Apart from walking the streets of Hoi An old town, we did a bike tour to explore the countryside. It was rainy season during this time of the year and we weren’t optimistic about having good weather. We didn’t book the tour until the night before and we were told that there would be no refund if it rains but poncho would be provided. I have read good reviews of Heaven and Earth Bike Tour on TripAdvisor and trusted them even if it meant cycling in the rain!
The bike tour company was located in old town which was about a 20 minute walk from our hotel and the people were nice enough to agree to pick us up early in the morning. I was relieved that we didn’t have to rush through breakfast and at 8.15 am sharp the transport came in the form of 2 motorbikes! We were supposed to ride as pillion passengers! Now that wasn’t quite what I was expecting and so the adventure began.
If you have been to Vietnam, or any of the countries in our region, you will know that getting around in your own transport requires a different skill set. For someone who is used to Singapore roads and following rules, driving or cycling on the road in a small town like Hoi An can make one hyperventilates.
The tour guide who came to pick us up in the motorbike DID NOT have a driving license! Gawk! You hardly see any traffic lights on the roads but there were motorbikes and cars everywhere and everyone was honking! People just made their own traffic rules along the way!
So the tour agency probably figured out that first world cyclists aren’t made to ride in their streets. We collected our bikes and the jetty was just a short ride away. The ferry took us to another island, away from the crazy traffic, away from the bustling crowd, to a place where a ‘first world cyclist’ could handle!
We peddled our bikes down winding countryside roads, zig-zaged through the endless greenery of rice paddies and farmland. We had the best weather for days. There was no rain and we didn’t have to use the poncho! I probably shouldn’t but half the time I was thinking to myself that I should have brought the kids along. There is so much to see and so much to learn.
Along the way, we were introduced to some plants which were used for making mats. We were showed how the plants were dried and dyed and this lady who was 92 years old showed us how the mats were weaved. It takes her about half a day to weave a 2 m long mat and like many of the local crafts, this is a dying trade because the younger generation is not interested to continue the trade.
We learned that every fishing boat in Hoi An has ‘eyes’. According to local folklore, the boats have ‘eyes’ to scare away the water demons and keep the boats safe. Painting eyes on a boat is an important ritual where the fishing boats are brought to life by ‘opening the eyes’.
We were showed how wood bended from heat of an open fire can be used to form the curved structure of a boat. Everything used for making the boats comes from mother nature. From the teak planks to the wooden screws and bamboo fiber used for sealing the gaps between the wooden planks.
Then there is the other kind of fishing boats which the locals prefer. They cost about one tenth of the price of the wooden fishing boats and they are called the thung chai, or “basket boat”. These basket boats are woven from bamboo and coated with cow dung, no less, and sealed in a waterproof resin milked from tree sap of certain trees. The recipe remains a trade secret. We were all given a chance to row the boat. The old lady did a demonstration effortlessly. When it came to our turn, none of us in the group could get it right. The boat just didn’t go the direction we wanted it to go!
We were brought to a shop where ornaments were made from oyster shells. We were showed how the oyster shells were cut, carved and polished to make these ornaments. It’s an intricate art that requires immense patience and skill. I was surprised by all the Chinese characters that were carved out. Apparently, most of the older generation could read Chinese characters, even though they pronounced them in Vietnamese language. The younger generation however can’t read Chinese as it is not being taught in schools. It dawned on me that that we are so similar yet so different. It is times like this that makes me appreciate our government making Chinese a compulsory subjects in schools. It is how we connect to our roots even when we call ourselves Singaporeans.
We visited a family who makes rice wine. We were shown the process from cooking the rice to fermenting it and distilling to get the alcohol. We were even treated to some freshly made rice wine which the locals called ‘happy water’. The residue from making these ‘happy water’ is used to feed the pigs which makes them drunk and sleepy all day.
It is interesting to learn that this whole rice wine making process is an ecological cycle where the pigs’ manure is eventually used to start the fire that is used to cook the rice wine. The people have cleverly extracted the methane gas from the fermented manure to fuel this process. And we also learned that they have an ingenious ways to keep away the pesky houseflies from the cooked rice with clear plastic bags and water!
We ended the tour with a home cooked meal at a local home. We had chicken cooked in some sweet curry sauce and stir fried kang kong (or what they called morning glory). The home was an old house built for ancestral worshipping with the family still living in it. These old houses were built with 3 doors. The central door is reserved for the dead and only opened on Lunar New Year Day and the death anniversary of the main ancestor. Traditionally, women entered from the left and men from the right, although these distinctions are no longer observed today.
The people who live in the house sleeps on beds that are simply wooden frames lay with locally woven mats. We were told that it will be too warm to sleep on mattresses during the hotter months.
There is frequent flooding during the rainy season and the last serious flood they had was in 2014 where water level rose to more than a meter high! We were showed how the people living in that house prepared themselves for the next flood. Using some wooden planks, they built some kind of a 2nd level so that food and drinking water can be stored when it floods.
The lives in the countryside reminds me of Singapore in the 50s or 60s. It was interesting to see how people still lives like this today. I was glad we did the bike tour. Given our tight schedule, it was one of the best ways to get a taste of Vietnamese countryside.
The tour has brought us away from the usual touristy routes to discover the real countryside where we meet the locals and learn about their way of life, customs and beliefs. To me, that’s the best part about this trip, apart from moving out of my comfort zone and scaring myself once a while.
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
~ Gustave Flaubert
Read more on this trip – Streets of Hoi An
Read our Sapa posts from last June holiday.