Vietnam: Hoi An and An Bang

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Hoi An was one of the “bucket list” stops on our travels through Vietnam. A busy trading port until the 19th century when the river silted up, the old town is a colourful warren of wooden trading houses whose designs were heavily influenced by the Chinese and Japanese merchants that set up shop here for centuries.

Hoi An is a UNESCO heritage site for good reason. Brightly coloured lanterns are strung across every narrow lane, connecting saffron coloured buildings accented with the deep patina of centuries old teak wood. The ceilings in the old merchant houses are supported by enormous beams that raise the steeply pitched roofs high above Instagram worthy coffee shops, and bougainvillea shaded courtyards. This is coffee country, and the French patisserie tradition remains alive and well.

The old town in Hoi An is, in short, adorable. But it is packed to its beautiful rafters with tourists, restaurants, shops and cafes. By night, it’s difficult to even cross the little footbridge over the river because it’s so packed with people, ambling their way through the town, drunk on it’s charms.

I didn’t mind the shops very much. After all, it has always existed as a trading post, and those shops have always been shops. But it is possible to have one too many Trip Advisor rated restaurants on one street, and Hoi An is full of them.

An Bang

We opted to stay in An Bang, the beach village just a couple of kilometres from Hoi An, across an island covered in rice paddies and purple blooming water lilies. An Bang is where we fell in love with Hoi An. We spent our days on the beach, and our mornings exploring the adjacent islands on our rented motorbike.

One afternoon while Mark and Austin were doing a lesson on multiplying and dividing fractions, I went out on the motorbike to explore the rice paddies. We had been passing through them on our way between Hoi An and our beach village, and I was anxious to get in among the water lilies and the water buffalo.

Little concrete lanes crossed the fields, connecting tiny hamlets to the main road and to each other. It was just so peaceful.  The rice stalks were a vibrant green, as far as you could see. Patches of blooming purple water lilies gave colour to the scene, and little ponds completed the idyllic landscape.

It was one of those places where you can just stop, breathe in, and let out a long slow breath…and it brings perfect tranquility to that moment.

This motorbike was a little bigger than the others I’ve driven, and I was slightly terrified of it. So I did a lot of stopping to breathe and relax in order to keep my zen! As I made my way back to the main road, I spotted an old man taking a nap on the back of an enormous water buffalo.

Those creatures are massive. Like a cow, but bigger, and with much scarier horns. I stopped and did the polite thing, asking if I could take his photo before I just started snapping away. He was more than fine with that, and before I knew what was happening, he had hoisted me up on the back of the beast, and thrust my phone into his equally ancient mate’s hands to take photos while he led the thing around walking.

How. Did. This. Happen? I was afraid of the power of my moped, and now I was sitting on the back of a 2000 pound hunk of water buffalo muscle.

My face has never had enough grace to hide an emotion, and these two old men were rolling all over themselves laughing at me. They laughed, I laughed, we all laughed, and then they asked for the money. I knew they would, and we all laughed and laughed as I gave them the mere 50 cents I had on me. Turns out they didn’t mind the paltry sum all that much. They had just gotten their kicks for the day from the shaking white woman on the back of a docile photo prop.

I was still laughing like a loon as I sped away on my motorbike that suddenly didn’t seem quite so scary anymore.

Chilling in An Bang

Our hotel, An Bang My Village Homestays, was a sweet little B&B, run by the nicest old lady and her family. She spoke absolutely no English, but Austin made another soul connection with another grandma, and the two fell head over heels for each other. His little dimple has that effect on ladies of a certain generation, and he knows how to get lots of love and approval whenever he chooses.  That child will go far in life.

The beach was just great. Nice and wide, sandy, enough waves to make it fun, but no so rough that you can’t swim, and hundreds of “free” sun loungers, just waiting for you to park yourself for the day. Free, of course, provided you order food or drinks from the attached tiki bar. There’s always a catch in Vietnam, but that didn’t matter. The food was fresh, cheap and delicious, and fresh spring rolls (Summer Rolls, as we called them back in Houston) are the perfect beach snack on a sunny day.

Around 4:30 in the afternoon, the tourists start to clear out, and the locals take over the beach. Little old ladies set up straw mats for sitting along the shore line, and cook up local specialties, served with warm beer. We live by the ethos of diving in and getting local, so we chose an ancient weathered woman with a kind smile, and had a seat on her mat.

We ordered what looked like a Vietnamese version of chips and salsa — a big crispy pappadom like disc, the size of a pizza, together with a tangy chili sauce, and a warm Saigon beer. She called over a younger woman to translate the price, and it’s here that I think things went a bit screwy.

The younger woman told us it was 30,000 dong ($1) for two of the big crisps and a beer. That sounded fine by me, so I forked over the money. Well, that was not fine by the old lady, and after a discussion between the two ladies in Vietnamese, the old lady came over and gave us more crisps and more chili sauce.

Her integrity would not allow her to rip us off so badly, and she was going to make damn sure we got our money’s worth!

We enjoyed our snack as the sun went down, and watched as a dozen or so fishermen went out for the evening’s work in their little round woven boats, powered by a single oar operated from the front. They had to make their way over the surf in their bobbly little boats, but it was amazing just how fast they could to!

I had read that these odd little basket boats were an ingenious invention to get around a French levy on fishing boats during colonial times. They are so effective that the boats stuck around longer than the French did, and are still the primary fishing vessel of the area.

Easter

We were in An Bang over the Easter holidays, and the beach was loaded with families and children from across Europe, Asia and Australia. It’s here that we celebrated Austin’s birthday with a chocolate cream cake and an impromptu birthday party.

He’d really been missing his friends, and had even started using that as an excuse for bad behaviour (we’re on to him though.) I couldn’t bear the thought of him turning 7 without a party, and certainly without other kids to join him.

Mark and I had both posted notes in facebook groups for travelling families inviting anyone nearby to join the party. Despite a number of people thinking it was a great idea, we had no takers, and on the morning of his birthday, I had a custom made cake, and no party guests.

In good faith, we bought some balloons and hung them up on our umbrella, and set out the beach blankets in a spot that was dense with children. Then Austin set out search for kids to invite some kids to his party.

In the end, he celebrated with a Danish girl, and a little boy and girl from Belgium. And just like any children’s birthday party, the parents stood around making small talk, while the children got messy eating cake, and then played near each other, but not exactly together. Austin was thrilled with his party, and that’s all that matters.

That night happened to be the full moon (a blue one to be exact), and the full moon is something to be celebrated in SE Asia – as we’d learned over the previous six months.

Hoi An pulls out all the stops with a monthly lantern festival. The city lights are darkened, and the town is lit up with thousands of silk lanterns.

Pretty little paper baskets with a candle inside are lit and floated on the river for good luck. And you can take a boat ride in a little wooden boat among dozens of other little wooden boats, through a sea of fire and paper lanterns.

Within minutes of arriving in the town, we had parted with about 300,000 dong ($10) for three paper lantern boats and a wooden boat ride. Afterwards, we had a fantastically delicious dinner of marinated, grilled pork and chicken skewers at a tiny table right on the riverside.

The festive atmosphere made for a brilliant 7th birthday evening for the littlest McPartland. As a mother, I could breathe a sigh of relief that we managed to get through another birthday without totally effing it up. That’s one more year he’ll never hold against me! Phew!

For as much as we adored Hoi An, it was a bit full on, and we were really pleased with our decision to stay in An Bang.

Mark came in to our room one day after an early morning bike ride, announcing he had found somewhere that I would love to have a cup of tea. I can think of a dozen places that I would love to have a cup of tea, but to have Mark recognise one must mean it is something truly special.

He nailed it. If he never gets anything right again for the rest of our married life, it will be okay. He got this one so right.

Tra Que

There is a little island between An Bang and Hoi An called Tra Que. The entire island is comprised of 135 family plots of organically grown herbs and vegetables. It’s been farmed by these families in this way for more than 300 years, and it supplies all of the fresh produce for the Hoi An area. In fact, it’s called the Tra Que Culinary Village.

It was just so beautiful. So many herbs and leafy vegetables, laid out in perfect little plots, and farmed traditionally by barefoot men in pointy hats. The plots of fertile earth were crisscrossed by little brick lanes for bicycles and other people like me who walked around in a blissed out daze.

The air was so clean, and with the amount of photosynthesis going on in the bright sunshine, the oxygen in the air made you feel alive. I had my cup of tea in that garden, and then pleaded with my very best puppy dog eyes to take a cooking class here. Right here in this spot. The next day.

Those who know me know how much I love to cook, and it’s something I’ve desperately missed while we’ve been travelling. I’ve been able to cook some, but places where I’ve had a kitchen haven’t really matched up very well with places where I could easily find food to cook. I knew I’d do a cooking class somewhere in Vietnam, and this place was my spot.

We walked around the edge of the fields from one open air restaurant / cooking school / garden oasis to another until we found the right place. Run by a friendly man who had lived in Houston (in Bellaire of course) for a while, the Tra Que Garden was gorgeous. As we were agreeing my spot in the next day’s class, Austin insisted that he was going to learn to cook too!

That threw up a bit of a challenge, in that they wouldn’t hoist a child onto a group of unwitting adults, and they wouldn’t do a private class with fewer than three people. So I whipped out my puppy dog eyes again, and tugged at Mark’s conscience until he agreed to join the class too.

So it was settled. The McPartlands were to have their very own private Vietnamese cooking class with a guided tour of the farms, an herbal foot massage, a farming lesson, and a fair bit of eating too.

It was my very favourite day of our whole trip so far.

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