Finding Hoi An

The art scene in Hoi An is vibrant.


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…


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….)


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.


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.


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, 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.


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.


Our Special Guest Stars: GooGoo, Bapa, and the Magnificent Mackenzie!

We were beyond thrilled when Goo Goo and Bapa announced their plans to join us for a month of our travels in SE Asia.  From beginning to end, they impressed us so much: their adventurous spirit, their patience for our sometimes idiosyncratic group dynamic, their love of things new and different.

For example, here is Bapa, with a tarantula… Both he and GooGoo later sampled this Cambodian delicacy.

How blessed we are that they became our 7 and 8 for so long and how much we will miss them as we finish up the remaining weeks of our trip.  In a final show of adventure travel dedication, they even wrote a guest blog post, which appears below.

Our blessings only continued when Mackenzie decided to join us for our time in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Saigon.  


She flew 20 hours each way and did not miss a beat in joining our somewhat ambitious itinerary for these beautiful and important places.  We literally saw not one sign of jet lag from her as we tromped through ancient ruins, took tuk tuks through crowded cities, stopped at roadside stands to eat insects, and then absorbed the tragic history of Cambodia.  The whole time Phoebe, who has missed her beloved Naynay so much, was literally clinging to her side….  Nevertheless, she remained upright, in fact downright cheery, throughout her time with us.  She even managed to ask the smartest, most insightful questions on all of our tours  


Amazingly, Mackenzie did not even bat an eyelash when we announced the plan for her final day: a 4 hour motor scooter tour through the heart of Saigon that ended just 3 hours before her flight back to DC.  


We knew Mackenzie was amazing before the trip began.  We are now in complete awe of her.

I will never forget talking to a dear friend, about halfway through the trip, about the homesickness I was feeling.  (This was shortly after William’s accident at the Taj Mahal and in the midst of the Indian currency crisis…)  My friend made the very good point that one of the often overlooked reasons for travel is to remind yourself how much you love and appreciate your life back home.  Homesickness is a form of that.  Being with Brendan’s parents and Mackenzie, all of whom are so integral to our lives in DC, was an even better and much more enjoyable reminder.  We’re very grateful for their time, effort to join us, and of course their wonderful company.  

And now to GooGoo & Bapa’s much more interesting read…

So nerve-wracking to be asked to be guest writers on the blog!

When we first heard about this trip, we were stunned at the fantasy of the plan, scope of travel, depth of planning and organization….how many people take a year off?   With 4 kids to some very exotic destinations. Managing school absence, visas, medicine…yikes, where to begin?

Reality struck when we drove kids to Dulles with their one backpack each.

We connected for a few days in Rome in Oct. and now that we’ve been together a month, we continue to be amazed at the level of activity (where did these genes come from?) and the overwhelming patience and kindness of all involved.  Crossing the street in Bangkok /Ho Chi Minh City / wherever, is a challenge (hold hands, Phoebe)…rock climbing, motorbiking, just about anything that challenges our concept of normalcy.

Hours of dusty rides or tours of temples or museums when everyone is hot, thirsty, tired….there’s an underlying acceptance of inconvenience that is exceptional.  Even Brendan and Alex only had a few time-outs!

Guess that’s what makes this trip possible…a willingness to accept developing world foibles.  Admittedly, Phoebe is 5 and still brushing up on this skill.


The massages also help quite a bit…

One day in Siem Reap, all 9 of us had one at the same time!

We’ve all been reading lots of books on the history of SE Asia and in particular, the tragic recent history of bombing campaigns and wars in and the inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia. But visiting the sites with the names familiar to those of our generation (e.g., Hue, Danang, the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh) and seeing the wars of our youth from the SE Asian perspective has been a sobering experience.

We have been avid followers of the blogs tracing the kids’ progress from Morocco, across Southern Europe to India, Sri Lanka and then the outdoor adventures of New Zealand and Australia.  But after finally catching up with them in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, we have gotten to experience first hand the adventurous spirit and astounding maturity and intellectual curiosity of this gang.

From bathing with the elephants in Chiang Mai,

to relaxing at the pool at our Mekong riverfront villa,


tuk-tuking around town and swimming in waterfalls in Luang Prabang, Laos,


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to marveling at the ancient temples of Angkor Wat,


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to visiting the splendid Imperial Palace  and sobering killing fields of Cambodia,to surviving the crazy traffic in Saigon and revisiting the sadness of the war at the war museum and CuChi Tunnels,

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to hanging out at our beachfront jungle villa and motorbiking through rice paddies and small villages near Hoi An,


we have marveled at the sights, but been even more impressed by the ability of these kids and their parents to keep up the pace and absorb the details of the history and culture of each venue.


Memories of muddy feet,  dusty hikes, constant sweating, smoothies, microscopic restaurant napkins flying all over the place, elephant pants,  games of Bananagrams, butterflies, massages (even all at one time), giant geckos screeching like cat fights…and so much more. Thank you, A,B,W,H,C, and P, for sharing yourselves with us; we’ve had a magical journey!


Saigon, City of Motorbikes

Saigon’s poulation is just about 8.5 million. Its motorbike count?  7.43 million, according to the VN Department of Transport’s latest tally.  More than 1 for every adult resident of the city.  Yesterday, that was easy for us to believe.

That’s me, in the orange helmet upfront, attempting a selfie but instead capturing the traffic behind me.

In the afternoon, Brendan, the girls, and Mackenzie formed a motorcycle gang to explore the Saigon streetfood scene.

Not to worry, they did not drive the bikes themselves.  Instead, they were piloted by an awesome group of university students (one guide per bike).  These students work part time as guides to help improve their English and earn pocket money.

This time the guides also had the pleasure of carrying a 5 year old on little side trips by foot through the market to find street treats. While some count their first urban motorbike adventure as a harrowing experience, little Phoebe found it so relaxing that she fell right to sleep.

Coco got a little worn out herself. Following a trend on this part of the trip, it was HOT.

(Poor William was down for the count with a virus.  So he and I explored the HCMC medical clinic scene–and happily ruled out Dengue Fever.)
We learned that the number of motorbikes in Saigon is up more than 2 million from 2011.  Gone apparently are the days of Vietnam’s iconic black pedal bike. On the rise is increased pressure from all these bikes on Saigon’s transport infrastructure. The traffic is intense and the air pollution rapidly worsening.  (I was happy to learn, before saying goodbye to the bike gang, that the number of fatalities by motorbike is actually down in recent years, with traffic rules more vigorously enforced by the police and fellow drivers.)

Proposals to limit or reduce the number of motorbikes in the city (such as increased registration fees) are wildly unpopular. That’s easy to understand, given the limited public transportation options available and their dubious quality.

The city government is in the midst of building a subway system, which is scheduled to be completed by 2020. That is expected to help address the issue, though it’s a little hard to imagine the people of the city giving up their beloved scooters.

Brendan reported such fun from his trip that he and I took to the streets for a night tour.  Unbelievably exhilarating. The world sped by too fast to pick up much detail. But it gave us a sense of the city that no bus tour or walk ever could.

A huge highlight was this place, Woodstock, our final stop for the night, where we were treated to fist pumping classic rock covers by a merry band of VN 20 somethings.

B had a bit of a man crush on the bass player.  The lead female vocalist was also no slouch.  I wonder what kind of motobikes they all ride….

Lead male vocalist was a bit too much of a showman for our taste.

Since the band lacked a single guitar, the keyboardist played an especially important role. Here he is celebrating a heroic completion of the complex arpeggio of Hotel California.  He was bathed in wild applause from the crowd.