On the road: the ancient Vietnamese town of Hoi An

Glittering alleys with colour blast from Chinese lanterns, old cozy wooden shops , leather goods, miniature murals and exotic little coffee shops welcome one to this UNESCO World Heritage Site

Photo by Kathakali Das Bhaumik
Photo by Kathakali Das Bhaumik

Kathakali Das Bhaumik

I rode a bicycle after almost five years. And it was as addictive as it used to be. I was 11 when I got my first Ladybird. It was after a year-long wait that Baba (my father) actually gifted it to me one stormy night. I biked on a highway at 8 in the evening following his scooter – a Bajaj Chetak - and arrived home completely drenched in the rain. My second bicycle was a sturdier one – a Raleigh – which I used profusely to bike around the neighbourhoods of Westwood and going to Venice beach for spectacular sunsets.

This time, I got one with a basket in front and I almost started feeling like those pretty women cycling around in their flowing dresses with flowers popping out of their baskets. But the first few random paddling strokes quickly took me back to reality. A routine reality of any city in Vietnam. In this case, it was Hoi An where the incessant rush of scooters cruised effortlessly through the Tran Phu Avenue crossing which had no traffic light. Thankfully, I grew up in towns where crossings either had no signals or never worked. This helped in activating my long forgotten reflex action. Also, I have to admit this unashamedly that people of Hoi An are somewhat used to wobbly riders like me and absolutely don’t bother to honk. They just make a solemn face, slow down and let you get away with your rickety ride.

Our hotel, just a bridge away from the beautifully preserved Ancient Town, was a source of amazement. It provided free bicycles to the guests and if not for this tiny yet crucial gesture, I would have walked down the bridge every day to keep up with the habitual walker’s syndrome. But surely, biking is different. The pace, the breeze, the gradual change of views in front of you, the occasional cars and dozens of scooters leaving you far behind – everything reminded me of an adolescent girl riding her Ladybird through a quiet Army cantonment in northeast India. However, that quietness was short-lived. It vanished the instant I crossed the bridge over Cam Nam Island and landed on the busy alleys of old-town Hoi An, teeming with amazed tourists soaking in the magical charms of this little town.

Photo by Kathakali Das Bhaumik
Photo by Kathakali Das Bhaumik
A cafe in Hoi An

Glittering alleys with colour blast from Chinese lanterns, old cozy wooden shops attracting travellers through pottery, leather goods, miniature murals and cotton dresses and of course, the exotic little coffee shops and attractively quiet restaurants welcomed me to the Ancient Town of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. The Thu Bon River made it a trading port, which in time welcomed Japanese and Chinese traders, whose living imprints are manifested in the ancient houses, temples and pagodas.

There’s this unusual mix of hues in the Tran Phu street and its adjoining alleys where the entire old town has been kept as it was back in the 17th century. Yellow, blue, white and grey adorn most of the exteriors of the old structures. Cycling rather easily through the motor-free streets of the Town, I came across Tan Ki – one such most visited house, which led me to the interiors of these centuries-old dwellings. Every house has got two entrances, one at the front and one at the back. The back one was used for offloading shipments from the port centuries ago. If you notice carefully, you will find markers on the walls of some of the houses. They indicate the level of floodwater in a particular year. It’s more than evident that there must have been a surprisingly effective conventional disaster management system in place in those times too that helped in restoring the damage done by the annual floods.

The local market on the river bank was another place of delight to me. The fruit stalls, all nice and clean, offered attractive spread of lychees, dragonfruits and mangoes of admirable sizes. We tried the lychee on our first day and never before, we have had as sweet a fruit as that.

After all the hustle bustle of the market and the city, when the sun melts down, making way for the lunar gleam, the entire town seems to magically transform into a city of amber undertones. It was one such evening, on our second day, that we crossed the bridge to go to the other side of the Town promenade. Sitting there quietly by the river, we watched tourists and locals, equally keen on taking a stroll at the golden hour, on the long stretch lined with restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. It was a visual delight to see couples walking by with their fingers firmly knotted to each other, families tending to their kids and friends chatting away in front of street food joints over a bowl of Cao lau or the majestically dark Viet coffee.

Think Vietnam, think food. Good Food. Or should I say flavour and freshness makes the sole identity of Vietnamese cuisine? “How was the food? Must have been heavenly! Share some original recipes, won’t you?” Well, I was giving an agreeable nod all this time to everyone who showed any interest, just to skip the pain of remembering those countless dishes we ordered and ate and even bought – the packaged ones – during our 10-day visit. It is a given that this long stretch of Southeast Asian country is known for its rice papers and spring rolls and pho and Bun Cha. But my point of admiration surpassed the food and rested on something more primordial, something more intimate. Like the people, their grit, their impromptu smile whenever they see a four year old walking grumpily by her parent’s side. And in spite of the universal popularity of its gastronomic terroir, I believe the willingness to work hard and work in any condition, showed its colours through its food. And that leads to the undeniable fact that a simple bowl of pho, which is, by the way, the very first thing people eat in the morning as breakfast, is a perfect culinary gratification. The smell of it is enough to drag a newbie to the streets as early as 6 am and look around for its source.

I had the opportunity to go around some of the beautiful cities of the world. But this time, I was not ready. Not ready to realise that I am totally under the spell of every city of Vietnam. From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, each one left something vivid in my mind. But Hoi An stood apart graciously among all of them. Redolent with cross-cultural architectural fusion, the city also has another draw today. The tailoring shops of the place which deliver you any dress, made of Vietnamese silk or terry cotton or simple cotton, just within a day. Since I have this travel tradition of bumping on to strangers and starting a common conversation for no definite reason, Hoi An was no exception. A lady came up to me while we were standing at a crossing, looking at our hotel map for directions. She cajoled me into visiting her tailoring shop. Yes, pitching is an art form and it works often for others. I ended up getting two perfectly fine dresses stitched at an averagely premium price. Or that’s how I would prefer to remember it.

It’s been more than a month that I am back from the trip and yet I can literally narrate every turn and halt I had taken while cycling in that old Vietnamese town. Like that night when it was raining hard and we decided to bike back to our hotel without further delay. I walked the cycle over the bridge instead of paddling away and stood there for a good five minutes. The road was unusually empty and I could almost hear the silence of a city deep in sleep. The street lamps, covered with raindrops, were emanating a hazy glow. I was standing on the bridge, looking at the dark water beneath and the dim city lights beyond. I was thinking of a beloved city. I was thinking about long walks, misty air and warmth of a toddler’s palms. I didn’t notice when the rain had stopped. Lights by the waterfront always transfix me this way. They did when I was young and biked around somewhere in the foothills of north Bengal. I thought I have grown out of that ‘always’ phase, now that cycling in a rain-soaked green campus was history. But, I was wrong.

We had three beautiful nights in Hoi An. Each night had a story to tell and the hotel staff made sure that my toddler got her share of new stories too. A brand new bedtime story would be next to her pillow, printed on a beautiful organic paper roll, every night.

I generally don’t act a full-fledged, caring, worrying mom or spouse when I travel. Okay, at least I try not to! But this time, the cycling part returned me a self I had shelved off somewhere in the recesses of those growing up years. Sneaking out in the afternoons to cycle around the back alleys, going to a local foot spa and make friends with the lady who would say hello for the next two days whenever I passed her shop, all of this was a continuum to the times past and present. On our last day, as Joni Mitchell’s words kept coming back to me – So many things I would have done, But clouds got in my way - my wishes fluttered around the deserted roads of Hoi An with the hope of making it back here someday.

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Published: 23 Jul 2017, 1:45 PM