Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Vestiges of Interest

So this is my excuse for not blogging for several weeks: a week and a half ago, my dear friend Kristi came and took me on vacation - a vacation we both very much needed. And I must say, this was one of my best vacation efforts yet (as in, I'm getting better at being a tourist and not being afraid to actually spend money on occasion...I'm a slow learner).

The first couple of days we tootled around Hanoi, saw some of the most important tourist sites and ate some FABULOUS sushi and sashimi with Tomoko, our Japanese cultural translator. Kristi got to experience Hanoi traffic up close and personal (only a few brushes with death).

Kristi poses with the sword-delivering tortoise at the Ho Guom Temple.

Mmm, Japanese food - the REAL thing (or, as real as it gets outside of Japan).

But we were both thankful and excited to escape the city and board a plane destined for more relaxing locales.

Just what every airport needs...I wonder where you can collect on it? Or if the proceeds go to purchase incredible amounts of duct tape.
We went off to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site almost exactly in the middle of the country (just below the infamous 17th parallel and DMZ). Hoi An, despite being in the middle of the territory most torn apart by the war was almost miraculously saved by a common agreement from both the American and Viet Cong forces to protect the city and its history. Hoi An is an ancient sea port dating back perhaps as early as the 12th and 13th centuries - a multicultural trading port that hosted Chinese and Japanese (and later French) settlements for traders and shippers. Much of the original architecture still survives, despite yearly flooding that leaves most houses at least 3-4 feet deep in water. Conservation efforts have saved much of the original architecture and restaurants, shops, museums, and private homes alike are housed within these buildings along the narrow downtown streets.

Streets of downtown Hoi An - under construction to try to improve drainage for flood season.

Tourism has been the next savior of the local culture - one newspaper article claims the area hosts up to one million visitors each year - a quarter of all foreign visitors to Vietnam. we managed to pick the perfect time - May is a dry (if a bit warm, but not as warm as July) month with relatively few visitors. The fine hotel we stayed in only had two rooms in use for most of the week.

One of the major highlights of Hoi An is the SHOPPING! Yes, we were girl-y for the first part of our vacation and overindulged in the stereotypical feminine pursuits - but how could we resist? Hoi An purportedly is home to over 400 tailor shops, and one can hardly step out onto the street without being accosted by voices begging you to enter their shop and consider the possibilities. Artists in their own right, the Hoi An tailors can copy and improve almost anything you throw at them - from pants to shirts to shoes. If you don't have something you want copied "100%," then you can look through any number of J.Crew or similar catalogs, point at something, get measured and the next day look like you stepped out of the magazine pages.

Silk, silk, silk. And silk made into something.
Then there's the jewelry - silver and gold and jade copies of Tiffany originals or designed made-to-order, and of course all the standard tourist offerings of hats, t-shirts and chopsticks. When you're tired of shopping, there are restaurants and juice shops to fit any pocketbook and a little spa treatment to help you relax (we indulged in pedicures, facial massages and threading on one hot afternoon).

Then, when we had finally tired of the shops, we took a tour to a traditional lantern-making shop. We each made our own lantern (err, glued silk on the pre-made frame) after watching the workers ply their trade, and of course were enticed into buying more and better-made lanterns.

The lanterns we made... ...and the real thing.

We acquired another friend who came down from Hanoi for the Memorial Day weekend (she works for the CDC so she actually had Monday off) and we hit the beach. Then we toured the countryside (and got sunburned) while trying to find the ancient Cham ruins (a.k.a., some of the "Vestiges of Interest" according to the maps and brochures) at My Son by motorbike. We spent more time at the beach and topped off our trip with a stop by the Marble Mountains on the way back to the airport. We hardly lacked entertainment on this trip - and still Kristi managed to polish off 6 of the 10 books she had brought along for the trip.

The Cham "vestiges of relics."

I highly, highly recommend Da Nang and Hoi An to any potential international tourist - and if you have the pocketbook for it, they are building five-star resort hotels and golf courses faster than a tailor can make a dress. The whole 45 minute drive between the Da Nang airport and Hoi An proper is lined with resort after resort in various stages of completeness. This is THE new destination for the upscale (and not-so-upscale) traveler to SE Asia - and so far, much deserving of the reputation. And for us, a perfect get-away from the real world for a short time.

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