February is an uninspiring month weather-wise to say the least; short on both days and rays. The cold, wet, and grey of each and every day has doused any enthusiasm for cycling, and morphed my running trails into muddy slop-fests; leaving my current exercise coming mainly by way of shivering.
Unable to fast-forward winter, and desperate to feel the sun on my face again, I suppose it should come as no surprise that my travel rash has reappeared and has me itching to escape. After falling head over heels for Vietnam’s beautifully preserved town of Hoi An on previous travels, we are headed back.
Because of a delayed flight out of Hong Kong we cannot make our connecting flight to Danang, which results in being rerouted south to Saigon. As on former trips to this country, clearing immigration turns into a vat of unpleasantness. The lengthy queues are as slow as a nursing home sack race, and with our connection time rapidly dwindling, a group in front of us kindly allows us to go ahead of them.
However, reaching the immigration booth, the mentally malnourished moron has a graveyard demeanor. Obviously stripped of personality at birth, he throws me a glacial glare like I just farted in his beer, and won’t allow us through. Asking what the problem is, he dismisses us with a flailing of his arm, saying ‘go back of line’. Baffled by his affront, a few other people in queue unsuccessfully appeal to the guy to let us through, and by the look on their faces I know we are not alone in thinking this waste of oxygen should be persuaded to donate his chromosomes as valuable research in the field of assholeology!
Frantically seeking an alternate official, we jump over a couple of queues, only to find another constipated looking dolt who looks at us as if we’re gum on the bottom of his shoe. Reluctantly he complies, and we hear the welcomed double thud of his official stamp colliding with our passports. We bolt like a pair of greyhounds to our departure gate for our flight to Danang, which is already boarding. Experience tell us that logic appears an unknown commodity in Vietnamese airports, with offensive officials possessing all the charisma of a stool sample, and attitude issues so serious I don’t think even Dr. Phil could help with!
A prearranged driver meets us in Danang and chauffeurs us into Hoi An over risky roads home to none other than Lou Natics. In his confused state, the driver drops us at the wrong hotel and promptly buggers off, leaving us to figure out directions to the correct hotel we have booked. We drag our bags through shambolic traffic permeated by ceaseless honking horns with the subtly of a sledgehammer!
Laden with ludicrous loads, drivers fiddle with cell phones in horrendously hyperactive and haphazard traffic, with only sporadic outbreaks of sanity. No doubt about it, traffic is one of the country’s biggest stressors given the lack of rules and futile traffic lights whose colorful warning signals and meanings are clearly lost in translation. Vietnamese version: Green – I can go. Amber – I can go. Red – I still can go!
Yes, Asia’s delinquent drivers are ample, with most possessing an overwhelming desire to use their horns and a reluctance to use their brakes; giving this countrymore than its share of vehicular ridiculousness. I can just picture the total scope of what a Vietnamese driving lesson must entail; “the horn is here, the accelerator is there, any questions?”
Finding our hotel, we’re surprised to learn that it was sold a few days ago, with new managers arriving only yesterday. The rooms are in tragic need of renovations but the redeeming feature is the glistening panoramas across flawlessly green rice fields. The hotel kindly honors our booking, but is not taking on any other guests due to a staff shortage and the upcoming construction changes.
Ingrained with an ‘early gene’, I love to wander the streets before a town wakes up, as dawn offers a different face; one usually hidden from visitors. The absurdly early hours are when the early bird gets the worm; along with anything else that wriggles, slithers, pinches, or flops about in the wet market.
Stopping at a bank to exchange currencies, we flex our math muscles trying to get our heads around all the long dong zeros. The dong has the distinction of being the world’s least valued currency, and it takes more than 28,000 dong to compensate a single Canadian dollar!
Changing $200 bucks I instantly become a dong millionaire almost six times over, and in need of extra pockets or a purse! We stop to placate our bellies with a bulging ‘banh mi’ baguette before heading off to reacquaint ourselves with the pretty little city and engage in a little de-donging.
Old Town is drenched in shades of yellow, and the natural light falling on the aged turmeric colored buildings makes a perfect backdrop for photos. It feels like the city is constantly wrapped in sunshine with light bouncing off the walls and bathing the city in a golden hue that naturally lifts our mood.
We gently ignore sellers sitting in ambush on the curbs, touting a bewildering array of wares ranging from mango cakes to clay whistles. Hoi An’s streets are festooned with vivid lanterns strung from moss-covered rooftops, and are so prevalent it looks like the sky is raining down colorful miniature hot air balloons.
Even though it was only four years ago since we were last here, we notice immense changes. The town is now inundated with a tide of tourists from Korea and China, whose noisy presence spoils the town’s once quiet and peaceful vibe. Our other irksome objection is the embarrassing increase of strewn rubbish and plastics choking the now wince-worthy rivers and canals.
So many of the uneducated knuckleheads here are notoriously entrenched in the south of sane, ‘I don’t want it here, so I’ll toss it there’ mentality. The lack of environmental awareness is absolutely shocking, and if these thoughtless clowns were knives, I doubt they would be sharp enough to behead a muffin!
Minimizing town time, we cycle to the rural calm of less touristy Cam Kim Island outside of Hoi An via the reversibly named An Hoi Bridge. We’re not exactly Chris Froomeing about on our clunk-mobiles during our Tour de Cam Kim, but enjoy slowly taking in the sights as we explore the island following little more than the end of our nose and a series of eenie-meenie-minie- mo decisions.
Leaving the woodcarving and boat building village of Kim Bong we become disoriented in the corn and rice fields, and trying to get our bearings we meet a girl who speaks surprisingly good English. After a friendly chat, she invites us to her family’s house where they’ve been making rice papers for three generations. After a lovely visit she bequeaths us a couple of conical paddy hats to help protect us from the sun. As we have come to learn over the years, it’s often getting lost that yield the best bits of travel!
Back in Hoi An cycling changes dramatically, as the road craziness constantly tests our hazard dodging prowess. It is unlikely we’ll ever be comfortable in the chaos, because let’s face it, in a country where the horn is king, a tiny bicycle bell ding-a-linging its little heart out just doesn’t quite cut the mustard!
The claustrophobic town market is fascinating, with a good photo opportunity almost a given. Sellers are bustling business barracudas, but whenever stopping to put my well-honed bargaining skills to the test, I try jollying them up in hopes of adding a little levity to brighten the drudgery of their work. Judging by the little snorts of laughter and the way they jerk my arm up and down it seems quite appreciated.
TET holidays are now upon us, and sidewalks are carpeted in celebratory clay pots of yellow flowers adorned with tiny red ribbons. Battling for sidewalk space are also hundreds of huge potted kumquat trees heavily laden with little orange lookalikes. Both are thought to ensure good luck in the coming New Year, and it seems every second motorbike is functioning as a two wheeled moving van, with one or the other of these precariously perched pots balancing on the back.
The trusting new managers of our hotel leave us the hotel keys and bugger off to Saigon to celebrate TET; meaning Christine and I, for the next while, have the entire hotel to ourselves. This is quite a cool opportunity as we’ve never had the complete run of our own private hotel and facilities before! The downside of TET for travelers is that with so many Vietnamese returning to visit their families, most of the businesses and restaurants close down for a week or more.
Another aspect of TET we could do without is blaring karaoke parties, where my uncanny intuition tells me alcohol moderation is not the name of the game. Revellers congregate playing twangy Asian music and getting utterly obliterated, while fancying themselves as singing sensations. However, the reality of these mangled songfests is their clamorous vocals sounding extraordinarily akin to a cat being castrated without anesthesia! Struggling each night to get to sleep we find ourselves wishing laryngitis upon them all!
Over the holidays, cycling out to An Bang Beach every day has been our salvation. Sprawled on a lounger sipping the water of soccer ball size coconuts, we flip the pages of a good novel and listen to the oceanic lullaby of the South China Sea’s waves rhythmically chasing each to shore and hissing frothily onto the sands. Meanwhile, perpetually smiling and unusually non-aggressive beach sellers, Mother Teresa-like in their levels of patience, occasionally shuffle buy to chat and see if there is anything we might need.
Cycling about today, I’ve somehow managed to get some grit stuck in my eye. It may be small, but it’s painful to the point that it feels as if somebody has parked their motorbike under my eyelid. After a few hours of trying in vain to clear it, I’m still unable to open my eye, and worried about damaging the cornea, we decide to seek medical attention.
Christine and her Cyclops pedal off in search of a recommended doctor. However, after braving the daunting roads to get to his office we are totally shocked by his reply; “TET. Too busy. No, you go other doctor”. Seems like this apathetic oaf is a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to his Hippocratic Oath!
Unable to find another doctor we go to the hospital, instantly experiencing déjà vu from another hospital drama in Vietnam many moons ago. Beds are clogged with victims of motorbike accidents, and I’m told to lie on a bed with once-white sheets now grossly soiled by previous patient oozings. Eventually a doctor shows up, and after trying unsuccessfully to flush out my eye he suggests I try using eye drops.
Hmmm, let me get this straight. Both Christine and I couldn’t flush the eye out, you can’t flush it out, and now you think that eye drops are the answer? Figuring this doctor is not exactly Mensa material, I voice my concern, and the lovely nurse in attendance who has been patiently observing suddenly decides that she wants to have a look for herself.
Grabbing hold of my eyelid, she rolls it back and in a matter of seconds lets out a little whoop, as she spots the lodged debris. With the aid of a Q tip, she quickly removes the foreign material, bringing me instant relief and turning my wince into a smile.
It seems that unlike many doctors, nurses are rarely short on caring, and this little sweetheart certainly has my gratitude! Sometimes a little thing can make such a huge difference. Now in a state of joy, I can cycle back to the hotel with both eyes open, which, when on the streets of Vietnam is always a good thing!
Grinding out some miles on a walk to Thanh Ha Pottery Village, we pass a couple of old fellows chatting away and downing shots of some ghastly looking homemade rice whiskey. They encourage us to stop and join them, but having gone down this road before, and knowing Vietnamese booze to be a real pain in the glass, I tell them we’re sorry but we have to meet somebody; a fib told on behalf of my liver!
Walking back to town we pass a funky little bar. The sun is scorching, the beer is icy cold; you do the math! Even though the price of a glass of local beer has risen from 14 cents on our last trip to 16 cents today, the more astute among you will likely surmise this inflation does little to dissuade my will to swill!
Some claim that the ‘day beer’ here is a rough draft, compared to the more mature craft beers available. However, somehow I manage to overcome any concerns about this, deciding it’s my duty to purchase several in order to enhance my beer acumen for the ability to provide an in depth review on the product’s quality should I be asked. Yeh, I know; I’m selfless like that!
Hoi An is a foodie’s mecca, and we’ve become consistent connoisseurs, sampling drool-inducing salads infused with passion fruit, pomelos, papaya, mangoes, shallots, dragon-fruit, and other marvellous morsels triggering a medley of ‘mmm-mmm’ mutterings. The fresh organic veggies are produced using no manure or chemical fertilizers; instead they use an algae found only in a special lagoon in Tra Que village.
We cycle out to the organic Tra Que Vegetable Village through the green silence of rice fields as flat as a ducks instep. A large water buffalo is sliding its bottom jaw side to side in the mastication of its grassy breakfast, and a farmer standing beside it gestures for us to get up on top of the cud-chewer. Even knowing a dong donation will be expected, I figure boarding a buffalo is a new experience, so why not?
Christine readies her camera as I clumsily climb up onto the brutes back, but the photo makes it look as if I am trying to ‘mount’ the mammoth mammal. Hoisting myself further up its back for more respectable photo, I suddenly realize I have absolutely no business being atop a seven foot, 2500 pound animal that with one toss of his hugely horned head, could instantly convert me into Canadian shish-kebab! Fortunately the docile brute seems unfazed by its inexperienced human cargo and continues munching.
These traditional symbols of the country are of such value they have been dubbed the ‘BMW of Vietnam’. Cartoonishly large feet act like hooved snowshoes and help the behemoths lumber through muddy fields while looking for something to swallow or a place to wallow.
We’ve discovered a romantically crumbling 100 year old bar in town called the Hill Station. The Colonial building is brimming with character and screams to be photographed with the ochre and mouldy façade acting as a mellow weathered canvas for the bright turquoise framed windows.
Inside, we climb up the unsound stairs and out onto the equally decrepit balcony. Sitting among moss-covered roof tiles and delicately leafed silk tree canopies, we’re hoping not to drop through the floor as we take pleasure in a glass of tasty French wine while watching the fascinating Vietnamese life unfolding on the streets below.
Along a narrow alleyway, we follow directional arrows and aromas to a well-hidden, highly touted hole in the wall restaurant called Ba Le Well. It has a below basic décor and there is no need of a menu, as the all-you-can-fill-your-face-with eatery is a one dish joint. The waitress approaches with dinner, consisting of satay-style barbequed pork and chicken, fried spring rolls, peanut and spicy dipping sauces, a plate piled with herbs and greens, rice paper sheets, and a pancake called ‘banh xeo’, roughly the size of a Frisbee.
Pondering how best to tackle the meal without cutlery, we are tisk-tisked by the cheeky waitress, who offers tutelage to her puzzled patrons with a demonstration of constructing a rice paper wrap. OK, our turn now, we got this. No we don’t! Our attempt to squash and roll the buffet of items together results in us wearing almost as much as we consume, decorating ourselves from fingers to elbows in spillage.
The lurking waitress, no doubt aghast at our sloppy struggles, returns to offer another lesson. Thanking our taskmaster once again, we order a cold beer to make her go away. While her back is turned we quickly hide the remaining food by squashing it together inside the big pancake, transforming it into one gargantuan wrap. Our tricky meal at Ba Le Well is a fun dining experience and a perfect pig-out!
Unhurriedly today, with our dirt-caked two-wheeled steel steeds groaning beneath us, we cycle by various slices of daily life in bucolic surroundings; including duck and fish farms, fishermen wading in mud, basket boats, towering bamboo, forests of Nipa palms, boats with painted eyes, and bent-backed locals working fertile rice fields looking like humongous green tablecloths. Puzzled by a pole mounted speaker in one of the fields spewing out a racket, we’re told it is provided by the State; to offer the news and music to the many dirt-poor villagers who cannot afford to own either a television or radio.
Back at our bungalows I am scratching my head over the translation and spelling of the pool rules:
* check the deepth before swimming; * when bathing pool, do not thrown bottles, cups, can, and food into pool; * not allowed children use mable or something else to break the pool (the broken one will cut your toes); * when coming pool area people have to keep common hygiene. Don’t play dangerous game. * If you need helps please call receptionist.
Snickering, I wonder if in fact I should ask for ‘helps’ in explaining about ‘playing dangerous games’ and ‘preventing children from using ‘mable’ to break the pool’!
Today we’re cycling out of town to visit a famous bamboo craftsman at Taboo Bamboo workshop. Tan is a creative third generation master bamboo carver who can make virtually anything out of bamboo; including bicycles, his entire house, and a fully functional electric car! After our visit, we ride our bikes up and over the huge 1.5 km Cua Dai Bridge to explore a fishing community tucked away on the far side of the river.
Since arriving in Hoi An we’ve been noticing in the photography shops, a striking photo called “Hidden Smile”. The subject is Bui Thi Xong, an aged boat rower shy about smiling due to her lack of teeth, and in the picture she is smothering a smile with her gnarly leather-like hands. Even so, you can still tell she is smiling, by the lovely crinkle lines radiating from her eyes. In one of the impressive photo books on Hoi An, she has been dubbed “World’s Most Beautiful Old Woman”.
Walking beside the Thu Bon River we have a chance encounter with the 80 year old Ms. Xong, and jump at the chance to go for a row in her shallow wooden rowboat. It’s a shame she cannot speak any English, as I’m sure her smiling eyes have witnessed so much over her life. Suddenly, the wonderfully wizened woman sets aside her paddle and strikes her famous pose, allowing us to preserve the moment in photos.
For some strange reason my back has gone out today, converting me from hale and healthy into a hobbling hunchback. So, with my activities crushingly curtailed, we cycle to a pharmacy seeking some muscle relaxants. Finding a pharmacy is the easy part, but then things quickly start to go downhill. Since staff don’t speak any English I try making use of my acting skills, as most Vietnamese are usually quite adept at sussing out any pantomime we throw their way. With a performance I’m sure would easily register at least a 9.5 with all Olympic judges, I begin wincing and point to my back.
The woman pharmacist signals she’s got it, and quickly returns to the counter with diarrhea medicine! No ma’am, my bowels are just fine, but thank you for asking! I try to improve my apparently crappy acting, and in Act two, hold my back and stomach simultaneously, indicating I can’t straighten up properly. Again she scurries away, and in a flash comes back with … wait for it ….. Drum roll please …. Ta-dah ……. drugs for pregnancy!
Oh great, now I’m also in need of paramedics to help remove my jaw from the floor! W.T.F. lady, are you a for real pharmacist or have you just been brought in to do the dusting! Sensing my patience disassembling, Christine comes to the rescue by mentioning the actual drug name. This produces a better result, and after inspecting the next array of items presented, we spot one with a label that actually says, among other things, muscle relaxant. Bingo; I’ll take the box!
Tonight, after consuming the pills, I have the most bizarre collection of dreams, which kind of reminds me of the early seventies. Ah yes, Vietnam; you are always an adventure package waiting to be unwrapped!
What is unusual about this year’s trip is that we’ve spent the entire month in the same town, and with our trip ebbing away, the sameness has our boredom accelerating. Today’s cure is to hire a car and driver for a full day’s road trip. Our goal is the tiny Tam Thanh fishing village out in Quang Nam province, which in recent years has enjoyed an amazing makeover, and become the first mural village of Vietnam.
This village is sort of a living art gallery painted on many house exteriors, with the artworks forming an unexpected explosion of vibrant colors depicting portraits of local faces and scenes from everyday Vietnamese life. Exploring about on foot divulges additional splashy murals on houses located in tiny alleyways trailing down to a quiet beach smothered in traditional fishing boats beached on the sand.
After our village ramble, we drive to the nearby Heroic Mother Monument. Carved into solid rock over 18 meters high and 120 meters long is the face of Nguyen Thi Thu; and her nine children, all tragically killed in the war. This mother, who endured such an unimaginable loss, lived to be 106 years old.
Danang is our last stop of the day, and we briefly stroll along My Khe Beach; formerly known as China Beach back when it was a hangout of American soldiers for in-country R&R during the war. Today, the beach has morphed from soldiers to sunbathers and skyscrapers. It’s too busy for our liking, so we head into the bowels of the city in search of a dead chicken in peanut sauce and a cold beer to wash it down.
It is the lunar full moon and Lantern Festival tonight, so after a medicinal tipple at the Hill Station Bar, we saunter into the flickering festivities of old town. Randomly distributing the last of a bag of plastic dinosaurs I’ve brought from home, we enjoy the great reactions and giggles of the little recipients.
On this night, electricity is used to a minimum, and transportation limited to walking. Alongside of the Thu Bon River, cute little kids and wrinkled grandmas flog cardboard lanterns shaped like lotus flowers with a candle inside. Meant to bring luck, love, and happiness, the floating candles are lit and placed into the river using a long bamboo pole.
Hundreds of people partake, leaving the river dancing with reflections of soft flickering candlelight mingling with the light from land-locked lanterns illuminating shops across the river. People in shallow wooden boats festooned with glowing lanterns also immerse the floating candles while out on moonlit maneuvers. The romantic scenery and atmosphere is enchanting; if you can overlook the fact these offerings will all sadly end up at the bottom of the already over polluted river.
There is an inspiring local couple who’ve been together for over 70 years supposedly living in the organic vegetable village of Tra Que. However, many times during our stay we’ve been unsuccessful in our search for them. Today is our last day, but with the flight not leaving until later this afternoon, we have a few spare hours and decide to cycle about in one last attempt to locate them.
I’ve brought a picture of the couple with me to help with the search. Pumping pedals for distance and people for directions, we’re finally pointed in the direction of a dirt road where the couple is said to reside. With luck on our side, we suddenly spot the paddy-hatted duo sitting on a house porch, and dismount to exchange a few pleasantries with the delightful couple.
The well-known elders are 96 year old le Van Se and his spry 89 year old wife Nguyen Thi Loi, who together, are a story of everlasting love. During the Indochina war, Se was supplying the Viet Cong’s with food supplies and caught by the French army. He was imprisoned and tortured for 10 months in Laos, and when released, came back to his home here in Hoi An to be with his wife, and again farm their gardens.
Years later, during the Vietnam War, Se was captured again, this time by the American army, who imprisoned him for 6 month for again providing food for Viet Cong. His wife Loi, now chief of women fighting for the liberation of Vietnam, was also captive for 4 months. Eventually, both the gritty old farmers were freed to be reunited once again. When asked if he has any hatred against the French or Americans, Se says he lives in peace with the past, and in his old age has chosen to forgive.
The inspirational couple have become living history books for the young people in Hoi An, and still live peacefully in the exact same village where they were born, doing what they have done all their lives; tending their beloved organic vegetable garden every single day.
Our persistence in searching out the couple has resulted in a wonderful ending to our travels; but now, with the calm of spring just around the corner, it’s time for the Vietnam vagabonds to skedaddle off home, where I will need to tend to a garden of my own.
Mark Colegrave February 2018