Today I leave Da Nang and, while I’ve enjoyed it more than Saigon, the challenges with dishonesty remain stumbling-blocks in the way of me actually liking Vietnam. What helps are my young friend Yen and her family. (I met them yesterday. Read about it in Disappointments and Amusements.) They also leave Da Nang today to head home to Hanoi but before they do, they’ve invited me to lunch.Yen and her sister arrived in a taxi and we walk to their hotel where we collect her mom and other sister. We walk over to one of the many chicken joints which line the streets of Da Nang, They’re basically storefronts with either plastic tables with kid-sized plastic chairs (not quite made for injured hips and larger butts), or picnic tables lined-up out front. Yen’s mom, Son, orders us all chicken with rice and soup and we sit and chat in broken English (my English has also become broken which you may have noticed in my writing here and there). Following lunch, we stop and rest in the lobby of their hotel before we say our goodbyes and I head over to my hotel for my transfer to Hoi An
I’ve arranged a car through the guesthouse I’ll be staying at in Hoi An. It was a bit of a compromise as a taxi arranged on my own would cost about 450,000 and the public bus runs anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 (I’ve heard two different versions) with no place for luggage. The guesthouse has arranged a car, door-to-door, for 300,000.
The car arrives ten-minutes early (amazing) and, due to lack of traffic, we’re in Hoi An thirty minutes later. I’m staying at the Blue Clouds Homestay which was recommended by a couple I met cruising the Mekong Delta (wow, that sounds kind of cool), and Kim, the guesthouse owner’s daughter-in-law is there to greet me. The room is just lovely and Kim and I sit and go over the layout of the town and possible tours.
I head up to my room to do a little work and hear a pounding outside my window due to the construction (seriously, whatever country I travel to there seems to be construction outside my window), yet it’s still truly a relaxing place.
Just before sunset, I walk into town (the guesthouse is about a ten minute-walk from the old city). As I walk towards the riverfront, it becomes somewhat magical. Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an ancient city of 120,000 residents. A South-East Asian trading port from the 15th to the 19th centuries, it’s now a tourist hub known for its lanterns and tailors. You can get a custom-made suit for $70 ready in a day. And on each full-moon, the electric lights are turned off and the city is lit-up only by colorful lanterns hanging everywhere.
I reach the bridge, beautifully lit-up with lanterns and lighted artwork and spend 20,0000 on a decorative box with a candle. I’m instructed by Be, the old lady who sells it to me, to take the long-stick with the holder on the bottom which she’s put the box in and lower it into the river while making a wish. I do as I’m told with the true belief that magical things can happen here.
I continue across the bridge where I meet an Australian engineer who works in Papua New Guinea and a Kenyan teaching consultant. We decide to sit down and have dinner together (meeting these kinds of people is one of the joys of traveling). I spend my first night in Hoi An involved in wonderful, stimulating conversation while sharing local specialties along the waterfront.
I walk back to my guesthouse and realize I’ve made a classic traveler’s blunder; I didn’t take good note of my turnoff and, as it’s nighttime, things look completely different. It’s 11:00 at night and I’m lost. I have my map which is little help, and the business card of the guesthouse (ALWAYS remember this). I meet a woman on the nearly deserted street who seems very familiar with Blue Clouds and, in sign language, tells me where to go. As I turn onto the street,Duong walks down the street to meet me. The lady is a friend of his and has called him telling him I was lost. I love Hoi An.
I wake up at 6:30am to the sounds of hammering and drills. Aah, the construction. I shove in some earplugs (thinking of traveling without them? Think again) and sleep for two more hours.
I head down and order some breakfast before renting a bike from Kim for a whopping $1 for the day. Riding into the old town I stop at NuNi’s Tailor. Kim has recommended them to me as, it seems I’ll need a warm coat for the next location you send me to and I left my previous one in Budapest due to lack of luggage real estate. I’m shown a catalog of coats I can have made to order and after much indecision (seriously, I think the tailor-lady is over me), choosing a style and color, I’m instructed to return tomorrow to fit the coat.
“Do you need shoes?” I’m asked before I leave.
“Um, well, maybe some boots if these guys send me someplace with a bunch of snow.”
“Here, I take you next door.”
After looking at some catalogs and discussing my needs with the shoemaker, I’ve put a deposit down on two pairs of shoes – one a summer loafer, Toms-like shoe (my black Toms are wearing out) and one a sandal as the beach did mine in. It’s difficult to shop for warm boots when it’s 97 degrees Fahrenheit.
I continue through the town, attempting to keep my shopping under control because, oh my goodness, this could be shoppers-heaven. I escape with two tops and, eventually, hop on my bicycle in search of the ecological area I’ve heard about.
I’m told it’s four kilometers away but, in the 3:00 sun and humidity which makes me wonder if I’ve accidentally ended up in New Orleans, well, I consider turning back. I pedal down a long-road lined with rice fields. The rice has recently been harvested and the fields are flooded. It creates a nice little air-conditioned effect when the breeze blows across it. It’s incredible how you adapt to places and, in Vietnam, are appreciative of wind blowing across flooded-rice fields while, at home, I wouldn’t be satisfied until I got into my nicely air conditioned-house.
I stop to buy a bottle of water and ask if I’m at all close. All questions and answers are done in sign language (i.e. wrapping my arms across me and shivering to ask if there’s cold water) and learn I’m not far. Before long, a man stops me and asks if I’m looking for a bowl boat ride. Kim, at Blue Clouds told me about these and I decide that yes, in fact, I am looking for a bowl boat ride.
His name is Dung and I park my bike and follow him over towards the river where his boat is parked (it’s not docked at there is no dock). Bowl boats are exactly that, boats made from bamboo which are in the shape of a bowl. Dung and I climb in and we head off down the river; A Vietnamese-American version of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Dung takes me towards the coconut palm trees which are much different than those in the U.S. and other places as they produce a fruit which is more like bananas than coconuts. The area is striking in its beauty yet has a sad history. Dung tells me it’s where the Viet Cong hid in order to attack enemy soldiers. Forty years-ago it was a place of war and death; now it’s a place of peace and beauty.
We venture in through an opening in the coconut tree forest and Dung provides me with instruction on crab fishing. Before long, I’m holding a wooden-stick with a string attached. Hanging on the end is a small piece of fish which the crabs immediately crab hold of and I lift them, one-at-a-time, to drop them in a bucket. I think I’ve found my new career.
Next, Dung pulls over and grabs some of the palm leaves which he promptly weaves into a ring and Statue of Liberty-like halo for me. We pass a bomb-crater before heading into the main river of the Van Lang fishing village where we see both the large fishing boats and the small, husband and wife teams on row-boats working at their trade, or simply catching dinner. Dung sings his way down the river teaching me the children’s song Frère Jacques in Vietnamese. We head back to shore where I thank Dung for this special time..
As I ride my bike past the rice fields and into town, I notice a massage parlor (also abundant here) with a sign saying “Blind Massage.” I’ve been told about this place by a couple I met in Da Nang and, at only $5, it’s a bargain. I think it must be good as, when you lose one sense, your other senses are supposed to be heightened, so I assume the therapist will really tune into my aches and pains. As she’s wiping the sweat off of me before she begins, I realize that her sense of smell is probably quite keen and I probably don’t smell like lemongrass. It’s a bit strange lying completely uncovered with no sheet until I realize that, well, the therapist is blind.
It took a bit of time but, I can now honestly say, I like Vietnam.
If you’d like to go boating with Dong, check him out at Hoi An Eco Green Tour
Tomorrow – an evening Vietnamese Bingo