Thursday, 20 November 2014

Riding bicycles in Hoi An

Another guest blog from number 1 daughter. Don't you just hate it when your children do things better than you?! A great read for those of us who don't get very far from home these days...

As the plane dipped beneath the clouds for the first time since leaving Ho Chi 
Minh, all one could see was a narrow brown river sliding between lush green 
hills, reminiscent of Conrad's description of the Congo River in 'Heart of 

"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the 
world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An 
empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, 
thick, heavy, thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever 
from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another 
existence perhaps."

We entered the town of Hoi An via taxi, on a narrow track between acres and 
acres of rice paddies, sleepy buffalo and old women walking in conical hats. The 
ancient town of Hoi An is an old trading port, active between the 15th and 19th 
centuries. It sits 4km from the beach and was largely untouched by the Vietnam 
War which means that the preservation of the old buildings is much a part of the 
beauty of the place. Countryside Moon was our homestay down a track on the 
outskirts of the town, the house owned by a Vietnamese couple and their two 
children. The receptionist was sick and none of the family spoke much English 
but as I have come to realise more and more, much of feeling welcome in 
Vietnam has nothing to do with language. 

Bicycle is the main method of travel around Hoi An for tourists and this meant 
that me and my deaf ears would have to trundle around on the two wheels as 
well. The homestay is across the river from town and the bridge was still in 
construction which meant that one of my first challenges was to ride a bike 
alongside about twenty motorbikes going in the opposite direction on a muddy 
trail that was about two metres wide. Shit me not. 

Before Alex and I set off, we had agreed on a series of hand signals, a crude 
sign language, that would enable us to communicate whilst the wind and traffic 
rendered my hearing aids useless and in essence to keep me alive during the 
experience. Fairly simple - left, right, slow down, stop and honk - if a vehicle was 
blaring away behind us. Alex cycles to work in London and he cares about me, 
so I assumed he would be trustworthy. We had, however, received no warning 
that the green cross code here is arcane and utterly shambolic. For anybody 
who wants to blend in with the Vietnamese locals, please observe the following:

1. Honk every time you see a vehicle, person or even a bird. 
2. Feel able to cut someone off on the inside or the outside, God gave you free 
3. Do not slow down at junctions, even if turning left or right, everyone will work 
around you.
4. Traffic lights are like disco lights, they serve no purpose.
5. If you wish to take over someone, do not worry about the truck coming down 
the opposite side of the 
road, they will slow down for you. (One must remember to honk)
6. Observe no rules, make your own.

Once I had accepted all rules were out of the window and that Alex was too busy 
observing the same, singing the Sound of Music off key loudly was a must, for it 
had been many years that I had been on a bike, sober and remained upstanding. 
Given that the road into town was scattered with karaoke bars pumping base 
loudly, not too many people suffered. 

The Ancient Town is  effectively three narrow streets parallel to one another, one 
facing the river. The traditional buildings are fashioned entirely of wood, with large 
entrances facing out onto the street. Pagodas, temples and meeting houses filter 
in between shops, restaurants and tailors - the quality of hand-made clothes one 
of the attractions of the town for tourists. It is very charming and peaceful - the 
streets cut off from traffic means that there isn't a constant torrent of people 
passing through. One can spend many days simply absorbing the place and 
enjoying the atmosphere, which we did. All of the cultural landmarks - the 
Japanese Bridge, for example, are within metres of each other and blend into the 
architecture of the town. 

The food here is yet again delicious, in particular the local delicacy - Cao Lau 
which is only found in Hoi An. Yellow noodles, pork, spring onions with a sweet 
sauce. Cao Lau is something of an urban legend, it is said that you can only 
make it with water from an undisclosed ancient well nearby. The Nu Eatery, a 
restaurant only a few months old, served a delicious chicken and coconut dish 
with sticky rice. The Reaching Out Teahouse was a local social enterprise run by 
deaf people. When they bring the menus out to you, they also provide an 'order 
card' and some wooden cubes with words written on them so that we can gesture 
to things when we are trying to communicate with them. Whilst my sign language 
is a little spotty in parts, it was a pleasure to interact to the three waitresses there, 
talking about the tea they served and their lives. 

We stayed in Hoi An for the 'Legendary Night' which is celebrated on the first full 
moon of the month. Electric lights are switched off and lanterns are strung up 
everywhere you can see. Street vendors sell bright boxes with candles in them 
which you can buy to float down the river. Performances took place in the main 
square. It was, I will confess, one of those nights where you entirely submit 
yourself to being soppy and romantic - holding hands as you stroll down the 
street, staring at the full moon and then hitting yourself on the head to shake 
yourself off the mood when you get home. 

The receptionist was still sick at our homestay but we became increasingly 
friendly with the family that we were staying with, making do with very broken 
English which has become a bit of a habit. You suddenly find yourself talking to a 
tourist in the same fashion and coming across as a right berk. We made a habit 
of sitting outside on the veranda with our books and Lan, our host, would sit with 
us and drink La Rue beer saying "Yo" which would result in all of us picking up our 
drinks and saying cheers. With the Vietnamese, one doesn't sup at beer casually 
whilst talking, you say "Yo" and simultaneously everyone clinks their cans and 
drinks. It has a tendency to get one drunk quite quickly in your desire to be warm 
and friendly. He also sent his boy off to fetch some smoked squid of which its vile 
smell and taste still makes us gag in recollection of it. It makes you curse the good 
manners your family instilled in you. (I have been forced to write here that I didn't 
eat any of this, Alex took one for the team. But the smell gave it all away.)

When you visit a place, you go marching in search of the culture and the sights 
with a map, camera and guide book, determined to make your mind up of exactly 
what you think of it. You seek the truth or the heart. A city or a town is so often 
determined by its landmarks, its custom and how well it caters to tourists. The 
number of things to do or to see. Hoi An, in its simplicity, makes as strong a 
statement as any of the more famous cities of the world in its refusal to be 
dictated by the pace of modernisation. The vibrancy, elegance and laid-back 
atmosphere Hoi An treasures, enables it to simply speak for itself. 

No comments:

Post a Comment