Suprisingly I awake on the nightbus feeling a lot better after an unexpectedly good night sleep. We arrive in Hoi An around 8am so I make a beeline straight for a little guesthouse in the ancient town called Thahn Duoy, where Steve & Nat are already staying and had earlier kindly facebooked me to recommend it. Accomodation is a little more expensive here but I don't mind as the town is beautiful! Old faded French villas line the quiet pedestrianised streets, just the occasional old lady in a conical hat will cycle past - it's so nice not have to dodge traffic and listen to the constant honking of horns.
I take a walk around the pituresque town known for it's many tailors & dressmakers. They are literally everywhere, one after another after another, at least 20 on every street, displaying everything from men's suits to women's cocktail dresses to jackets & wool winter coats. The quality & make up of the garments varies dramatically, not only from one shop to the next but within the same tailors. They'll have one beautifully made silk georgette summer dress next to a similar one in a different colour made in polyester that's
puckered at the seams. I ask the price and it's the same!
I take a look at the rolls of fabric inside one shop and there are in fact some really nice silks amongst the cheaper fabrics, catering for a variety of budgets. "Can I give you my own design?" I ask. I am quite tempted to nip into an internet cafe, update myself with the Autumn/Winter 2012 catwalks and design myself a capsule wardrobe ready for when I return to the UK in winter, but it's budget that I just don't have right now, and as nice as it is to have something bespoke made for what is a relatively cheap price compared to back home, when you do it for a living, the novelty's not quite as great, despite missing designing sometimes!
"Of course" the lady replies "You can give own design, or you can choose something from our books.. Take a look...". She leads me to a table and piled high is several copies of the Next Directory! At least 4 seasons old at that! "This is the company I work for!" I say "You're stealing my designs!" We both laugh but I think she
think's I'm joking.
In the back room an American girl is having her final fit session on a satin cocktail dress and she comes out with a big gleaming smile on her face. "I love it!" She says "It fits perfectly!... What do you think?". She asks me "Isn't the silk gorgeous! I can't believe it's only £60 for a silk cocktail dress!"... I smile and tell her it's stunning. Indeed it does fit well but I have a feel of the fabric - I don't have the heart to tell her it's not real silk.
In the evening I head down to the river and the atmosphere is a busy hum of street food sellers along the lantern lit waterfront. After checking out a few menus I discover there's about 8 dishes that are infamous to Hoi An that I haven't seen anywhere else, so keen to try everything I figure I better start making my way through them! I start with Cao Lau that I take from a little stall with the usual mini plastic stools and tables at the side of the road. It consists of flat rice noodles with chillies, peanut, lettuce & crispy
pork that is ALMOST like bacon. It tastes amazing, as all Vietnamese food so far, and over the next few days I try White Rose (rice dumplings with shrimp inside) Banh Xeo (crispy rice pancake stuffed with beansprouts, shrimp & pork) and Wanton soup to name but a few. I'm loving the food in this country and after Thailand, Vietnam comes a strong second on my list.
The next day I decide to hire a bicycle to ride to the beach in the morning, where I spend a few hours swimming & lazing in the sun and then choose to explore the old town further in the afternoon. I take a look in the traditional folklore museum and get chatting to one of the girls, Huong, who works there. She's selling pure silk scarves (they are silk this time!) and she talks me through various photos on the wall that show the whole silk farming process. I'm really interested, as I've never been to a silk farm before, so she offers me a tour of their silk farm nearby. "We're a new company". She says "So we not open for tourists, but my brother can show you around... He
doesn't speak any English but he can show you..". So she gives me directions and I ride off to find it. After getting lost several times, I eventually make it there and am greeted by Huong's brother. He shows me the mulberry bushes that the silk worms feed on and then shows me all the little cocoons of silk. He then brings out a big jar of silk worms and a glass, opens the jar and pours the liquid "worm juice" into the glass and hands it to me. I'm a bit unsure but I don't want to appear rude so I thank him and take a sip - bloody hell it's strong! Worm wine I think they call it but it's more like vodka mixed with turps! Honestly, they'll try and make alcohol out of anything!
After a few days enjoying the relative tranquility of Hoi An I head North to Hue, the old capital. I do my usual routine of rocking up somewhere, jumping on the back of a moto, who offers to take you for free to a certain hotel they get commision from, and manage to bag myself a room for 5 dollars, after discovering
that the room in question is in fact on the 8th floor of the guesthouse with no lift.
Hue is another busy city. Back amongst the millions of motos & honking horns, I have a look around the backpacking district, which is pretty lively, but lacks any of the authentic characteristics of Hoi An.
Again, the cheapest way to see anything is to book a day tour so the next day I head off with a few others to visit the old Citadel, Thien Mu Pagoda, which dates back to 1601 and the Royal Tombs of the Ngyuen Dynasty. All impressive sights, it's a pleasant day all round, and we return to the city via Dragon boat along the peaceful Song Huong, also known as The Perfume River.
Deciding I've seen enough of Hue, I prepare myself for my last night bus journey in Asia! Yay! In 12 hours time all the uncomfortable, often painstakingly long journeys will be over! No more aggressive bus drivers, no more being squashed in like sardines, no more wincing everytime another bus misses a head on collision by a hair's breadth... I can't wait! But then of course, there's always time
for one more argument and it comes in the familiar form of the bus man telling me rather rudely that I can't sit in the seat I've selected and that I need to sit/lay at the very back with the only other two Westerners on the bus. This time I'm ready..."No!" I demand. "You always do this, I've paid for a ticket just like everyone else on this bus, no one can reserve seats, I've as much right to sit here as anyone else... You always send the Westerners to the back and it's racist!"... Ok that was a bit extreme but I'm getting really sick of this! "Ok you get another bus!". He shouts..."No!" I say, "Yes!" he shouts and we carry on with this duel several times before he gives up and says "Ok, ok you can sit in the seat one behind". I thank him and the journey moves on.
All the Vietnamese passengers on the bus seem unphased by my argument (maybe they've seen it all before) and they're all very friendly in advising me where I should store my shoes and showing me how to put my seat back. I thank them and in
return offer one my blanket as an extra pillow for their little boy. It turns out to be a much better journey than the last sleeper bus. Because the bus is mainly full of Vietnamese, there's no hold ups, no filling the toilet with luggage so you can't use it and no stopping at ridiculously expensive services. In fact the restaurant we do stop at for dinner is really cheap and really good! Nobody really speaks English except for a young boy of 11 who is helping his mum wait the tables. He takes my order, brings me my soup and then asks if he can sit with me to practice his English. "Of course!" I say and we chat between mouthfuls of Pho, about his family, what he likes at school and what he wants to be when he grows up; a doctor.
Soon it's time to get back on the bus and try and get some sleep. I'm just dropping off when the bus pulls over at the side of the road to pick up a couple of strays and two men get on, are passed blankets and settle down to sleep in the aisle. One of
them is right next to me, a bit too close for comfort to be honest, but it's a small space and there's not a lot either of us can do about it. I have noticed that the Vietnamese don't really have any sense of personal space; Walking down the street you constantly bang into people and they don't think twice about grabbing your arm or your shoulder when they're trying to get you to buy something, which I must admit when I'm in the midst of a crowded market in 40 degree heat, it's all I can do to stop myself from screaming "don't touch me!"... I don't know if it's just a Western thing or me that has a serious personal space problem, but when the guy laying next to me falls asleep and his knee keeps falling on my leg, I actively push it out of the way with both hands until he wakes up, gets the message and turns on his side.
Finally we arrive in Hanoi around 6:30am. The bus doesn't drop us in the centre of town so I need to get a taxi to the old town - the first (and last!) taxi
I'll get here. I ask the driver how much but he insists on the meter, so I stupidly say ok. The only other place I've got a taxi in Asia is Bangkok and as long as they use the meter they're really cheap so my brain (after 3 hours sleep) is probably thinking it will be the same. But of course it isn't and after a 15 minute journey I glance at the meter to see it read 360,000 dong (nearly 20 dollars!) Oh god, I think, here we go again, another bloody argument! I take 100,000 out of my purse, wait til he stops and asks me for the extortianate amount before launching into yet another tirade of "No Way, how dare you rip me off, your meter's dodgy etc etc". I give him the 100 note and tell him he's lucky to even get that. He's cleverly put my rucksack in the front seat, I notice, to presumably refuse to give me it until I pay up, but then he was probably expecting me to be too scared to confront him like so many others. Pissed off... Angry... Infuriated?Yes, but I'm way too used this to feel even
the slightest bit intimidated. Talking to other travellers over the course of the last two weeks, I've found a couple that paid 75 dollars (!!) for a two hour cyclo ride in Saigon and a girl that was forced to pay 25 dollars for a 5 minute taxi ride after showing the driver her passport, he'd snatched it and refused to give it back til she paid up! So I figure I got off lightly...
I suppose I'd got quite relaxed after India as generally the rest of South East Asia, although having a few scams here & there, most people are pretty fair when it comes to making money. Sure if they can get an extra dollar here & there fair play to them, but it's never extortianate. However here in Vietnam it's like my defenses are right back up again, constantly on my guard for the next rip off, the next scam and it's really wearing me down. There's so many nice, warm & friendly people here who I've met but the scammers really give Vietnam a bad name!
After wandering in and out of a few guesthouses I realise Hanoi is pretty expensive, and the
15 dollar average room rate is a bit tight on my budget, so for the first time on my travels I check into an actual dorm. 6 dollars a night, it's not pretty either with 4 beds in and a bathroom that doesn't lock! (which subsequently means the door doesn't stay shut either and just swings right open for all to see!) I ask the friendly girl on reception if she can get the lock fixed but she says not to worry as I'm the only one in the room... Hmm ok, I think, but it's 7am... Plenty of time for anyone else to check in! Still, she says it's being fixed that afternoon so I head out for the day to explore yet another busy crazy city full of motos, cyclos, markets & mayhem.
In the evening I do my usual trick of finding a Pho stand that's busy with locals and sit myself down at the tiny plastic tables & chairs. Within a few minutes a local family have joined me. One of the girls is about my age and she introduces herself as Anh. She's an English teacher and is keen to ask me questions about
my life & country. None of the others speak English but they all get involved asking her to translate questions & I do the same. She has a little boy, her two year old son and nephew with her and I play with them, clapping & laughing. They're all such a lovely family and Anh in particular as, after hearing that I work in fashion, suggests that I may like to visit the Museum of Ethnology where you can see many interesting textiles & clothes worn by the different hill tribes of Vietnam. I've got no plans for the next day, so when she offers to pick me up on her bike and take me there, I jump at the chance, if only to experience being on the back of a local's crazy ass moto driving!
She picks me up at 8:30am and passes me the Hanoi style helmet to don. Vietnam must be one of the few countries in South East Asia where helmets are compulsory on motorbikes, however they're not much thicker than a mountain bike helmet, if at all! They're sold on every street corner as more of a fashion accessory, covered in Chanel or Gucci
logos, go faster stripes or various patterns. My personal favourite is when you see a girl wearing one that has a hole cut out the back for her ponytail! Mine, however, is a modest pale blue, and since due to the traffic we barely reach speeds faster than a mountain bike anyway, I'm not so worried.
We have a really nice time at the museum, watch one of the infamous water puppet shows (which are so cheesy they're hilarious) and finish off with a yummy lunch of crab fried rice in a local backstreet cafe. After the last 24hours of constant arguing with various Vietnamese, all trying to bleed me dry, Anh came along at just the right time to remind me what a warm & friendly bunch of people they really are... It's just a shame about the few who spoil it!
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