Friday, July 25, 2008

Hoi An, Vietnam

To view Part 1 of photos from Nha Trang/Hoi An, click here.

To view Part 2 of photos from Hoi An, click here.

The first commandment for every good explorer is: an expedition has 2 points, the point of departure and the point of arrival. If your intention is to make the second point coincide with the actual (theoretical) point of arrival, don’t think about the means – because the journey is a virtual space that finishes when it finishes, and there are many means as there are different ways of ‘finishing’. That is to say, the means are endless.

- Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries

I arrived in Nha Trang with a heavy heart. I missed my peeps and the routine I left in Mui Ne and probably didn’t give Nha Trang the chance it deserved based on my mood, so I only stayed for 2 days and it rained PURTY much the entire time I was there. I couldn’t even go for a walk on the beach without getting thoroughly soaked. That’s when I decided to hightail it outta there and head off to absorb the culture and charm of Hoi An!

There was a Vietnamese holiday the day after I decided to leave Nha Trang, which meant that almost all of the buses were booked. I got the last seat in town....which meant sleeping at the back of the bus in between a French couple and 2 girls from South Africa. Of course at the time, this seemed to be an unfortunate circumstance. There is no room at all between the seats...meaning, we might as well have all been sleeping in a king size bed together during an earthquake! But being in such close proximity, we all made fast friends before trying to get a decent night’s sleep on a long overnight bus journey (11 hours) that had us arriving in Hoi An at 6 AM.

Gillian and Tony, the 2 girls from South Africa, and I decided to take a room together. Both of them had lived and worked in Banff, Alberta (Canada) for a year to save up for their SE Asian tour. We hit it off and ended up staying in Hoi An together for several days.

Our mornings consisted usually of getting breakfast (wicked potato omelettes at Tam Tam restaurant) and chilling out with a coffee at our favourite restaurant. We rented bicycles and rode to the beach, shopped and read. When we finally got sick of that, we decided to rent motos to check out Marble Mountain.

The man who rented the motos to us (I will call him ‘motoguy’) had a neck beard. This was no run of the mill average neck beard people. His whiskers extended clear out past his ears. My heart felt a lot of sympathy for his better half. Another trait we noticed about many of the Asian men is that they have at least one really long nail. I have heard a couple of theories on this. The first was that they use it as a sort of ‘tool’ or ‘pick’ if you will. Exactly what is picked, I don’t think we need to go into. The second theory is that it shows distinction (or a sort of ‘chick magnet’, if you will). If a man has nice, long nails, it means that he is a member of a more esteemed class (this tradition dates back to the Qing dynasty) as he has time to tend to his nails and isn’t doing manual labour or hard work that would require his nails to be short. I like this theory better, although the former explanation was demonstrated before me several times!

We followed the moto guy to the petrol station where he told the attendant to put 3 litres in. Tony had figured out just how far a litre will take you and asked the attendant to only put 1 litre in but by then it was too late and I was left to pay 35,000 dong for the gas. I told moto guy that if my tank wasn’t near empty when we returned that he would have to reimburse me for the money I put in. He looked at me with a blank stare, one I was becoming very familiar with since getting to Asia.

We cruised the 25 km to Marble Mountain. I had a couple of Vietnamese men ride beside me and blatantly stare while I kept my focus straight ahead pretending to be oblivious. All I kept thinking was thank goodness Gill and Tony are behind me. Generally, I had found traveling in Asia pretty safe but it was a definite comfort to have two sisters watching my back.

Unfortunately when we returned from Marble Mountain to Hoi An, I was still on ¾ of a tank, which I knew spelled conflict ahead. As soon as we pulled up to moto guy, the key was promptly taken out of my ignition. I asked very nicely for moto guy to pay me back 20,000 dong since he now had almost a full tank of gas, courtesy of yours truly. He of course was not keen on the idea so I said ‘Well, fair is fair. I guess I will just keep this helmet then.’ I grabbed the helmet to take with me and he raised his hand and struck my forearm to try and get me to release the helmet from my grasp.


The next words that flew out of my mouth, I cannot take responsibility for...

‘Don’t you EVER f***ing TOUCH me AGAIN!’

I could feel my heart pound and blood gush into my cheeks. The gloves were officially off. I jumped on his back and rolled him onto the pavement. OK no I didn’t do that but I probably could have based on our statures. I wondered what this guy would have done if we weren’t in public and it made me even angrier to think of how he might treat the women in his life.

Gillian is supermodel tall, so I handed the helmet to her and she held it up in the air so that he couldn’t reach it. This did not make motoguy a happy camper. A random Vietnamese tourist came out of a hotel nearby to act as a mediator between us and help resolve the situation but moto guy wasn’t having any of it. I decided it was time to bring out the big guns and threw a big lens on my camera and started snapping photos of them and their sign. They were yelling but they couldn’t really do anything with the crowd that had gathered around us by that point. Tony, Gill and I finally decided it was time to walk away but not after putting up a good fight. In the end, I lost only a couple of Canadian dollars in the deal but that had nothing to do with it. It was the PRINCIPLE! I understand that corruption is deeply imbedded in Vietnamese society and they do business differently than we do BUT this kind of behaviour is doing NOTHING for the health of their tourism industry and if travelers keep turning a blind eye and accepting this behaviour, it will never change. This along with having to physically pry my money out of a ladies hand in the market after getting manhandled by her had me debating whether I should skip the rest of Vietnam and head straight to Laos from there.

I will say that I met many lovely Vietnamese people and I also need to mention that it is extremely important in Vietnamese culture to keep up with the Jones’ and they will do what they can to achieve this dream. I am not berating Vietnam as a whole country in any way, especially considering their volatile, war-torn history and the pain and suffering they have endured. I have come from a pampered life to a developing country and have no right to preach but am merely observing and sharing what I have experienced. Tony, Gill and I really did have an amazing time there - dining in the many quaint little restaurants riverside with lanterns glowing around us, observing the architecture, sampling the tasty fresh baking and having clothing tailor made at ridiculously cheap prices...who can complain about that?

One day, I was having lunch in one of our favourite restaurants and met Michelle, a fellow Canadian from Montreal. She was staying just outside of Hoi An in a villa that belonged to her best friend which was also her headquarters for planning said friend’s wedding. Her kids were there as well as her son’s pre-school teacher, Tara-Lee, who came along to help care for the kids while Michelle was working. She asked if Tara-Lee could join myself and Toni and Gill for dinner some night since there was not a whole lot to do for a single girl in Hoi An. Tara-Lee ended up meeting us for the first of many dinners that evening. It was great to meet someone from home and the 4 of us had a fab time together.

Tony and Gill decided to move ahead to Hue after spending a splendid week in Hoi An. I planned to meet them there as Michelle and Tara-Lee invited me to the villa to stay a couple days – this was an offer that I could not pass up after backpacking for several weeks. I ended up getting to stay in my very own villa complete with a private garden shower not to mention some really amazing extras like giant sized terry cloth towels, a TV (!), fully loaded iPod, stereo system, king size bed with more fluffy, white pillows than I could ever want or need and best of all we had a private swimming pool right on the beach with an up close and personal view of the ocean..dreamy!

My first night there, I took my camera for a walk away from the private beach and met several local kids who had oodles of energy to burn and luckily for me, happened to be uber photogenic! I had the most amazing time and this was probably THE highlight of my stay in Hoi An.

After 2 marvelous days and nights at the villa, I decided to move on (before I got too used to the lap of luxury). The local bus picked me up outside of the villa and I headed off to Hue to meet Tony and Gill for another fun-filled overnight bus journey north to the right bank of the Red River to Vietnam’s capital - Hanoi!

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”

- Clifton Fadiman

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