Hoi An: Symphony of Lights

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In Hoi An Old Town night lanterns sway in the breeze, painting a symphony of lights as they reflect off the meandering river below. This is a place for the senses and the sensual, where lovers stroll hand in hand and the tang of the ocean mingles with the aroma of freshly cooked dumplings. Thanks to the piped music that drifts down from speakers throughout the precinct, the Old Town is heard before it is seen. From the moment the notes meet the light of the lamps you are in another world.

Hoi An means ‘peaceful meeting place’, and it lives up to its name. Located just 30km south of the bustling city of Danang, this small coastal town is the perfect location for a relaxing getaway that is layered with the sights, tastes and styles of Vietnam.

By day Hoi An is a bustling maze of tailor shops and cafes, all with wooden facades and shutters that open directly onto the street. These facades have remained unchanged since the fifteenth century, leading to the area being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. History may be alive and well within the confines of the Old Town, but modern design has its place when it comes to attire. Famed as Vietnam’s hub of tailor-made clothing, tourists flock to the town with fashion magazines and fabric swatches in tow. Whether you are looking for a clone of your favourite worn out pants, in need of fitted business shirts, or seeking to turn a rough pencil sketch of a lavish frock into a reality, this is a place where anything is possible.

For those who are all shopped out, boat tours to the surrounding islands abound, while the Old Town boasts several museums that provide a glimpse of what life was like in the trading port in previous centuries. When stepping into the cool courtyards of the ancient houses, the weights of the shadows and of history are tangible in equal measure. Then there is the nearby beach, where exhausted shoppers can relax on deck chairs in the shade of the palms, while the more adventurous types hire jet skis or try paragliding in the afternoon sun.

By night Hoi An Old Town transforms into a tourist attraction in its own right, with access to the lantern-lit quarter and its range of open-air musical performances by ticket only. Restaurants offering al fresco dining line the promenade and entice the custom of passerby with local delicacies such as the White Rose shrimp dumpling. After dinner, a stroll through the traffic free streets reveals a town full of dancing shadows. Shopkeepers chat outside alongside their wares, illuminated from behind by the light box that is their storefront. Old women sit by the bridge, selling lanterns and the chance to make a wish as the fragile basket of paper and flame is lowered onto the water below, where it drifts away to the distant strains of the nightly soundtrack. Gradually, crowds disperse, guided by the light of the lanterns. Still, the memory of the town lingers as notes float over still waters.

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Vertigo and Verve at Crazy House

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Nestled atop a hillside in the mountainous highlands of Vietnam stands a hotel that makes concrete one architect’s wildest dreams. The organic tumble of plaster is reminiscent of the works of Gaudi, with dripping edges and rounded corners abounding. A model giraffe’s head peers down on the courtyard, wreathed by bougainvillea, while fairy lights trace out giant spider webs in the leafy canopy. This is Crazy House.

Our stay at Crazy House – or Hang Nga Villa, as it is also known – was crazy from the hour we arrived; we knocked on the door at 5am, fresh off a night bus. As we entered the gates we could have been forgiven for thinking that we had lapsed back into the dream world, because the looming facades of the surrounding buildings were on a surreal tilt. Plaster vines radiate out from the high peak of the central building, twining themselves into dizzying bridges and collecting mosaic turrets as they ramble downwards. These perspective-denying angles are coupled with the kinds of stairs that would give an OSH inspector a heart attack, as we soon found out as we were taken for a tour of our accommodation.

The ten rooms at Crazy House are all themed to particular animals, with names like ‘The Bear Room’, ‘The Pheasant Room’ and ‘The Kangaroo Room’ apt descriptors. The latter boasts a life sized kangaroo sculpture, complete with glowing red eyes and a fireplace in its pouch. Thankfully the marsupial was unavailable, thus sparing us from Australian-inspired nightmares. Instead, the Ant Room was to be our abode for the night. Room is something of a misnomer, as the suite consists of three parts: bedroom, bathroom and a living area, complete with an ant shaped fireplace. This was not just a place to stay, but a place to really experience.

Crazy House is the brainchild of Vietnamese architect Dr. Dang Viet Nga. After studying architecture in Moscow, she returned home to work for the Vietnamese government for many years before embarking on her own personal project. Started in 1990, the Crazy House is constantly evolving. The buildings are based off paintings, which are then transformed into reality by a team of local craftsmen. The project continues to have environmental concerns as a central theme, as Dr Dang Viet Nga explains: ‘with the voice of architecture I wish to lead men to come back to nature.’ At Crazy House, human habitats and natural shapes combine to create a new vision of architecture that pays close attention to organic detail, whilst setting no limits for the imagination.

Crazy House opens as a tourist attraction during the day, but daylight only reveals half the picture. By night the layered fairy lights and a symphony of frogs combine to create an other-worldly spectacle in the gardens. The chirping amphibians are a far cry from the bustling traffic noise of Ho Chi Minh City, which is just a day’s drive away, but their song lingers longer in the memory. Call me crazy, but that’s just the way I like it.

Crazy House (Hang Nga Villa) Da Lat City, Vietnam. Open Mon-Fri. www.crazyhouse.vn

Talking Trash: The Penguins of Vietnam

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Vietnam might be an unlikely choice of destination for avid penguin spotters, but a recent trip to South East Asia has shown me that things are not always as they seem. Animal lovers fear not, this is not a tale of animal cruelty and broiled birds. Instead, it is a lesson in international approaches to spreading the clean green message, and the use of penguins as receptacles to this effect. In short, it is about penguin rubbish bins.

The first time we saw a little black and white bird with an upturned beak and an empty Fanta bottle protruding from its jaws we thought ‘Aaaw, how sweet. What a novel way of dealing with the eyesore of public rubbish bins.’ It was somewhat out of place in the 40 degree heat, but the lush tropical surrounds just made the dichromatic colour scheme all the more noticeable. We duly deposited our Oreos packet into penguin’s beak as we exited the park and enjoyed the brief virtuous glow that such an action precipitated.

The second time we came across such a penguin was in the depths of a meandering limestone cave. While Antarctic species are not known for their spelunking abilities, New Zealand’s own Little Blue Penguins do nest in burrows, so the subterranean location of this critter was understandable. Most people continued on their way, photographing the gaudily lit stalactites and paying the form of the trash can no heed. I turned my camera in the other direction to capture the happy coincidence, then bought a fresh pack of Oreos at the snack stand by the exit.

The fourth time we saw a penguin rubbish bin we thought that perhaps there had been an extra zero added to an order at some point in the past. Maybe there was a surplus, so penguin bins were going cheap? There was a suspicious lack of mammalian or reptilian rubbish receptacles, so either it was an issue of supply and demand, or someone really didn’t like the polar critters. We were leaning towards the first option, right up until we visited the mines at Marble Mountain.

There, in the depths of a cave that was rich with geological and social history, we came face to face with a part of the mountain that was no longer mountain shaped at all. Instead, it boasted two flippers, two webbed feet, and a gaping mouth. This penguin shaped rubbish bin took the cake, both because of the craftsmanship demonstrated in the carving process and because of the way it blew our earlier theories out the window.

The penguin shaped rubbish bins weren’t an accident after all. There is something about their compact, oval form and protruding bellies that makes these critters a prime target for urban planners and their waste management division. If Happy Feet has been sending subliminal ecological messages to a generation of children, who knows what effect these penguin bins will have. Will they lead to the mass donation of crumpled food packaging to Penguin Rescue Shelters in coming years? If so, our marine birds had better develop a taste for High Fructose Corn Syrup quick-smart.

It’s a long shot, but so was heading to Vietnam on a penguin-themed holiday in the first place.