Friday, February 4, 2011
Three Vietnam: Finding Luck in Hoi An
In keeping with my belief that unplanned travel is often the best, Hoi An ended up being one of my favorite stops. I forfeited the remainder of my ongoing ticket to Hue, but a new ticket for the next day was only about 3USD and the extra was worth it.
Hoi An’s primary tourist attraction held no interest for me whatsoever: the town is known for its tailors, and clothing shops abound. One store proudly displayed a letter from a foreign customer who, along with his wife, ended up buying somewhere north of sixty clothing items during their stay. Unfathomable. Perhaps more than any other place I went in Vietnam – where tourists were in general easily found – the foreign contingent in Hoi An asserted itself with a kind of selective interest: I saw almost no foreigners outside of a half-dozen or so streets that form the town’s core. I was also greatly amused when I came upon a Highly Interesting Cultural Event being held on a sidewalk – some locals burning trash. Two separate international types were videotaping this while the Vietnamese laughed at them.
What I really liked about Hoi An was the river, which was green and sluggish, and the buildings, which were yellowed and old. The river flows alongside the Ancient Town, a collection of narrow streets and alleyways that harbor the typical tourist requisites along with many, many cafes. My favorite part of my brief stay was walking these streets and talking with the local artists about their work. There were several photography galleries as well, mostly displaying the output of a local photo club.
As always, there were also lots of people angling for foreign dollars. I’ve found it pretty easy to turn down overpriced trinkets and vegetables and motorbike rides, but I was willfully suckered in Hoi An by Dao and Tuan, a couple of shrewd kids who insisted that I needed to buy a buffalo zodiac pendant for luck. (Apparently the Vietnamese substitute a water buffalo for the ox of the Chinese zodiac.) I got them to cut their price by two-thirds but knew I was still getting swindled – especially after, realizing they were out of buffalo, big sister Dao handed Tuan a fraction of what I paid to go get me a buffalo pendant from some unnamed third party. I respected their polite tenacity and also appreciated their willingness to chat. I may have lost points with them when I tied the buffalo to my wrist instead of around my neck, but after some consideration Dao decided that it would bring me luck nonetheless.
And now the bit about food. Thanks to an abundance of international restaurants I mostly ate western food in
Hoi An, and it was mostly good. I’ve talked about the coffee and the pho, but another thing I’ve loved about Vietnam is the crusty baguettes that are frequently served with meals. It’s something I only recently realized that I really miss from back home.
More than anything, Hoi An was simply picturesque. As I moved through Vietnam I saw more and more preparations being made for the February 3 Tet holiday, and Hoi An was in full swing: altars bearing food and incense were being set up along the sidewalks, red banners and decorations adorned many of the cracked walls in the Ancient City, and dragons were in conspicuous attendance. All of these preparations were set against a town that, while catering to tourists, still managed to maintain its own separate spirit. The morning before I left, I was out early on the streets watching worn old women carry impressive loads of bananas and peppers on their backs. A girl stepped out of her shop and performed a brief, private ritual with sticks of incense. And the fog rolled on the river.
Compared to the rest of my bus trips, the hop to Hue was brief – only four hours – but it gave me my best look at Vietnam’s countryside. This was because, for unclear reasons, the driver yanked me out of my seat halfway through and made me sit on a fold-out chair right at the front of the bus. (I think my booking agency screwed up my ticket, and as a result I had to forfeit my seat to someone else.) This ended up being great for me because I had more leg room, more fresh air and the best view of anyone. Some of this view was Da Nang’s ugly urban sprawl and some of it was the feeble walls set up by developers building resorts on fabled China Beach – I had at one point considered going to China Beach, and this ride made me glad I didn’t – but we also rode through rather beautiful mountain passes and valleys.
I also had the pleasure of watching the bus driver threaten to toss off a group of young Vietnamese men who had gotten a bit too rowdy. He literally turned off the highway, stopped the bus and turned around to chew them out. It was fantastic.
Throughout it all, drizzle plunked down onto the windshield. Since Ho Chi Minh I had been hoping for a respite from the grey weather, but I wasn’t getting it now… and I wouldn’t get it in Hue.