Friday, March 20, 2009


(This is the fourth post in a week-long serial about our Valentine's Day vacation. This entry should conclude the run, so I can get on with more recent stuff come Monday.) We spent the last night of our vacation in Đà Nẵng instead of Hội An because I wanted to see the big city before heading home. Đà Nẵng is the largest town in central Vietnam. The funny thing is, it feels less cosmopolitan than any other place I’ve visited here. The nicer restaurants seemed pretty ho-hum, people were unused to travelers, and there was just very little flash. I didn't see much in the way of nightlife, traffic, or hipness. This is probably because the river bisecting town is pretty wide, and the old US Army base camp at Mỹ Khê, popularized by the television show China Beach, is on the opposite side from where we stayed. I guess that's where all the tourist dollars are spent, so all the attention is paid over there. This would also account for the lack of tourist-type services--cyclos for hire, roving juice vendors, shoe shiners; hell, the lack of tourists themselves--in our immediate vicinity. It was pretty refreshing. Đà Nẵng came off like a no-frills and workaday place, with an under-crowded Champa sculpture museum rescued Mỹ Sơn artifacts, a jungle coffee shop with caged myna birds, and an altruistic pizza shop staffed by the deaf. Our hotel was adjacent to the giant cement Sông Hàn swing bridge* spanning the Hàn River, and the night before we returned home I got to see it during operation, if not "watch" it "in action". It rotated slower than my eye could follow--about half the speed of my watch's minute hand. So that took about half an hour, I guess. Obviously. [Cavin]

Thursday, March 19, 2009


(This is the third in a series of daily posts covering our Valentine's holiday vacation to Hội An and Mỹ Sơn. Picking up mid-swim, now:) I shouldn't make light of visiting the Champa Indochinese Hindu temple site at Mỹ Sơn (which is pronounced mee sohn, by the way). It was very interesting. The temple complex there was probably begun sometime in the fourth century, even as the bustling Chinese seaport of Hội An was beginning to burgeon. It's interesting these two cultures thrived thirty-five kilometers apart. But Mỹ Sơn was protected in a fertile valley between converging mountain ranges, where it prospered, more or less, for ten centuries as the religious and cultural nerve center of a great southern kingdom before eventually being consumed by the emerging Việt culture. In Mỹ Sơn, each successive Cham king built greater temples and religious centers, had documentary artworks carved into the jagged brick walls, advanced civilization, etc., before each was then successively entombed there. Because of its longevity, it's possible to track the mutation of Champa religion from its roots to something more regionally synthesized. A thousand-year progression from nearly Hindu to budding Buddhism is illustrated. We only wandered around the site for about an hour, during which our guide advanced learned modern suspicions about the Cham people's everyday religious activities. Mỹ Sơn remains an awesome place. Time has ravaged it, ornate conical stupas have crumbled or toppled. Many of the structures were damaged during bombing runs in 'sixty-nine. What's left is gorgeous though: pink and gray brick draped with vines and spongy moss. Also it’s under construction. Several larger outlying structures are hidden within towers of scaffolding. All that said, it was impossible not to feel it was somewhat anti-climactic after visiting the much grander Khmer temple city at Angkor. [Cavin]

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


(I'm still talking about our recent Valentine's Day trip. This is a sequel to the post preceding it.) We flew into Đà Nẵng after sunset on Friday the thirteenth, and hailed a cab south to Hội An. The driver tried to take us to the wrong hotel, but in all fairness the wrong place really did have virtually the same name as the one we'd booked. Still being fair: he only very mildly overcharged us, too. The right hotel was a lush courtyard affair on the palm- and paddy-lined riverbank between the town and the beach. Since it was already late we didn't see either until the next day. Both are beautiful. We've discovered yet again that we are not altogether typical tourists. Or maybe we are just really bad at tourism. Hội An is dotted with two-hundred year old traditional Chinese houses, traditional Chinese and Japanese temples, Museums explaining the interesting history and long-arrested nature of the place. We didn't do any of that. We spent our few days buying handmade shoes and clothing, eating and drinking in interesting modern fusion joints inhabiting century-old buildings overlooking the muddy river, and just soaking in the kind of bizarre juxtapositions that occur when a genuine and modern population inhabits a fetchingly preposterous and frozen historical space. Well, we did rent a guided tour of the nearby Champa ruins at Mỹ Sơn on that very hot Sunday. An air conditioned car operated by the hotel whisked us away first thing in the morning to the site, through several of the small towns that dot the Quảng Nam Province countryside. At Mỹ Sơn we wandered around the crumbling remains of fourteen-hundred year old buildings before returning to Hội An for passion fruit martinis in a riverside Mexican restaurant later that afternoon. [Cavin]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


More notes from the past: in mid-February we enjoyed a romantic Valentine's Day getaway to the pretty little riverside town of Hội An. This was a good weekend to travel, since the Valentine's weekend had been conveniently extended into three days by the actual federal Presidents Day holiday on Monday. The extra time was handy because it's not as easy as just flying to Hội An. That town has no airport of its own. Visitors fly to the nearest airport and then make their way some thirty-odd kilometers down the South China Seacoast to town. Hội An was a significant port already two thousand years ago, blossoming into a bustling multicultural hub for global trade by the eighteenth century, home to a significant population of Japanese, Chinese and European merchants. But during the Tây Sơn Rebellion, isolationist sentiment drove much of this foreign element away. When the European market was reopened by victorious Emperor Gia Long, he repaid French assistance with exclusive use of the port in Đà Nẵng, which became the next big thing. Unused, river access to port Hội An silted-up and the city fossilized over the following two centuries, becoming the kind of hamlet-cum-museum just catnip to tourists. This probably also protected Hội An from Vietnam's decades of war, which really ravaged its port replacement to the north. Today, the small city is populated by tourism and its fallout: chockablock with amenities but also punctuated by neat centuries-old stuff. A thriving garment industry is the one local factory production in evidence. Hội An has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 'ninety-nine. Its nearby beach is a little precarious, its unprotected waters ripped by dangerous tides for portions of the year. But it has that pretty tropical palm fringe you see in all the photos. [Cavin]

Monday, March 16, 2009


We enjoyed a nice meal at Hoa Túc Saturday night. It's a contemporary Vietnamese restaurant located in the old opium refinery off Hai Bà Trưng Street. It shares a two-story French colonial building with several other places I've mentioned before, accessible off a dimly lit gravel courtyard down a gated alley from all the tony hotels. I had shrimp wrapped in mustard leaves and thin, lightly fried strips of sole on shaved sour mango. I also had a small chopstick epiphany. I've been comfortable eating with chopsticks for decades. Before coming to Asia I'd had no idea there was something left to learn. I remember watching Eat, Drink, Man, Woman in its first US art house release; my first chopstick epiphany hitting me in that theater while watching Taiwanese actresses spin soup noodles onto their utensils like thread onto a spool. A revelation: you could roll soba like spaghetti. I couldn't wait to leave the theater and try this myself. Saturday's eating-related realization was more immediate. I've discovered several chopstick weaknesses since coming to Asia. Stripping basil leaves off the sprig for my soup or spring rolls took a while to master. Peeling shrimp is still difficult. Saturday night I was again confronted by the difficulty of boning fish. Therefore my realization: just lump whatever whiskers of bone are too small to remove with chopsticks. The logic here is perfectly circular, of course: too small to chopstick? Eat them. Too big to eat? Get better with chopsticks. So a pretty tiny epiphany, indeed: an attempt to detect that fine line. Now I also need to master getting the fish into my mouth at the proper angle to keep from stabbing myself on sharp bones quite so often. But only an epiphany of anatomy will help me with that. [Cavin]