July in Vietnam: Eating My Way Through Hoi An

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Back in Hoi An, a great deal of colour and eating beckoned. The colourful Chinese lanterns dotting the streets and the relaxed way of life really charmed me. Here, there were few motorcycles and a lot of people got around either on foot or by bicycle.

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I spotted some amusing sights on the way, like this couple trying very hard to relax for their wedding photo shoot…

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… while their costumed wedding party awaited.

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And just before dinner I spotted this restaurateur picking his nose outside his very empty joint. I wonder why no one patronised his cafe.

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I headed on towards the market where lots of yummy sights and smells awaited. The sheer variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs made me yearn for a kitchen to whip up some food inspired by the local produce.

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I settled with having their local snacks instead. First, there were these odd little pancakes, reminiscent of the Indian appom. The tiny cakes were small enough to pop into the mouth whole and were crispy. The greasiness was countered by the shredded vegetables and herbs and the whole ensemble completed with a spamstick and a mystery-meat ball. It was a very satisfying starter.

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A short wander away was this version of bun. The thick rice noodles were bespattered with thick sweet sauce a bit like the stuff at home that’s put on yong tau fu, just quite a bit more savoury. It was much nicer with the hot sauce and the hotter yellow chillis.

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Yet another odd dish was this plate of assorted steamed dumplings. I wasn’t particularly impressed even though the guide book said something about “white rose” which was supposed to be shrimp encased in rice paper of sorts and steamed. It was more like soon kueh with slightly drier skin. Not bad when hot but not much more than not bad.

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Wandering away from the market, I ducked into an alley along the quaint streets…

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… and found myself in a little porch with a bowl of cau lau in front of me. This is a Hoi An specialty that involves flat yellow noodles being smothered with braised pork and topped with lime juice and the usual herbage. It’s finished off with crispy fried rice paper bits and tastes really yummy, though very much reminding of what I do at home with leftover braised pork.

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The best dish I had in Hoi An was the chicken rice, thankfully not featured in the guide but chanced upon on the street. The rice was cooked with chicken stock, just like Hainanese chicken rice at home. Unlike the stuff at home, it was topped with a whole variety of oddities like boiled pork, beansprouts and herbs. Not to mention, the chicken was just the shredded type torn apart with fingers. The flavour was amazing. It was an epiphany to have incredibly aromatic, chickeny rice matched with herbs like coriander and laksa leaves. It was definitely a step up from Hainanese chicken rice.

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I’m sure some of you must be wondering why I hadn’t mentioned Vietnam’s national drink yet. The coffee here is thick, strong and incredibly sweet and milky with added condensed milk. And that’s the only way you should have it. Ask for ca phe sua da and you get a tall glass of ice to cool it all down with. It’s wonderful on a hot day. When you’re done, chase it down with the green tea provided gratis.

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I first noticed this coffee place because of the many men perched on red plastic chairs watching TV in the morning. They disappeared by midday and I only ventured there in the afternoon to get a mobile plan top up card and a glass of coffee. After the first sip, I was hooked. I spent every afternoon there enjoying my ca phe sua da, playing with the very cute puppy called Remain, and chatting with the proprietress about Hoi An, Vietnam and Singapore.

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July in Vietnam: The Cham Ruins of My Son

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The Champa civilisation was one of the Indian-influenced civilisations in Southeast Asia, similar to those who built the ancient cities of Bagan, Ayuthaya, Angkor Wat and Borobudur. One reason to pass through Hoi An was to visit My Son (pronouced “mi sen”), part of this temple circuit. With this trip, I added the last scalp to my belt.

I booked with a friendly though somewhat scatterbrained travel agent a tour to My Son, Vietnam’s answer to Angkor Wat. After a false early morning start where they forgot about picking me up, I finally got on a tour out there in the later part of the morning. The entrance to the ruins was a lot newer than expected and a friendly American family helpfully snapped a picture of me next to this spanking new pile of stone.

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We were raring to go see the ruins, but not before admiring the local cows enjoying a good bit of rumination under the shade. The morning was progressing and it was starting to get mighty hot.

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True enough, lots of tourists were already out there, heavily armed with umbrellas. Still, they were very much dwarfed by the Cham ruins, rising up majestically and rather shabbily at the same time.

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I was struck by how much of the structures still remained. They survived years of weathering and wars and retained most of the main features of the buildings. The red brick still stood but the cement had long fallen off.

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The entrances were tall and thin, probably reflecting the girth but not height of the people then. I admired the intricate carvings on the eaves of the entrances.

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Too bad about the statues built into the walls. The details had pretty much been weathered off and the details of faces and dress could barely be made out.

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However, no amount of weathering could disguise what this was. This linga was the most graphic I’d seen in Southeast Asian temple sites. There were lots of giggling tourists wondering how on earth to pose with it.

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Much easier for the amateur photographer were the headless statues dotting the compound.

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There were also plenty of reliefs of lesser gods with heads.

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These were less interesting to the average tourist, but the unique features that seemed to me part-Indian and part-Balinese left me admiring them for quite a while.

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It was a pity that the wasn’t a great deal to the site as quite a lot of the ruins were really just that. Many of them were ruined not so much because of the passage of time but because of American bombings during the war. Sad indeed.

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July in Vietnam: A Viet Chinatown

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Hoi An is one of those paradoxical places: right smack in the middle of traditionally China-hating Vietnam yet if you’re dropped randomly into the town for a look round, you’d think it to be China. Except of course that if you’ve been to China before you’d know better. It’s like a really prettied up version of a Chinatown, what Singapore’s Chinatown would aspire to be when it grows up. It was full of Chinese characters and dragon motifs, yet the odd thing was that no one there spoke any Chinese at all.

My first stop was at the Fujian Assembly Hall, oddly named jin shan si or Golden Mountain Temple in Mandarin. It had such a grand facade that I bet any Chinese trader that would have been suitably impressed.

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Other halls were less impressive, like this tumbledown one on the edge of town. Unlike the others, it hadn’t a name and wasn’t featured in the guide book. Still, the dragon motifs were incredibly beautiful.

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It looked amazing even in silhouette.

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Other typically Chinese places were the temples. The eaves were beautifully, ornately decorated and very impressive to look at.

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Not being a frequenter of temples at home, I was taken aback by these very cool joss sticks that were twirled into cone shapes.

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As it burned, each joss stick gave off plenty of slightly sweet smoke that wafted past the eaves.

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Other traditional houses had craft showcases, like this one with lantern making demonstrations to make the colourful lights still used extensively in the town.

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Of course, not everything looked bright and new and restored. Here’s a little courtyard of a shophouse turned museum, looking very similar in style to Peranakan houses in Singapore and Malacca. I think it’s the tiled fountain against the wall that’s so typical of Chinese-influenced houses in the region.

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And last of all was the Japanese Covered Bridge, oddly not looking anything particularly Japanese at all. It was quite similar to the one in Hue, just that this one was on the edge of town and not in the midst of paddy fields.

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Here, the bridge god was a dog, and a strangely Egyptian-looking one at that. How strange.

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July in Vietnam: By the River in Hoi An

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My next stop was Hoi An. Its name sounds a lot like “River Bank” in Cantonese and true enough, a big feature is the river than runs through it.

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It’s an incredibly atmospheric town, as you can see from the riverside pictures.

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With its junks and shophouses lining the banks, I found this a far more peaceful version of Singapore’s riverside.

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There were plenty of cute little boats with little eyes painted on the hull to help navigate the river.

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And there were plenty of “fishermen” casting their nets, not really for the fish…

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… but really for the tourists to get a picture and for them to get a tip.

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Despite how touristy this town was, there was definitely a lot of charisma and charm to it, from which Singapore ought learn.

Towards the end of the day, the light lent a soft veil over the buildings.

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And as the light faded, the buildings, despite being restored, started to take on a slightly shabby look as they aged with the light.

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They started looking almost like ochre postcards of the olden days in Singapore.

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Only to come back to life when the lights came on in the dark.

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Hoi An, what a charmer.