March 23, 2007 - Hoi An, Vietnam
The Real Vietnam
February 19, 2007
It is a testament to the human mind - the ability to settle into a rhythm, no matter the circumstances.
Our Vietnam rhythm?
Night buses and 7AM arrival times. Wake up somewhere new every morning, almost like some wayward cruise ship with sticky pleather seats, no grand dining room and the ambiance of a greyhound station. A Vietnamese Greyhound station to be exact.
Now arriving somewhere at 7AM is great in some senses, you kill a few birds with one stone. Getting travel hours out of the way at night, forgoing a hotel and having a full day wherever you just arrived. There are some downsides though, namely the mediocre at best nights sleep and crooked back. This also has the effect of leaving you in a weakened state.
As if in a Far Side cartoon, the ACME Sheep Shearing Van backs up the the feeding pen of Wolves R Us. The wolves, licking chops in anticipation of the coming bounty, pace in ever tightening circles. With a sick thud the gate drops and the addled sheep come tumbling out.
Except those sheep happen to be us. Backpack-laden, sleep deprived and altogether not in the clearest state of mind.
We’re beset with hotel offers, motorbike offers, tour offers and even shadier things. Slowly and surely our flock is divided and dragged off. A particularly tenacious tout circles us on a motorbike showing us one hotel brochure when he says the price and another when he asks us to hop on and take a tour. We escape down a small street and find a hotel after a good round of bargaining. $10 a night or $11 with air-conditioning.
After a small nap and showers we ventured out into the heat to rent bikes.
Cycling though town on our rickety beach cruisers we passed the tourist-driven clothing sweatshops, cobblers and roadside tailor stalls. Unbeknownst to me Hoi An is a mecca for frugal fashionistas. Hand tailored suits, dresses, pants and shirts for a pittance compared to bespoke clothing in the States. Granted, I heard rumors of corner-cutting - using white thread on everything unless specified to match - and rampant sweatshop expansion. Fat tourists ambled in and out of the small shops searching though the same 50 templates for something that would fit their bloated guts.
Having enough of this we opened the guidebook and used it how it should be used - as areas to to stay away from - picked a bridge leading off the map and beelined for it. Crossing the low-arched causeway we found ourselves in a much more “authentic” part of town. Chickens darting across the street, kids darting across the street and motorbikes everywhere.
Hallelujah for locals.
Around a small bend in the road we came to a row of restaurants - if you can call them that. Slowing to a dusty halt in front of a large metal shed we walked in amid surprised looks from everybody. A good sign. Twenty low plastic tables spread themselves across the cracked concrete floor, right up to a wooden railing over-looking a small river. Squeezing our over-sized foreign asses into the plastic kiddie chairs we order a few beers and the one - and only - dish that every other table had. A delicious medley plate of chopped dime-sized shellfish, greens, peanuts, pressed lime and cold veggies followed - all to be scooped up with a crisp fried flat bread. A dollop of crushed pepper hotsauce on the side and we practically licked the plates clean, fighting for the last bits of flat bread.
Bellies full, we pedaled down the river until we came to the first crossing - a two-foot wide bamboo bridge. The bumpy ride over round bamboo slats promising a drop into the river below at the slightest misturn of the wheel. A small dirt path wound its way through fields of corn and down to a third river, this one much wider. On the far bank a small squat ferry - not much more than wooden boat with boards heaved across the gunnels for a make-shift deck - sat unloading motorbikes. It headed a half kilometer upstream before making a dash for our side, it then quietly drifted in the swift current to the small bamboo pier in front of us. Clambering over a short plank, bikes in tow, we sat on the edge of the bow as a small two-stroke engine sputtered to life, full to the gills of people, bikes and motorbikes.
After a short ride across the river we explored a tangle of small roads - stopping briefly to get conned by a group of school children gambling in their school yard and be offered a freshly butchered cow for a single American dollar.
We had finally been liberated - finding our own way off the map and right into rural Vietnam.
February 20, 2007
After a day spent off the radar we climbed back onto the bus and shuttled off to My Son and the nearby Chom temples for a tourist-packed day trip.
The tour we ended up on included an overly excited tour-guide, a grumpy set of German tourists hellbent on making me shut the window next to me and a ton of my fellow countrymen, Chinese Nationals.
Arriving at My Son we were herded first into a waiting area with plenty of trinkets and weavings to buy and then into a set of small vans to take us the final few kilometers to the ruins. An impressive set of brick temples was already swarming with people by the time we arrived. It was quite the challenge trying to get a single shot of anything without 3 awkward, knee-high socked trekkers stumbling into it.
A grumpy set of Vietnamese military officers guarded the complex - shouting somewhat ineffectively whenever anybody got too close to out of bounds - thankfully it wasn’t a free-for-all.
We further joined the tourist fray by finding a Latin club in Hoi An that night - celebrating Mardi Gras to the sound of the tango.
It’s a small world after all…
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