We woke up bright and early for our flight to Đà Nẵng. It was the beginning of Vietnamese Labor Day and also the anniversary of the end of the war with America, so it was a big time for Vietnamese people to travel together. The family unit is very strong in Vietnamese culture so this meant that the airport was covered in screaming children climbing over whatever was the nearest climbable object to them. Their presence amazingly did not do too much to slow us down. We were at the airport and through security in no time.
It was about a quick 1 hour 15 minute flight down to middle Vietnam. From the airport we were driven 40 minutes outside of Đà Nẵng to Hội An. However, we did come back in for some light exploration and lunch on our way out. Đà Nẵng is really not worth the trip if you don’t plan on leaving the city; Đà Nẵng’s true value lays in what it is close to. It is a mere jumping off point for other, more worthwhile destinations in the surrounding area. For us, that was Hội An, but there are other places worth exploring all around it. One of these places is Huế, the old imperial city to the North. You will notice that most guide books list activities that are clearly not within Đà Nẵng’s city limits – that is because Đà Nẵng, if we’re being honest, kind of sucks. It does have a very nice stretch of beach, but most of that is owned by one of the many high-end hotels and resorts that have taken over the beachfront. Driving past this never-ending stretch of wealth was a little weird.
So my opinion on Đà Nẵng is that, aside from its strategically placed airport, it doesn’t have much to offer.
Hội An, however, is one of the coolest and most beautiful places I have ever seen.
Hoi An: An Introduction
Hội An was a very important trading post of the old world. It was the opinion of most Chinese and Japanese merchants that Hội An was the best trading post in Southeast Asia, if not Asia at large. However, thanks to a treaty signed with the colonizing French, Đà Nẵng eventually became the port of choice in lieu of Hội An. Also, due to a build up of silt at the mouth of the river, Hội An became all but inaccessible to the large ships that used to frequent its docks. The effect of this was isolation. The ancient town of Hội An was all but forgotten about during Vietnam’s tumultuous next 200 years.
It is thanks to that isolation that today Hội An it still looks more or less as it was. The architecture is hard to place exactly because it has been very strongly influenced by the Japanese, Chinese and French traders that frequented the port. If you were to be dropped in Hội An with no prior knowledge or linguistic clues about where you were, it would be difficult to guess exactly where in Asia you were.
In Vietnam today Hội An has a reputation not only for its unique beauty, but for its food. So after a long sweaty walk into the old part of town, our first order of business was to get fed. We walked into a restaurant in an old building an ordered the traditional cao lầu noodles, otherwise known as “Chicken Noodles”. We also ordered a second noodle based dish that was apparently local to Quảng Nam Province. Neither dish tasted particularly special to be honest. They were just okay.
As we ate the woman who owned the restaurant explained to us the reason that she had strung up a small piece of cactus over her door. Apparently it is protect her and her family from having the bad luck of outsiders rub off on them when they enter their home. After we finished our meal we went out exploring.
Have you ever been walking through New York City when suddenly your route is blocked by a group of 9 oblivious Asian tourists walking slower than slow with their arms interlocked so that nobody can pass by? It has always been a big pet peeve of mine and with all of Vietnam on holiday that weekend, that it what it was like walking around… except that they were all Asian. And the streets were narrower.
During our time navigating through the Asian masses, something strange happened. Strange has become my normal but this stood out. A man tapped me on the arm, and with some brief hand gestures indicating his desire to take a photo. In Vietnam it is pretty normal for people to ask to take a picture with me (I think it's because I'm so tall) so I said yes. But then, instead of turning to stand next to me he handed his infant child to me. The child instantly started squirming and whimpering uncomfortably when he was placed in my hands but he didn’t seem to care. The man took a couple photographs of me, looking confused, holding his crying child at an arm’s length and then thanked me.
Whatever, moving on.
Hoi An @ Night
The Lighting of The Lanterns
The main event in Hội An is lighting the lanterns at night. These are where the famous pictures come from. As the afternoon fades away into the evening, the lamps begin to be lit, one by one. Seemingly every public structure, including the bridge, lights up in some way. As it gets darker old women and children appear in the crowd and at the water front selling small paper lamps with candles inside. They cost about 20,000 VND (1 USD). You buy one and put it into the river. Eventually the river too is aglow with candle light flickering against the quiet ripples of the water in the canals. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Here are some pictures:
I bought a few lamps and put them into the water. We took a boat ride with a kind old woman who gave us more lamps. Floating through the canals we lowered our lanterns into the water and watched them float off and fade into the blurry lights in the distance. It was a good moment in time.
The next morning we slept in, and then headed back to Đà Nẵng for our flight to Cambodia.