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  • Writer's pictureTim and Lindsey

Hoi An Part 2: Ticket for the Ancient City

Days 763-765

In December 1999 Hoi An Ancient City was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved 15th century South-East Asian trading port and the indigenous and foreign influences of preserved architecture and layout. To pay for the preservation, each visitor has to buy a ticket, but what a bargain.

Hoi An used to be bustling with foreign merchants setting up their emporiums, trades of silk, spices, china and pottery negotiated. But despite trade declining after the 19th century, it has kept its charm.

As well as its tailors, Hoi An is known for its colourful hanging lanterns, delightful narrow streets and that particular shade of bright canary-yellow many wooden buildings are painted. So why this colour? I read that the state owns these buildings, so perhaps they got a job-lot of paint and decided it looked nice. Or the reason could be that yellow symbolizes royalty and superiority. Or more practically, this colour absorbs less heat so helps in the tropical weather. Either way, it certainly makes the city distinctive.

After being granted heritage status, an astute person introduced a ticket system with the money going towards funding the preservation of the city. Officially, every visitor is supposed to buy a ticket costing 120,000 dongs (£4.13) to enter the Ancient City, but it must be hard to enforce.

Each ticket entices people to pay and explore by giving access to five different heritage attractions from an extensive list. These include a Japanese Bridge, 4 Assembly Halls, 6 Family Houses, 3 Communal Houses, 5 Museums, a Demonstration Sesame Soup, and various evening activities which include folk games and traditional arts.

What a choice! The four of us had such fun decided what to see.

Our first place was the Japanese Covered Bridge built in the 1590s. Its function was to connect the residents in Chua Cau, the former Japanese Quarter with the Chinese Quarter across the water for business. A roof was added later to protect the locals from the sun and rain which does look impressive.

A pair of dog gods sat at the entrance and over to the right, inside the Bridge, was a small shrine dedicated to the god of weather, with residents, sailors and merchants coming to worship for the last 400 years, believing that this place has supernatural power.

We descended out of the Bridge past two monkey gods and later, as we crossed Tran Phu Bridge, this gave us a lovely view of this beautiful Bridge.

We rushed through the streets to our next choice at Hoi An Traditional Art Performance House. There was a performance in 5 minutes. We exchanged our ticket for a card used later in a game. This small theatre was packed, but for some reason, the front row was clear. We sat down, pleased with our perfect view.

The curtains opened to six musicians with their weird and wonderful traditional instruments and four people dressed in costumes curled on the floor. As the music played, the first person jumped up, dressed as a Dragon, with its glittering green scales shimmering as he danced. The next was a cockerel with the young lady cocking her head as she strutted gracefully around. The third, my favourite, a silver tortoise, and the dancer made a great impression, bent over, slowly moving around. The fourth, in white fur and sequins, powerfully strode the floor. What was it? Another dragon? I later discovered that it was a Unicorn. Where was the spiralling horn?

After a musical number, the next act was a traditional fisherman with his two maidens catching fish. Then three beautiful ladies dressed in Cham costumes performing an Apsara dance, so elegantly that my eyes were drifting off to sleep. It was quite hypnotic.

Finally, a man and lady sang, pulling three wooden sticks out of a pot with a word on each. The compere showed the word in big letters, and we checked our tickets to see if it matched. On the last one, our neighbour put his hand up. The winner! He climbed the stairs to retrieve his prize, and bizarrely they stood with their arms crossed, holding hands to auld lang syne! A very entertaining show and at the cost of less than at the £1 store.

Close by was the Museum of Traditional Medicine which only opened this March. It's in an old wooden house with traditional architecture and a lovely open central courtyard. The area has been famous for traditional medicine since the 17th century; restoring sailors, merchants and residents health.

We wandered around looking at many original tools and examples of medicinal herbs. There were six exhibition rooms, including a waiting room, an examination room, descriptions of famous local physicians and scenes selecting and processing medicines.

One exhibit caught my eye; a description of taking your pulse from your left hand, using three fingers and having your wrist relaxed at heart height. Daily tracking the rate and strength can show the state of your health. I smiled; I wasn't feeling too good, a bit achy, so wondered what mine was.

The next day, after breakfast, we went to the Demonstration of Sweet Black Sesame Soup, down a narrow alleyway to the home of Ngo Thieu, his wife and family. A man in his 70s with jet black hair greeted us. He was the son of Mr Thieu, who was sitting on a bed, looking rather frail. He is now 104, and his tiny wife in her late 90s. They have been married for 82 years!

Ngo Thieu has been making xi ma Phu, otherwise known as sweet black sesame soup, for over 70 years. He was a well-known figure here selling his soup on the nearby streets. Age has caught up, so he has handed the soup business over to his three children.

This thick gloppy soup originated from Fujian Province in China and bought over by traders centuries ago. His son showed us the components of the family's secret recipe: black sesame seed, sweet potato starch, kudzu flour, Centella and other herbs and some raw sugar cake. He explained the process, using stone pestles and mortars to pound the ingredients and large metal pots to boil the mixture.

We sat and were given black sesame tea and then the thick black soup. It was surprisingly tasty and supposed to be good for your health.

We thanked and shook Mr and Mrs Thieu's hands; their faces lit up. I didn't want to intrude taking a photo of them. Instead, I asked permission to take a snap of a picture of the elderly pair; the original is by Dong Nguyen (I wonder if this is the same Dong Nguyen who created the addictive Flappy Bird?).

Across the street was Ba Le Well, thought to have been constructed in the 10th century. The bottom of the well was paved with four thick iron-wood boards to protect the base and filter the water. The water is still collected for the local specialities of Cao Lau Noodles and White Rose Dumplings (more on that in Part 3). The green algae on the side really is that luminous!

To finally use our last ticket up, we visited the Old House of Tan Ky, a great example of a typical merchant's home from the 18th century. Seven generations of the Tan Ky family have lived here. They traded agricultural products in the 18th and 19th century to local and foreign merchants. They would sail up the Thu Bon River purchasing their wares; those for storage was put on the first floor via a pulley system. The produce to sell was kept on the ground floor.

The family has kept their premises in excellent condition despite the massive floods they have endured. Some nearly reached the ground floor ceiling. The structure is a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese historical styles of architecture. There are four small areas, including another traditional central courtyard, plus many antique items and furniture on display.

Our tickets all used, what a fantastic way of exploring The Ancient Hoi An city, a fabulous living museum of architectural and urban lifestyle.

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