Hoi An does seaside right!

March 10th 2017

What a marvelous way to wind down this epic trip to Vietnam with a full five days in Hoi An. Sure its heaving with tourists, but so few are American (although regrettably they do tend to punch above their weight like the guy in the restaurant tonight loudly interrogating the waitress about how she makes the ice. Of course, she says ‘I buy it from the store’ so he’s none the wiser whether the old lady in the kitchen preparing the iced tea is also slicing up the chickens, which is what he really needs to know). The rest (the usual suspects of French, Germans and some spectacularly unlovely Brits) hardly count.

X8sD7mT3TKau6K0esRnmRw_thumb_1904Anyway, what’s not to like? At one end of the road, we have the charming old port, replete with street upon street of achingly beautiful ochre-washed and bougainvillea draped Chinese and Japanese merchant houses (still doing a roaring trade but sternly monitored by UNESCO to make sure the outsides, at least, stay firmly rooted in the 18th century). When dusk starts UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3419to fall the thousands of silk lanterns strung between them and wafting gently to and fro in the welcome breeze are delicately illuminated, it’s not surprising Hoi An is called (or should be at least) city of a million selfies. In fact, it seems to specialize in festivity, not only the UNESCO area is adorned gaily, but as the distance increases the lanterns are replaced by hammer and sickle bunting. And Woman’s Day is huge: all the little girls sporting pink balloons, their millenial sisters sporting pink roses, cocktails half price at the restaurants (lady only) and the food stalls in the market repurposed as a karaoke bar (also lady only and packed to the gills).

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At the other end of the road, a mere 4km bike ride away, we have the deliciously warm ocean and silver sand beach of An Bang, organized efficiently as only the Vietnamese can with ample loungers, bamboo umbrellas and even cheaper ($2) cocktails. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1952Located conveniently in between them the ‘Golden Bell Homestay’, yet another $20 find, has provided me with a huge room, balcony and bathtub and Snickers in the minibar at half the price of home (the wine unfortunately is twice the price but its Vietnamese so there’s no temptation to try it).

To top it all off Hoi An is street food central for Vietnam (to be fair everywhere else I’ve been, with the sole exception of Ninh Bin, has made the same claim, BuXCbKVCQn+ez2t2bRPApQ_thumb_3464but with much less justification IMHO). So, as soon as the lanterns light up out pop a veritable grandma’s army with their carts, red plastic stools and the wherewithal to rustle up their specialité de maison in a flash. Each cart offers only one dish, so depending on how assiduous one wants to be about selecting who to patronize, a full dinner can entail a significant trek from first course to last. Unlike their sons and daughters who staff the actual restaurants and who always ask me in tones of disapproval mingled with pity ‘You came alone?’ grandmas entirely support my solo wanderings and are always insisting I sit in the seat of honor next to the stove so they can slap extra stuff on my plate.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_33fdDespite all evidence to the contrary It is winter in Hoi An. I find this out when I ask the driver Golden Bell has helpfully sent to pick me up from the train station, why most of the motorcyclists are wearing one, and often two, puffer jackets. ‘But it’s not cold’ I argue (in fact it’s about 90° and we have the air conditioner on). ‘But it was this morning’ he says, ‘very cold’. I look it up later; the minimum temperature was 70°C. This cognitive dissonance is particularly disconcerting on An Bang beach where the old ladies who set up the loungers under the bamboo umbrellas, bring round fresh coconuts, pineapples and mangoes and serve lunch and cocktails are bundled up not only in several hoodies and flannel pajama trousers but also thick scarves and for some unknown reason, face masks. Other An Bang old ladies not employed in the hospitality business are also at the beach, similarly attired gazing with horror at the skimpily clad 20 somethings willing not only to expose themselves to the elements but also throw themselves willy-nilly into the ocean. It is clear they find this behavior both totally inexplicable and highly amusing. Remarkably enough the only local men around are the old guy on crutches who sells the English language Vietnamese paper for the exorbitant price of a 3-course meal ($2) and another with what looks like cerebral palsy who brings the same packet of peanuts around every couple of hours. There are no obnoxious young dudes (in fact I have literally yet to see one in the whole of Vietnam), which the 20 somethings appreciate deeply. I spend a restorative 3 days at the beach and emerge ready for the next chapter in Laos and Cambodia with Jim. I am trying to discourage him from bringing his winter jacket, but who knows, he might fit right in.

AkgITLDrSXm8mU4JW+L1Ww_thumb_33b8It seems highly appropriate to sign off from Vietnam with yet another postal anecdote. Fortunately, the 5-word rule is not in operation and I can repeat the conversation verbatim. Characters: Me; Ching the nice young lady who runs the Golden Bell and DD a doughty denizen of Vietnam Mail.

Ch: Going out? Want bike?

Me: Yes please, I’m going to the post office.

Ch: Why?

Me: Because I bought some souvenirs and I thought I’d mail them home rather than carry them around.

Ch: But why going to post office?

Me: Because I bought some souvenirs and I thought I’d mail them home rather than carry them around.

Ch: No but why going…

Me: Because I bought…..

Ch: No, no, no, no need going (she picks up the phone and makes a rapid-fire phone call then tells me: ‘Sit there, 5 minutes’).

In seven minutes a little tuk tuk motorbike arrives, driven by the DD. He is carrying a cardboard box and a big shoulder bag that contains: 2 rolls of packing tape (one spare), a roll of official Vietnam Mail Tape, a big pair of scissors and a scale. Within 5 minutes he has: weighed my things, packed them expertly in the box, cut the box down to a better size, taped it up, used the second roll of tape when the first one ran out, finished off with official VM tape, filled in the customs forms, told me how to fill in my part of the customs forms, stamped everything, given me a receipt for web tracking, charged me the same price I would have paid if I’d schlepped it all the way to the post office, and left with my package. I am flabbergasted. And if that isn’t enough, apparently, my package from Myanmar mail arrived in Boston last week.

The West is over folks.

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