Published: January 9th 2009June 8th 2005
Sitting in Hoi An, just about to do my last fitting for (yet another) tailor made item. This UNESCO world heritage town is best known for its gorgeous french architecture (reminds me of southern France) and its 200 plus tailor shops. These tailors can recreate ANYTHING you point out in a designer catalogue....for a fraction of the price... and in about 3 hours. I heard about all of this, but didn't believe it until I actually arrived. Now I feel like some character out of a Bridget Jones type novel, bouncing from shop to shop, getting measured for beautiful new digs... I've never had anything tailor made before (except for bridesmaids dresses, but they don't count!) and it's AMAZING!!!! Made just for me!
More about this later... I'll write in chronological order. Last time I wrote, I was on my way in land to Da lat....
Unfortunately, it was a bit of a bust. Okay, a total bust. Went there with the hopes of doing some serious mountain biking, canyoning or hiking. They call it 'the adventure seeker's jewel in Vietnam.' Huh. I didn't see any jewels. It was too rainy and too foggy and it was bloody FREEZING! Da lat is about 1400 feet above sea level, so the temperature doesn't get much higher than 20ish this time of year. Big contrast to the last few places I've been...
I did manage to get a few hours in on a mountain bike, but really only around the city. It was just too wet and cold do much more and you couldn't see anything anyway. I guess that's what happens when you travel in the rainy season.
Soaking wet and frustrated, I decided to find this cutsey little cafe recommended by my guide book. I had visions of reading and writing all afternoon while drinking the famous Vietnamese coffee. After an hour of searching, I found it, but alas, it was closed. BUT, on my way back, I stumbled on a kitschy little cafe that was having its grand re-opening party... and everything on the menu (booze included) was FREE!!! So... there was a rainbow after all. Ate and drank FREE red wine all afternoon... The cafe is owned and operated by an American guy who actually fought in Vietnam. Now he lives here full time, and loves it.
After just two days, I took the bus from Da lat to Nha Trang... a beach side city on the South China Sea. I could have been anywhere, actually... It reminds me of Miami Beach. There's a road that runs parallel to the beach and motorbikes and honking busses are whizzing past constantly. It's certainly not the same feel as the paradise oasis that is Koh Tao. Sigh... However, the swimming is much better. On Koh Tao, I'd have to walk about 13 km out in the water to get to waist-level. Here, you can jump right in. And it's nice and cool and refreshing. In Thailand, the water was hotter than bath water. No lie!
Went to a natural hot springs spa and mud bath. I should have realized that when you're paying 150 thousand dong (about 11 dollars) for a day at the spa, you're bound to end up... oh, say sharing a public bath with 37 men from China here on a business trip. Uh huh. Not even gonna go there. Left after just 45 minutes.
So... I was a beach bum once again for a few days. It was a Vietnamese holiday the other day and the beach was packed solid with people. Thousands. Gazillions. Most of them swim in their regular day clothes. There are heaps of foreigners too. I gotta say, I'm getting a little tired of being on the beaten trail. It seems everyone has the 'open bus tour' ticket (which means you can travel the entire length of the country and hop on and off as you wish for about 20 USD) and we keep running into the same people... I don't like feeling like a tourist. We're all sorta on the same route... some going north, others going south. But we're all doing the same damn thing. How I'm going to solve that, I'm not sure yet.
Had lunch with the folks that own my guest house the other day, which was an experience... It's so strange, and I can't help but feel guilty staying there... I have a great room with marble tiled floor, my own bathroom with shower, a huge bed and cable TV for 4 USD/night. This family of 8 sleeps in the same room, in 2 beds, in a small room just off the kitchen. As I was checking out, the only girl who can speak English asked me if I was interested in joining her family for lunch. I said sure! There was a huge pot of sticky rice, another plate of sprouts and green onions, a soupy bowl of teensy little minnow-sized fish and another kind of barbequed fish that looked like very pale grey salmon. And there were other little bowls of sauces with chillies and spices in them. Took me a few minutes to understand what to do... I had a bowl of rice in front of me and then people around the table would pick out pieces of fish or bits of vegetables and put it in my bowl for me, after each bite, to refill my bowl. I watched carefully to make sure I wasn't doing anything that might offend someone... and figured out that when you took a bite, you dipped each bit in the sauce of your choice. When it looked like someone's bowl was getting low, you'd pick food up with your chopsticks and refill it for them. It was all very communal and complicated, but seemed to work... Have no idea what dinner conversation was, but that's okay. Truc, the 19-year-old who is learning English at night school tried her best to translate. There was lots of laughter. I'm sure they were having a grand time watching me!
Took the night bus -- 13 very loud, (the bus driver sounds the horn every 14 seconds or so to warn motorbikes, other cars, etc to get the hell out of his way) and bumpy hours in the dark.
I now know why this ticket is so cheap.
I just about threw myself out the window and hitch hiked. It was mental. I met this lovely Aussie couple the other day, and was telling them about the horrid bus experience. Had dinner with them, and they told me they've hired a driver to take them to the next stop, called Hue. They asked me if I'd like to join them! I'm pretty excited - this drive is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the entire country. We'll pass the marble mountains and China Beach. Pretty excited not to be on a bus too. The girl, Catherine looks like Jennifer Lopez -- but prettier -- and the guy, Dale reminds me of Ray Currie... with an Aussie accent. He's hillair. It will be a fun drive. They look like they're in their late 30s.
So yeah, I'm now in Hoi An... which is known for tailor-made clothing shops. I'm told it's the best place to have your clothes made for you... good quality and cheap. Not sure how I'm going to fit anything else in my pack though. I'm already tossing things from home to make room for all the pretty silk purses I find... I admit, I have a problem.
Went to mail some stuff home today... but it was going to cost me a FORTUNE. I think I'll just carry it. I'm hoping that will prevent me from buying anything else. Stuff is gorgeous.
Hoi An is extremely picturesque. Honestly, I feel like I'm in Aix-en-Provence. There are lovely little pastry shops... everything has a French flair. It's very artsy, and is one of the few places that wasn't destroyed during the war. It's on a river, and was a port city for Chinese and Japanese. There's still a very old feel here too -- people trading in the markets, etc. I could spend days here... but that's not a good idea, as my bank account is already suffering. (Nervous laughter!)
Today, I finally found a way to get off the beaten track. Back in Saigon, on that awful touristy tourist tour of the Mekong Delta, I was complaining about how everything is so orchestrated. A girl from Calgary spoke of a man, named Mr. Phong, in Hoi An who gave her the best day ever in Vietnam. She told me that was the first time she actually felt like she was seeing the real Vietnam. She gave me an address of a cafe he likes to spend time in and told me to go and ask for him. So, last night, I went to this little place and asked for Mr. Phong, and hired him for the day!
He was the sweetest little man -- has 4 children and 8 grandchildren. He used to be a farmer, well, still sorta is. But he's trying to get into being a tour guide.
He picked me up on his motorbike at my hotel, gave me his only helmet, and off we went. He took me to his little village -- about 40 minute outside of Hoi An. The drive in itself was a real treat... we passed through places that dumb bus would never go through... I saw ladies working in the rice paddies. Water buffalos hauling loads down the road. Gardens of vegetables and herbs. Real homes. Real people. Real Vietnamese people. And most importantly, no other tourists.
Mr. Phong (he's 53) took me to his village -- which was destroyed completely -- except for 2 homes by American bombs. We had tea with his family. He told me about his life - how he served 3 years in the war fighting for South Vietnam. His uncle, who lived next door, fought for North Vietnam. We visited his uncle, who is now 80, and he showed me his war medals. He didn't speak a lick of English, but he showed me books. And scars.
Mr. Phong (Phong is his first name, by the way) then took me through the village. We visited the head of the village, the men in the barbar shop, the ladies at the market, the children in the school grounds, his pagoda, we even went to an elder (who was 98) who read my palm... and told me my fortune, based on some Vietnamese book that they rely on for predicting good days to build houses or get married...
Apparently, I will live a long healthy life, find true love and travel lots. Huh. Here's hopin'!
I saw men rolling tobacco, a man making rice wine, women farming their vegetables. It truly is a self-sufficient little village. Very simple. It's amazing what we really could live without.
I could go on and on...
All in all, we spent about 5 hours visiting different people in the village. And then we went back to Mr. Phong's house for dinner! His wife made spring rolls, (amazing) some spinach dish (right out of the garden) rice, fish cakes, and water pumpkin (I'm assuming like a mix between zucchini and turnip) soup.
Mr. Phong told me stories of rebuilding his village after the war. His family hardships. How the town was divided during the war. Members of the same families fought against one another.
He showed me secret tunnels and what's left of a bridge (also bombed) that was never rebuilt.
He drove me back into town before sunset... I finally feel like I got off the beaten trail and experienced something special. Something real. Thank you Mr. Phong!!!
Side note: for those who know what I'm talking about.... came face to face with the ditch pig today...................................and I couldn't run and I couldn't hide....... Thank God my Aussie friends are whisking me away tomorrow!