Friday, May 9, 2014

Hoi An - an ancient melting pot frozen in time

One of the best things with living in Singapore is how so many amazing places are so easily reachable - countless major cities and old centers of civilization are just a short flight away, with no need to fight any jetlag. Recently, I flew with two friends to Hoi An over a long weekend; just three hours after boarding the plane at Changi, we were all checked in and looking for the best available local restaurant for dinner. Easy!
Of course, we all vowed not to be interested in shopping, but only in culture - which Hoi An is well-known for, having been an international melting pot of culture and trade since the days of the Champa Kingdom from 2nd century and onwards. Despite its long history, its golden era took place later; an important commercial port was built and developed in the 15th to 16th centuries. During the 17th and 18th centuries, traders from Far East, Southeast Asia and India, and all the way from Portugal, Spain, Holland, Italy, England and France anchored here to trade goods like silk, spices, pottery and porcelain, aloe wood and swallows' nests (the last of which probably didn't end up in Europe...). Traders from many nationalities were allowed to settle down, build their businesses and preserve their own customs, which transformed the ancient little trading port into the biggest commercial port of Vietnam, and into a melting pot for cultures from both East and West.

All was well until 19th century, when a new port was built in Da Nang, only 30 kilometers away, but far enough to make Hoi An miss out the new winds of business and development. Missing trading, its lifeblood since ancient times, Hoi An slowly languished away. The old city continued its old ways of life, like a sleepwalker frozen in time, until it was "discovered" again by cultural enthusiasts in late 20th century. Hoi An was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1999 as a treasure of human cultural heritage, which of course has made the city busy again - there simply is no more effective way of attracting hoards of middle-aged (and often somewhat wealthy) tourists, than being included  to that list. (Please keep quiet if your favorite place is dear to you...).
Loaded with handicrafts - lantern makers, tailors, shoemakers, jewelry, pottery, you name it - Hoi An somehow managed to turn us from "temples only, please" kind of tourists into intensive shoppers. But despite crowds and all commercial attractions, Hoi An has still great charm; the buildings are stunningly beautiful  - and not renovated to an inch of their lives; the local people unfailingly friendly, and the local food - oh well, where do I start?
The Japanese Bridge - built by Japanese traders in 16th-17th century - has a small Buddhist temple attached to one side. Somewhat of a symbol for Hoi An, it is constantly surrounded by tour groups.

A local fruit vendor with the typical round baskets that are carried on shoulders. The Japanese bridge to the left, decorated with a pomegranate, a common symbol for fertility and abundance in both China and Japan. The roof is beautifully decorated with blue and white porcelain plates - wares that were traded in Hoi An since ancient times.

 Lantern makers build and sell their wares in the small ancient houses.
Some of the old houses are in complete disrepair - and make dream projects for wealthy "expats" from both Vietnam and other countries.

Small temples, clan houses and shops door to door - the commerce continues, just like it has always done through many centuries... Two versions of "shou", the sign for longevity, on the red wooden doors - it was used as a decorational element in countless places.

A Chinese tourist group on an excursion.  

  A shop with beautiful handicrafts, housed in an old building with signs from the French colonial times reading "Savonnerie Xa Phong" - see under the windows.

A beautiful door inside the temple grounds - I absolutely loved the color palette of the buildings in Hoi An - soft blues, ochre yellows and reds, leafy greens... so beautifully combined.

The temple was dedicated to Ma Zu, a sea goddess, and had all suitable paraphernalia - like this sailing boat, a great reminder of Hoi An's past. 

More of the lovely colors... this soft blue with a drop of lavender probably was my favorite. 

An old lady selling ceramic figures representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac - I just had to buy all 12 of them...
Flowers and traditional baskets outside the market - I really wanted a set of the baskets, complete with the "carrying parts", but couldn't think of a way to transport them back.

What should we play next?

Pottery from one of the many shipwrecks by the coast near Hoi An. Ceramics and porcelain were traded here for centuries, and every now and then disaster struck - even today, many shops sell "shipwreck goods", and it is difficult to know if they really are that, or just pretending...

 A man sweeping clean the steps to a Chinese clan house.

View from a restaurant where we had drinks at the roof top - with a pole of red lanterns attracting customers.

And finally, the riverside at Hoi An, with more restaurants and colorful lanterns.

No comments: