Full Moon Festivities

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, February 11, 2006

After a two thousand year history of trade with cultures across the oceans in the Middle East, South India, Japan, and China, the small port town of Hoi An once again showed that it still knows commerce. Whether food or beer or crafts or carpentry or boat building or tailoring or cobbling, the residents of Hoi An know their business.

Hoi An is intricately connected with the estuary of the Thu Bon River, which flows from the Central Highlands. Once Hoi An was home to a deep port; then it was able to attract larger shipping vessels that arrived to purchase silk fabrics, rice, spices, and coffee. Japanese and Chinese merchants settled in Hoi An, building large assembly halls and well-built homes. Many of these homes are still standing today, built in the 17th through 19th centuries.

Today, however, repeated flooding and siltation has filled the once-deep harbor, no longer allowing large vessels to arrive from far away. Instead, Hoi An's merchants have craftily spun another story to attract money to their town: tourism.

They began in 1999 by instituting Hoi An and the neighboring My Son ruins as UNESCO World Heritage Sites theoretically putting the town on par with Angkor Wat, Yellowstone, and the Great Wall of China. This, of course, attracts tourists, but in reality the town and nearby Cham ruins do not compare with the great places of the earth. The meaning of "World Heritage" has been diluted, and now UNESCO has baptized over 800 sites including a railroad.

The positive side is that funding goes to the preservation of these sites and Hoi An is being restored to its former glory.

The down side is that Hoi An is now innundated with tourists that also have the potential to overwhelm and destroy its charms.

While I was visiting Hoi An, Quang Nam Province kicked-off Vietnam Tourism Year 2006 on the waterfront, calling it: "Quang Nam: Two World Heritage Sites at One Destination." My family guest house, a nineteenth-century Chinese merchant home, gave me a free ticket to the show, which featured glitter, lights, high-ranking government officials, flags, dancers, and candles glowing on the calm, darkened night river.

The day also marked the Full Moon Festival with merchants dressing in traditional clothing, playing Chinese chess, and lighting colored paper lanterns along the narrow streets.

Most Vietnamese, however, were crammed behind metal barriers and policemen wearing riot gear. I felt that the event was just a gimick, with fake plastic boats and bridges, for Vietnam TV1. Couldn't they have used real boats from the nearby mooring? After all, it is an historic site, not Disney World. And why did that police officer have to hit that kid? Festivities are supposed to be fun, right?

The event was over quickly, however, and I remembered three relaxing and pleasurable days in Hoi An.

Somehow, Hoi An became a reunion place of sorts, and I met Lucie and Veera

First, I met Veera. We went to my now-favorite restaurant in Hoi An, Quan An, for some local specialties. Nuoc Mam, translated as White Rose, was a delicate dish of rice pasta shaped like a rose flower. In the middle is a small dollop of crab and shrimp. Small, crispy flecks of fried onion are sprinkled on the white roses, which we dipped into a mildly sweet, pleasantly sour and light sauce. We also tried cao lau, a wheat noodle dish, spring rolls, and fried duck (my mouth is watering as I type this). If that weren't enough, Quan An also offered fresh draft beer, bia tuoi, for less than 20 cents a glass. We toasted to a few glasses.

Next, I met Lucie, heading south from Hanoi and Hue. She had just met a fellow traveler Barbara and they were traveling together. Lucie, Barbara, and I traded travel stories over ice cream and coffee agreeing to meet the next day for lunch and biking to the beach and neighboring islands. We biked to Cua Dai Beach and sat watching the surf for a while, relaxing and talking. Then we crashed a press event on Cam Nam Island, where journalists were photographing craftspeople performing their work. A trio of Hanoi journalists interviewed us: "How would you describe Vietnam's tourism infrastructure?"

It took awhile, but we managed a long answer.

After picking-up our freshly-tailored clothing and the glitzy tourism kick-off event, Lucie came by the guesthouse, giving me her map of Hanoi and saying goodbye.

The next morning, I accosted the guesthouse woman for overcharging me for my train ticket to Hanoi. Suddenly the price dropped significantly, and I left for Hue on the next bus, glad to have avoided another scam. On the five-hour bus trip, I had time to think about the rest of my stay in Hue: watching the historical movie being filmed near the Tan Ky House, taking a tour to the over-rated My Son Cham ruins, eating grilled fish in banana leaf (lemongrass and garlic complete the dish), visiting the ancient homes and the Phuoc Kein Assembly Hall, and walking the streets and markets in the early morning (before the tourists awaken).

In the end, Hoi An had me charmed, after all, the townspeople were merchants and they knew their new business--tourism.
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