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 through winter and desperate to feel the sun on our face again, our travel rash has reappeared, leaving us itching to escape. After falling head over heels for Vietnam’s splendidly preserved town of Hoi An on prior travels, we’re off to rekindle our relationship with the teeny town.
A delayed flight out of Hong Kong sabotages our connecting flight to Danang, and results in a rerouting south to Saigon. As on our other trips to this country, clearing immigration turns into a vat of unpleasantness. Long-drawn-out queues are slower than a nursing home sack race, and with our flight connection time rapidly dwindling, a group of folks in front of us kindly allows us to go ahead of them.
However, reaching the mentally malnourished official in charge, he seems to have a chip on his shoulder down to his ankles! Spearing us with a glacial glare as if we just farted in his beer, he won’t allow us through. We ask why, but he quickly dismisses us with a flip of his hand as if he were brushing away bad air, and gruffly barks ‘you go back of line’. Baffled by his affront, a few others in the queue unsuccessfully appeal to the guy to let us through, and by the look on their faces I know we’re not alone in thinking this pompous 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, looking at us as if we’re gum on the bottom of his shoe. Reluctantly he complies, and we hear the welcomed thud of the official stamp colliding with our passports. Sprinting to the departure gate like dogs on a squirrel, we arrive just as our flight to Danang is boarding. Experience tells us logic is an unknown commodity in Vietnamese airports, with officials possessing all the charisma of a stool sample and attitude issues so serious that I don’t think even Dr. Phil would be of help!
A driver in Danang chauffeurs us into Hoi An over risky roads home to none other than Lou Natics, and in his muddled state, drops us at the wrong hotel and promptly buggers off, leaving us trying to sort out directions to our booked hotel. We despondently drag our bags through the ludicrous traffic amid the ceaseless honking of horns with all the subtly of a sledgehammer!
Drivers fondle their cell phones in horrendously hyperactive and haphazard traffic with only sporadic outbreaks of sanity. There’s no doubt about it, ‘Nam’s’ shambolic traffic is one of the country’s biggest stressors given the lack of road 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!
The problem of vehicular ridiculousness is exacerbated by countless delinquent drivers, all possessing an overwhelming preference of horns over brakes, and 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?”
Discovering 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 upcoming construction changes.
Ingrained with an ‘early gene’, I love to wander before a town wakes up, as dawn offers a face typically hidden from visitors. Every town hides secrets between its streets, and early roaming usually reveals some gems. The wee hours of the morning are also the time to explore Hoi An’s wet market, as this is when the early bird gets the worm; along with anything else that wriggles, flops, slithers, or pinches!
At a bank exchanging 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, taking more than 28,000 dong to compensate a single Canadian dollar. Changing $200 bucks I’m instantly a dong millionaire almost six times over, and in need of extra pockets or a purse! We placate our bellies with a bulging ‘banh mi’ baguette before engaging in a little de-donging in the town’s funky artisan shops.
Old Town is drenched in shades of yellow, and the natural light falling on the old turmeric colored buildings makes a perfect backdrop for photos. It feels like the city is constantly wrapped in sunshine with the light bouncing off the walls and bathing the city in a naturally mood-lifting golden hue.
We gently ignore sellers sitting in ambush on the curbs, touting a bewildering array of wares ranging from mango cakes to clay whistles, and vivid lanterns dangling from moss-covered rooftops are so prevalent the sky appears to be raining down colorful miniature hot air balloons.
Even though it was only four years ago since our last visit, we notice immense changes. The town is now inundated with a tide of tourists from Korea and China whose noisy presence spoils the once quiet and peaceful vibe. Another irksome state of affairs is an embarrassing increase of strewn rubbish and plastics choking the now wince-worthy rivers and canals that act as the town’s toilets.
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. Their lack of environmental awareness is shocking, and if these thoughtless clowns were knives, I doubt they would be sharp enough to behead a muffin!
Minimizing town time, we cycle outside of Hoi An via the reversibly named An Hoi Bridge, to the rural calm of less-touristed Cam Kim Island. Not exactly Chris Froomeing about on our clunk-mobiles during our Tour de Cam Kim, we leisurely take in the sights while exploring 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 after riding through the rice fields, and while trying to our bearings, meet friendly girl who speaks English. She invites us to her family’s house that has been making rice papers for three generations. After our lovely unexpected visit, she bequeaths us a couple of conical paddy hats to help shield the sun. A reminder that travel has taught us over the years is that getting lost is often the best way to find what you’re looking for.
Back in Hoi An our tranquil cycling changes dramatically with road crazies constantly testing our hazard dodging prowess. We are never totally 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!
Sellers in the claustrophobic market are bustling business barracudas, but whenever stopping to put my well-honed bargaining skills to the test, I try jollying them up with a little levity, to try and brighten the drudgery of their work. Judging by their little snorts of laughter and the number of wrist-spraining handshakes I receive, it clearly seems to be appreciated.
TET holidays are now upon us, and sidewalks are carpeted in large celebratory clay pots of yellow flowers adorned with tiny red ribbons. Battling the posies for sidewalk space are 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 of the planted pots precariously balancing on the back of it.
Surprisingly, the trusting new managers of our hotel leave us the hotel keys today, as they are buggering off to Saigon to celebrate TET. This means Christine and I, for the next week, have the entire place to ourselves. This is a unique opportunity as we’ve never had the complete run of our own private hotel and facilities before! However, a downside of TET for travelers is that with so many Vietnamese returning to visit their families, most of the businesses, including restaurants, lock their doors for a week or more.
Another aspect of TET we could do without is the raucous karaoke parties, where my extrasensory perception tells me alcohol moderation is not the name of the game. Revellers getting utterly obliterated play twangy Asian music and fancy themselves as singing sensations, but the reality of the mangled songfests is that their tonally-challenged yowls sound extraordinarily akin to a cat being castrated without anesthesia! As we struggle each night to fall asleep, we find ourselves wishing laryngitis upon them all!
Over the TET 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 novel, listening to the oceanic lullaby of the South China Sea’s waves rhythmically chasing each to shore and hissing frothily up 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.
Out cycling 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.
Deciding to seek medical attention, Christine and her Cyclops pedal off in search of a doctor who has been recommended. However, after braving the daunting roads to get to his office and knocking on his door, we are totally shocked by his reply; “TET. Too busy. No, you go other doctor”. It seems this apathetic oaf is a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to his Hippocratic Oath!
Unable to find another doctor we ride 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 lay on a bed with the once-white sheets now a petri dish, grossly soiled by previous patient’s oozings. Finally a doctor appears, and after several futile attempts to flush out my eye, he suggests I use 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? It doesn’t take Sherlockian skills to determine this doctor is not exactly Mensa material. I voice my concern, and the lovely nurse in attendance who has been patiently observing, suddenly decides 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 to my eye, 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 comfort, I can cycle back to the hotel with both eyes open, which on the streets of Vietnam is always a wise idea!
Grinding out the miles on a walk to Thanh Ha Pottery Village, we pass a couple of old codgers 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 and the beer 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 the inflation does little to dissuade my will to swill!
Some claim the ‘day beer’ here is a rough draft, compared to the more mature craft beers available, but somehow I manage to overcome any concerns about these opinions, deciding it’s my duty to purchase several in order to enhance my beer acumen in order 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 also a foodie’s mecca, and we’ve become consistent connoisseurs by sampling drool-inducing salads infused with passion fruit, pomelos, papaya, mangoes, shallots, dragon-fruit, and other marvelous morsels triggering a medley of ‘mmm-mmm’ mutterings. The fresh organic veggies are produced using no manure or chemical fertilizers, but rather special algae found only in a lagoon in Tra Que village.
We cycle out to the organic Tra Que Vegetable Village through the green silence of rice fields flat as a ducks instep. Coming to a large water buffalo sliding its bottom jaw side to side in the mastication of a grassy breakfast, the farmer standing beside it gestures for us to get up on top of the cud-chewer. Even knowing a dong donation will be expected, boarding a buffalo is a new experience, so I figure why not?
Christine readies her camera as I clumsily climb up onto the beast’s 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 become aware 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 the traditional symbols of the country are of such value, they’ve been dubbed the ‘BMW of Vietnam’. Their cartoonishly large feet act like hooved snowshoes, helping the behemoths lumber through muddy, peanut butter textured fields while looking for either something to swallow or a place to wallow.
In town we’ve discovered a romantically crumbling 100 year old bar called Hill Station. The Colonial building is brimming with character and screams to be photographed, with the moldy ochre façade acting as a mellow weathered canvas for the bright turquoise framed windows.
Inside, we climb unsound stairs to reach an equally decrepit balcony. Sitting among moss-covered roof tiles, with a delicately leafed mimosa tree canopy overhead, we’re hoping not to plunge through the dissolving floor. Pleasuring ourselves with a glass of tasty French wine, we entertain our eyes with the fascinating Vietnamese life unfolding on the streets below.
In the mood for food, we follow the arrows and aromas down a narrow alleyway to a well-hidden, highly touted hole in the wall called Ba Le Well. It has a below basic décor and there’s no need of a menu as the all-you-can-fill-your-face-with eatery offers only one dish. A waitress brings us our dinner ingredients; satay-style barbequed pork and chicken, fried spring rolls, peanut and dipping sauces, a plate stacked with herbs and greens, rice paper sheets, and a manhole cover sized pancake known as ‘banh xeo’.
As we ponder how best to tackle the meal without any cutlery, our cheeky waitress begins tut-tutting us. Then, I suppose pitying her puzzled patrons; she offers her tutelage with a demonstration of constructing a rice paper wrap before wandering off. OK, our turn now, we got this. No we don’t! Our attempt to squash and roll the bulky ingredients together results in us decorating ourselves from fingers to elbows in spillage; plus I also now have an outbreak of peanut sauce emblazoned on my shirt.
The lurking waitress, no doubt aghast at our sloppy struggles and mangled meal, returns to offer another lesson. Thanking our taskmaster again, we order a beer and take advantage of her absence by quickly hiding the rest of the food by squashing it together inside the big pancake; creating one gargantuan wrap. Our meal at Ba Le Well, though a bit tricky, provides an entertaining meal and the perfect pig-out!
With our dirt-caked two-wheeled steel steeds groaning beneath us, we unhurriedly cycle by slices of daily Vietnamese life. 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 are all included in our bucolic surroundings. Puzzled by a pole mounted speaker spewing out a racket in one of the fields, we’re told it is provided by the State, to offer 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 pool ( 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 to myself, 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’!
We cycle out of town to visit Taboo Bamboo, where the owner Tan, a third generation master bamboo carver amazes us with a staggering array of his ingenious bamboo creations, including his entire house, a rotary telephone, beer mugs, gorgeous bicycles, and fully functional electric car!
Since arriving in Hoi An we’ve been noticing in the impressive published photo books, a striking photo called “Hidden Smile”. The subject is an elderly boat rower named Bui Thi Xong, who, shy about smiling due to her lack of teeth, is smothering the gummy smile with gnarly leather-like hands. Even so, lovely crinkle lines radiating from the corners of her eyes betray her smile, and in the books she has been distinguished as the “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 have her take us for a row in her shallow, flat-bottomed boat. Sadly she cannot speak a word of English, but without notice, the wonderfully wizened woman sets her paddle aside and strikes her famous pose from beneath her paddy-hat; allowing us to preserve the moment in a photo.
For some unknown reason my back has gone out today; converting me from hale and healthy into a hobbling hunchback. So with my activities now crushingly curtailed, we cycle into town seeking some muscle relaxants. Finding a pharmacy is the easy part, but then things quickly start to go downhill.
Since no English is spoken I try making use of my acting skills, as most Vietnamese are usually quite adept at sussing out any pantomime thrown their way. With a performance I’m sure would easily qualify me as a front-runner in the Oscar’s Best Actor category, 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 I hold my back and stomach simultaneously and embellish a grimace resembling chewing raw rhubarb, while demonstrating I cannot straighten up properly. Again she scurries away, and in a flash she comes back with … wait for it ….. Drum roll please …. Ta-dah ……. drugs for pregnancy!
Oh terrific; 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! Turning her large brown eyes on me, Christine senses my patience disassembling and comes to the rescue by mentioning the actual drug name. This produces a better result, and inspecting the presentation of items, we spot one with a label that actually says, among other things, muscle relaxant. Bingo; I’ll take the box! Ah yes, Vietnam; you are always an adventure package just waiting to be unwrapped!
What’s so unusual about this year’s trip is that we have spent the entire month in the same town. Now with the sameness accelerating our tedium., today’s cure is hiring a car and driver for a road trip to Quang Nam province and the tiny Tam Thanh fishing village, which in recent years has enjoyed an amazing makeover and become the first mural village of Vietnam.
The village is sort of a living art gallery, with artworks on many home exterior walls forming an unexpected explosion of vibrant colors, depicting portraits of local faces and scenes from everyday Vietnamese life. Exploring on foot divulges additional splashy murals in tiny alleyways trailing down to a quiet beach smothered in traditional fishing boats stranded on the sand.
From the village we drive to the Heroic Mother Monument nearby. Carved into solid rock, 18 meters high and 120 meters long, is the face of Nguyen Thi Thu along with those of her nine children, all tragically killed in the war. This mother, who endured such an unimaginable loss, lived to be 106 years old.
At Danang, our last stop of the day, we walk My Khe Beach, formerly known as China Beach back when it was an American soldier hangout for in-country R&R during the war. Today, the beach has morphed from soldiers to sunbathers and skyscrapers, and being far too busy for our liking, 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.
Tonight is the lunar full moon and Lantern Festival, so after a medicinal tipple at the Hill Station Bar we saunter into old town’s flickering festivities, and randomly dispensing dinosaurs from a bag of toys I’ve brought from home, we are rewarded with giggles and grins from the little munchkin recipients.
On this night electricity is used to a minimum, and transportation is limited to walking. Alongside Thu Bon River cute little kids and wrinkled grandmas in pajamas flog cardboard lanterns shaped like lotus flowers with a candle inside. Meant to bring luck, love, and happiness, the floating lanterns are lit and then placed into the current of the ink-black river using a long bamboo pole.
Hundreds of people partake, leaving the river dancing with reflections of soft flickering candlelight mingling with lanterns also immersed in the river from shallow boats out on their moonlit maneuvers. The romantic scene is enchanting; providing of course, you can overlook the fact these offerings will all sadly end up at the bottom of the already over polluted river.
An inspiring local couple, who’ve been together for over 70 years, is said to be living somewhere in the organic vegetable village of Tra Que. However, numerous times during our stay we’ve tried in vain to locate 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 towards a small dirt road, and with a stroke of luck suddenly spot the paddy-hatted duo sitting outside on a house porch.
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 great story of everlasting love. During the Indochina war Se was supplying the Viet Cong with food supplies and was caught by the French army. He was imprisoned and tortured for 10 months in Laos, and when released, came back to his home in Hoi An to rejoin his wife and resume their farming.
Years later during the Vietnam War, Se was captured again; this time by the American army, who imprisoned him for 6 month for once again providing food for Viet Cong. His wife Loi, at the time chief of women fighting for the liberation of Vietnam, was also held captive for 4 months. Eventually, both the gritty old farmers were freed, and 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, and 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 coax out my dormant green thumb to tend to a garden of my own.
Mark Colegrave February 2018