Friday, August 25, 2006

Vietnam: Hoi An town and the story of my backpack

It was this trip to Hoi An, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which opened my eyes to the backpacking culture. In 2003, I was introduced to bus travel between countries when I took a bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to visit friends. From Kuala Lumpur, I took a six hour bus up north to Malaysia’s heritage jewel, the city of Georgetown in Penang. But I had always traveled with a large piece of luggage and it was difficult for me to move around. The first thing I would do when I arrived in a place was to look for a hotel and drop off my luggage before I could go around. The Hoi An trip changed that.

According to UNESCO, Hoi An “is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site.”

I purchased my bus ticket at an agency in front of our hotel. I was happy that I only spent US$6 for a round trip ticket. The attendant was so surprised that my return ticket was on the same day because tourists who purchased tickets from them usually bought a one-way ticket since their next stop after that would be Ho Chi Minh or they would stay overnight and come back the next day. Imagine catching the first six hour trip down to Hoi An, staying for only two hours, and taking the last bus back to Hue. It’s like commuting to Baguio and coming back down just after two hours of sight-seeing. But unlike Baguio, Hoi An was just a small town and two hours was enough to see the sights but not quite enough to experience the culture. But I was pressed for time so I had no choice.

On the wall were other destinations in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. It was then that I realized that I could tour Southeast Asia via bus. And it was that realization in 2004 which led to my three-week five-country journey around Southeast Asia last April. I remember e-mailing people about the idea and buying a map of Indochina in Hue to try to plan the trip. And thus, after two years of yearning and planning, the trip finally pushed through.

One of the added attractions of this bus trip were stopovers at other tourist attractions on the way including this place called Marble Mountain. When we arrived there, there was shop after shop of marble souvenirs in all known colors of marble. Unlike those some of those cheap-looking marble souvenirs we have in Romblon (the marble in Romblon is high quality and the souvenirs are carved from whole marble and not molded marble dust and resin like the ones here but there's something about the carvings I don't like, especially the letterings they put which make them look cheap), the shops here had so many quality items to choose from such as animal figures, small busts of Ho Chi Minh and Chairman Mao, Buddha heads and other religious images as well as larger marble items. And the prices were shockingly cheap! I remember buying a 10-inch high brown marble Buddha head for something like PHP300. To make the long story short, I bought more than I could carry and realized that I would be lifting this box of marble stuff as I went around Hoi An.

I never intended to buy myself a backpack but I ended up having to do so out of necessity. Yup, the first thing I did when I arrived in Hoi An was to buy a backpack that could carry all the items I bought. And I didn’t have to search far since there were so many shops which sold bags due to the fact that Hoi An was a popular stop in the Southeast Asian backpack trail. When I finally found a backpack which could hold the entire box, it was off for a walk around the old town to check out the sites.

So that's how I got my backpack and started bakpacking! Hehe! Anyway, I was reading Wikipedia and found this brief history of Hoi An: "The former harbour town of the Champa people at the estuary of the Thu Bon river was an important trading centre in the 16th and 17th centuries, where Chinese from various provinces as well as Japanese, Dutch and Indians settled down. During this period of the China trade, the town was called Hai Pho (Seaside Town), during the French occupation. Originally Hai Pho was a divided town, because across the "Japanese Bridge" used to be the Japanese settlement. The bridge (Chùa cầu) is a unique covered structure built by the Japanese, the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist pagoda attached to one side."

I also found this website which has a nice photo of the port area. You can check out my photos in Hoi An here.
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