Postcard from Hội An

Postcard from Hoi An

(Image © Chris Rowlands)

Dazzled as if in a dream, Modern Traveller pens a note home from Vietnam’s melting pot paradise.

WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER | PICTURES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS

Iridescent paper lanterns dangle from doorways, their bright blues, emerald greens and ruby reds dazzling the passersby who stroll along the riverfront as sun-drenched day gives to way early evening.

Nestled along the banks of the meandering Thu Bon River, this UNESCO-protected gem has been a melting pot for hundreds of years. The Chinese and Japanese traders, whose stamp remains everywhere, have been replaced by the ubiquitous backpacker, the family on holiday, the eager, camera-toting tourist: Hội An grips travellers, old and new, in its thrall.

Wading through the heavy heat, voices a little hushed, visitors are entranced by tendrils of bougainvillea clinging to peeling, yellow-painted walls. Gnarled trees, set along the riverside, balance those world-renowned lucky lanterns amidst their leaves and branches. The meditative flow of the river, on its way to bigger things, coaxes life into slowing down enough to breathe, to contemplate, and to admire.

Shopfronts stacked high with shimmering fabrics — material from which gorgeous gowns, swish suits and tapered trousers will be crafted — leave no question as to the town’s most famous 21st-century export.

Gold-lettered signs swing on rusty hinges as tentative visitors step into shaded interiors and seamstresses buzz about, wielding faded measuring tapes. Attempts to make oneself understood lead to gales of laughter — on both sides — and we can only cross our fingers and hope that our visions will be realised, in a day or three.

Wanderers discover artists’ workshops and photographers’ studios, brimming with tantalising snapshots of life here. Chinese pagodas house impeccably decorated fountains, miniature bonsai gardens and twists of smoking incense, dangling, as the archetypal lanterns do, from the dark wooden ceilings.

Stepping across Chùa Cầu, the ancient Japanese covered-bridge, is to step back into another era. Local families open their splendid traditional homes, and we have the privilege of being escorted through a tiny portion of the town’s heritage by the lovely eldest daughter of one clan, her elegant áo dài fluttering in the gust of air which steals in through sea-green shutters – living history at its very best.

Returning by way of the market, we sidestep hawkers shouting over the chaos and locals haggling over unfamiliar spices. Still-live fish wriggle in plastic buckets, cats bask on hot cobbles and bicycles swerve amidst the mayhem, heavily laden with still more coconuts.

Exhausted, the weary wanderer perches at a rickety table by the roadside, eager to savour the local flavours recommended by the smiling lady owner of this hole-in-the-wall-eatery, whose puppy comes immediately to rest alongside the traveller’s sandalled feet.

It is all too easy to succumb to Hội An’s enduring charm; to watch the world go by to the tune of the lapping river and the shouts of the last of the day’s street-sellers, and to catch a glimpse of those vibrant lanterns, swaying gently in the evening air.


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