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.

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