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Hoi An, My Son

Dr. Bob McElvaine's 2010 Vietnam Journal


May 20, 2010

Oh, the students, they LUUUF Hoi An! They all immediately fell in love with this town, which I had told them before we began our trip is "where it's at" in Vietnam. Several of them said they want to return to Hoi An soon - or just move here. "It's not often that a place is so beautiful that you can really see yourself saying #@*% it and settling down there," James Bridgforth commented. "Hoi An is one of those places." "Wow, is this place amazing!" Mary Rebecca Martin exclaimed. "Did I mention how awesome this city is? I feel like I could spend some serious time here; maybe even come back to live."

Anne Waldrop probably said it best: "To put it shortly, we died and went to Hoi An."

View of Hoi An from a Japanese Bridge

We're staying at the River Beach Resort, about 5 km east of town and a few steps from the beach (an extension of China Beach in Da Nang). The hotel is nice, but not great. The beach is a plus, but not being in town and needing to use taxis to go back and forth is a minus, compared with the in-town hotel I've stayed at before. There have been a few other negatives: a lack of hot water, and the power was out for about 8 hours from a storm (fortunately, I wasn't there for that problem).

After failing (because it was fully booked) to get into the Mango Rooms restaurant on both of my previous visits to Hoi An, we got a reservation for all of us for the first night here this time. Words cannot properly describe this food. Đuc, the proprietor/chef, is, by our consensus, one of the best chefs in the world, and, we decided, he must be the coolest guy in Vietnam. He has lived in Texas, Mexico, New Zealand, and other places, and created an amazing fusion cuisine. He came out to greet us, and I had a great conversation with him about when Sir Mick Jagger and his then-girlfriend had eaten at Mango. She wanted fish prepared a different way. Đuc told her he does it his way. She had it Đuc's way and loved it.

The food at Mango was fabulous. The first night I had a duck special that was the best duck I've ever tasted. The group had a variety of Đuc's specialties and raved about all of them. When Đuc was talking with us at the end of our table where several of the girls were sitting, they appeared to be in awe, looking at him like groupies would a rock star. Kate Sundell nicely summed up our view: "I'm bringing Đuc back to the States." "The food, energy, and vibe that Đuc gave off really made you want to be a part of the community there," James added. "The greatest restaurant ever," Dan Garza agreed. "Crazy, awesome food," M.R. gushed. "Mango is the best restaurant ever," she continued. "I could seriously write page upon page about how awesomely magnificent this food was!" Anne said Mango is "the most delicious restaurant I have ever been fortunate enough to enjoy."

Đuc gave us cards for free drinks at his cocktail lounge across the river, Mango Mango. It's another fabulous place. "Best mojito I've ever had," George Holmes testified. We wound up going there all three nights we were in town, and on the second and third nights, the waitress knew without asking that the "Bollywood" (Bombay Sapphire martini), straight up with olives, was my drink. It is my "Cheers," on the other side of the planet from where I live.

The Master at work - Đuc cooking

We went to our previous favorite Hoi An restaurant, Morning Glory, on our second night here, and it was just as good as I remembered it from my previous visits, but it does not meet the extraordinary level of Mango. The head waiter there remembers me from past visits. We returned to Mango tonight and were again overwhelmed. Đuc first brought out complimentary spring rolls, which were unlike any I have had before. The texture when they touch your tongue is unique and the taste superb. I had prawns wrapped in beef, which George Holmes had had on the first night and highly recommended ("Beef and prawns, where do you come up with that?" George asked). It was one of the best things I've ever tasted. Đuc signed one of his hard-cover menus for me. I plan to frame it.

Enough about food-although I could go on and on. Several of the students got custom-made clothing while we were in Hoi An, which is noted for its tailors. The less said about the suit I had made, in a color some of the girls picked out, the better. I need my Anne!!

Yesterday was Ho Chi Minh's 120th birthday, and celebrations were going on everywhere. The government is clearly using Ho as the principal symbol of the nation, and they are in the process of deifying him. Actually I have become convinced that Bac Ho (Uncle Ho-I told the students to start calling me "Bac Bob") consciously made use of religious symbols to identify himself as an object of veneration while he was still alive. On my last visit, I noted the similarity between Ho's long chin beard and that Confucius is depicted as having had. This time, I've thought about the name he took for himself. "Ho Chi Minh" means "Bringer of Light." This sounds very much like "The Enlightened One," the Buddha. Could that have been accidental? I don't think so.

Since Ho's death, the process of turning him into a god has gone much farther. He had wanted to be cremated and have ashes spread over various parts of the country. Instead, the regime preserved his body and put it on display in the mausoleum we visited in Hanoi. Ho's body is clearly an object of veneration, even worship. People passing it are required to be silent and reverent. Hands must be kept to the side. On this trip, Gnoc had to buy scarf-shawls for Anne and M.R., because they had sleeveless tops, and shoulders must be covered. It is like going into the Vatican-or a mosque.

And now there are billboards depicting Ho's head on a lotus blossom, with all the Buddha implications that go with that. At our hotel in Dien Bien Phu, there is a shrine with a gold bust of Ho, exactly like Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist shrines. People light incense in front of the Ho bust.

I'm guessing that within ten years, Ho's face will be on Buddha statues.

It is worth remembering, though, that something like this happened in the nineteenth century in the United States with the Father of Our Country. Nathaniel Hawthorne parodied the attitude of the time toward George Washington by writing, "He had no nakedness, but was born with clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world." More to the point, the fresco still on the interior of the Capitol Dome, painted by Constantino Brumidi in the 1860s, The Apotheosis of Washington, depicts Washington, the American counterpart of Ho in Vietnam, becoming a god. Maybe the Vietnamese will eventually get over their deification of Ho.

But for the present, there are vastly more propaganda billboards and signs around the country than there were on my first visit a year and a half ago. I can't imagine that they have much effect on people.

The government continues its halfhearted attempts at censorship. We could get on Facebook in Hanoi, but not in DBP, Hue, or Hoi An. CNN was on in Hanoi, but not here. One of the TV stations in the hotel has Victoria Secret fashion shows running back-to-back around the clock. I would bet that it replaced CNN or the BBC and the government thought showing beautiful women parading in underwear as a substitute for accurate news would lessen the complaints about blocking information.

Apart from the weak attempts to block some of the free flow of information, Vietnam seems to be much freer than one would expect. There is essentially zero visible police presence. There are probably undercover police at work, but there is also essentially no military presence to be seen. It certainly doesn't have the feel of an authoritarian state.

In a bar in Hoi An that we went into on Wednesday night, Before 'n Now, there is a large Apocalypse Now poster with the line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

When we got back to the hotel, some of the students went out to a beach party that was going on as part of the celebration of Uncle Ho's birthday.

During the day yesterday, we had gone out to see the Cham ruins at My Son, our fourth of five World Heritage site on the trip (Ha Long Bay, the Citadel in Hue, Old Town Hoi An, and Angkor are the others). On the way out, we stopped at the same little farm in Quang Nam province that we visited in January. The pigs were smaller than the ones I saw there in January; they must be a new generation, with their parents having been eaten in the meantime.

Much of My Son was destroyed by American bombing during the war, and it has so far proved impossible to reconstruct the thousand-plus year old buildings. No one has been able to duplicate the stone bricks, which have withstood the elements very well, and the buildings seem to have been constructed without the use of any mortar.

My Son was very interesting, but very hot. It was also the students' first exposure to Vietnamese jungle. There had been much talk among them about how Fran Tubb might be like Mary Anne, the Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and melt away into the jungle to join the Green Berets and become part of the jungle.

We saw a show of traditional Cham dance before returning to Hoi An.

Today we went to My Lai. That's a story in itself, so I'll leave it for a separate entry.