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.
OWI is a publication by Original World Tours“providing discriminating travelers with “Hand Crafted Journeys to Traditional Cultures since 1997 – extraordinary journeys, news and notes of interest to serious cultural adventurers, and unique personal journals from Original World clients on the road in India, Asia, Africa, Middle East, and Eastern Europe.”
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)
That’s two-time Academy Award winning actor, Sir Michael Caine,* listening to a profound statement on the necessity of Western intellectuals to adopt an enlightened vision of the future…no. It’s the response on asking a resident of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the best way to cross the street. From recent personal experience, this is a profound – some might say life affirming Q & A.”
Although far more people walk than in any American city I know – pedestrian friendly is an alien concept in Asian consciousness. Sidewalks do exist but, even if they are wide, nearly every square meter is occupied by vendors or motor bikes using the space as parking lots. Congestion on these sidewalks frequently made me use the street sharing the often narrow space with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all.
To cross the street a pedestrian simplycrosses the street into the traffic which on the many 2-way streets or 3-street intersections comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The gentleman’s response to Michael Caine’s question was not flippant. It takes a sturdy centeredness gained through Buddhism, or tenacity, to calmly sense the correct timing and enter the traffic. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and accidents occur.
I knew none of this when I arrived in Bangkok. Six weeks later, leaving Saigon, perhaps I’d become a Buddhist as I simply spent no more than a ½-second contemplating my move across the street.
My wife, on the other hand, followed Michael Caine’s plan of action, “We looked for groups of Buddhist, inserted ourselves into the very center of them and crossed when they did. If I was going to be mowed down, at least I’d be in the right company.” * Except Jill looked for any vendor pulling (yes, pulling) a cart – frequently old women – and, using them as a human shield, crossed when they did.
Was it fun at first? No. Did I react negatively? Yes. I “threw the finger” at one SUV in Hanoi, after a particularly disappointing meal. He was shocked. After all, he was only going 35/mph 10 feet from me, but I lost my cool and failed to realize he’d never want to splatter me across the street – not as long as the Lord Buddha was watching over us all.
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.