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Hoi An, take 2 27 August 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Travelling, Vietnam.
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Hoi An was the first place in Vietnam outside of Hanoi that I visited (for holidays anyways) back in 2008 after we first arrived. It was an amazing experience, I am still pinching myself when I reread my email home (rewritten as a blog post here) with the amazing experience that we had.

I am about to board a plane to go there again, two years later, and I cannot wait to see what it has to offer this time. I expect no dragon dancing or crazy crowds, as it will not be the Autumn festival while I am there, but I am sure I will manage to find some other attraction in this beautiful place. More blog posts after the trip.

Hoi An Adventure 18 September 2008

Posted by uggclogs in Life.
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Originally posted on 18 September 2008 (edited)

My partner and I just had the most amazing trip to Hoi An; it had everything – culture, noise, great food, cool scenery, and lanterns.  I am still on a high, even though I came home with a cold.  (The cold started before we went, but came to a head on the plane back from Hoi An.  If you’ve ever flown with the beginnings of a cold, you will know what I am talking about.)

So here’s my story.

On Saturday we flew from Hanoi to Hoian, which is about an hour’s flight.  We proceeded to relax at the pool, look around the hotel, and figure out what we were going to do the next couple of days.  This was a good thing, because we were then completely relaxed for the craziness of the next days!  Interestingly, when we arrived it was raining, and it was forecast to rain for the whole time we were there, but this was pretty much all the rain we saw while we were there.

Sunday morning I woke up at about 5 am, and as I could not get back to sleep, I walked down to the beach.  It was amazing to see how many locals were out doing their exercise this early, swimming, running, stretching, and doing exercise routines that you might associate with communist countries.  It was great, scores of people of all ages were there.  Being the only westerner up at that hour, I attracted my fair share of attention, which I have come to almost get used to by now.  I spent about half an hour on the beach, watching the sun rise higher into the sky, while people were active all around me.

Heading back to the room, we decided to get going early that day, since the weather was so nice.  We expected it to rain later, so thought that we should take advantage of it while it lasted.  Filled with breakfast, we rented bicycles from the hotel, and set off in the general direction of Hoi An.  On the way, we passed beautiful rice paddies with farmers harvesting, threshing and drying rice, buffaloes with calves, storks and other birds.  We were bailed up by locals on motorbikes trying to sell us tailoring (one of Hoian’s specialities) less than halfway to town, but nothing could wipe our grins off our faces, as we were just too excited about something new and the clean air.

On the way to Hoi An we stopped at a little market to watch a small group of boys doing a dragon dance.  Sunday was the mid-autumn festival, which is the most important day of the year for children.  They dress up as dragons (one child will be the head, and another the back part of the dragon, one child wears a mask and seems to subdue the dragon, and one child bangs away on a drum) and dance in shops.  The shops give them money, and I seem to have understood that the dancing is supposed to drive away evil spirits from the shops.  This festival is meant to be for children, and they are very excited about it.  We continued into the old town, and we soon realised that there were dragon dancers and drummers everywhere (and I mean everywhere), and there was non-stop drumming and noise everywhere as well.  Often, the dancers attracted great crowds that would stop and watch, including locals.  During the day, the dancers were mostly younger children, with only a few older ones in the mix.

We spent time discovering Hoi An and taking photos, looking at the sights and having a quiet lunch.  We also had our measurements taken to have clothes made.  Hoi An itself initially disappointed me, I am not sure why.  I must have built up expectations I was unaware of, which never were fulfilled.  I suppose I had heard so many great things about it that I forgot a little bit that it was still going to be Vietnam, it was still going to be dirty, and it was still going to be poorly maintained.  But once I managed to let go of my expectations, and see what it had to offer, I came to love it as well.

We cycled back to the hotel, went for a swim in the pool and the ocean, and headed back to Hoi An for the night time festivities.  We had heard that the full moon festival was pretty exciting in Hoi An (and by ‘heard’ I mean ‘read in Lonely Planet’) and the mid-autumn festival being the biggest of these full-moon festivals, we were very excited.  And we had a wonderful time!  After night fall, the locals (and a few foreigners) let candles float down the river, to symbolise letting go of old worries.  Dragon dancing continued, but became more serious, and more skilful, as the older groups took over the streets.  While we were looking for a place to eat, we were met with bigger drums, and better drummers, more intricate dragons (with little fairy lights and neon strobes attached) and more dragon confrontations.  More groups were lifting their dragons up on dancing boards (six guys holding the board on their shoulders, and one kid with the dragon costume on top dancing away) and we saw many groups now walking around with poles. It took us a while to figure out what the poles were for, but I will get back to that.

While we were eating on a terrace overlooking the river, we also saw more and more groups having ‘dance-offs’, with the dragons twirling around each other, attracting bigger crowds that cheered and watched the happenings.  After dinner, we had spent all our money, and went looking for an ATM, which got us caught up in the most exciting event we had yet experienced in Vietnam.  The poles that were being carried around turned out to be ladders, held up by the groups of dancers, with the dragon climbing up the top.  These were poles of 4 metres tall, if I am judging it correctly, it looked like some of them were almost two stories tall.  One dancer up the top was particularly skilful, dancing to the drumbeat, and letting the costume snake its way up and down the pole, creating a great illusion of a real dragon.

But then we came on one crossing where two groups were setting up to battle.  I am not completely sure what happened, because I was trying to manoeuvre through the crowd to the other side, because I was still trying to head in the direction of the ATM.  My partner later said that he thought one of the groups chickened out, even though the other group had already set up their pole.  The first group were retreating up the street (by coincidence in the same direction as the ATM), while the other group were angrily screaming after them, following them, banging on the drums.  Now, the second group looked like a bunch of thugs, they were not wearing shirts, and all of them had tattoos on their backs and arms.  One of them was spraying something (like a can of deodorant) while lighting it on fire, creating the thought in my mind that they wanted to burn something of the other team.

They kept following the other team, screaming, and the crowd was following the dancers.  (All still in the same direction as the ATM).  We were looking at each other wondering what would happen, but kept walking north in the same direction as the crowd.  Due to us actually going that way already, we ended up at the front of the crowd.  We took out some money from the ATM, which was on the corner of a large intersection.  By the time we had done that, a large crowd had formed in the middle of the intersection, and they were cheering and screaming, making us very curious.  We went to the edge of the circle, to see what was happening and to take photos.  In the middle of the crowd was a large ring, where the thugs were dismantling the dragon head of the opposite team.  They were pulling and tearing, and every time a bit came loose, the crowd cheered.  All of a sudden, a siren.

A stampede followed, with Vietnamese scrambling everywhere.  Both of us had turned to try to get out of the way, but found ourselves locked in by motorbikes and bicycles.  I was stepped on before I managed to get myself to the pavement, where I turned and saw a police officer on a motorbike circling the empty intersection.  My partner told me he had seen the cop (who was traffic police) charging full speed into the group standing there, brandishing a large stick.

Within seconds, all that was left in the intersection was a trampled mask and the dragon’s head, which was quickly picked up by someone.  The traffic cop was charging around, trying to grab the boys wearing the dragon costumes (you could tell by the pants they were wearing).  By this stage I also realised that there were actually two cops, one had a metre long stick in his hands.  I didn’t see him use it on anyone, but traffic police here are not unknown for their violence against traffic ‘offenders’.  They finally climb back on the motorbike together and drive off without catching the boys.

The crowd, which consisted of mainly Vietnamese, and a handful of few foreigners on the footpaths, nervously hung around, while some of the bravest of the groups picked up the spoils of the battlefield.  The intersection remained empty, and we decided to walk away from there.  We did not have our identity cards or passports on us, so we decided to stay out of the way of the police.  I am not sure why the police were so heavy handed, whether it was to stop the rowdy crowd getting rioty (which, in my experience rarely happens in Vietnam), or whether they were just traffic cops on a power trip (most likely), but it was a surreal experience.

Back in the town itself, we continued to have a little look around, but many dragon groups were winding down and going home, so we also decided to return to our hotel.

Monday we spent going to the tailor, shopping, swimming, having a cocktail by the pool, reading and looking at Hoi An.  After the noisiness from the day before, everything was quiet and peaceful in the streets.  We had dinner on the beach and watched the sunset bring out the little fishing boats.  It was a wonderfully relaxing day, and again, there was no rain to speak of.  On Tuesday morning, we went for one last swim in the ocean, watched the clear blue sky, picked up our tailoring, and went to the airport to go home.  It was a marvellous long weekend, and I am so happy we were there when we were.  Now we are back in Hanoi, ready to brave the city for another month or so.