I look out of the window as we come in to land in Da Nang. Below us forest covered mountains abruptly give way to fields of newly planted paddy. They look like freshly brushed patches of green velvet broken by islands of villages and crowded cemeteries. I take lots of photos that I know will look crappy later. From the air I can see that Da Nang is a modern city of high rise buildings, soaring bridges, and a long strip of white beach. We land but we leave immediately for Hoi An, about 45 minutes away.
By the time we check in to our hotel it is getting dark outside. Tomorrow is the start of Tet, the week long lunar new year celebrations. The lady at the front desk tells us that it’s a good time to go see the flowers at the Ancient Town. Yet, a few minutes later when I step off the hotel shuttle bus on to the main street of the Ancient Town, I am unprepared for what I see. It is as if an immense flower bomb had exploded.
The main street is bordered by flagstone sidewalks, probably 15 feet wide on each side. But there isn’t an inch of space on the sidewalks because they are full of pots of blooming plants and bonsai fruit trees of every color and size. There is a sea of yellow chrysanthemums and orange marigolds. There are red cockscombs and bonsai kumquat trees laden with plump miniature orange fruits and bonsai apricot trees fluttering with delicate yellow blossoms.
Because the sidewalks are full of blooming merchandise, people are walking on the street along with thousands of scooters and mopeds. Entire families dressed for winter are drive-by-window-shopping in slow motion. Children stand on the scooter seats for better views of the flowers. People stop and buy their flowers which are then loaded on to the scooters and wedged between a family of four. Bigger orders are delivered by garden carts pulled by scooters or bicycles. Supplies are replenished the same way. There is celebration in the air. And while it’s one step away from complete chaos, things are moving relatively smoothly.
I wander around in this impromptu flower market wonderland and I get lost. My phone is almost dead (too many aerial paddy field photos). I stand on a busy corner (they all are) and try to orient myself. An old lady walks over and helps me. We don’t speak a word of each other’s language but she gets me going.
The Ancient Town is ablaze in paper lanterns gently swaying in the breeze. The bridge across the main canal is lit in gold and red. Thousands of people throng the cloth and tailor shops and cafes and restaurants. Some shops are already closed for business due to Tet. The owners and families and employees are sitting at long tables at the store front enjoying delicious dinners. Pots of yellow chrysanthemums (likely bought from the center of town where I was) adorn shop entrances. Row boats in the canal are being festooned with lanterns.
I find a quieter cafe and sit down at a table on the sidewalk and order a beer. It’s delivered by a studious looking 10 year old girl in glasses. I watch the world go by. Foreign tourists, locals, families, mostly walking, a few bicycles. Row boats slowly float by on the canal. The lady who owns the restaurant tells me that by tomorrow evening you’ll be able to cross the canal by stepping on boats. And that by the day after every flower at the market will have been sold.
I order an item that looks nice on the menu – stir fried morning glory and rice. When it arrives I am blown away by the simple yet exquisite taste and texture. This is what I’ll eat at least once every day in Vietnam. But this particular one will taste the best.
After a late and lazy breakfast at the hotel restaurant on the banks of the same river further downstream, I return with Jo and the kids to the Ancient Town. Everyone is stunned by the sidewalk flower market as I was last night. We stop at an ATM and I withdraw the local currency. I explain to Evan that you can get about 23,000 Vietnamese dongs for one dollar. Weak laughter, they are immune to dad jokes. I’m walking around with a million dongs in my pockets and I keep chuckling.
We wander around the narrow streets. The lanterns still look amazing in the day light, their bright primary colors punctuating the predominant yellow of most buildings. Vivian wants bubble tea. Jo finds a place on Google. It’s called Alley and Vivian declares that the brown sugar bubble tea is to die for. Evan is hungry so we go back to my cafe from last night and I introduce my family to the owner. Evan says that his pho is amazing. I can sense we are going to like it here.
We have plans to spend four days in Hoi An and then move on. There is so much to see in Vietnam. Ive been emailing with our friend in Austin who has family in Vietnam and she has given us a wealth of information. We can’t decide whether we should go to the famous Ha Long bay with its emerald waters and towering islands. Or Ho Chi Minh City to the south or Hanoi or Sa Pa where paddy terraces have been cut out of mountains. We punt and decide to stay put in Hoi An for our entire time in Vietnam.
On the first day of Tet, many locals are dressed in red. Evan insists on buying a red scarf that he proudly wears everywhere. I learn how to say Chu mung nam moi and greet everyone over enthusiastically. Initially they wonder if I’m choking but then I’m warmly greeted back. The ladies are all dressed in traditional Ao Dais and look striking.
We return to the bubble tea shop everyday. Vivian and sometimes Evan and I have a bubble tea problem that Jo is immune to. The food is uniformly good everywhere and quite unusually, we all like it. I’m in stir fried morning glory heaven. Evan tries a freshly made heavenly banana and Nutella pancake on the street that the lady expertly makes with what look like two paint scrapers and a large flat griddle. We settle into a comfortable rhythm that is hard to find while traveling. The kids don’t see much of Vietnam but they know parts of Hoi An very well. We really enjoy our brief rest in this tiny but truly enchanting corner of Vietnam.
Approximately during this time news of nCoVid-19 starts penetrating JoEllen and my news feeds. The day before we leave Vietnam the WHO declares that the coronavirus is a global health emergency.