This charming Vietnam

NGA HOANG, The West Australian

Under the scorching afternoon sun we hunched over our last bowls of bun bo Hue (Hue-style beef noodle soup) before departing north to Hanoi.

The man who served us delivered each bowl with a speech about the resilience of central Vietnamese men and how much they admire women from the north.

As a northern woman, it made me smile. Having grown up in the historic city of Hanoi, I never imagined that any other town could rival the invigorating mayhem of the capital’s Old Quarter for my affections – but I was wrong.

At the end of a short trip to Hoi An, I found myself equally captivated by the order and authenticity of the small town.

Hanoi, the old capital of Indochina, looks like a stacked crepe with traditional identities rubbing against the emerging “nouveau riche” lifestyle.

Hordes of young hip Hanoians congregate at night in the makeshift lemon-tea stalls which line the dimly lit street corner facing St Joseph’s Cathedral.

They munch on pumpkin seeds, whip out 3G iPhones and brag about high-tech fashion and new car models. The cherry red 150cc Vespas draped with fake Louis Vuitton leather seat covers stand on either side of the road.

French colonial mansions and tube houses stand among gourmet restaurants, swanky hair salons and high-end fashion boutiques. Rolls-Royce Phantoms and Hennesseys jostle for space with Honda Dream II and Wave Alphas.

Nowhere is this more exhilarating yet unfathomable than Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It can be exhausting but never tedious.

Having been overwhelmed by spectacles of nouveau-riche Hanoians, I flew off to Hoi An hoping to seek refuge from the concrete jungle but soon realised that many parts of the town are becoming gentrified.

I was astonished by how much Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Hoi An have in common. Hoi An, a quaint and intimate town, is a reminder of Hanoi in the 1990s before the economic upswing and population boom transformed it.

Hoi An resembles a living museum. Beneath the veneer of a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a tug of war between the remnants of merchant culture and the outburst of commercialism.

Walking into the ancient town, I stopped to marvel at the long tube houses. The narrow facades belie spacious interiors. The crimson tiled roofs, creaking doors and whitewashed walls turning yellow manifest the vestiges of time.

Like the Old Quarter in Hanoi, most of these houses span many generations of one family and become fragmented properties.

A lot of the heritage houses are privately owned and many owners are struggling to earn their livelihood by selling paper lanterns and straw flip-flops, earning barely enough to feed their families let alone renovate their houses.

I spent half the evening meandering through lantern-lit narrow cobblestone streets in Hoi An in my straw flip-flops, happily lost.

Tinkling cyclists were pedalling down the streets. Bamboo wind chimes were swaying in the breeze. A gaggle of children were spelling Vietnamese alphabet letters out loud. Sewing machines were racing against deadlines. Bars were bustling with exhorting crowds round the giant pool tables, drinking games, and televised English football.

Yet it was surprisingly serene, an isolated world devoid of petrol fumes, howling engines and gaudy urban neon signs.

Just a few yards further north, towards the clanging bell of the curved bridge Chua Cau (Pagoda Bridge), I caught a whiff of xi ma (black sesame sweet soup) and tau hu (soy sauce and tofu) from makeshift stalls hugging the Hoai River.

Voices singing Quang Nam folk songs sounded from remote boats dotted across the water.

But Hoi An seems to be evolving into a “Villa-ville”. Humble tube houses are dwarfed by grand villas and mega-resorts. A shirtless motorbike taxi driver with a cigarette between his crooked teeth gestured towards extravagant villas looming over Cua Dai beach.

“That place up there – 800 bucks per night. Mostly for bigwigs,” he said with a mischievous smile.

The once favoured model of converting matchbox-shaped houses into mini boutique hotels is fading, making room for an avalanche of rental villas.

The owners are local businessmen, expats and overseas Vietnamese. Surprisingly, these rental villas no longer exclusively cater to Western tourists but also to Vietnamese nouveau riche.

A weekend getaway at a posh villa perched on a 950sqm plateau overlooking Cua Dai beach and cruising around in a sleek Bentley or Rolls-Royce is a manifestation of the economic miracle in the country of 80 million people.

The taxi driver glanced over at me. “Let’s just wait and see. A year from now, there’s more to come,” he paused for a moment and sighed. “That’s depressingly obvious, isn’t it,” he said.

Even so, Hoi An remains a success story of heritage preservation in a Vietnam infused with regional pride.

On my way back to the hotel, I wondered what it was about this small riverside town that mesmerised me most.

Perhaps it was the temple-like hotels and cafes festooned with enchanting ornate paper lanterns and a trail of flowers scrambling over the arched verandas. Perhaps it was the 95-year-old man selling xi ma (pudding) using his own secret recipe for 70 years.

Or perhaps it was the local catchphrase “Same same, but different” emblazoned on just about everything – from the giant billboards to the printed T-shirts of bar waiters. Whatever it was, I just couldn’t figure it out and I didn’t want to.

FACT FILE

• Jetstar offers domestic flights from Hanoi to Da Nang which is 40km from Hoi An. The flight time is a little over an hour. See www.jetstar.com.

• Hai Yen Hotel at 568 Cua Dai Street is well suited to budget travellers. It is just 10 minutes walk from the centre of Hoi An. A single room costs about $20 a night. Phone +84 510 386 1994

• For a mid-morning snack get a taste of xi ma, sold at 5000dong (about 25 cents) by 95-year-old Ngo Thieu, a living legend of Hoi An. He trades at the corner of Nguyen Truong To Street overlooking the Hoi An Centre for Orphans and Disabled Children from 7am each day.