PAUL J. MOONEY

Freelance Journalist

South China Morning Post, Feb 12, 2006


Step back in time

BY PAUL MOONEY

Is history your passion? If so, you'll be delighted by a visit to Unesco World Heritage site Hoi An, in Vietnam, which boasts beautiful Asian and European architecture. Want to relax in the sun? White-sand beaches and resort hotels sit just outside town. Shopping your bag? Hoi An's tailors are known around the world for their dexterity. Hungry? It is one of the country's culinary hotspots. Hoi An: something for everyone.

Hoi An had become an important international port by the 16th century, with ships calling from around Asia, Europe and the Americas to trade in silk, elephant tusks, porcelain, cinnamon and herbs. The river silted up in the early 20th century, bringing an end to the town's status as a trade hub. Fortunately, it avoided damage during the Vietnam war and much of its history remains intact.

The small streets are lined with colonial buildings in becoming egg-yolk yellows, lime greens and bubble-gum pinks. Because of its 1950s look, Hoi An provided the setting for the 2002 film adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, which starred Michael Caine. Buddhist temples, Chinese halls and pagodas can be found between houses, while there is also a pretty covered bridge, built by Japanese architects about 400 years ago. At either end sit a pair of stone guardians, monkeys at one and dogs at the other, which are said to represent the lunar years in which construction began and ended.

One of the most charming aspects of Hoi An is the river that runs through it. At the bustling riverfront market, where stalls are piled high with vegetables and buckets of wriggling fish, housewives haggle with vendors, eyes hidden beneath conical hats. Older residents sit on stools at cafes along the waterfront, sipping thick Vietnamese coffee as schoolgirls pedal by, the long tails of their delicate ao dais flying behind them in the wind.

Boats take visitors down the Thu Bon River, past children swimming and people fishing. We pause beside a small boat as an old man tosses his net into the water; he does it several times so we can photograph him. Our captain flings some dong across the water and we're on our way.

The first stop is Thanh Ha, which is known for its red pottery. A woman stands kneading clay and using her right foot to push the kick wheel, while a grandmother sits on the floor shaping the clay on the spinning surface. Next is Kim Bong Village, with its furniture factories and shipbuilders working the way they have for centuries, the only modern concession being the use of chainsaws.

The food is another delight. The most popular dish is cao lau, thick rice noodles with pork, coriander, bean sprouts and croutons. Locals say what makes the dish special is the water from the old Ba Le well. Banh bao banh vac (white rose shrimp-stuffed flour dumplings) are also particularly tasty, as are one of the best vestiges of colonial rule: the crusty loaves of French bread sold on street corners.

Cafes serve coffee prepared at your table in a small press. The special aroma is apparently the result of the beans being roasted with butter. I avoid sampling the famous chon coffee, made from Vietnam's most expensive beans. Weasels roaming coffee plantations eat the beans, which are then scooped from their faeces and roasted. This process gives the beans their unique flavour.

I manage to leave Hoi An without a new wardrobe - no mean feat considering handmade clothes are absurdly cheap and the touts are possibly the most aggressive in the world. Visitors are ambushed on arrival with the give-away greeting, 'Where are you from?' Wherever you are from, those touts have friends there.

The shops they represent display reams of silk, cotton, wool, denim, corduroy and cashmere in more colours than can be found in a giant box of Crayolas. Flip through one of the fashion magazines at a shop to pick the style you want, or suggest your own design ideas.

I'm invited for yet more coffee with a former government official anxious to use his rusty English. A shop owner invites me into her house to show me old family photographs and her small Catholic shrine. A bar owner tells me how his father emigrated to Hoi An from China and how his brother was killed in the Vietnam war, pointing to a mountain in the distance where he died.

Sitting outside a cafe one morning, a Vietnamese girl of about 10 coasts by on a bicycle, giving me a sweet smile I'll never forget. Everyone, it seems, has friends in Hoi An.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) and Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) operate code-share flights from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, with connecting flights to Danang, a US$12 taxi ride from Hoi An.