japanese quarter to the Chinese neighborhood, about 40 years before the Japanese community of Hoi An returned en masse to Japan under the policy of sakoku (no foreign travel) enforced by the Sogunate. The bridge was renovated in 1986 and is framed by statues of monkeys on one end and dogs on the other. According to Huang, the bridge is positioned to block a monster storm from entering the town. A small altar inside accepts offerings to the Taoist god of rain and wind.

We walk at a leisurely pace past old merchant houses that function as tiny fix-it shops, tailors and grocers. Our side of the river and the island side across are alive with bikers, hundreds of pedestrians, even a few ducks who waddle on the quay and then head back to the river. Three well-coiffed young mothers in flowing silk dresses are pushing baby carriages, followed by a group of housewives hauling bags heavy with last minute dinner provisions and bouquets of flowers. French teenagers are perusing picture menus at a large restaurant near the pedestrian bridge that crosses to the island. It is obvious that tourism has benefitted Hoi An, yet reassuring that the old ways and eclectic charm of the town remain undiminished. I notice dozens of tiny altars wafting incense. Buddhism is alive and well in Vietnam, and Huang believes that this religion is the reason so many Vietnamese have been able to put the traumas of the War behind them. “In Buddhism, we move on and we don’t dwell on the past. We are a serene people.”

The friendly waitress finds us an outdoor table at Mango Mango, an upscale restaurant opposite the Japanese Bridge. Here, chef Le Duc introduces new tastes to Hoi An by fusing Latin and Mediterranean flavors with local ingredients. Apparently he spent time in California and brought some culinary tricks back. Our zucchini and feta dish is almost Greek, but with a bit of local seasoning, and tiger prawns are served with a spicy mango salsa. Even our tropical drinks are an Asian twist on margaritas.

The glittering night market next door is crowded with shoppers. We meander past stall after stall displaying silk lanterns aglow in many colors, enameled bracelets, tiny “opium” jugs, ceramic bowls and figurines, vivid silk scarves and tiny dolls with bamboo hats. Officially, Vietnam is a communist country, but capitalism has made great inroads with so many locals passionately engaged in their own little enterprises.

Huang is already waiting for us at the hotel lobby in the morning to begin our exploration of the old town. We are delighted that vehicles are not permitted on the main streets during the day and it is easy to move around as we wish. Most of the houses are wooden with many original features completely intact. “Typical Vietnamese houses are tube-shaped,” says Huang, “meaning narrow and very deep.” Chinese and Japanese elements often co-exist in the same house, and some of these houses have been in one family for many generations. Most of the original Chinese community intermarried long ago, nonetheless many of their customs live on.

Our first stop is at the Cantonese Assembly Hall on Tran Phu Street. It is fronted by an elaborate gateway with red pillars and swirling dragon roof ornaments. Like most of these structures, it contains a series of courtyards and buildings where Chinese residents hailing from a particular region in China came to socialize, discuss community affairs, pray and celebrate.

“Ladies, right foot first, as you step over the threshold, gentlemen, left first,” Huang directs us to follow Yin and Yang protocol. Red is the predominant color inside, considered good luck by the Chinese. A series of rooms and courtyards provide places to sit or pray. Everywhere bas reliefs, vivid silk hangings and ornamental plants delight the eye. Dominating a shrine room is an unusual statue of the red-faced warrior Cuang Cong, a deified Chinese general who is beloved in Vietnam. Huang tells us that the hall holds an annual festival for ancestor worship on 15th of the first lunar month.

An imposing, tile-roofed gateway welcomes visitors to the Fukien Assembly Hall.
Down the same street, the grandest structure is the Puc Kien (Fukien) Assembly Hall, originally built in 1697. The exterior gate and halls have green roof tiles and the courtyards are filled with evocative animal statues that symbolize qualities such as wisdom, achievement, nobility and longevity. Inside, large rooms come alive with colorful murals that depict the fate of seafarers. In one dramatic scene a huge wave is about to engulf an unfortunate ship. Our eyes are drawn to a miniature model of a sailing junk that plied the South China Sea. In the altar room, the goddess Thien Hau, the protector of sailors and fishermen, is revered. Flanking her statue are two sister goddesses who assist in hearing sounds of faraway ships and spotting them among the waves. “The sea gives life but also takes it away,” Huang remarks. “You can imagine how important it is for the people of Hoi An to keep Thien Hau on their side.” Her festival is celebrated with great pomp on the 23rd day of the third lunar month in several areas of the country.

The much-revered goddess Thien Hau (center) is the protector of seafarers.

The house of Tan Ky on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street is over 200 years old and welcomes a constant flow of visitors. Over the doorframe are a couple of “eyes,” talismans to ward off bad luck. Our gracious host seats us in the richly decorated anteroom, passing out tiny cups of tea as he delves into a bit of history. “This house has been in the same family for about ten generations and extends all the way back to the street fronting the river,” he tells us. The style of the house is a blend of Chinese and Japanese, with ironwood and jackwood lacquered walls attached to massive beams with wooden pegs. The ceiling has a crab shell design. Passing through the living quarters, I notice white lines on many walls that delineate high water marks from numerous floods endured by the family over the centuries when the mighty Thu Bon inundated the town during storms. We check a long-term weather app on my iPhone and notice that a typhoon is heading to central Vietnam. “Good thing we will be gone by then,” I tell everyone.

Intrigued by unusual paintings in a window, we stop at Hoang Trong Tien’s studio/shop at 107 Tran Phu Street. “Come in, come in. Welcome,” beckons Tien. We spend a good hour looking through his stash of paintings. Apparently, he was born near Hue during the country’s turbulent war period and his early paintings, many in black and white, evoke the turmoil of those years with glowing molten earth and lifeless trees, a flowing lava landscape that seems to carry a village to doom. He uses traditional brushes and a palette knife when dabbing his paint onto the canvas, and when he feels the need, he switches to a fingernail to create the impressionistic mood he wants to achieve. With Vietnam’s burgeoning economy and recent upward mobility, Tien has now shifted to a vibrant color palette. We choose a black and white painting that Tien tells us “is entirely from my imagination.” Our friends opt for a vivid painting with yellow and orange gradations. With expressive arms flying up in the air, Tien demonstrates just how much he “felt” the sunset and the landscape as he was painting it.

Huang leads us to Miss Ly Café on Nguyen Hue Street for a quick bite of lunch. The walls are decorated with hand-painted portraits of genteel Vietnamese girls, perhaps the work of Miss Ly herself. In a corner, a tall American enjoying a huge bowl of soup with noodles waves us in. He is the husband of the cook and tells us the food is quite delicious. We follow his example and order soup (pho) and a few sides. “Hello, I’m Nathan,” he says, “I came to Hoi An a few years back and I never left.” Apparently, a lot of expats and former soldiers have settled here. “This town is magic,” he continues, “there is no stress and everyone is so kind.” We agree. The people of Vietnam are the biggest gift of all and it is a joy to be among them.

It is twilight and the sun is beginning to sink in the horizon as we board a little boat that will transport us to Red Bridge Cooking School located two kilometers up river. We have just been through that wonderful food market again, this time with Anh, a representative from Red Bridge who demonstrated how to pick produce, examine and select fresh fish, and determine which spices and herbs are the best of the lot.

Fishermen ply the muddy Thu Bon River, once central Vietnam’s premier trade conduit.

The river ride is magical. Lanterns in town come to life at dusk and are reflected in myriad hues in the water. Overhead, billowy cloud formations in the sky have been transformed by some Vietnamese deity into a delicate palette of ochre and violet. We pass many fishermen heading out to sea in their sampans. They will return with their night catch in the wee hours in time for the morning market. The engine putters along, and soon a red bridge can be seen ahead complete with a little dock.

It’s almost dark, but Anh takes us on a quick tour of the school’s organic herb garden. It is very extensive, with everything from lemongrass and purple perilla to Vietnamese basil, sorrel and several types of mint. The class is being held in a large outdoor pavilion and we are directed to go wash our hands. Chef Mimi introduces herself, giving out instructions and printed recipes. Each of us has a workstation with a gas burner. A side table includes plates of ingredients, all neatly organized. Mimi demonstrates how to make rice paper for a spring roll, and then how to fill and roll it up. We each get to try our hand at it. Not too bad. Our next act is a Vietnamese pancake and it is a little tricky to make it perfectly round. We prepare a shrimp salad to serve in a hollowed pineapple, and then attempt to carve a rose out of a tomato, followed by cucumber curls. The final recipe is Vietnamese eggplant, simmered in a clay pot flavored with crushed lemongrass and honey. It’s a refreshing dish with a seductive tanginess. As we maneuver over our burners, Huang snaps pictures at all angles of his fledgling chefs.

Chef Mimi demonstrates how to curl a cucumber.

“Now it’s time to eat and I hope you are hungry,” says Mimi as we sit down at a long table overlooking the river. Everything tastes extraordinary mixed with the sweat of our brow. The school adds some of its specialties to our meal and it is a feast to remember. “Ngon, Cám on” (delicious, thank you), we tell the staff and make a vow to try out some Vietnamese cooking at home.

It’s a sleepy Sunday morning. We have a few hours left before departing and venture out to the old town again. Streets are pretty quiet and not many shops are open yet. Several old ladies in conical hats are sweeping the stoops in front of their shops. A scooter laden with a towering stack of boxes is making a delivery to a sidewalk eatery. Shopkeepers are hanging up T-shirts, pantaloons and blouses, sandals and purses, postcards and bead necklaces. Xin chào (hello), they greet us with broad smiles. We stop to take photographs and are pleased to see how much the locals enjoy posing for pictures.

An impromptu parade is led by a colorful character sporting an elaborate, bearded mask.

Suddenly, pandemonium breaks out as people step away to make room for a small parade of costumed men approaching from the river quay. Musicians are playing horns and drums with gusto. A cyclo is loaded down with a large wreath festooned with ribbons and flowers. A second cyclo follows with a colorful mini shrine glowing with candles and wafting incense. And then the grand finale: Nearly a dozen men outfitted in blue and white and small conical hats come into view. They are carrying a magnificent large shrine on shoulder poles. Marching in front of them is a startling character, perhaps a local patriarch, wearing a colorful headdress with a dramatic white mask and an elongated black beard. In a booming voice, he shouts out whimsical pronouncements that have the spectators erupting into gales of laughter. We stumble into an English speaker who tells us that this is an impromptu parade “celebrating the Bolshevik Revolution,” a required festivity dictated by the Hoi An branch of the communist party. It hardly looks Bolshevik to us, but more like a typical Asian celebration of a revered ancestor. Boisterous it is and the spectators are eating it up, including us.

Two hours later, our van is winding up the coastal mountains headed to the imperial city of Hue. The scenery is breathtaking, but I can’t seem to get the images of the parade and the intimacy and warmth of Hoi An out of my mind.

“How often do you feel like this on a trip?” I comment to Huang. He smiles with satisfaction. “Didn’t I tell you that you would wish you could stay a whole week?”