Hoi An: A Place of Pride

When I first mentioned that I was going to spend a week in the Vietnamese town of Hoi An my brothers laughed. They asked me, jokingly, if the people there were embarrassed about something. I then realized that in Ilonggo, our mother tongue, nahoy-an means to have been shamed. When I finally made it to this UNESCO World Heritage site, I would soon realize that there was actually much to celebrate. For one thing, I would be breathing the same air as Brendan Fraser. Yes, the Canadian star was in town at that time to make a movie. We learned about this after my friends and I stumbled on an old house that was being dolled up as a set. It was only after a while that I noticed the grim expressions of the Hollywood crew. We had overstayed our welcome and were now just getting in the way. Much later, when I finally got to watch the film, I found out that we had walked into the setting for a brothel scene! The ancient port of Hoi An was a place where many cultures have come together. For centuries, Iberian, Chinese, Japanese, French, and Dutch ships have called to exchange the goods of the world in a babel of bargaining. The result is a heady mix. Somehow, many buildings here have the feel of an edifice designed with China in mind, but by someone who has had too much sake and café au lait to drink. Though the heritage area is not exceedingly extensive, Hoi An can boast of having one of the largest concentrations of traditional shophouses in South East Asia. In a country much devastated during the war with the Americans, the survival of these structures is miraculous. It may be almost cliché but there really is something moving about a streetscape that has not yet been invaded by concrete and steel. Time never stops, except in our heads, but sometimes it is good to pretend. In fact, despite the present prosperity, reminders of past destruction are never far away. When I took a day trip to th My Son, a ceremonial center in the nearby hills that had been in use since the 7 century, CE, we were shown the cavernous holes that had been left by the American bombs. Even more tragic was that these holes represented lost stupas and temples, centuries of toil pulverized in seconds. Returning to Hoi An that night I almost wanted to

kiss every pillar, every finial, every delicate stucco carving. The point was painfully made: I was standing on an island, alone, among a sea of villages of equal beauty that had been mercilessly leveled to the ground. Among the most evocative sights preserved in Hoi An is the Japanese covered bridge. In the afternoons, when the heat is making everyone listless, wandering into its cool shade is such a treat. One questions why the bridge was covered was there an idea that traversing exposed spans made travelers suddenly vulnerable to lightning or even attacks by airborne witches? I have seen crosses painted on bridges in the mountains of the Philippines too. I suppose it is universal, this primordial fear of transitions, of moving from one sphere to the other.

Looking at this structure that the Japanese merchants had created, one has a sense of leviathans rising from the waves. It is said that it was built on the heel of a monster that was then rendered immobile. Presumably, it was not wont to shake ancient bridges off its feet, especially one so pretty. To memorialize this legendary giant, the local residents erected a small temple tucked into the side of the span. Entering this pocket shrine, my eyes settled on a pair of round knobs which held the lintel in place. Decorated with yin yang designs, these thick discs are called mat cua, watchful eyes that protect many buildings in town from evil spirits. Something was stirring in my mind. Then I remembered. I had seen a similar feature in old Bohol houses like the Casa Rocha-Suarez in Sitio Ubos, Tagbilaran.

Just around the corner from the bridge is the start of the narrow boulevard that runs along Hoi An s river. At dusk, the view from the other side is magical: the houses are lit with a galaxy of lamps. By their quiet golden glow everything is doubled yet ethereal, an ink wash version of windows, walls, doors. It was on this boulevard, beside this shimmering river, that I had my brush with a star of a different kind. My friend, Beatrice and I had dressed up in our best Vietnamese style clothes whipped up by local tailors in just one day. Wandering around, we unknowingly entered a district that had been sectioned off for filming. Since we were arrayed in traditional costumes the guards mistook us for extras. Looking up, suddenly, I saw Brendan Fraser materialize right before my eyes, resplendent in a white linen suit. If no less than Sir Ian McKellen could describe him as being easy on the eyes , who was to argue? Automatically, I whipped out my camera. As soon as my flash went off the guards pounced. My cameo role was over. A charming outfit made at the drop of a pin is not the only thing on offer in the cobbled streets. There are also shops bursting with all manner of craft items. Best buys would be exquisitely embroidered pieces. I bought a set of napkins that was decorated with fruits. I was fascinated with the lantern stalls. These tiny establishments were a kaleidoscope of shapes, all glowing. The variety is astounding. One thinks of the plastic balloons of our childhood taking forms that only innocence can inspire. There are diamonds, orbs and pyramids, flowers of the forest and of the bedroom. The lamps were actually made on the spot, fashioned from bamboo strips and then covered with a silken cloth. At night, when all the other stores have closed, seeing a lantern shop at the end of a deserted street helps you understand why C. S. Lewis wrote about places deep in the earth were gems are still alive, warm, and pliable.

There are also galleries for wood carvers, stone sculptors, and painters. Asking about the paintings, I had to admit that it made complete sense that the top-selling subject would be views of Hoi-an. Since there are more than a million visitors a year, even the most quotidian of trades becomes suddenly attractive. Ambulatory vendors are amazed to be accosted by European customers asking to be sold warm loaves holding slivers of the local pates. Tailors, calligraphers, sign makers, bakeries, even pharmacies all do brisk business because their wares are transformed by the tourist gaze into quaint souvenirs for multitudes hungry for the imagined echo of another epoch.

Not all the houses have been converted into shopping havens. Some are pleasant inns or interpretation centers, museums that help explain the lives of the local residents. Still others host lectures and evening performances of time-honored dances and songs. An omnibus fee is charged for many of the sights as well as for the entire heritage district. The funds collected are used for maintenance and conservation. Hoi- an is famous for its food. Its specialty is cao ha. The soft doughy noodles are prepared using water that must be drawn from a specific well in town. Mixed with vegetables and a rich broth then topped with croutons, each mouthful speaks of a long line of palates refined by history. And of course there is always coffee, conjured right on your table with your personal brewer, a metal filter that is fitted on your cup. Even more innovative are the little stands designed especially for the can of condensed milk which is used as a sweetener. Since ants are so enamored with the sticky stuff, the stand has a hollow all around its rim. Filled with water it becomes a tiny moat to keep away sugar-starved insects. Sitting in a café that has been adapted from an old house, sipping your warm beverage, with all these little brewing implements set out in front of you is so satisfying. But what is the source of the feeling? Is it the knowledge that the structure you are in has been reborn, given a new lease on life? Is it the smugness that arises because you are now familiar with these miniature coffeemakers unlike the astonished tourists at the other table? Though you are in a different land, you are on smiling terms with some of its ways. Part of the appeal of the cuisine is the narrative that peppers every serving. One such tale is that of Ms Vy. Back in a time when Hoi An was still off the beaten track, Ms Vy had been among the first to open a restaurant. Now she oversees several establishments, among them the Mermaid Café, the Morning Glory, and the Cargo Bar. Each one serves dishes with a slightly different inflection, all delicious. Today, this enterprising woman has a new venture: a school for Vietnamese cooking. Having been unable to enroll for a class, I contented myself with visiting the room where sessions were held. It was bright and airy, with high ceilings as well as burnished wooden beams and pillars. One window was the backdrop for a jar of flowers. Another presented a broad view of houses clustered together, absorbed in memories. Each student would get an assigned station equipped with a personal stove. What a wonderful place for learning! The instructor s table had all the ingredients arranged in a tantalizing array. Glossy black bowls held garlic and ginger. Bottles in a row contained powders ground from aromatic barks as well as leaves, fruits, and seeds dried

under an indulgent tropical sun. Over the table was a huge mirror so that each budding chef would not miss the culinary calisthenics of the master.

Thinking how much Vietnam had suffered, thinking about all those photographs of the senselessness of the American War, remembering the many boatloads of refugees who braved maritime dangers in dilapidated boats to escape the horrors at home, one can only be glad for Ms Vy. She and so many others like her have shown us that it is possible to craft a brave new life even out of destruction. Surveying the lanes of houses so lovingly conserved or even wandering among the vegetable markets with their fragrant towers of lettuce, coriander and basil, one cannot but give thanks for one more world unextinguished. Remembering how much we too have lost to wars, recalling places like Intramuros, Lipa and Pagsanjan now just shadows of their former selves, one says a prayer of gratitude for everything that still survives, for every town and edifice that continue to lend many more meanings as well as restore pride to our lives

This writer would like to thank Choy Urra of Global Nomad Bespoke Tours for providing information, Tran Trong Kien of Buffalo Tours for trip arrangements, and Cenon Agbayani for use of his photo.

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