Finding Hoi An

The art scene in Hoi An is vibrant.

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Or so we had heard. Turns out the authentic scene takes some finding.  Hoi An has seen a huge increase in tourist development over the last several years.  A few Hoi An’ians(?) we met attribute this development to the reopening of Vietnam to Chinese tourists.  Their entry into the country was restricted for several years as tensions swelled between the two countries in the South China Sea.  Three years ago the restriction lifted and Hoi An has become a fav destination for Chinese tours.

Our kids are also a favorite photo subject for said tourists.  Here’s a picture Phoebe took of tourist taking a picture of her…

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Some of the locals we spoke with had mixed feelings about all the build up, its effect on the character of the city, and the environment. And while tourism has a given a huge and welcome boost to the economy, one Hoi An friend lamented that few tourists see, or seemed interested in seeing, the real place.  They are content instead to tromp around the somewhat Disneyesque “Ancient Town” seeking Instagramable photo ops.  (Which is pretty fun in small doses….)

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A night shot of the Old Town action taken by William.

Whether Chinese tourism is the main force behind the touristic tide that sometimes seems to overwhelm Hoi An was unclear to us.  Many VN people we’ve met seem to blame the Chinese, perhaps understandably, for just about everything… And we saw just as many or more Westerners on the Hoi An streets. Also, a lot of the development we witnessed must have begun before VN reopened to its northern neighbors.

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In all events, the place can be pretty touristy at first blush.  Initially, we had trouble wading through the sea of tourist schlock that repeated the offerings we’d seen throughout SE Asia.

We also struggled to get past the endless custom tailor shops cateringg to Western tastes that dominate the city’s storefronts.

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I’ll admit we found those immensely talented and VERY reasonably priced tailors hard to pass up….

Two nights ago though, after a lovely dinner in a tucked away spot (Nù Eatery, a MUST try https://g.co/kgs/eyjLMh), we came upon a little gallery.  There was not much to advertise the place: just a single painting sitting on an easle out front.  But the piece drew us in and we found we had trouble leaving.

Even the kids were somewhat transfixed by the art, though eventually they got bored and went outside to practice their night photography.

Yesteday, we returned to the gallery and decided to bring one of our favorite paintings home.  While there, we were lucky to meet the artist, Lè Tan Lôc.  Mr. Lè grew up in a small village outside Hoi An. He married a woman from the same village and they raised their 4 children there.  He has been painting for 30 years and seems to make a good living at it.  We really loved his work and struggled to choose.

Finally, we settled on a piece.  Some of us saw a crowded busy city street, others the women who work so hard in the market. I really like all the green, which reminds me of the rice paddies.

No doubt Mr. Le was happy to make a sale. (His wife, with whom we did business, certainly was. ) But, as I watched him take so much care packing the piece for shipping, it occurred to me that sending his art halfway around the world to America might be just a little bittersweet.  He seemed to really love the painting too.

Before we left, we told Mr. Lè (as best we could given the language barrier) about where we were likely to hang the painting. We promised to send a photo once it is in place.  We also spoke with him and his wife about our respective children, 8 among us.  The Le’s are the same age as we are, but 2 of their daighters are already in medical school, the first having been born before Brendan and I graduated from college.
It was experiences like this that made us really love our extended stay in Hoi An. Over the last 9 months we’ve learned that finding these experiences requires an investment of time.  There are so many “important” sites to see when you travel that it’s hard to resist moving quickly through a country or city.  “We’ve come all this way! How could we go home without seeing ‘x’ or experiencing ‘y’?”  And of course there’s a time and place for that kind of tourism.  But, after a period of moving every 2 or 3 days during our SE Asia travel, it felt really good to stay put for awhile, to do our best to find the real place.

To grow familiar with the markets and food stalls where the people of Hoi An actually shop….

To learn to naviagate ourselves by motorbike through the city’s busy but manageable traffic in relative comfort.

It was always nice to arrive safely home…

We even had a favorite local gas station.

To adopt a bit of a routine, a neighborhood running route, breakfast at home (instead of by hotel buffet), laundry in the jungle.

To find a favorite fresh juice spot.

And to make some friends.  Like Men and Thun who take care of the house where we stayed and took such good care of us.

It was Men who encouraged us to venture beyond the typical tourist stops and most importantly to get into the countryside.

To that end, Men introduced us to another new friend Phu, who took us by motorbike into villages far outside the bustle of Hoi An City.

Phu left home, a village outside a small city north of here, when he was 14. He had told his father, a rice farmer, that he wanted a different life. When his father scoffed, Phu took himself to Hue, Vietnam’s original capital, which many tourists visit.  He got a job, found a place to sleep, and did his best to learn enough English to work as a guide. Eventually, Phu got work as a receptionist for a hotel and later for a motorbike tour company.  A few years ago he started his own business, Easy Rider, providing the same adventure service in Hoi An.

Our day with Phu was a huge highlight of our time in Asia.  Not just because of the afventure it provided or the gorgeous scenery we traversed…

… but as much (or more) because the time we spent helped us glimpse the real life of this place.

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I’m not sure I’d be so presumptuous as to call Mr. Le a friend.  We didn’t talk for very long.  But I do know his beautiful painting will help us remember the time we spent finding Hoi An. It will remind us, I hope, of the beauty and grace that is revealed when you give a place the patience and the effort that it deserves.

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6 thoughts on “Finding Hoi An

  1. Hoi An is pretty awesome, but I say that as someone who hasn’t really been anywhere else in Asia. I did not know there were no Chinese people there for a reason, this was about 10 years ago. My friend’s mom had a summer arts camp for VN kids, these independent young people who leave home to go to school in Hoi An. I was so impressed by Vietnamese kids. Thanks for sharing your adventures.

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