Friday, May 29, 2009

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An is a small city on the South Central coast of Vietnam. It is home to approximately 100,000 inhabitants.
We arrived Hoi An in late afternoon. At Au Phu Hotel, we were warmly welcome by their friendly receptionists.

After a beer and a shower, it was time for dinner. The Ancient Town of Hoi An was 10 minutes walk away from the hotel. As we approached the town center, we noticed many shops selling colorful lanterns.. These colorful lighted lanterns provided the much needed ambient for the dimly lighted town. The night scene was unique as many owners hanged red lanterns decorating their shops.

Hoi An is a town of lanterns.

There were many restaurants along the river. We decided to try their "hawker center". The hawker center had many stores. We browsed the stalls and found out that the stalls had almost the same menu. While we discussed which stall should we try, the waitress at the first stall kept waving us through and said "Miss Sau, Miss Sau,very good". Instead of asking us to sit at her table, she insisted we moved to Miss Sau's table which was 5 or 6 rows away. We paused and tried to figure out what was going on. Other waitresses joined in "Miss Sau, good". We asked the question why Miss Sau. One waitress explained if we picked other stall, she would lose a turn. So, we settled for Miss Sau. We ordered a couple of dishes and thought that her Fried Wanton was outstanding. It was like our Fried wanton we got from Yong Tau Foo but much bigger. The Fried wanton was wrapped with minced pork. The topping was prawn, pineapple, onion. yummy! But we still could not figure out how they shared their business at this hawker center.

Miss Sau and her son.

A lady backpacker was sitting at the next table (Miss Sau's customer). She is Canadian and just came from Laos. She said Luang Prabang is beautiful and she like it very much. Neo Chian and I are looking forward to visiting Luang Prabang after Ha Noi.

When we walked toward town center for dinner, we saw a couple of beautiful Chinese Architecture of "Huay Kuan" or "Assembly Hall". However, they were closed for visitors at night. Being a TeoChew and Hainanese respectively, Neo Chian and I decided we should at least visit TeoChew and Hainan Huay Kuan the next day. If we had time, we would visit the rest. Turned out that there were two more, one for Cantonese and the other for Hokkien dialect group.

1. Chinese Huay Kuan

It was built in 1747 by Chinese people. The building was moderate and simple in design.
There was no one there we could speak to. The name implied this building belongs to all Chinese, (probably similar to our Chinese Chamber of Commerce), business community of Hoi An and surrounding areas. The blue sign was about some Chinese Cultural classes being conducted here. It showed that the Chinese descendant of Hoi An still do their best keeping their Chinese culture alive.

2. Cantonese Huay Kuan

Except for Chinese and Hainanese Huay Kuan were free admission. The others three places were bundled into a group ticket for D75,000 (about SGD 6) for 5 entries.

The main entrance of Cantonese Huay Kuan

After the entrance, you see this gorgeous sculpture of Dragon and jumping carp. The care taker of this place could not speak Cantonese and we couldn't get more out from the visit.

3. Hokkien Huay Kuan

We ran out of time to visit the inside. This picture showed that Hokkien Huay has a big compound and is well maintained. We were told inside are many murals and statues depicting deities and figures from Hokkien history
4. Teochew Huay Kuan

Probably this is the most colorful Huay Kuan in town. The original building was built in 1752. Since then, it had upgraded a couple of times. The carving inside was skillfully done and well decorated. Neo Chian tried to communicate with the caretaker in Teochew and drew a blank. The caretaker just stared and said nothing.

5. Hainan Huay Kuan

Walking inside the Hainan Huay Kuan, I met Mr. Pan, the caretaker. I put my Hainanese to use and he responded. We chatted a couple of minutes about this place. The Huay Kuan worshiped the "108 Hainanese Merchants" murdered in 1851 by the commanding officer Ton and Team leader Pham of Emperor Tu Duc's regime.

Three merchant ships were anchored at the isle of Chiem Du in Quang Ngi Province. The Bang Doan was patrolling along the coast for pirates sailed to the place. Without warning, they started firing at them. The three ships tried fleeing to the east of the sea in panic. After two days, the Bang Doan found one of the ships got shot and badly damaged, and ordered the passengers to get on board their ship for checking. They were merchants from Hainan island and now on their way home. No weapons, only merchandise were found. Ton, motivated by greed, ordered to kill all. Their corpses were thrown into the sea. Total deaths were 107, only one of them escaped by jumping into the sea. Emperor Tu Duc knew about it and entrusted the Department of Justice to investigate the matter. Finally, Ton and Pham were sentenced to death and properties and goods were returned to their families. Excerpted from "The Resistance of The Vietnamese Soldiers And People Against The Western Aggressors 1847 - 1945, Military History Vol. III, page 6.". Since then, many Hainanese merchants who traveled to Southeast Asia worshiped them.

When I was young, I lived with my uncle for a long period of time. He was a devotee of the 108 Merchants. I didn't know the history then. Only 40 some odd years later, coming to Vietnam, now I knew why he worshiped them.

According to Mr. Pan, this place depends on donations from local Hainanese and some overseas Hainanese. Money collected is barely sufficient to upkeep the property. As you can see from the picture, this Huay Kuan doesn't have intricate and elaborate wooden carving or panels. It is simple but well kept.

Japanese Bridge

The bridge was built by the Japanese trading community in 1593 (some said 17th Century) to link them with the Chinese quarter on the other side of a small stream. At either end of the bridge are alters to guardians of the bridge. One end has a pair of monkeys, while the other is guarded by dogs. We could find an explanation about the significant of the guardians. The bridge is a thoroughfare. The bridge doubles as a temple, with shrines to several deities located inside. You need ticket from the 3-day pass to enter the shrine.

The scenes of the old town

No car is allowed within the Ancient Town.

This sign said
We wonder who are primitive vehicle users. Bullock carts? Bicycles? or Pedestrian ?

The boy modeling for his father barbershop. Nice round head!

On second night, we followed the recommendation in Lonely Planet to eat at the Cafe des Amis. The chef, Mr. Kim, is 66 years old now. There is no menu but choice of meat or seafood or vegetarian set. The cafe is next to the market. Mr. Kim would survey what are available and decide the menu for the day. He told us that he still spend six months in a year in Europe cooking for an European airline. We took a meat and a seafood set for 120,000Dongs(SGD10) each. It was delicious and don't mind going back again.

We noticed a ferry crossing point in front of Mr. Kim's Cafe, to an island (don't know the name). Ferry was leaving every 15 to 20 minutes or so. Motorcycles went upper deck and bicycle at lower deck. People sat or stood around the edge of the boat. There were some flotations but surely no enough for every passenger. No one was concerned about safety as this was their daily affair. The ferry was operated by one person. When the ferry docked, a couple of attendants would help passenger push the bike or bicycle on or off the ferry. It water was calm. Wonder what if the water is choppy. Do they still operate the same way?

After a good meal, we took a slow walk back to our hotel, enjoying the world cultural heritage one more time before our departure the next day.

Monday, May 25, 2009

From Da Lat to Hoi An

Hoi An Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. In 1999, the old town of Hoi An was declared a World Heritage by UNESSCO. The section of road leading from Da Lat to N1 was winding and down hill, from 1,450 meters to zero. For 3 hours of daylight, we could only reach Nha Trang.

We decided to wash the car before leaving Da Lat. This carwash not only was an OMO (one man operation) but also he wash car with one hand. His left arm was fracture from a fall. Needless to say, it was not much of a show for us. The washing was similar to Singapore standard, wash and wipe dry, not even vaccume the interior.

We climbed even higher to 1,550 meters after leaving Da Lat. We got a good view of the valleys which were used extensively for vege, friuts and flower farming. With its cool climate the whole year over, Da Lat is the area that supplies temperate agriculture products for all over Vietnam, for example, cabbage and cauliflower.

We were traveling eastward on the ridge of the mountains for about 30 km. The scenery was different. We saw rolling hills, farms and planes. This mountain looks like miniture version of Mt. Fuji. The slope of the mountain wasn't as symmetrical as Mt. Fuji, but it was beautiful. There was this drink stall appeared strategically at a point that was overlooking the valley. Many travellers stopped here for a drink and enjoyed the view. After we got down the hill, we saw this cow family was taking their evening stroll. We were the intruder. So, we stopped and waited for them. They decided to walk along the road for 30 meters before moving to the right.

Traveling time to Nha Trang took longer than expected. By the time we were near to Nha Trang, the sun was almost set and it was raining. We missed the opportunity to take sunset behind the mountains and the beautiful shoreline.

The city of Nha Trang is becoming more popular with the tourists in recent years. Nha Trang still retains its small town atmosphere and unspoiled. This resort town is well known for its miles of beach and the friendliness of its people. The city is flanked by nearly ten kilometers of prime beach where the water is warm year round. Just off Nha Trang is an Island called Vinpearl which is reached by a cable car that goes across the sea. The Island has a waterpark, rides, a sealife centre and Resort & Spa. If you look hard enough, you can see it from this picture.

With the help of our Miss G (GPS), we found Asia Paradise Hotel near the beach. The receptionist at the hotel was firmed on their room rate of USD60. We didn't want to waste time looking for another hotel. So, one down for not getting a discount. I took a picture with her after we had checked in.

We went across the hotel to Truc Linh 1 restaurant for our one bear and then followed with BBQ Squid, Steam Fish and Vietnamese spring rolls. They were good.

Next morning, we took a walk to the beach and took picture. It was a nice beach. At 7 am, there were many locals enjoying the beach. Thuan told us his experience of a mud bath and Nha Trang is the place to have it. Since we haven't done it before, we decided to go for it.

On the way to the mud bath, Neo Chian spotted a Champ tower in a distance and we detoured to find out more. It was Po Nagar, a 8th century Cham Towers. On top of the stairs, there were 22 pilars. According to the guide, these were used to support a roof structure which had since collasped. After the pillars, there was another stair leading up to the tower, an important place of worship for the Cham people. This Cham family was preparing for their worship at the temple.

We went to Nha Trang Thap Pa Hot Spring Center for our mud bath. At the ticketing counter, Thuan asked me if we wanted a private or public bath. Do we want to have a private bath? Of course not. Also, we would like to see how everyone else did it. So, we bought the "public" ticket. This place is not tourist friendly. Information and instructions in English were limited. We didn't
know where to start. Finally, we figured out we had to take a mineral spray to clean our body. Then we went to the hot spring pools area. After showing the ticket, the attendent pointed at a pool which was already occupied by a guy with tattoo. We double checked with the attendent, was it a mistake? There were other empty pool. No, he pointed at the pool again. Well, we got into the hot spring pool which was about 2 meters in diameter. We sat inside as if we were buddy to him! Neo Chian had to be carefully in moving himself. A stretch with his arm would have physical contact with the tattoo man. We sat in the hot spring pool for a good 10 minutes. Neo Chian asked a European lady in the next pool if she knew what would be the next step. To our surprise, she said next step? This is the last step! We got out of the pool and asked another attendent, she pointed to another area. We went over and presented the ticket. Again, he pointed at a mud pool already had 5 guys in there! What to do? Get in lor. Then we understood the meaning of "private" or "public". Private means that you have the pool to you and public means you share. We didn't not bring our camera for the fear of dropping it into mud pool. This picture was taken by the on-site photographer at 100,000 Dongs. With the entrance fee of 100,100 Dongs, we spent 300,000 Dongs in total. It was a nice experience. However, it would be better if clear instructions were really avaliable. The irony was, after we washed up, we saw the board showing steps of taking a mud bath:
1. After get changing cloth, tourists are instructed to clean themselves with warm mineral water. 2. The above step is followed by the main step: mud-bath, massaging the face/hair with mud, and flush your body.
3. Sun-bath is the 3rd step after 15-minute mud-bath. This step is to allow minerals present in mud to penetrate onto the skin.
4. As soon as sun-bath has completed, tourists are instructed to flush their bodies with fresh water to get rid of mud, then have their bodies soaked in a hot mineral water pool.
We did step 1 to 4 to 2 to 4. Never knew that there was a step 3.

We decided to eat just outside Thap Pa Hot Spring before leaving Nha Trang. This was typical Vietnamese restaurant. You could take a nap in this hammock before your meal. By now, we knew we couldn't make it to Hoi An. So we decided to go for Quy Nhon, which was just over 100 km, for a night before we headed for Hoi An.
We reached Quy Nhon almost dark. We checked into Hoang Yen Hotel for a night.

Quy Nhon is a pretty seaside town. View from our hotel room.

We left early from Quy Nhon. This was a ordinary drive to Hoi An. We arrived around 4 pm. With the help of Lonely Planet, we found Ah Phu Hotel. With a bit of negotiating, we got a twin room for USD40, USD5 off from their offered price.

You could see Singapore flat was hanged at their receiption counter. That made us felt welcome.

It was sunset time again.