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, sluggish...you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever
from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another
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
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.