Reflections on Hoi An

1 Apr

Like Dalat and for similar reasons Hoi An defies easy summary. It has its brash, kitsch and rip-off aspects but also a warmth never far from the surface, together with a kaleidoscopic abundance of contrasting ambience, culture and rhythm. I meant to stay four days, hiring a motorbike to revisit My Son’s ancient Cham site – Vietnam’s modest reply to Cambodia’s fabulous Angkor Wat – and explore the surrounding countryside, perhaps taking in the more recent history of My Lai to the south-east. In the event I stayed eleven days – on a second visit – and never got round to the motorbike, instead going every day on foot or by the pedal bike my hotel supplied gratis, my longest trip ten kilometers each way. “Quynh”, I told the smart and personable young woman who all but runs my hotel for a monthly salary of £70, “every day I find something new and different here”.

“I know”, she replied. “I’ve been two years in Hoi An and it’s the same for me.”

Old town Hoi An’s architecture blends Cham, post Napoleonic French and Chinese culture with a dash of Japan thrown in. Its narrow lanes, criss-crossed by gennels that curve and elbow, bring Hawkshead or picture postcard Devon to mind but instead of Olde England’s oak beamed white wall and thatch are pastel yellows that even in midday glare play off to perfection against colonial doors and shutters of jade, turquoise or dark unpainted tan. For best effect though you need to see them when the sun, its ferocity spent, is an orange shimmer on the Thu Bon. That’s when – from south bank and looking north, past the boaters selling trips to Coconut and Can Kim Islands, past the hawkers awaiting the nightfall crowds, schmaltz and hustle – those walls radiate a honeyed glow and you know you could come for good. (You wouldn’t be the first. One consequence of post Soviet liberalisation was the lifting of a requirement that businesses have a Vietnamese majority stakeholder. One night Quynh took me to a restaurant owned and run by a Russian. We didn’t eat; she was looking for work. French, Americans, Australians and Brits are here in force, most obviously in hospitality but three days running I saw a northern European – tall, lean and blonde – giving Thai massage from a mat on the sidewalk to Viet tourists who couldn’t get enough of him.) At such a moment, taking in old Hoi An’s sunlit, easy resplendence, it’s not a case of overlooking the kitsch and candy, mawkishness and massage-with-extras sleaze. It’s more that even they can for that moment seem part of the charm.

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And then there’s Hoi An at night …

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Just downriver, old town merges seamlessly into the market; morning and evening an even bigger draw. It sits on a two-hundred metre square of lanes whose southern edge, the fish section, backs onto a wharf, bustling and perilously slippy, on the north bank of the Thu Bon. Farangs seldom buy here: what would we do with live chickens or catfish snatched from aerated bowls for despatch at point of sale? How, in our hotels and home­stays, would we deal with mysterious chunks of medicinal bark or Vietnam’s multi-hued vegetable bounty? We do come of course; cameras out, eyes on stalks. But what’s different here is that where old town and the big arterial roads are in the main packed with tourists, outskirts with locals, in this meld of rainbow theatre and earthy practicality the two tribes rub shoulders en masse. Like anyone with an eye to see and a heart that beats I love Vietnam’s markets, and this is one of the best.

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But talk of old town and market barely scratches the surface of this place. I never rented a motorbike because I never came close to exhausting what lies within a ten kilometre radius, though you could halve that and still not know it; not if you stayed two years and  learned the language. Ask Quynh.


Beaches: three klicks east and downriver is palm treed and golden sanded Cua Dai on the north bank of the estuary, while four due north of town get you to the less touristed Cam An. I’m not a beach animal. Of more interest to me are the dunes and fisherman’s coracles south of the Thu Bon estuary, reached by one of the huge and arcing bridges Viets are so proud of. I walked one brooding grey afternoon on deserted sands edged by palms bent in respectful wei  before an ominously warm wind. With not a soul in sight I took my eerie pictures of bobbing boats and square nets hung from bleached poles jutting up from the South China Sea. These nets are the real deal, bigger than the museum piece I spoke of in town, each a good thirty square metres and held above the waves by king size windlass on a crude rig whose knotted pine legs, thick as my thigh, are driven deep into sand close to shore and lapped at by incoming tides. Surprised by their warmth I waded into the shallows to grab close-ups of spokes jammed by wooden stave to thwart gravity and keep the net dry till next fishing. The desolate beauty of the place put me in mind of a line from Norah Jones. I got out my iPod for her bitter-sweet waltz, Come Away With Me. And I want to walk with you on a cloudy day.

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A kilometre south west of town lies idyllic Can Kim Island on the Thu Bon, no more than a few kilometres in area and moving to slowly pastoral rythms. On three separate trips I pedalled its lanes and paths through rice field and grazing cattle, pretty village and riverine boatyard. I’ve posted already on Can Kim, likening its contrast with Hoi An to that between high season Cambridge and lonely fens an hour’s walk along the Cam. See it now. When I came two years ago you had to go by boat and haggle a price for self plus bike. Three months ago they built a bridge. Go figure when the first hotel will appear.

Ten kilometres west, my longest ride on punishing saddle of gearless bike got me to Vinahouse with its shady gardens, rock pooled grounds and upper class dwellings in classic Chinese style. The latter were dismantled in Hue – one time capital whose own Forbidden City on the Perfume River speaks to its status as Vietnam’s most Sinophile city – for transport and reassembly near Hoi An. The project was facilitated by the fact their ornate and structurally impressive designs, with ironwood and jack fruit the timbers of choice, eschew nails in favour of sophisticated joints held by wooden pins. In that rigidly feudal hierarchy a mercantile capitalism was beginning to stir but no matter how rich the merchant, he could only build a house of so many rooms. Five or seven bedroomed mansions could not be purchased by mere money but required and reflected high Mandarin attainment.

At Vinahouse a young woman with limited English but gracious charm managed to snap me out of feigned interest – I’m averse to High Culture by spooled factoid, but meandering solo was smilingly forbidden – into the real thing. Afterwards and still on the premises I went in search of caffeinated reflection. A forty-something farang materialised; arm out, American accent.

Hi, I’m Nathan. Sales and marketing manager. Can I help with anything?

That being the opener to one of the most fascinating and enjoyable conversations I’ve had in a long while. Nathan’s thing is Chinese art and symbolism, and he is emphatic that Vietnam is now the most Confucian society in the world, far more so than China. He spoke eloquently on Viet art old and new, with particular enthusiasm for new fusion forms – French, American, Chinese and Vietnamese – best represented, he says, by young painters in Hue. Some of the stuff I’ve seen there is the most exciting modern art I’ve seen anywhere.  I made a mental note to go back to Hue, visited in 2014 and filed in memory as a place where it always rains. (And whose Forbidden City, despite the pounding of ’68 when NVA held the town for twenty-five days in the face of withering US mortar shelling, remains in remarkably good nick.)

Talking shop as ex teachers we shared our concern at declining literacy in the west. This isn’t rare of course: grumpy oldsters decrying the inability of youth, deprived of grammar tuition at school since the seventies, to construct grammatic sentences. Rarer was Nathan’s concurrance that too much of the bemoaning targets the communicative aspects of literacy, too little the cognitive. Evolutionary biologists say language, spoken or written, is as much tool for thinking as communicating; enabling rich inner representations of outer reality. But it is its written form that negates constraints of distance, time and memory to underpin sophisticated inquiry. Over decades of university teaching I’ve witnessed, even after allowing for the confounding variable of commodified higher education and its negative impact on standards, a rise in students who lack the literacy levels needed for rigorous thought. Take causality: up there with generalisation, discrimination and abstraction as a cornerstone of inquiry. Without a rich vocabulary and the syntactic agility to express nuance and calibration of certainty in attributing cause and effect we come to complex problems with one hand behind our backs. It shows. It shows in logical non sequitur, simplistic conclusion and frightening lack of doubt – by such as future social workers who one day will write court reports on whether a child should be removed from her family – where doubt and plenty of it is warranted. Academia has adopted quixotic strategies; believing on zero evidence that a problem of this magnitude and so long in the making can be fixed by a few hours of “writing support” to young adults. Such interventions are as epistemologically naive as they are doomed to practical failure, neglecting as they do to abstract from the specific form of writing that general  negation of temporal, spatial and mnemonic constraints. This, and the meticulous querying of a priori assumptions, are what academics are supposed to do. And this is what the service delivery model of a self perpetuating industry is not doing. It’s still way too early in our mercurially unfolding digital age to judge long term implications of non written media, or even be sure which ones matter. What is clear however is that speech is now as free of the bonds of time, distance and memory as writing has always been. Academics should therefore leave room for the possibility of literacy becoming less critical, but that requires the kind of active open-mindedness the delivery approach, deeply anti intellectual below a veneer of strait-jacketed obsession with ‘the literature’, simply isn’t up for.

None of which has much to do with Hoi An. Sorry; rant over.

Three kilometres upriver from Hoi An is Pottery Village. I’ve lived my life in studious avoidance of places called Pottery Village but this one came so highly recommended by the Mighty Quynh (a doubly lamentable allusion since the pronunciation is closer to “Hwin”) I gave it a whirl. The clincher was its proximity to a hypermarket for fish traders. I’d twice intended and failed to get up at four-thirty to see the night’s catch unloaded at its wharf for auction to stallholders from Hoi An and beyond; a show over and done with by six. But now Quynh told of a second and smaller auction at three pm. Two birds, one stone.

Pottery Village came through for me. The famous buildings in miniature – Angkor Wat, Big Ben, Taj Mahal and many more – I could take or leave, though I retain a childhood love of model villages. Likewise the Buddha statuettes, charmingly located but otherwise ten a penny in the courtyards of bourgeois Hoi An. What did thrill me though were bas reliefs produced not by wheel but by suspensions of water and fine ground clay poured into molds, allowed to set naturally and then given more detailed sculpting prior to firing. These are wall mounted, four of them, each three metres wide by two high. Some themes are mythic but most are pastoral, artisanal or nautical: agriculture and fishing, carpentry and construction. One recurring and self reflexive leitmotif is pottery: as trade, as taught discipline and as joyful sport for delighted infants. In teeming terracotta celebration the classical, colonial and – another recurring feature – Socialist Realism peacably cohabit. I was smitten. Those reliefs take up most of the slides in this the longest slideshow of the post. Lighting is hit and miss, alas, due to my having to rely on uneven illumination from spotlights overhead.

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On my way in to Pottery Village a young woman took my 30k and gave me a ticket, asking too many questions about my plans as she offered her hand. She held mine too long, her palm the texture of one used to hard graft. Later, when I was alone in a gallery, she approached – a trip across a thinly peopled courtyard that surely exposed her to employer censure – to ask with visible trepidation if she might show me Hoi An that evening, adding that her father died last year and her family was poor. I’ve had such proposals before, some from the gum chewingly brash, others of geisha-like subtlety. This was neither; just gauche. I declined with what I meant as gentleness but for the rest of the day carried a vision of her palpable dismay. Her ineptitude told me she hadn’t done this before. I cursed myself for not finding a way to be kinder given the courage she must have had to summon. Once again I found myself contemplating a truth I’ve considered many times and from many angles. I won the lottery at birth, she and others like her didn’t, and there’s nothing I can usefully do about the fact.

Time for the fish market. On the way I came upon neat, bankside piles of charcoal. Wondering at their purpose I caught the aroma of kippers. Through the open side of a delapidated wooden cabin, no bigger than my living room and balanced on stilts in the river bed, a smokehouse was run by two women while a third – no doubt up and about several hours before me – slept on a platform above bowls of sprats and mackerel. At the far end a fire blazed below a concrete platform, recessed to hold large pans. Here, fish were being lightly steamed in nested wicker baskets. The smoking stage appeared to be over. This was what I took to be another cycle. I never did see the fish being smoked but stayed half an hour in fascination. In a quieter part of Vietnam I’d have been welcomed with smiles. Such folk would speak no English but we’d communicate; we always do. Here my presence was simply tolerated. No one objected to my snapping away from the bank but that was as far as it went. It was enough: see the slideshow, one half covering this smoke house, the other the fish market.

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And that’s quite enough for one post.


2 Replies to “Reflections on Hoi An

    • Thanks Bryan. E M Forster I believe. My favourite quote from one of my most quoted writers. Figuring out what I think is, alongside the desire to be read, a prime reason for this blog.

      The best students are as literate as ever. It’s average levels that have declined. I put that down – on no evidential basis so take with P of S – to the fact some children (likely as not unhappy ones in search of escape) read so much they don’t need formal grammar tuition. They infer, from the tales they love, deep linguistic structures just as a two year old infers the same – and here we should thank Chomsky who, for all he got wrong, did more than anyone to show what a huge achievement that is – from the spoken stimuli she is, in Labov’s glorious phrase, “constantly bathed in from morn till evening”.

      Aware of the indulgence of my bulging, one paragraph aside, I try to cram too much in too few words. Result? Insufficient unpacking of key assertions. First, there HAS been a decline in literacy, alongside but distinct from a fall in standards inevitable when (a) higher education expands as rapidly as it has; (b) HE is marketised, its institutions now more commercial rivals than members of a community with shared mission. (Since those rivals award degrees I liken the situation to letting driving schools run their own tests and award licences. Go figure the effect on pass rates – and road safety!)

      Second, there’s been insufficient attention to cognitive implications of that decline. Third, the interventions I’ve seen have philistine and self serving drivers, and can be likened to treating brain tumours with aspirin. Fourth, that philistinism – cheerfully coexisting with unscientific and idealist assumptions about the uplifting potential of literacy – precludes examination of WHY literacy has been so important. Such an examination would open up the possibility that its contributions to commerce, law, science, philosophy and much besides are premised on factors no longer unique to the written word. The recording and instant dissemination of speech, releasing it from spatial, temporal and mnemonic ties, are now – through such as Whatsapp, Skype and audio-visual blog – routine aspects of modern life. (Except perhaps for those who blindly and in some cases fearfully insist on the eternal importance of literacy. Dylan: don’t criticise what you can’t understand … for the times they are a-changing …) I don’t say literacy no longer matters: I hope I’ve made clear, not least in agreeing with your comment, how much I value it. I do say, however, that the underpinnings of its special status are no longer unique. Failure to recognise this reflects another failure, forgivable in society at large but not in the professional practitioners I speak of, to look analytically at those underpinnings so as to establish just what (and how and why) writing brought to the party.

      BTW I won’t quarrel with your phrasing, which chimes with my About page, but Forster’s remark was about language in general, not just its written form: “how do I know what I think till I see what I say?” Isn’t that one of the reasons why stimulating conversation is so good? I want to thank you a second time, Sue also – you both being the semi estranged friends of many decades I met with cosmic coincidence outside Lao Cai station on the Sino-Viet border a few weeks ago – for great convos in Bac Ha. I look forward to more now I’m back in Sheffield, jet lag already a thing of the past!

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