After moving around quite a bit during our first six days in Vietnam, we were all relieved to land in the town of Hoi An, where we would remain for a full week. Hoi An is a lovely spot on the central east coast of Vietnam, close to the bigger city of Danang (site of a large American military base during the Vietnam war). The name “Hoi An” literally translates as “peaceful meeting place,” and the town served as an important trading port between the 15th and 19th centuries. Tourists flock there today to view the unique blend of traditional and foreign influences in the town’s architecture, as well as to enjoy the impressive traditional crafts such as textiles and ceramics. We found Hoi An to be absolutely enchanting!
We opted to stay a bit out of town in a resort right on the beach, and spent our days alternating between swimming/sunning, enjoying cultural activities in the local country side, and wandering Hoi An’s streets filled with cafes and shops galore.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR TIME IN HOI AN…
ECO FARMING AND FISHING TOUR
Jeff and Pops, with the three older girls, spent an amazing day on an Eco-farming and fishing tour in the countryside surrounding Hoi An. The excursion began on bicycle, the group meandering through the rice paddies toward an organic farming co-op a few km down the dirt bike paths.
FARM TOUR (WRITTEN BY SCHUYLER):
After riding through fields and fields of vegetation and crops, we parked our bikes and met up with a 70 year-old Vietnamese woman. She was watering crops with two large watering cans that were attached to a plank of bamboo that she rested on her shoulders, to help ease the weight off of her arms. To water her vegetables, she swung the watering cans back and forth which released little bits of water with each swing. Her swinging arms matched the rhythm of her feet and it was like watching a little dance.
We learned all about how difficult farm life is. This woman has been doing this work her whole life, and she fills and refills her watering cans over and over again each day, at least 100 times she said. Her husband was killed in the Vietnam war so she’s been doing everything for her family on her own for half a century now. We also learned that the water in the cans is “organic water.” This means it is fertilized by organic fish, fish that have been fed organic food straight from the garden. The fish poop their organic poop into the water, which brings added nutrients into the soil.
Next, we each had a turn trying the watering cans. Zoe went first, followed by myself, Haven and Dad. I found that the hardest part was balancing that plank of bamboo on my shoulders because it rolled off very easily. And the cans were SO heavy! I couldn’t picture myself doing that kind of labor all day, especially by the age of 70. And did you see how small she is? She was a little bit shorter than me so her shoulders couldn’t have been any bigger than mine. It’s all about experience, balance and rhythm. We had to keep our feet on these tiny lanes of soil between the rows of veggies, which was hard as well.
Next, our new friend helped us grow a little garden of our own, which was really exciting. First we dug a hole with a flat, even bottom that we smoothed over. It was interesting because the soil is pretty sandy, so it felt a little bit like being at the beach. The hole is always square shaped and has to be perfectly even, because their gardens are pristinely organized.
Farmers use a specific kind of organic fertilizer here – seaweed. It’s fresh from the ocean and there are sometimes still snails and shrimp in it. It’s seriously organic. I think I saw a jelly fish in some of it. First we laid the seaweed at the bottom of our garden patches and spread it out evenly. Then we covered the seaweed with our soil, leaving it loose so air could get in. Next we walked over to our friend’s lettuce garden and picked a handful of her lettuce plants from their roots. We got to plant these in our own little fertilized patch of soil!
First you have to stick your finger an inch deep into the soil, then the lettuce is put in standing straight up, and then you pinch the soil around the stem to make sure it is secure. We planted these in very neat and precise rows which really appealed to me. It all looked so pretty.
Then….. after the amazing farm experience, we got back onto our bikes and rode down bumpy sandy paths through rice fields until we got to our next stop, water buffalo riding! Along the way there were a lot of cows and water buffalo lining our path which made me nervous, because I thought they would kick us.
Personally, the buffalo was my highlight of the day so it’s my pleasure to tell you about it. We passed many man-made ponds on the way here. They are used for raising shrimp but the one we came to did not have any living things in it (at least, that’s what they told us). We were greeted by a man riding a water buffalo in the water. I did not know that water buffalo actually liked the water because they look like ordinary scary buffalo (with the exception of long, flat, curved horns). I was feeling particularly brave in the moment and before I knew it, I was riding on the hairy back of a buffalo clutching a random smelly guy that I had never met before!
It was so exhilarating! The great beast would meander gracefully through the water and then all of a sudden, it would lift its legs off the ground and swim! I mean, literally swim! Its whole face would dive under water with only its snout sticking out for air! I got soaking wet.
Then I went with Haven and I had the same experience except I was in the middle with poor Haven desperately sliding off the back.
Then I went again with Zoe but there was a twist. I got off the water buffalo and held on to its tail as it dragged me through the water! My face was often dragged through the mucky water but it felt so good because the day was so hot!
There is so much more to say about this experience but a picture says a thousand words (plus they are hilarious!). So here are a few more pictures of our most frightful and funny moments riding a water buffalo in the middle of Vietnam.
ZOE: At first I was hestitant to ride the buffalo because I was worried that it would buck me off or I don’t know what – wouldn’t you be worried if you are about to ride on the back of a smelly buffalo? The only buffalos we had experienced on this trip so far were the Cape Buffalo in Africa, one of the most dangerous animals to hunt in all of Africa. But here we are in Asia, newsflash, and these buffalos are gentle giants. When I got on with Schuyler and I had the BEST TIME EVER. At first I thought I would just get my ankles wet, but we went deeper and deeper until the buffalo was swimming and I was up to my waist in murky water. The water felt really good actually. Then, all of a sudden, the man hopped off the buffalo and signaled for Schuyler to get off into the water and I was all alone on the buffalo with only the bones to hang on to! Schuyler held onto the buffalo’s tail and was dragged through the water, screaming and laughing so hard, and choking on the murky water a little (she was ok, don’t worry… no intestinal issues yet). The next time I got on the buffalo (yes, I got on it again!), I held onto the tail and experienced the beautiful scenery of the rear end of the buffalo and I was nervous that he would kick me in the face, but he didn’t. Thank God!
From the water buffalo adventure, the gang moved over to the coast to try their hand at local fishing techniques. They started out on a boat cruise out of the fishing port and saw a lot of large nets suspended from columns, hovering above the water.
JEFF: We learned that these nets are lowered in the evening with a fluorescent light suspended from their centers to attract fish. In the morning, the fishermen raise the nets via a rudimentary pulley system from shore. We had the opportunity to try our hand at working these nets on our first stop along our tour.
ZOE: Experiencing Vietnamese fishing was amazing. We got to stop at the fishermen’s hut which was right on the beach. We helped him build the fire and keep it going for the tea he was going to give us. I also really liked lounging on the fishing boat with the wind in my hair and my rice hat over my face.
ZOE (cont.): After lunch, we got into these little round boats made out of woven fibers and they looked like a basketball cut in half. They had one little bench in the middle to sit on. Our fisherman guide who was paddling said to us girls “Do you know what they put on these boats to make them waterproof? Buffalo s**t!!!” We were laughing really hard. I didn’t really want to get into the boat after that.
At the end of the afternoon on the water, the we watched the fishing couple throw their nets from their small boat, and they taught us their technique and let us try ourselves.
Yet another cultural experience.…
One hot afternoon, Blair and Lee (Mumsy) took the three older girls on an excursion to a Vietnamese cooking class. We started the tour in a small boat, traveling 25 minutes down the river (with a nice cool breeze) to a popular restaurant/cooking school.
When we arrived, Mimi, our chef, met us with a warm smile and we learned about what we would be making that day. There were four dishes on the menu: Vietnamese pancake rolls, a seaweed salad in a pineapple boat, fresh rice paper spring rolls, and an eggplant stew cooked in a clay pot (very traditional).
We got busy right away, with Mimi showing us how to prep and make each dish, and the 6 of us following suit with our own little stoves and some helpers lurking behind us to make sure we didn’t light the bamboo building on fire. Once we had completed a dish we had the pleasure of eating it, which was a major perk (at least, for Blair it was). The Vietnamese food is fresh and delicious, filled with flavor from turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, mint, coriander and many other herbs and spices. Hopefully we can remember some of what we learned and put it into action back in New Hampshire – if only we could bring our Vietnamese helpers home with us!
One of the most popular small industries in Hoi An is tailoring. Literally hundreds of small tailor shops line the streets, and for a fraction of what you’d spend at home, you can design any clothing item of your choice and have it ready in 24 hours. The girls had a field day with this phenomenon and we spent many hours fulfilling their fashion dreams at a shop called Bebe, where a pit crew of Vietnamese ladies swooped and swooned over our four blondies like clucking mother hens (who recognize some golden eggs when they see them).
THAYER: At the tailor shop I met a woman named Vinh. She helped me and was so nice! I made three dresses and a nightie with her. Also I got an extra skirt for free because the owner of the shop heard Zoe singing for all the ladies there and she loved it so much, she gave us all an extra piece of clothing. I liked that you could pick any clothes you wanted from a magazine. Picking the fabric was pretty hard but I chose pretty fast. I chose a purple fabric with flowers, a silk fabric with flowers, and a sparkly fabric with flowers. I love flowers! Mostly pink and purple. I loved Bebe!
During one hot afternoon of fashion action at Bebe, Jeff took himself out for a stroll and came back 45 minutes later riding this:
Soon Pops joined in the fun and we were traveling like the locals…
And so began daily explorations of the Hoi An countryside by motorbike. Jeff took each of his girls for private tours of rice paddies, off the beaten path villages, stone quarries, even discovering a tiny village specializing in ceramics where he and Thayer got a first hand experience in Vietnamese pottery.
ZOE: I loved riding through Hoi An on the motorbike with Dad because it was so cool to be doing what the locals were doing. It’s the best feeling when you are riding it, and he even let me drive a little bit because I sat in front of him (but don’t worry, he held my arms). It is kind of funny that there aren’t a lot of rules on the roads. I saw people riding on the wrong side of the road on purpose all the time but it scared me so much when the buses drive past you and honk really loudly to let you know they are there!
THAYER: Dad and I went on a motorbike ride together and we were zooming around and we saw this sign for a pottery village. We followed the sign and then went on a dirt track to a shack where people made pottery. My Dad and I made two bowls and we also bought a bowl and a spoon that they had made and colored in. We saw some more pottery being sold by the road and bought a little rooster. Then we drove back home. Mom said “where have you been?” because we were gone for a long time. It was really really fun to make pottery!
A FEW ADDITIONAL OUTINGS
During our time in Hoi An, various members of our family explored the city of Danang, stopping at the My Son Museum to learn about ancient ruins throughout Vietnam and their Hindu and Buddhist roots, then on to the largest statue of the Lady Buddha in Vietnam, and finally stopping at a temple on top of Danang’s Marble Mountain.
Our time in Hoi An felt like a little slice of paradise at the end of a fabulous 2 weeks in Vietnam. Overall, we found this country to be just wonderful to explore. The Vietnamese people are so friendly and warm, and particularly doted on our children wherever we went. The food is wonderful, especially for seafood lovers, and we never tired of the landscape and scenic vistas along the way.
Saying goodbye to Vietnam also meant saying goodbye to Mumsy, Pops and Haven which was hard on all of us. What an incredible time we spent together here — we are so grateful to have once again had family visit us overseas. It won’t be long now until we are back on U.S. soil together again!
Our little posse of five once again, we had a couple of nights to kill in Hanoi before leaving Vietnam and heading to Laos. We stayed in a high rise apartment building, which gave us quite the view out over the city.
Thayer is thrilled to announce that she lost her first tooth in the car ride to our apartment! The tooth fairy brought her 100,000 Vietnamese Dong (about $5), which was enough to send her shopping along the streets of Hanoi for some new toys.
So we are off to Laos now, a country sandwiched between Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China, where we will spend a week exploring the relaxing pace and Buddhist traditions of the ancient city of Luang Prabang.
See you soon!