Hoi An

23 December 2001

I’ve not seen that much of Vietnam so far, but Hoi An has to be one of the prettiest places in the country. It’s said to be the only town untouched by war and it’s chock-full of character: tiny streets of 200 year-old shophouses, built by merchants who got rich trading with China and Japan before the Perfume River silted up. There are some modern buildings, but they’ve been kept outside the old town bit, and it looks all the better for it. The river (the Thu Bon?) is a bit grimy and there are holes in the pavement – a nightmare in Ratwatch terms – but the town is lovely all the same. Unsurprisingly, Hoi An is very popular with tourists – three visitors for every one resident in 2000.

The place is packed with lovely restaurants serving delicious food, much of it Western, or Westernised Asian, which Vietnamese people probably wouldn’t like, and probably couldn’t afford anyway. There’s hardly any of the basic places with tiny plastic chairs and plain but tasty scran that I’ve seen elsewhere.

I’m exploring the delights of Hoi An with P, a British lad I met on the bus from Hué. P was travelling with his girlfriend but she’s been lured home to take up a fab new job, while he’s decided to stay on the road for a few more months. It’s been rather fun having someone to hang out with. We’ve done a bit of sightseeing but mostly we’ve just stuffed our faces. Highlights? A café that does breakfast cereal and cappuccino. And another that serves blinding apple-cinnamon muffins and cappuccino, and offers a selection of British and Australian magazines as well! It felt like ages since I’d encountered any drivel about celebrities and it was ace. They did make me hanker just a bit for a time when I wore something other than travel trousers and walking boots. OK, so I’ve never been exactly a fashion plate, but I do sometimes want to jab one of the glossy pictures of a celeb in smartish day-wear and tell P: “I can look like that, you know”. Mind you, if I was still living the life that required me to dress like that, would I be having the amazing experiences I’m having right now? Er, no.

Anyway, I have made some attempt to be glam. Hoi An is famous as a centre for tailoring; if you want clothes made, this is supposed to be the best place to do it. First up I had some shoes made – and they’re (ta dah!) heels! My arches have been aching a bit recently and I’m hoping that wearing heels once in a while will ease them a bit. I told the cobbler what I wanted and he made them up for me in a day. They have a heel just over an inch high, and they’re brown suede. They’re kind of like slingbacks: a solid front, but just a strap at the back, which goes around my heel. (I figured that the less suede they contain, the lighter they’ll be.) They fit perfectly and they’re really comfortable (so far) and they cost about US$4.

P and I decided to use a tailor recommended to me by an expat I met in Hanoi. You could design your outfit or they could copy one from one of the English magazines and catalogues they had (including a Next catalogue from a couple of seasons ago).

P ordered an entire outfit – a three-piece suit and a shirt. I decided to order a black silk dress and an ao dai, the Vietnamese national dress. It comprises a long tunic – around shin-length – but slit to the waist on both sides, with long, fitted sleeves and a mandarin collar. It’s worn over loose, full-length trousers. Apparently, the Communists once tried to eliminate the ao dai from the national consciousness, because it wasn’t progressive enough or was elitist or something, but the people weren’t for letting it go. Vietnamese women don’t wear them all the time, but you do see them around. I nearly bottled over getting one for myself.  The tailor had a book of photographs of previous customers. They were almost all Westerners, and almost all of them were wearing ao dais. The ao dais were all lovely, but even the skinniest, daintiest Westerner looked ginormous compared to the tiny Vietnamese girls you see out and about in them. But what the hell, when in Vietnam and all that, and if it did look totally grim, well, I’d never have to wear it again, would I?

P and I were both measured to within an inch of our lives – like, the circumference of my bicep and then my wrist, the distance between the base of my neck and my shoulder, my inside leg and my outside leg. You name a body part and it was measured. I chose a petrol blue silk for the top and a mid-grey silk for the trousers. That was at 11.30am. “Come back at 6.30pm,” we were told. So we did. P’s suit, in midnight blue, needed one tiny adjustment but otherwise fitted perfectly. My black dress fitted impeccably too, but I’m not sure how often I’ll wear it as it makes me look like a Spanish widow – my fault, seeing as I designed it and chose the fabric. And my ao dai? It was like a second skin, and am I allowed to say it looked stunning? OK, so I’d still look like a crumper next to a Vietnamese girl, but for a Westerner, I didn’t look too bad at all. Ever since I’d met him P had been going on about how great his girlfriend was, how absolutely beautiful and how madly in love he was with her. When I walked out of the fitting room his jaw dropped. When a man who is totally in love with his drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend looks at you like that it’s probably safe to say you’ve made a good choice. I don’t know how much P’s suit cost, but my dress was US$28 and my awesome ao dai? US$16.

Thu Bon River, Hoi An

Thu Bon River, Hoi An

We’ve not just stuffed our faces and had clothes made. We’ve actually done some sightseeing too. We took a “river cruise” to My Son, site of the most important Cham ruins in Vietnam. The Chams originated in India, found their way to Vietnam and set up the Kingdom of Champa. My Son, built between the 4th and 13th centuries AD was their capital city. The Chams were, in effect, Hindu, and the buildings of their capital reflected that.

(What’s left of) Cham ruins at My Son

The site was badly blasted during the Vietnam war, when it was a base for the Viet Cong and attacked regularly by American forces. The ruins are nice enough, but, obviously, they aren’t anything like as impressive as they would have been in they hadn’t been bombed to bits, or pillaged by various invaders before that, but the lush jungle setting was pretty cool.

“River cruise” is in speech marks for a reason. It was supposed to be a leisurely sail incorporating a language class and a cookery lesson as well as the visit to My Son. The weather was crap (think November in Britain but a bit warmer), the boat was open, we got frozen. The cookery lesson was basically watching two blokes make our lunch, with us rolling our own spring rolls, and there was no language class.

Far more fun was the day we rented bikes and cycled to Cua Dai beach, around three miles from Hoi An. The beach wasn’t too spectacular (although it was nice to be on a beach for a change), but while we were there we met two Irish blokes, whose adventures put mine well in the shade. For a start, they started their world tour in India, taking only Irish punts as currency. They ended up trekking in Nepal because they decided to follow some other travellers. They were in a cafe there and they asked the owner what day it was. He didn’t know, so he went into the kitchen to ask his wife. Then he ambled across the road and started talking to his neighbour. A few minutes later, he strolled back. “It’s Thursday,” he said… That, apparently, sums up Nepal quite nicely.

The day P and I met them they had rented a motorbike – and immediately crashed it into a tree. The hotel owner was explaining to them how it worked and they just told him they’d be OK, even though neither had ridden a bike before. Three seconds later, they shot across a road full of morning rush-hour traffic and hit a palm tree, which, fortunately, blocked the entrance to a crowded restaurant.

The episode, though, illustrated the level of medical care in Vietnam. The pair were told that two Aussies staying in their hotel had had a bike accident a couple of days before and were now in hospital… in Bangkok. They (the Irish lads not the Aussies) have been away for over a year but they’re going home soon, and when they do, Ireland will have the euro. How weird will that be, arriving in your home country without any of the local currency?

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