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Published: April 23rd 2012
If you were looking for a Western feel in the middle of such an Eastern country as Vietnam, I think Hoi An might be the place. Maybe it's the mansions, now faded mustard yellow with dirt caked within the stone work that speak of an old colonial presence, or the latern-lit bridges that span the river creating a reflection of mulitcolored firefly lights, or the hundreds of tailor shops lining the streets displaying everything from wedding dresses to pin-striped suits that make it seem like you're not so far from home.
The city is calmer than Saigon but with more beat than Da Lat and wandering the streets can be a joy and a challenge as motorbike and bicycle taxis both compete with the cries from seamstresses enticing you into their store and to magic the money out of your wallet. Incense sticks waft smoke around every door, carrying prayers up to heaven and into the thick, muggy air to blend with the smoke from thousands of burners, millions of words inhaled with each breath. Cafes with wooden chairs and tables, dark tiled floors and open courtyards are on every street corner and sitting back to watch the world meander
by makes me feel like I am a part of but apart from the large chaos around me.
I find my way to old family houses built to honor ancestors, their interiors dark and mystical with altars covered in food offerings. Each month the family feasts in celebration of those who have passed. In the garden are buried placentas allowing the children who wander far from home to always leave a part of themselves behind. I enter old merchant houses with carvings in mother of pearl and crafted wooden furniture that have known the weight of seven generations, the current matron hunched over writing at a desk. She beams a smile at me then returns to her task. I stay in the open air and pass beneath arches into Chinese community centers with dragons and carp fountains that glisten as the sun beams down on their multitude of tiled scales. The Japanese Covered Bridge lies in my path, placed strategically at the weakest point of the great monster Cu, a beast so large its tail reaches to Japan and its head rests in India and whenever he would move his body would bring disaster upon Vietnam. Building the bridge
killed it, though a small temple dedicated to the monster's soul is placed directly in the middle of the river.
Two beaches surround the city and I cycle through rice fields with cows along the road to get there, the sun reflecting in the still waters. Parking my bike, I sink my feet into the hot sand and wiggle my toes, the grains scraping against my skin. I wade out into the water, the temperature crisp and cool compared to the heat of the day. Joining a group I head for the Cham Islands off the coast, their silhouettes dark, solid blue against the clear sky. Around the rocky shores I snorkel and see an underground kingdom of neon fish darting in and out of coral and anemones swaying in the breezes of the water. Heading home we get caught in a storm, winds coming from all directions, rain pelting our necks and faces like small hail stones. Everyone tries to huddle behind their neighbor, trying to reduce the amount of skin exposed to the angry sea and our captain frantically attempts to control the boat as it bounces upon the waves, showing first sky then water, sky then
water. Lightning flashes horizontally across the sky, purple against the black of the storm clouds. An instructor wraps a towel around my shoulders, already having given away his own jacket and the clothe absorbs only part of the forceful wind. I place it over my head like a nun and close my eyes against the swaying of the rickety craft. The coast guard calls, asking where we are and our response: "in the middle of the ocean, that's where!" We all gratefully leap onto dry land when we dock, the sunset a beautiful golden painting left behind by the impressive storm.
Heading inland I go to My Son where old ruins from the still-living Cham people seem to grow out of the jungle, like the gods put them there for men to find. Shiva is everywhere, headless, both male and female and blue and yellow butterflies alight on his statues kissing his wrists, his feet. The jungle, lush and green covers the surrounding mountaintops and the silence is thick with both heat and life.
Back in the city I go to several fittings, the seamstress's hands sticking to my skin, her measuring tape sliding along the sweat of
my arms. I get shoes made where they trace my feet, their touch light and gentle, always polite. While I wait for my clothes I attend a cooking class (making my next fitting that much more complicated) where we cook shrimp egg rolls, fish on banana leaf, lemongrass chili chicken, and stuffed squid while washing it all down with 3000 vd beer (less than 25¢ a glass).
It isn't home, but it sure is nice.
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