Vietnam's gift to its visitors

Trip Start Jun 21, 2012
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Trip End Dec 09, 2012


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Flag of Vietnam  , Quang Nam,
Saturday, July 7, 2012

After Sapa I returned again to Hanoi - for the third time -and then felt eager to head south down the coast to see what else this beautiful country had to offer. I bought a bus ticket to Hoi An. 16 hours away overland. I also got an open bus ticket that would let me travel south all over the country whenever I liked. It cost me less than £25 for 5 journeys. Not so bad considering I'd be travelling hundreds of kilometres at a time.

The sleeper bus was - at first - a delight. It had soft padded leather covered seats that reclined almost all the way to the floor, small Tvs for movies in the aisle, blankets, air con and a nice group of travellers from all around the world for company.

Once we started moving, however, the reality of sleeper bus travel quickly materialised. Your feet and legs are delivered into a short plastic tube in front of your seat- a small space already but even more so being designed for the Asian frame. As my toes scrunched at the bottom and neither one of my legs lay straight, the realisation of what the next 16hours would entail sent beads of sweat running down my neck. This wasnt helped by the my decision to Wear long trousers and a black shirt (I thought I would get cold at night). So there I sat, just half an hour in, my entire body sticking to a deformed plastic hospital bed whilst the stench of travellers' feet cloyed in the air. Oh, and I chose the seat next to the toilet. I tried to close my eyes and relax. Perhaps I would have managed it too but for a wailing Vietnamese voice dubbed over an American spy movie (which clearly never made the cinema) shouting over the bus. This particular edit had left the American voices underneath as a half audible whine - just incase it's audience liked listening to high pitched Asian screams and nasal Californian sobbing simultaneously. I drifted into my sleepless night under the neon blue lights above me all the while Vietnam never failing to be a feast for the senses.

24 hours and just one stop later we arrived in Hoi An. We'd cruised down Highway One (one of the most famous stretches of road in the world) jumped and bumped over crater filled roads, negotiated mud tracks for miles and miles where nothing existed but the remotest of villages, screamed past massive fields of soldiers' graves, flown by at least twelve million pagodas, and never slowed to a halt once. Accelerating and dodging are not only the two skills mastered by the Vietnamese Moto driver- but the Bus, coach, truck, lorry too.
During our one stop I swapped buses but still kept with a Brit and a Taiwanese guy as well as a handful of friendly Canadians and Israelis. No sooner did we start to move again did we stop to let on some locals. But there was No room. Let's pick the white girl who looks least likely to put up a fight. 'Your ticket not this bus.' 'You Go here'. 'New bus five minutes'. I was tossed into the hot, dirty street- and nearly without my backpack from the luggage haul- leaving behind all the familiarity of western faces and conversation, but most annoyingly of opportunity to find and share accommodation with when we arrived (there are no dorms in Hoi An). And still, as I write this account four weeks since, I can't remember a time I have felt lower than then. It was like having something taken away from me. What it was I'm not sure. That's sort of the nature of travelling- you find affinity with others before you even know a thing about them. There's just this sort of invisible safety net that weaves between you and strangers when you're travelling to the same place, by the same route, at the same time. With any luck it is for the same reasons too - and you can go at it together. Travellers looking out for travellers if you like, but all silently and self consciously, over the top of books, headphones and serious, indifferent faces unwilling to show vulnerability at anytime.

After some elaborate solipisim and five hours of looking through a rain drenched window, the new bus arrived. The streets of Hoi An were quickly recognisable with stretch after stretch filled by tailor shops. Hoi An is the tailoring capital of Vietnam after all- or even perhaps of all of South East Asia. The concentration of tailors to other businesses is really quite astounding. It seemed the front of each and every shop was framed by half mannequins on hangers dressed in dated western fashions. Big winter coats, long silk evening dresses, silk shirts, silk suits, elaborate Wedding dresses. Even laundrettes, corner shops, newsagents seemed to be running a tailoring business on the side. Indeed, one morning I went to pick up my laundry which I'd handed over a garden fence to a lady cooking outside her house the day before, and whilst I waited for my underwear to be delivered separately by another lady (underwear must be hung discreetly down hidden alleyways here) I was being mentally measured up for dresses, shirts or anything else the local woman could rustle up that same day.

I was sharing a room with a German girl on the tail end of her Asian adventure. Doing a similar loop to me but in reverse. She only had a week left of a three month trip and needed to hit the beach to tan as much as possible to wow everyone back at home. My western priorities being similar, we hired bikes on the first and second mornings and rode straight through the town out to coast to Cui Dai beach. We biked under the lush shady trees lining the main road, passed by a river with small thatched bungalow restaurants - stopped for my life's best breakfast of perfect ripe fruit and green tea- then on past the posh colonial villas- now stunning tourist retreats where red lanterns hang from open shutter windows and long, cool, dark balconies.

After flat rice paddies for as far as the eye could see in every direction and picturesque bridges over yet more water, we arrived at the coast.

The beach was immensely organised. Shady sheds to park your bikes, vendors selling cheap drinks on the road- and traditional Vietnamese hot treats in the evening- and sarong and hareem pant shops galore.

The beach sits behind a road separated by a thick stretch of tall palms. It was heavenly and for my first experience of Asia's beaches, not a bad one. Bluish Islands laid sprinkled out in the distance at the base of the immense sky, separating its blue expanse from the sparkling turquoise waters below. Though the sands weren't too busy now they certainly had the potential to be. A stretch of copycat cafes with lines of sun loungers lay to the left and jet skis and a huge colourful parachute to the right. But this was 9.30am in the so called 'raining season'. We sat infront of the palms on the white sand - metres away from anyone else - and realised the severe effortlessness it had taken to find a beach as beautiful and as clean as this. I had a feeling that it would have been a very different story in high season. Feeling smug, I ran to the water across the already toasty sand and fell into bath water. Looking down I could see my hands like they were in air not water. I could have read my book under it. For the rest of the morning all i did was read on the cool breezy sands. I chose Graham
Greene's The Quiet American- if I was to succumb to any cliches this trip it would be my reading list- oh, and my descriptions of the weather. There was not a cloud in the sky. I love this raining season.

At night Hoi An town becomes another place entirely from the day. But my first encounter of the town was at night and perhaps this is why I fell so in love with the place. Moving hotels twice and rooms three or four times- continuously extending my stay past my original plans. The first night doesn't quite count for a first impression- I drank free cocktails with westerners at a traveller's hotel then hiked through the dark into town headed for the expat sports bar where I could watch Murray win the first set to Federer in the Wimbledon final. I sat on my own in the bar which had a huge projector screen and a packed mostly Aussie crowd, leaving the German and Canadian who accompanied me eating upstairs totally ignorant to the magnitude of the match and bewildered by how I wouldn't miss it even after spending 24 hours travelling with no sleep on that bus. It wasn't so much to do with the fact that Murray was a Brit, or that it was the first Wimbledon I would be missing for quite a few years, but that it was a rare indulgence of the familiar, of normality, and a connection with home which was still recent enough in memory to bring a small pinch of sadness.

So it was my second evening that I really saw Hoi An. I'd spent the entire day swimming and reading at the beach again - this time with the Brit and Taiwanese I had been so gutted to leave behind when I moved buses. I had been too soon into my trip to realise that you meet everyone again - and again. So it was that we
met - after much explanation to the German, the Taiwanese, the French Canadian, for a pre dinner drink at the sports bar. They didn't get it - or at least made a point not to. I joined the Brit for a G&T, actually we drank four between us as it was happy hour, the German sat with nothing as 'beer would fill me up' and she hadn't heard of G&T or for any drinking before eating except at Christmas, and no sooner had we arrived did the French Canadian and the Taiwanese leave to go in search for food. But their impatience paid off as they found a tiny, cheap, non touristy, no frills Vietnamese place
to eat. We went back with them for their second helping and our first. I had a starter, main and three local draught beers all served quickly and with much smiling and friendly English phrases . My bill came to 65,000 dong - £2. This we later learnt was ridiculously cheap even for vietnam. And we ate on the river. The restaurant had no name and was clearly operating out of the woman's house and probably very basic kitchen so restaurant prices didn't apply. Perfect. But still, we sat facing out over the river and got full table service. This was a brilliant find. And made me very taken with eating like this again and again throughout Vietnam.

That evening we walked along the river together. From each and every open window hung Chinese lanterns glowing richly - reds, yellows, pinks, white and gold. The colour painted walls of the buildings were burning orange and yellow as if warmed by the heat of the day and now glowing too in the cooler night time. Bright pink flowers and frangipani crept up their fronts. We passed women cutting and selling fruit still wearing their conical hats, and whole families sat around large steaming pots feeding passers by on their small plastic chairs and tables.

But most atmospheric of all were two small boys selling beautiful coloured candles and tea lights dropped into paper boat or flower like creations. A pole with a hook on the end lowered these extraordinarily simple and very beautiful floating lanterns into the river and its waters danced with coloured lights. We crossed the famous new bridge where riding a bike was a struggle for the mass of crowds having their photos taken and yet more candle sellers. But what was special about Hoi An was its size- even though it was a bit of a crush along the river and the bridge, it was its small size that was so special. It was too small to ever have felt like a tacky tourist destination. It was the one place in Vietnam I visited where tourism blended harmoniously with the town. There were no neon lights, no ugly high rise buildings, no new builds whatsoever. Each and every house, shop, restaurant, museum, pagoda is historical. It's a wonder. The very fact it survived the war is impressive enough but it's preservation is breathtaking. It is a masterpiece of conservation and should stand up as a global example of how not to ruin a town.

There is a no moped rule in Hoi An town. The end to the constant harsh hum of their engines and mad driving was welcome and made the town the most pleasant place to explore by foot (or by bike in the day when it was too hot to walk over the whole town, which it was, at 35degrees).

The shops stay open well into the night. You can quite literally go and be measured for a dress after dinner, have a second fitting after breakfast and be wearing it out to dinner the next evening.

Or you can wander aimlessly around the river. Over the bridge to the island which mimics the beauty of the town on the otherside with yet still more restaurants cafes and hotels aglow. Or past the man who challenges blind folded tourists to smash a terracotta pot hanging from a branch of a tree with a little bat. Or the traditional dancing and singing under paper lanterns on the waterfront which you hear from the back street calling you to walk towards the water and take a look.

It's the crowds and activity that let me feel pretty comfortable being alone the next day and evening when the others moved on. It was actually a relief in a way - sometimes you sacrifice too much when there's a group of you and luckily there was still plenty I wanted to do and all of it was best done alone. I had looked forward to roaming the streets in the day on my bike and collecting a few souvenirs. And because id already been here for a few days I was very capable of navigating my way around. Anyway, if I did get lost it was a tiny town and would only mean I'd find yet another picturesque side street, pagoda, or tempting souvenir shop selling high quality momentos.

I biked everywhere trying on dresses, blouses and shirts. I bought a blouse and some beautiful silver engraved chop sticks. I had a pair of smart linen shorts tailored for a fiver. I came across a
Lantern stand that had a fabric id never seen used on the tens of identical stands before it. I went into the workshop and met the family who make the entire lantern by hand- first a dark wood frame and a wire centre piece to fit around a bulb, then the fabric stretched over the top and a tassle for the base. The grandfather had me sit with him on a plastic stool in the doorway whilst the women of the family let me look through their entire collection of scraps of silk. I was left with two designs I couldn't choose between. No matter, they would make them both and in half an hour I could come back and choose which one I wanted to buy! I didn't even leave a deposit. When I returned I chose one with a white silk with small pink flowers on it and the mother showed me how to fold it away for my back pack and how to put it back up again when I get home. She charged me the same for one on the stands outside and waved me goodbye from the pavement wishing me luck for the rest of my trip and the future. I wish I had an empty suitcase to by tens of them to decorate a flat one day or to give out to everyone at home. They were less than £3 each.

My retail therapy still unsatisfied, i came across a book exchange on a wide quiet street and luckily there was only one book in the entire place I wanted to read (this is the problem with book exchanges in S. East Asia. Most of the books are crappy holiday reads and the good ones stick out and are snapped up quickly) so I didn't go crazy. I took The Beach in exchange for an Ian McEwan and a tatty best seller my guests in the alps had left behind.

It was a long, hot day and by 6 or so it was still baking and I was ready to be inside. I showered then it was dark and I went to the best spa I had seen on my travels so far. It was everything I had wished for. A large white, spotless building, westernised treatment list, small Vietnamese girls in uniform and quiet. So quiet. I was sat down and had my feet put into a big bamboo bowl with river weeds in it which one of the girls used to clean and massage my dirty tired feet. I was given an ice cold bottle of water and my valuables were locked away. This was no sleazy back room massage. I then could have a shower or just get into a floor length Vietnamese silk kimono and go up a large, cool open spiraling stairway where lanterns hung down through the centre. I had an hour full body massage and then a Manicure and pedicure. It was nearly ten o'clock by the time I came out but I couldn't have felt better. The products used were all western and familiar - dermatologica, OPI but it had all cost under £30. The same as just one of those treatments in London.

Though I was relaxed and Would easily fall asleep, I was hungry and as I was getting up at 4am for sunrise the next morning I needed some energy to last me through until breakfast. I took my bike back down to the river and as I
Was walking it along I Saw the street food was still steaming from large silver pans. I chose a stall and sat down . 'One Cau Lau?' - I'd had it for breakfast but it was so good 'Yes please', 'And one beer', 'Yes please' and in seconds I was presented with a bowl of the local soup - a couple of thick grainy noodles, a clear stock, a few vegetables and mountains of fresh herbs and leaves, lime and chillies.

I developed a nasty habit of taking pictures of my food in Hoi An. I think, because I hadn't at all in Hanoi which is arguably the food capital of S.E Asia and where I had bought many bowls of exquisite, steaming Pho piled with bright green herbs and vibrant chillies. I remember one night in Val d'isere being taken through my instructor's photos of Vietnam (he'd spent the last two summers teaching English in Saigon) and many of them were close ups of the street food markets and their bowls of pho.

So I took out my iPhone and was soon joined by three excitable Vietnamese children. Still awake helping mum and dad flog their delicious noodle soup. One in particular- a girl about 4 or 5 - was enthral led. She sat herself up on my lap, took the screen in both hands then silently and conscientiously figured out how to move the camera, how to shoot. She pointed it to her
Mum and let out a shriek of delight having taken a shot. The mum too came over and in no English and no Vietnamese we chatted away in 'mms' and 'aahs' over albums of Hong Kong and Sapa And Halong. Then I showed the girl how to take a photo of herself and how to edit it in instagram. But with the speed she was learning she would have figured it out herself in another ten minutes. God Bless Steve Jobs. Even alone, on a street, with no language I'd been kept company solely by the help of an iPhone 4s.

But it was the next morning when I really started to obsess over my iPhone. I was up at 4am and in a mini bus driving through the pitch dark streets picking up other tourists from their hotels and resorts. The group was lead by Etienne Bossot, a French photographer who has been living in Hoi An over the last four years. The rest of us amateur photographers who wanted to catch the sunrise and learn how to take photos in different lights. Then there was me, with my iPhone, and no previous inclination to be interested in photography at all.

We boarded a local's motorboat to cross from an obscure port far from the town to a tiny fishing village with no tourism other than this one course held once or twice a week. We shared the tiny dirty boat with locals at the back supposedly on their way to buy the fish and seafood that was coming off the boats from the night before. We took photos against a gorgeous golden orange sunrise of their massive nets, industrial sized fishing boats and the surrounding mountainous scenery. Etienne started with me. With no settings on my camera there was only one thing he could teach me. It was about automatically adjusting the light to enhance the image before taking it. Obviously fundamental to the iPhone camera but as I hadn't known about this before it has since revolutionised the photos of my trip. I felt kind of smug again whilst the others fussed over shutter speeds, aperture and other technical jargon I didn't need to learn about.

When we arrived on shore the smell was overwhelming. Again, vietnam was an absolute and overwhelming display for the senses. A bright blue and orange sky, multicoloured wooden boats each with a demonic eye painted on for safety at sea bobbing gently at the water's edge, shouting fisherwomen tossing squid, eels, snakes into plastic buckets, the whole air offensive with the stench of their activity. The men were in crowded make shift bars under low corrugated iron roofs playing cards, chain smoking and drinking the famous ca phe. Children dressed in brightly coloured pyjamas drifted all over the walkway playing or else sitting with mum and grandma weighing out their fish.

As we walked from the boat, along the beach, into a village, to a cafe for free ice tea and ice coffee and amazing baguettes (one of the positive effects of french rule- the food they left behind) to another little village and back to shore we met tens of locals willing to have their photos taken. Others had little arrangements with Etienne who would slip them some dollar bills before they gave up their faces for our lenses. It was a real lesson. I learnt how to ask for someone's photo, how to get rapport with he subject. How to compose a photo with foreground and background. We even visited a fish sauce factory to take photos of the big stinking vats of fish carcasses in dark rooms.

Afterwards, the sun high, we took bikes and cycled back along the river across a short, neat bridge and back into the unbearable heat of Hoi An and its charming little back streets. It was only 9.30 am. Time to go and change hotel rooms again and to rent out a bike for the fifth time. I was definitely staying another night and another day in this incredible little town.
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