The Annamite Mountains divide Vietnam’s one thousand mile strip of mountains and beaches along the Pacific Ocean. The south is tropical year round, but northern winters can be cold and damp. Political upheaval in the late 18th century led to the Nguyen Dynasty’s triumphant unification of the northern and southern factions in the early 1800s.
Yet political upheaval seems to have been the natural order often until 1975. The end of America’s Vietnam War allowed the Vietnamese to concentrate on what they enjoy the most — doing business. Whether it’s a BMW auto dealership in Hanoi or a convenience store in a rowboat on a bay, the Vietnamese are capitalists. It’s part of the throb of real life in Vietnam.
Part of life is also stunning natural beauty, crazy traffic, the silence of fog on a bay and the iridescence of a fresh pearl just shucked from its shell. One trip is not enough. This exploration highlights five key destinations in the north.
The allure of silk: its soft feel, its shimmer, its character to absorb vibrant colors, its legend of luxury, its power. No other fabric has caused the rise and fall of empires or led legions of adventurous merchants to risk life and fortune. For centuries the Silk Road linked the fabled kingdom’s of Asia with the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The expensive, arduous and dangerous journey fed into the mystique of an enigmatic Orient – a land of meditation and mass murder, tea and opium, the Buddha and Pol Pot.
Yet during 19th and 20th century domination by European empires over Asia’s economies, silk was overshadowed by more lucrative commodities – opium, tea, rubber. By the end of the Second World War, large scale manufacture of silk cloth in Southeast Asia had been reduced to a cottage industry, a victim of hard economic times, war and changing fashion – synthetics. It took an entrepreneurial visionary – a risk taker – to revive Asian silk.
As an artist Jim Thompson was drawn to the rich colors and expressive designs of what was by the mid-1940’s a tiny cottage industry in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand and northern Malaysian jungle villages. These villagers were using centuries old silk worm farming techniques, natural dyes and ancient tools to produce stunning yards of intricately woven fabric – and selling them for a pittance.
Born into a Delaware clothing manufacturing family in 1906, educated at prestigious schools, a successful and well connected architect and designer, Jim Thompson chucked it all after becoming disillusioned with life by the late 1930’s. Joining the army at the start of World War II, he was recruited into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Sent to Thailand late in the war to infiltrate the Japanese occupation, he was assigned to head American intelligence in Bangkok. The war ended shortly after parachutting into the country, but Thompson liked Bangkok and made the decision to stay. That’s when he discovered the Muslim silk weavers.
Jim Thompson cultivated personal relationships with the village weavers assuring them of markets for their cloth which did not yet exist. He encouraged the weavers not to give up the old methods and tweaked traditional designs for western clientele. (He later established a Muslim weaving quarter next to his compound across the canal. Today, wandering the Thompson House grounds, you can clearly hear the daily calls to prayer). Ensconced in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel, he effortlessly, it’s said, schmoozed with wealthy ex-patriots and visitors personally marketing Thai silk cloth. Within a few years his Thai Silk Company attracted the patronage of Vogue magazine and Irene Sharaff, fashion designer for the musical The King and I. By the early 1950’s Thai silk was an international rage, silk weaving was once again a vibrant home industry and Jim Thompson was dubbed the Silk King.
Thompson became a celebrity in Bangkok and a confidant to the rich and famous. His parties at the unique compound he created in the city were frequent with an eclectic mix of the business and art worlds. Using his considerable skills in architecture and design, he melded together six antique teak wood houses brought from various areas of Thailand into a compound including his home, workshops and retail space. It doesn’t hurt that he filled the grounds with gardens, pools and priceless Oriental antiques.
Although Thai Silk Company products are legendary today and available in elegant shops, Jim Thompson himself is simply a legend – or an enigma. In 1967 while visiting friends at their country house in northern Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk and within minutes had disappeared. No word was ever heard, his body never found. Speculation/conspiracy theories run rampant even today – a truck hit him and the driver took the body, a large animal ate him, he was still working for the CIA and was either eliminated by them or Communist guerillas (although he questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam war), or perhaps he simply wanted to chuck it all again and went native. Oddly, only 6-months later his wealthy sister was mysteriously murdered at her Pennsylvania estate – no robbery, no alarm, even her dogs didn’t bark.
Carol Cassidy, on the other hand, is hearty, alive and well in Vientiane, Laos. When I met her for the first time a couple of months ago, she took me back to the workshop with a very worried expression saying she’d ruined a run of silk. Not the first words I expected from one of the world’s most renowned women in the art. She showed me this beautiful skein of shimmering teal silk. That was a mistake?? It just wasn’t the exact shade she wanted for the project, and considering silk is made by a worm, it’s not like she can run down to the local 7/11. Traditional arts for a contemporary clientele are long, serious work.
The scion of a prominent Connecticut family, Carol was the first American allowed to establish a business in post-1975 Laos, Lao Textiles, in 1990. This was after a career with a variety of NGO’s world-wide as a textile expert. Although she’s frequently compared to Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Co., their business model is the only similarity. Both use traditionally trained weavers, pay fair wages and build personal relationships with the craftspeople. Yet where Thai Silk’s designs are for a mainstream international market, Cassidy specializes in made-to-order art hangings and clothing utilizing traditional Lao patterns. This carries over to the very limited runs of products available in the atmospheric 19th century French Villa showroom/workshop. Most are one of a kind Carol Cassidy wearable art in Lao silk and a terrific memory of that beautiful country.
Local non-profit organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts exist in all Southeast Asian countries. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative has been organizing village craftspeople and marketing their work since 1976.
Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a large vocational school complex for carving and graphic arts in town and a sizable silk farm and weaving operation just outside the city. The school particularly trains the disabled.
Whether it’s adventure, fortune, art or simply a way to make a living, silk has never ceased to fascinate:
“Upon them shall be garments of fine green silk and thick silk interwoven with gold, and they shall be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” ~the Quran
“He who has little silver in his pouch must have the more silk on his tongue.”~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803 – 1873)
“Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas it’s hard to get up early” ~ Eddie Arcaro (1916 – 1997)
For a tourist town, Hoi An has a surprising number of decent restaurants at some of the lowest prices outside the major cities. My first dinner in this city of 200 + year-old-buildings was at a hip new boutique hotel and café, River Lounge (35 Nguyen Phu Chu). The simple, modern white interior provides a nice foil for imaginative interpretations of traditional Vietnamese cuisine.
Take simple cream of pumpkin soup, found on so many menus, River Lounge serves a cream foam topped with the seasoned pumpkin puree in a swirl on top in a tall clear glass. The textures of hot puree mixing with cooler cream, as well as the visual, is a nice touch. The rest of the meal was equally satisfying.
An assortment of spring rolls, an entrée of grilled river fish with steamed morning glory greens and lime foam and fresh noodles and one of boneless chicken in a sesame/soy/ginger reduction accompanied by a block of rice and grilled mango. Dessert was a perfectly executed creme caramel topped with a crunchy ginger sugar glaze.
Cafe Can(74 Bach Dang St.) is one of many Hoi An river front restaurants that all basically offer the same menu. Cafe Can caught my eye for both its pleasing outdoor dining and its large wood charcoal grill off to the side with fresh fish and seafood for dinner. In simple large pots of aerated water are freshly caught giant prawns, crabs and clams.
Sold by weight, they are best grilled napped with a variety of herb/garlic/ginger/soy sauces. The meal was accompanied by a large platter of steamed vegetables and mushrooms, with a large local beer.
A variety of other preparations, from fish baked in banana leaves to fried as well as non-fish dishes are available. Being open to the street directly across from the river, don’t be surprised when more than one street vendor wander in selling bracelets, the English language Vietnam Times, dried fruit and homemade candies. It’s all part of Vietnam.
Dem Hoi Bar & Restaurant, just down the block from Cafe Can, has the advantage of a beautiful French colonial building with a large open second floor that offers stunning views of the river and Hoi An harbor. The menu is decent – nothing surprising but well prepared.
Over on the French Quarter are several cafes that serve, if lucky and they are available at the market, Vietnamese delicacies such as pig’s brain and eel. The brain was unavailable but the eel was nicely fried in a light batter – tasted a lot like trout (see, not chicken!) The Hoi An Market is classic offering everything from hot soup to wonderful French crepes topped with coconut ice cream (top right).
When it comes to hotels there is a large selection of accommodations with many moderately priced first class venues. The newest choices are on the expanding residential island of Cam Nan, a 10 minute walk across the bridge from the Old City. Cam Nan Island is quiet with a pleasant mixture of old wooden houses with vegetable plots to the larger homes of new middle class residents.
Windbell Homestay Villa has an established reputation for comfort, service and a good restaurant. Set around a central garden and beautiful blue tiled swimming pool, this family run hotel offers spacious rooms with lots of windows that open onto nice private vistas letting in the sea breeze. Including a full breakfast, strong Wi-Fi, double rooms average in the low US$100s.
Serving all meals, the Windbell Homestay is one of the rare small hotels with a full service restaurant with everything freshly made to order. A Hoi An specialty, White Rose, (bottom left) is a delicate dumpling filled with savory mixtures which the Windbell does particularly nice as well as spicy shrimp, Beef Pho (upper left) and a great herb calamari sauté on mint and watercress (upper right). Add a bottle of white or red from Vietnam’s largest winery, Vang Dalat and you’ll enjoy a pleasant meal overlooking the lit gardens and pool. (Vang Dalat will not win any awards soon).
The Hoi An Folk Art Museum is well worth a visit. It has a fine display of traditional tools, everyday life items, artistic and musical traditions, the important silk weaving industry and some contemporary art. The large 18th century structure is a treasure in itself.
Hoi An is one of those rare villages tourism has revived that, as of yet, has not been destroyed by its success. Perhaps it’s the strong merchant background of old Hoi An – sails and a port still equals sales. It doesn’t hurt having a strong preservation ethic among the town leaders. New construction in the Old City was following strict building codes using the same materials and methods of construction as 200 years ago. That commitment bodes well that even though it will remain a tourist town, Hoi An’s real, still going about its business and beautiful.
I’ll start with song. We just happened to arrive on the opening day of the First Vietnam International Choir Festival and Competition Hoi An. Unfortunately, the Opening Ceremony was an open air event and it rained, light but steady, although that did not damper the mood or the pride of the young people from thirteen European and Asian nations participating in the two day event. The opening artistic event was a 10 minute ballet based on traditional Vietnamese themes performed by dancers from companies founded by Imperial patronage centuries in the past.
The Competition just so happened to coincide with the monthly Full Moon Festival. Each weekend of the full moon the Old City is closed to traffic Friday and Saturday evenings from 6:00 pm and all but emergency lighting is extinguished, until 9:00PM. Candles and oil lanterns light the streets, temples, Assembly Halls, shops, restaurants and ancient houses. Musicians of ancient music, artisans and poets perform at various locations. At this particular March festival, the choirs were performing as well.
It’s hard to know if the Full Moon Festival, held monthly on the Friday and Saturday evenings closest to the full moon, has a basis in ancient culture but it sure makes for two nice atmospheric evenings in an already charming Old Town. The absence of electronic music, most electric lights, the sound of motor bikes and horns and their replacement by darkness, the glow of fire light, human voices and acoustic music does set a unique mood. No one is going to be fooled that the T-shirt shop is medieval, but the 18th century tea house, open to the street, that’s hosting a poetry reading in Vietnamese is real. On the Thu Bon River, hundreds of colorful paper lanterns with votive candles are available for less than US$.50 each. Making a wish and setting a lantern to float down the river will speed your prayer to heaven.
“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” Confucius (551-479 BCE)
The estuary of the Thu Bon River is a watery maze of emerald green islands opening within a mile onto the South China Sea. For over one thousand years its villages prospered as major ports feeding the Champa Kingdom with trade, especially from China and Japan, superb fish and seafood. The decline of Champa gave rise to Vietnam’s influence, continued China/Japan trade and, by the 15th century, new Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish trading houses. The village of Hội An was a hot item on the South China seacoast.
As prosperity increased both population and agricultural production and given the fickle nature of alluvial rivers, the Thu Bon River began to fill with silt making navigation by ocean-going vessels difficult. By the early 19th century the port of Da Nang was replacing Hội An as the area’s major international trade center. The town slowly sank into obscurity sustained by the accumulated wealth of old merchant families and its abundant seafood and agricultural products. Its old 18 and 19th century cypress and ironwood buildings remained intact impervious to the river’s floods and their owners inability to modernize. More remarkable was that during the wars of the 20th century while Da Nang was in the middle as the site of both a major port and airport, Hội An a mere 10 miles south, was hidden among the reed covered islands of the Thu Bon estuary.
The silting of the river that threw Hoi An into a time warp allowed it to emerge after 1975 as the most intact pre-19th century village in Vietnam. In 1999, the Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries. Some decry the “preserved-for-tourist” nature of the Old Town with its rows of shops and cafes in the old buildings. Yet the reality remains that Hoi An is today what made it famous centuries ago – a busy merchant town. With a population of 120,000, it’s once more a prosperous port but now the goods don’t sail out on ships, they’re packed in tourist suitcases.
Tan Ky House (101 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.) is one of several privately owned house museums in Hoi An that are prime examples of how these entrepreneurial families lived. Two stories tall, the street front of the house was always for business. The solid walls on either side of the door in the collage above are actually wood panels that can be removed to open the shop. The staircase to the left is to the second floor storeroom. The homes living quarters begin directly behind the shop surrounding two to three courtyards. The first sitting room contains the altar to the ancestors and, in Tan Ky, an elevated altar to Confucius. The detailed and elaborate interior woodwork as well as the 19th century mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture attests to the family’s prosperity. Tan Ky was particularly well situated running the full depth of the street with a direct opening to the waterfront in back.
Hoi An has a number of endowed “family temples,” a common method for wealthy Vietnamese families to broadcast their status and provide for the perpetual and public honoring of their ancestors. Many of these “chapels” are actually large temple/monastery complexes. One of the oldest, largest and most beautiful in Hoi An is the Tran Family Temple still sponsored by the family in its 15th generation.
A “guild system” among Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian merchants both regulated and governed trade as well as provided support groups. The Chinese in particular constructed several Assembly Halls which served as Confucian temples, hostels and a social gathering place for these ex-pat sailors. Japanese merchants constructed a Hoi An icon – the Japanese Bridge in the 16th century. More than just a bridge, it contains a small temple dedicated to the protection of sailors. The Assembly Halls are still active temples and social halls.
Although Hoi An was already in decline when the French put the Vietnamese Empire under its “protection,” French merchants and ex-pats found the charms of Hoi An sufficient to create a French Quarter just outside the old medieval town. The graceful tropical colonial architecture and tree lined streets with attractive shops and cafes make is a less hectic stroll than the Old City.
Hoi An is Vietnam, it is a tourist town, the streets are narrow, motor bikes and cyclos are everywhere, selling is in their blood so be prepared for constant pitches every step for everything from ice cream, postcards, chickens, paintings, street foods and, especially, silks – high quality made-to-order clothing and shoes take 1-1/2 days minimum with a reputable store. It’s a cornucopia of colors, smells and sounds. At least once a day for several hours, and during festivals, the cobbled stone streets of the Old City are closed to all motorized traffic. The absence of at least that noise certainly adds to the town’s charm. There is an admission price to most of the merchant houses, assembly halls and museums. A strip of tickets is purchased at one of several tourist offices in the Old City at a price of less that US$1.00 per venue.
Hoi An is a beautiful and relaxing town, especially surprising given its tourist nature. Within less than one mile are empty pristine white sand beaches. Surrounding the village are emerald green rice fields and vegetable farms. There are additional tourist “villages” for farming, sculpture and fishing but these are virtual recreations of life in the past and generally are excuses for more shopping. The land is flat and ideal for renting bikes. Mountains are in the distance and the fishing fleet actually fishes, it doesn’t just give tourists rides. Quiet hotels and a growing local middle class have spread out onto adjacent islands. Both residents and the town government keep the village clean, something not common in most of Vietnam. If satisfaction can be judged by the large numbers of foreign visitors, Hoi An has patiently, as Confucius advised, turned its silted river into tourist gold.
fishing boat – the eyes as so the ship can see the fish
next: Hoi An Part II – festivals, seafood and song
Vietnam: jungles, mountains, green and 1,956 miles (3260 km) of coastline (not counting islands) much of it pristine, undiscovered, wide, white sand beach. “Undiscovered” by a beach-hungry Western tourist world but for how long?
The 65 mile (110 km) trip from Hue to Hoi An is a beautiful coastal drive past fishing villages, wet lands and rice paddies with the road winding through the hills of the Truong Son Mountains. The postcard fishing village of Lang Co is situated between the Pacific and a perfect crescent lagoon dotted with boats. Tourism investment money is starting to develop the beach towns, but it will, hopefully, be some time before they’re condo canyons.
We were on our way from Hue to the UNESCO Heritage village of Hoi An, some 10 miles south of Da Nang. From Hue the passenger train line from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) hugs the same coast as the coastal highway, a 4 hour trip to Da Nang. From Da Nang you catch a taxi to make the 30-45 minute drive to Hoi An (cost $28 – $45/double train and taxi). As beautiful as the rail trip would be, I chose to arrange for a car and driver to make the trip to Hoi An with the option of stops on the way. For US$60/double this was a terrific day trip as well as transportation to our next destination.
I would have enjoyed wandering around the village of Lang Co, but on this day it was primarily a lunch stop. The Thanh Tam Seaside Resort is nicely designed. The main reception building contained a spacious restaurant decked over a sloping hill and opening onto a sweeping view of the Pacific at palm tree-top level. The palm trees create a large shaded sitting area at beach level. The rooms for the hotel were in separate beach front buildings. I did not see the rooms but TripAdvisor reviews are not kind. Of course there was a large store selling jewelry and clothing. There was no competition on either side of the resort for the peace of an enormous stretch of sand with beautiful views of the mountains.
For a tourist resort, the restaurant was surprisingly good. Specializing in seafood, there was a fine selection of grilledclams and oysters topped with a variety of savory sauces. Spring rolls were delicate and lightly fried. Prices were at the high end for Vietnam meaning that lunch or dinner for two will average US$25/30. (Our light lunch with espresso was $18/two).
The Hai Van Pass is the reason for making the overland trip by car – or if intrepid, by bicycle. The train dramatically hugs the coast around this finger of the Truong Son Mountains that literally juts into the Pacific Ocean creating a 1500 foot (497 m) barrier geographically dividing the country north and south. By car Highway 1 switchbacks up lush mountainsides, brushing clouds, opening vistas of the blue ocean set against the intense green of farm fields. This mountain barrier creates the moist microclimate that makes Hue and the Perfume River delta a unique ecosystem.
For over 1,000 years, Hai Van Pass (Pass of the Ocean Clouds) was the boundary between the Kingdoms of Vietnam and Champa. Even after the final conquest of Champa by Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty in the early 19th century, the Pass was deemed a strategic position through the Vietnam War. Pill boxes are next to a 19th century watch tower. Today the site’s a rather windy, shabby remnant of a violent past. One side of the road is lined with the ubiquitous tourist stalls selling the same trinkets, water, soda, cigarettes, scarves, postcards etc that you’ve seen so many times already. Your car literally will be surrounded by well meaning and persistent sales women. I admire their persistence, even while regretting that I do not need what’s for sale, because it’s certainly a peaceful pursuit after this site’s violent past millennium.
Having traveled to both Cambodia and northern Vietnam, I could see and understand the distinct break in artistic traditions between the Chinese Confucian influenced north Vietnam and the Hindu/Buddhist/Khmer Champa Kingdom of the south – there is a cultural divide. Da Nang’s Bao Tang Dieu Khac Champa Da Nang (Museum of Champa Art) is both a gem and the world’s largest repository of the exquisite sculpture of this civilization.
The rapidly sprawling rather charmless city of Da Nang looks like a new settlement. If there was a historic core or a building prior to 1975 it’s well hidden. Being both a major port and air base during the Vietnam War did make it a prime target for severe damage. With modern Vietnam’s penchant for getting on with the future there’s little to no evidence of that past war. Yet Da Nang’s future fame will result in the development of its miles of stunning beaches. Australian money has already begun to pour in starting major golf/hotel/condo resorts. Iconic China Beach is highly desirable real estate. Da Nang’s airport is undergoing major expansion. I know it would be politically correct to decry this future loss of pristine nature, but also patronizing. This is an ancient land. It changes.