Hoi An – on the more meaningful side

Afternoon boating in Hoi An

I took the opportunity to stay in Hoi An for a week – I was feeling like staying put for a little while, to revel in having access to a pool in the hotel and a beach relatively close at hand, as well as to reconnect a bit to my experience with the H'Mong girls in Sapa. My first night in Hoi An I went to dinner at the Streets International restaurant with Ms. Hanh, the former volunteer coordinator from Sapa who had moved to work for a non-profit called Lifestart. I met Sang, a past student of Sapa O'Chau, who was graduating from Streets International cooking school.

Ms Hanh and a newly graduated Sang

Sang invited me to her graduation, as her family wasn't able to attend from Sapa, and after working for 18 months learning how to cook Western food and speak excellent English, she wanted some people to be at her side for her big event. Sang was in fact one of two valedictorians for the ceremony, who read a speech in English to thank the heads of Streets for the opportunity she and the class had been given. It was a fancy event with a lot of cheering over the dinner tables, and clearly an important moment for these students who had succeeded in obtaining a certification that would enable them to find jobs in some of the best restaurants in the country. Even though I didn't get to know Sang as a student, it was still rewarding to be there to celebrate the occasion with her.

My Son in the morning

Another meaningful visit was to the jungle-covered ruins of My Son, the intellectual and religious centre of the kingdom of Champa, in charge in south-central Vietnam from the 2nd – 15th centuries. Like Hue, this site was heavily bombed by the American forces, with the most important monument deliberately laid flat by helicopter assault. But in between the craters and jungle, the remaining slowly decaying rusty red brick buildings facing the sacred mountain that resembles a shark fin impart a solemn sense of the long past. In the quiet early morning it is a place to speak in quieter tones than that of our guide who was busy cracking jokes about the large phallic lingua statues throughout the complexes that were part of the fertility worship in Cham culture. Despite being hurried along faster than I would have liked, and a rather dismal boat ride back that included a stop for a soft sell at a village of wood carving shops, the ruins were a sight worth seeing in the morning light.

With the Malaysian Dance Troupe

Aside from these events there was also some Heritage Festival fun in Hoi An. I got pulled on stage to dance (briefly) with the Malaysian performers, and got interviewed (briefly) by national television (VTV) for my thoughts on the festival. And at the urging of Ms. Hanh, I had a go at trying to Break the Breakfast Pot. It draws a crowd because it's a great game to watch – participants get a woven-grass darkened pie plate put over their face and have to walk four steps towards a clay pot hanging from a pulley. You have one chance to swing the wooden stick and smash the pot – if you do you win a prize and get a big cheer. Most people swing wildly and miss, because you really can't see anything with a dark plate over your face. My first time I was nowhere near the pot, and the second time I just failed to hit it. But out of all the festival type of games I've seen, I think this may be the best one – cheap, simple, fun and no skills required, besides a willingness to take a swing at the dark. If nothing else, not a bad metaphor to hang onto, in a search for the meaningful.

Paper lantern seller

Picture Perfect




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