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Published: March 2nd 2018
Our days have turned into a week in this idyllic place.
We’ve arrived in the midst of a lantern festival, a full moon celebration and the corn festival. Lanterns reign. Glorious hot-air-ballon-shaped lanterns are strung across streets, around buildings, hung on lamp posts, adorning the sterns of cigar-shaped pole-pushed boats on the river. Large float-sized lanterns in shapes of dragons, turtles, puppies and the like line the river in the old UNESCO town and come dusk, the place lights up to its magical best.
Strings of wires across streets support the lanterns at irregular intervals. We see a big tour bus stop, a chap jumps out and grabs an extender pole with a squeegee on its end from the below luggage compartment, and runs ahead to push the lantern stringers high enough for the bus to pass. A quick collapse of the pole, a throw into the hold and the bus was off again.
The sales people line the streets encouraging you to enter their tailor shop, restaurant or to take a tour. Their first question is always “where you from?”, followed by “how long you here?”. Verbs are optional, a technique I warm to. A week’s stay
is always commented upon as a long time.
Our AirBnB is a haven for us. A large room with bright tiled floor, a wall of window-doors and a deck overlooking the pool and a variety of palms. We’re in a neighbourhood of an odd combo of homes, homestays, home-based spas and other endeavours. You get the notion that everyone is working whatever competitive advantage they may have. We learn later that this 10-unit homestay is on AirBnB, Booking.com and other websites too. I go for a rare pedicure at a backstreet home-based spa. The proprietor hedges and delays until the pedicurist arrives on her scooter. I wonder if she and others are a pool of people called on by the store front enterprises as needed. Whatever. Gotta work it.
Our days are an odd assortment of errands. Getting things (clothes, shoes) made, returning for measuring and adjustments, collecting stuff to mail home, ordering hand-made stamps of our grand girl’s faces, trying to locate a man who will make a license plate for us as a gift to a friend who collects (thwarted on the last front for fear by the vendor that either we or he will be
nabbed by the authorities when we cross the border). All interweaving easy and pleasant interactions along the way.
The vendors with shops stand outside their place of business handing leaflets or encouraging you inside. No pressure, just charm. Vendors who sell off their backs circle the streets, offering their wares to you wherever you are. One such vendor was hilarious, perhaps unbeknownst to him. While driving his scooter, he carried a board the size of the hood of a car strapped over his shoulder, with dozens of sunglass styles affixed. He must have come up to us 10 times in the same day, in as many locations all over the town showing us how the arms could bend every which way and not break. He never did recognize us.
Potted mandarin trees adorn the entrance of many businesses and homes. I asked a woman if they were in celebration of lunar new year or if they’d be eaten. Language impeding our chat, we both pulled out our translation apps to type out our Q&As. Hers told me that the tree took too much medicine for the oranges to be eaten. And later, that the gardener had a bad
cough. I have no idea how my questions translated on her end.
The food has been fun here. One of the highlights was finding the Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) shop made famous by Anthony Bourdain on his food show. The individual-sized French breads are made daily using a combo of rice and wheat flours, making them crusty on the outside and airy on the inside. The many meat fillings are marinated and grilled, and the many oil-based flavourings are sublime. All for $1.50 each.
The An Bang beach has exploded since our last visit. Beach cabanas, chairs and umbrellas thread down the beach in multiple rows - akin to popular Caribbean destinations. Just so different from last time when we made friends with the one women renting beach chairs and delivering amazing French fries to the few of us there.
Speaking of beaches, the locals go to great lengths to avoid the sun. Puffer jackets, toe socks that slide into flip flops, face masks, long sleeves and pants are all the norm. I might I add that notion of matching patterns across all this paraphernalia may be a western-regional thing - no evidence of it here.
Young tourists here, maybe on university spring breaks, have been seen wearing these crazy short and shirt sets made from fruit fabric - bananas, watermelon and whatever. We tried to catch a pic of a few, but as luck would have it a group of five uni students from South Korea stayed at our homestay and turned up for breakfast in full fruit regalia. Sign language and pictures ensued and they taught me how to airdrop the pictures. They were duly impressed with our iPhone, and giggles and “I love yous” followed us every time we saw them.
On the iPhone front, this is the first trip when old-fashioned cameras are a rarity around people’s necks. The phone pics have taken over.
One final fun memory - we decide to ship home the clothes we had made here. A few items each, but with one suitcase, every gram and cubic bit matters. Our tailor shop called the post office and a few moments later, a young woman with a cardboard box, tape, a metal scale and a price sheet arrived. She bundled up our goods, had forms to be filled, took our payment and jumped back on her
scooter with our parcel in tow. One small amazement - I estimated I had bought 6 cards that were in the parcel - she corrected me and said 12. Upon recount, she was right.
These two weeks in Vietnam have been splendid slo-mo visits to two of our favourite cities in this country. We now head to Da Nang (of China Beach fame) for a few nights before heading to new corners of the world. Happy memories stowed, we look forward now to Malaysia.
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