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Hoi An – Poetry Without Words

Hoi An. Vietnam’s very own laid back beach paradise. Caught between an ever emerald expanse of rice fields, lush countryside and white sandy beaches—with water that never seems to cool to anything less than hot tub temperature—perhaps you can start to see why out of all the places in South East Asia, we decided to call this lantern loving city home for two months. 

Situated exactly two kilometres from the beachfront, and another two kilometres from the ancient city centre, we spent a marvellous 60 days and 60 nights in a 4 bedroom, 5 bathroom house, of which we only used 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms due to the rodent sized cockroaches that resurrected themselves from underneath the fridge and cabinets and couches every evening the moment the sun set.

Our house, in the middle of our street. Our house, a cockroach infested keep.

On the surface—and from being temporary locals in the sleepy little vegetable village of Tra Que— Hoi An seemed to be just that, a tranquil, slow paced city where we would gradually give in to temptation and gorge ourselves on the most delicious 18,000VD (80c) vegan Bánh Mì’s (crunchy Vietnamese baguettes teeming with tofu, carrots, green papaya, avocado and our local supplier’s secret chilli sauce). But what we soon came to find out, was that if you dug just a tiny bit deeper than the day-trippers who showed up every morning without fail to our house’s surrounding veggie patches (AKA Our front lawn) to prance about in their borrowed Nón Lá’s and pose for Insta pictures, that really, there was much more than what met the eye. 

We had our new friends Minh and Thuy—the owners of the wonderful homestay we stayed in while we waited for our rental house to be ready—to thank for our introduction into Hoi An’s enriching underbelly. 

It was through them that we were able to encounter some of the best experiences we had during our entire time in SEA. From celebrating Buddha’s Birthday with a free local feast that was being held at one of the community temples, (where while eating bowl after bowl of vegetarian Cao Lau, we were serenaded by a famous native singer) to partaking in a 300 person bike ride also in honour of Buddha’s Birthday, and finally, being invited out to the remote Vietnamese countryside for another celebration, this one being the annual commemoration of Minh’s Grandfather, where we were once again stuffed with all the local vegan specialties before joining in with all the relatives in a karaoke party! 

Rambutans!

So, for us, Hoi An was a gateway to a spectacular array of culture, cuisine and camaraderie, with fascinating, ornate architecture and phenomenal local craftwork and art to boot.

But our truly sensational Hoi An experience came when Lune Production invited us to attend one of their most renowned shows: Palao.

A sincerely profound & heartfelt representation of a lost culture & its evolution in Vietnam, at its core, Palao embodies the struggle & pain of the Cham people, a dying civilisation in the face of globalisation. The majority of the artists who perform this show are Cham themselves, and despite the trauma and suffering that they portray throughout, it is this very sharing of their past and heritage that allows the performance to also showcase their culture’s vibrancy, resilience & strength. 

We had not been aware of the history of the Cham people before the show, but we quickly learned that their ethnicity contributed a great deal to the Vietnamese culture, and also learned of the choppy waters they are navigating today in contemporary society as they try to preserve their place in the world.

Arriving at Lune Production’s iconic bamboo dome-shape theatre, at the eye of the ancient city, we could already sense that we were in for something extraordinary. Refreshments were laid out on a table for us in ceramic cups, fruity lemonades kept iced in china tea kettles. It was a beautiful scene; the sun setting over the river to our left, little wooden fishing boats bobbing up and down on the water, while the surrounding clamour of restaurants and cafes faded into the distance. 

Very soon, we were called into the theatre; the stage set with red terracotta pots of all shapes and sizes. The lights dimmed and changed, shadows growing from every angle like detonated shrapnel butterflying. My skin broke out in chills and I was captivated by the sudden movement on stage, movement too acute and fervent to simply be called dance.

It was poetry of the most passionate kind. Poetry without words, without constraint, harrowing and harmonious at the same time, carried hauntingly on the powerful vocals of the performers who sang and hummed and screamed throughout the show. 

It was loss. 500 years of overwhelming loss of tradition, of melodies, of even a mother-tongue. Turbulent and tragic, betrayal so poignant and raw I could see the soaring of emotion on each of the performer’s faces as they moved lyrically, lost in the moment. 

My head swam and I blinked back tears. It was hard not to resonate my mother’s family’s own experiences of being forced to forget their Székely heritage and language under communism in Transylvania. 

And yet, at the intoxicating crescendo of the vocals, ethnic instruments and electro music, there it was: The unmistakable umbra of acceptance. Of forgiveness and understanding. It was as if the very air in the theatre had changed and we could all breath again. After all, the word Palao itself in Cham means letting go.

After the show had ended, the curtain rose again and all the performers came to the front of the stage and sat down, crosslegged. They invited the audience to speak with them in conversation, something that I had never before witnessed at a performance and one that made the experience all the more impactful and connecting. 

The leader of the Palao Dance Troupe spoke to us of the importance of introducing their culture back to the world and of infusing the ancient practises of their past with those of present day.

In this world, where the only true constant is change, it is all the more important to pay our respects to our heritage and where we came from. This is our culture, a culture that is in danger of fading from the world, as so many others are in danger too. It is our responsibility to keep our culture alive by passing it down to our youth. Not just by telling them the stories and teaching them the dances and melodies, but by connecting them directly to their past.

We are not bound by our history, though we remember and honour it. Instead, we choose our own fate—a history in the making.

It was dark when we exited the theatre, the dome lit up like a honeyed full moon that had fallen to Earth. Around us, the city glowed with a thousand lanterns, Hoi An’s famed attractions lighting our way to our favourite Indian Restaurant. (Baba’s Kitchen. Honestly, if you’re in Hoi An you can’t give it a miss. Their curries and naans are to die for.) 

Palao is definitely one of Lune Production’s most emotionally intense and moving shows but don’t let that scare you away. Yes, it dares to ask the challenging questions, but it weaves a story that anyone in the world can relate to and in doing so, creates optimism of a world where native cultures will no longer have to suffer. A world that can become a more nurturing and inclusive place.

For all cultures. 

For all peoples.

For humanity.

Have you ever been to Hoi An or any other parts of Vietnam? What was your experience like? And would you attend a showing of Palao if ever in Hoi An? 

Leave a comment or any questions below! I love to hear from you!

I would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Lune Production and all the performers of Palao in Hoi An, for inviting us along and making our experience so earnest and incredible. There is no question about it that this performance was not just mere entertainment, but a truly illuminating and inspiring learning experience for us all as a family. Thank you.

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