Tuesday, August 8, 2017

August 6 – Hoi An

The overnight bus ride lasted for 11 hours and I was glad when it was over. The seats were the ones that tilted all the way back so were okay for sleeping, although not nearly as good as the full bed versions. The driver must have stopped 15 times during the trip. I don’t know what he was doing – maybe picking up or dropping off cargo, maybe stopping to take a leak, or a break, but he would sometimes switch on the bright interior lights, and then flick them off, not giving anybody enough time or direction to get out and find a bathroom. He did stop for a full bathroom break once, early on in the trip, and we stayed there for 20 minutes, but if you missed that one you just had to hold it.

We arrived in Hoi An at six in the morning and we hired a taxi to take us to our hotel, hoping that they would have a room we could check into that early. We arrived at the Golden Sands hotel, which was about three kilometres from the city centre, and it looked fantastic. It sported a beautiful swimming pool out front, huge airy lobby and comfy chairs, was located right alongside a river, and had a staff member that welcomed us in perfect English and gave us the whole low-down on the area, including the free bikes that they offered. Sadly, the hotel was full so we could not check into a room, but she did show us to the showers that we were able to use, but first we went for a nice cool dip in the pool and it felt glorious after the long, greasy bus ride.

Once we were freshened up we had an amazing, huge breakfast of eggs, bacon, fresh baguettes, fresh fruit, and juice in the hotel restaurant and then got ourselves some bikes and headed off into town. We biked along a river pathway for a bit and then cut over to the main road. The traffic was not bad at all, and it was a flat, easy ride into the centre. This was the first time this trip we’d had the opportunity to get on bikes and we were really missing it, so the ride was welcome.

Hoi An is famous for its ancient city that was built by the Chinese as a trading port in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site and has hundreds of designated buildings. It immediately reminded us of Antigua, Guatemala (or at least what it was like 15 years ago) but was cleaner and perhaps a little more inviting. It seemed strange that so many of these old buildings remained intact throughout the Vietnam war, so I did some research and discovered that the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese and their American allies actually agreed to leave Hoi An alone; although they did bomb the shit out of My Son – an archaeological site close to here that was decimated during the war.

The old city stretches for many, many blocks and forms a nearly perfect rectangular shape, making it very easy to navigate. The best part is that there are only bikes and pedestrians allowed – no cars. We put our best Vietnamese road skills to the test, driving our bikes right into the pedestrian traffic and watching the waters magically part, opening up a path for us. Every time I see how well the uncontrolled movement of densely packed streets of pedestrians, bikes and vehicles functions here in Vietnam, it pisses me off how structured we have to make everything in Canada. For example, if you ride your bicycle down a deserted sidewalk in a city’s deserted downtown core (because everybody is shopping at the mall), and a pedestrian appears that you have to scooch around, they will either snarl at you, swear at you, or give you the finger because bikes are NOT meant to be on the sidewalk – don’t you understand the rules you idiot?? Drop that same street down anywhere in Vietnam, put a thousand people on it, 500 hundred scooters, 200 cars, food vendor carts, cows, chickens and give them no rules of movement whatsoever, and guess what? They all use every available space on the street and sidewalk to get where they need to go and the result is this marvelous dance, with no right of way besides first movers advantage, powered by a million individual negotiations of movement, with only a slight regard for safety, which is usually sufficient at the naturally slow speeds. It is truly beautiful and makes me want to take my grinder and saw down every traffic light, stop sign, speed limit sign and turning sign in Paris, Ontario, and then paint over every pedestrian crossing, lane indicator, parking line and stop line and sit back and see what happens. At first, it would be mass confusion and people would be stunned and paralyzed at being given the power to think for themselves. But then gradually they would get the hang of it, and before you know it you’d be pushing through three times the volume of people and have less serious accidents, although probably more minor scrapes. And you would get to where you need to go faster.

We spent a few hours walking around the town, exploring, and stopping for drinks when the heat got too intense. There were a lot of tourists there, and more European ones that we’ve seen elsewhere – mainly Spaniards and Brits, but still hoards of Chinese and Vietnamese tourists too. Ana was truly in her glory, as there was dozens of leather shops selling purses and handbags and fancy shoes. She found a leather purse she loved, but the straps were too long for her liking, so the shopkeeper said no problem, we’ll whip a new one up for you overnight, come and pick it up tomorrow at five. Magnus found a vendor selling some brand of a strategy card game he likes and he worked over that poor lady with his guerilla bartering until she practically handed over the cards for free. She later banned him from entering the store, and being banned from a Vietnamese shop for bartering too hard makes a grand statement indeed.

We biked back to the hotel and checked into our room. It was the best room we’ve had yet on the trip – two queen sized beds, a balcony as large as a regular hotel room, a huge walk-in shower, plenty of space for our baggage and, if you can  believe it, besides a regular toilet in the bathroom there was also a mini-toilet, perfect for Stella’s slender backside. We all did the hotel happy dance and then hit the pool for a couple of hours, enjoying the mid-afternoon sunshine. We met an interesting English family there, doing a similar sort of backpacking trip that we were, and the kids played with one of the boys in the pool for a very long time.  We also met a New Zealander bloke named Rooster who is the most charismatic fellow I’ve met for quite some time, and we had a great chat with him in the lobby of the hotel for what seemed like hours. He is one of those guys you meet that has lived in countless countries and visited all the rest of the ones he has yet to live in. Instant connection. I have a feeling that we may be able to discover a common friend if we chat long enough, so we exchanged details with him and hope to meet up again in Vietnam or beyond.

Directly across from the hotel, right on the river boardwalk was Mrs. Ha’s snack stand. Mrs. Ha walked back and forth in front of her stand, greeting all passersby, smiling, waving and offering up her table and chairs for anybody looking for a rest and a drink. I walked over and ordered a Saigon beer. She said, “One minute!” and ran down the street and then disappeared into an alleyway. A few minutes later she came running back down the street with a gigantic smile, carrying a large, frosty Saigon beer. She then explained to me that the ones she has in her fridge at home are much colder than the ones in the cooler outside. I gave her the Vietnamese dong equivalent of 75 cents and enjoyed every drop of that 450 milliliters of beer as the sun pounded down and I pounded it back.

By 8 pm it was just as bloody hot as it was in the afternoon, but we braved the humidity, saddled up, and biked back into town to find somewhere to eat and see how Hoi An dresses up at night. Well, she is a dream. Lighted lanterns hung everywhere, and there were even paper lantern boats that people paddling around in the river released to float downstream, creating a floating light show on the river, whose mucky hues were hidden by the darkness of the night. I thought it had been busy in the afternoon, but I was wrong. Tonight it was PACKED! There were people walking elbow to elbow in some of the more congested areas and we had to physically muckle on to the kids to make sure we didn’t get separated.

We stopped for a meal and tried out some of the local Hoi An specialties, which were…mediocre. But it was so damn hot that nothing much would have tasted very good, besides cold beer and popsicles. After eating we walked around the town for a while, pushing through crowds, and looking for the night market, but not finding it. Stella and I were starting to lose steam so we returned to where we had locked up our bikes and pedaled home, although we got lost along the way as I was pedaling like a maniac, enjoying the thrill of the chaotic streets and forgot to pay attention to where I was going. But we eventually made it back.

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