Published: November 23rd 2010November 23rd 2010
A spell of bad weather can start to feel like a virus that you carry from place to place. First rain, then floods, then more rain followed me from Hanoi all the way down to Nha Trang on the central coast. For a week I never felt really, truly dry.
I'm inclined to believe that my bad luck charm came in the form of a bespectacled American who, when I asked where he was from, replied "Oh, nowhere really." Oh
, I thought, one of those. He's a
traveler. (When I pressed him further he finally admitted that he was from Pennsylvania and had a house in Las Vegas of all places) "I just travel. Been traveling for 2 years now." He said this in a kind of nonchalant way that was almost a challenge--as if he was daring me to come back with something better. "Well, me too, but I've been doing it for ten years with nothing but a Swiss army knife and a tube of chap-stick." My immediate thought was internet millionaire. He reeked of it--40ish, the sneakers with white tube socks, the polo shirt tucked into his gym shorts, and the complete lack of grace or social skills--it all fit. I later learn his name was "Chip." Perfect.
I first made his acquaintance at my hostel in Hanoi when I was deciding whether to get a $35 Cambodian visa there, or wait and pay less at the border, even though it might be a bit of a hassle. "In my experience," says the veteran traveler, unsolicited, "when it comes to visas, I always pay the extra money." Naturally I did the exact opposite and put away my passport as I listened to him squabble with a hotel worker over a misunderstanding of the room rate. The difference was a DOLLAR. As luck would have it, I seemed to run into this guy at even intervals right through my bus to Mui Ne where, mercifully, he continued on to Saigon. The clouds quite literally lifted and I enjoyed an idyllic, sunny beach holiday, Chip free.
Mui Ne was a welcome change from Nha Trang where it poured for two days straight and Hoi An which greeted us with a big, sloppy kiss and then flooded half the town. People were in boats in the middle of the street. But despite the water levels, we ended up staying in Hoi An longer than anticipated. And I won't lie, part of this had to do with the more than 200 tailors in town who practically mauled and dragged you into their stores with clawed hands. It was the perfect situation: most of the historic sites were underwater, so we felt totally justified doing nothing but eat and shop for days.
For someone who suffers from chronic indecision, Hoi An is a very bad place to be. Not only are there innumerable shops to choose from, but the styles, colors, and fabrics are literally endless and made my head spin with the possibilities. If any of you have ever been with me at a Bed, Bath, and Beyond, the effect is the same--total meltdown. But the women are amazing salespeople and can make you buy things you have no space for (which is probably why the post office is the busiest in Vietnam). After a day I started to recognize their techniques. It would start with a simple "Accuse me, Halloooo! Where you from? You come have a look in my shop. Just a look!" Should you enter, from that point on they are by your side 100% of the time, gently steering you deeper into the store. Step two is to get you to sit down and have a look at the books, or, better yet, to try something on. Once you express interest and let yourself look, it's only a matter of time before you ask how much. That's when they go in for the kill. The shrewder salespeople only come down a few dollars unless you are dropping some serious Dong. But it is all still an amazing bargain and it's very difficult to say no with two or three tiny Vietnamese women holding a measuring tape, calculator, and fabric swatches in your face. Oh, they are very good at what they do. Not even backpackers are immune.
I had heard they would be quick, but it was truly amazing what could be whipped up in a single day--like something straight out of the land of Oz--"snip snip here, clip clip there, and a couple of tra la la's.." Not that I am under any delusions that Hoi An is the Emerald city--in fact, I imagine it's quite the opposite...My moral compass started spinning out of control as I wavered between the drool worthy dresses and unique experience to be had versus the knowledge that these clothes were being knocked out a bit too quickly for the working conditions to be at all decent. Although I didn't go overboard, I did find myself lulled into a state of willing denial and finally bought a few things. Perhaps I would feel differently had I actually seen what went on behind the scenes, but wouldn't we all.
I am now nearing the end of the Vietnam chapter of the trip. I arrived to Saigon today and must move on in the morning to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta.
And, if you haven't read about it already, look up what happened in Phnom Penh today and say a little prayer...