the nothing whatever...

Around Hoi An

Hoi An is a sleepy little town compared to the energy that was contained within Ho Chi Minh, but what it lacks in sleeplessness it makes up for in authenticity. Nic said to me one day as we rode on our bicycles through the skinny streets and looked around at the architecture of the cottage-like cafes and cute refurbished restaurants flanking us, all not quite abandoning their past, “if France and Japan had a baby, I think it would look something like Hoi An”. Granted neither of us have been to France or Japan, I think she has a point.

The hotel in which we were staying was called the “Phuoc An Hotel”, a dangerous name if you are not careful with it. We arrived there starving as we had not had breakfast, and even though we had intended to immediately get out an explore the streets, I took a brief moment beforehand to flick through the channels we had on offer, and found that the Collingwood and Richmond game was on the Australia Network. The room service at our hotel was surprisingly good.

As we got free bicycle hire through the hotel, after the game we decided we would aimlessly peruse the streets of Hoi An for a while, just gathering a feel about the place and what it had to offer. It is not the first time we have done it, but there is something liberating about cruising around somewhere you have never been before with such purposelessness, navigating side-streets and intersections at a whim and not knowing what awaits on the other side. Although it might be far from a secret, it feels like discovery, and for us, I guess it is.

But that discovery cannot be the sole reason for you to explore a new location, as once you feel you have gathered your bearings, it then becomes very easy to settle back into the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel and gather dust, as if having ticked an item off a checklist. You need a purpose to get back out and explore and discover again, and as you may have deduced if you have read the past few weeks, we have a few things that we deem as worthy of such a purpose, food being a major one. Something that has not previously made its way onto that list, though, is massages. The pillow at the cheap hotel we stayed at in Da Nang had given me a cricked neck, and I figured that while I was at it, rather than focusing on one area of the body, with the Asian massage phenomenon being entirely new to me I would just go the whole hog. And Nic, like the trooper she is, said she would suffer the burden of getting a full-body massage with me.

We found a place on the map, got lost, and found another different place with a glowing green and pink neon sign and a friendly man standing out the front holding a small booklet. He asked what we were after, we told him, and he pointed out on the small booklet that it would be $12 US, and it would last for an hour. Not knowing if $12 an hour was a good rate, or if I would even enjoy an hours worth of what was about to happen, I paid the man and we entered a small room at the back and stripped down to our underwear. I was a little concerned that the tiny Vietnamese lady was not going to be able the apply enough pressure to properly massage my muscles, but I needn’t have worried. As Nic lay there in complete serenity, making hardly a peep, the room was filled with the sound of a creaking massage table and the repeated question “is that OK?”, as my masseuse used her knees, her elbows, her fists and her feet to grind every muscle I had into a tender pulp.

At one stage, when she was walking along my back, my mind began to drift, and I wondered to myself what she was thinking as we were engaged in this strange act. It was a catch 22 for her. If she truly enjoyed her job and experienced as much, if not more, enjoyment out of the grinding and the punching and the stomping of pasty torsos as the owners of the pasty torsos felt, then it all seemed a little sadomasochistic and creepy, not helped by the already present underlying sexual connotation inherent within the idea of an “Asian massage”. Or, while dropping the ball of her heel into the crevasse around my shoulder blade and making me wince, did she, like myself and everybody else, ponder the local classifieds and wonder if there is anything out there more suited to her as a person, perhaps something a little bit less repetitive, maybe with some opportunity for growth. If she did I can imagine it would make the entire routine just completely ridiculous to her, laying anonymous tourists on a table and walking on them until they almost cry, then graciously accepting their money so she can buy her groceries.

But whatever she was thinking, it was exactly what I needed, and my neck was fixed. We left the massage place a whole lot more relaxed than when we had arrived, and, as we were both hungry and no longer in the mood to think, we decided to stop at a restaurant that had a large table of westerners sitting out the front and “bia hoi” on its sign. From what I understand, “bia hoi” or “fresh beer”, is the locally brewed beer of a town that is sold at a ridiculously cheap price (around 17c per glass). If it is what I think it is, it is actually a brilliant concept, allowing the town itself to collect a high percentage of profit from the alcoholism of its tourist population, rather than cutting a finer margin on some of the larger national and international labels requiring costly transport expenses. And, whilst we did enjoy a few “fresh beers” at our newly discovered venue, not only was the food terrible, it was pretty expensive, and the Brits and Americans that were sitting out the front near us (the ones we stupidly thought were there because of food quality) were complete wankers, loudly boasting about the last time they lost their cool unnecessarily, with the American talking about how he had “nearly fought, like, five people” since he had come to this country. The head wanker. We sat, endured, and cringed for the sake of our color, then finished our beers and our meals before quickly vacating the scene, learning a lesson that we hope we won’t have to learn again.

But every cloud has a silver lining, and that night was the night we discovered how good the street food is in Hoi An. As we were not quite full from our half-finished meals, on the way home, we stopped off to get a Banh Mi from a vendor on the corner, and noticed that as you ascend towards the north of the country, the standard Banh Mi ingredients seems to change slightly, along with the shape of the roll. I can’t tell you exactly what those changes are because I don’t know, but the flavors are a little more salty, a little more raw and intense, and it was one of the best ones we have had the entire trip. So we decided the following night would be street food night, as not only was it the best way to save a few bucks (your average street food meal costs about $1 AU), but it was also the best way to accidentally find the most delicious food you have ever eaten.

It became a challenge. We rode our bikes out to Cua Dai beach the following day for a swim and some comparatively expensive seafood, allowing our budget to wander and knowing full well that the nights expenses would be constricted by our splurging. I put about 150000 dong in my wallet that evening (about $7.50, a fraction of what I usually carry) and we walked the streets of Hoi An, having a couple of Banh Mi’s from a couple of different places as our “entree’” (taking us to 100000 dong) and then stopping off at a place where we saw there were several locals eating. The reaction of the restauranteurs when they realize you intend to eat from their “restaurant” (just a collection of small plastic chairs and tables near the stall) is priceless. It is as if a pair of renown food critics have just walked through the door, and they become almost overly hospitable, moving erratically and with excitement, and laughing to one another in what I hope is disbelief and not just because they could give us a plate of minced ox-testicle and we would be none the wiser.

“Hai co’m ga…ummmm…mot Coca Cola, mot Sprite” I said to the portly lady who was moving the communal array of sauces from one dirty table to the slightly cleaner one we were seated at. She laughed even harder and leaned her head back between us towards the other ladies out the front, all of them seated on the ground and stirring pots full of varying colors and thicknesses. She repeated what I had said several times, and they, in turn, joined in on the laughter, apparently finding my order of “two chicken and rice, one coke, one sprite” pure comedy gold. Like oblivious idiots, we just sat and laughed along with them, and prayed they would be kind.

Whatever they were laughing at, it can’t have been my messing up of the order, as in thirty seconds flat we had our meals in front of us along with a bowl of soup, another bowl of what looked like gray little chopped chicken kidneys, one coke and one sprite. The portly lady gestured and grunted how each part of the meal was meant to interact with the other, and we thanked her and got stuck in to our co’m ga. The meal was easily fresher, better quality and more enjoyable than that we had subjected ourselves to the previous night, and there were no plebs pissing us off at a neighboring table. And, to boot, both meals combined cost 50000 dong (about $2.50 AU). By anyones scale, I would call that a success.

So that left us with 50000 dong to do with as we wished. We shared a cinnamon donut thing that wasn’t very nice for dessert (that took us to 40000), and then went for a walk. Hoi An is a very pretty and colorful city, especially lit up in candle light as it was that evening. We walked along the foreshore bordered by glowing red lanterns, and across the radiant pink and yellow bridge in the center of town, being handed 400 flyers for all the surrounding nightspots like Volcano Bar, Backpacker’s Bar, Why Not Bar, King Kong Bar, the list went on. One thing that I noticed that I found pretty remarkable is that all of the bars seemed to offer a promotion of free all-you-can-drink spirits in the hours between 9pm and 3am, I guess to draw the patrons in and make a name for themselves. Nic and I are beer drinkers so it didn’t appeal to us very much, but still, I found it strange that almost all of the clubs were following that path as a means of income, as it seemed to me that on your average Monday night (which is what it was) losses would be more likely than gains following that desperate strategy.

We eventually stopped at a place that did “bia hoi” near the water front, 4000 dong a glass, and watched the dynamic of the place from our seat out the front. We were offered a bracelet and, consequently, a free Vietnamese lesson by a lady named Tam, who told me that when I was saying the Vietnamese word for “no” I was actually saying the Vietnamese word for “crazy”, a very subtle difference. My fears on the first day were justified. How many poor street vendors (or drug dealers) had offered me a midnight sandwich with my response being that they are crazy? Tam thought it was hilarious and brought her sister, a tailor, out of the neighboring clothing store just so I could call her crazy. For the sake of everyone’s entertainment, I did, and Nic, Tam and her sister all had a good laugh at my expense.

We spent the evening joking around with Tam and her sister, as well as Mr Trung, who owned the establishment we were seated in. As nice as he was, he was really pushing us to go on his guided tour of Hoi An, exhaustively showing us booklet after booklet of people from Australia who had positively reviewed it. When we had finished our 5 beers each (10 x 4000 dong = 40000 dong), it was about 11pm, and we took his brochure and said we might see him tomorrow. We then said goodbye to Tam and her sister (who responded with “see you when you looking at me”, a hilarious phrase for an Asian inflection), and made our way home, out of money and completely satisfied with the evening, a lot more so than the previous. It just goes to show that in Vietnam, sometimes it pays to deliberately restrict your spending, as often the things of better value are ones that money cant buy.

Steph (my sister) bought me a Kindle for my birthday, and it has been a gift that has kept on giving, providing both Nic and I with a means of time travel on transport, as well as something to zone into whilst zoning out. The only unfortunate thing about it is that we only have one, which has meant that we have had to take turns, and as Nic has just finished Chickenhawk and it is back in my ownership, we decided it was time to try and find her a Kindle. Actually, we had decided in Ho Chi Minh city that we should get her one, but there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to buy them from. All the electronics stores here in Vietnam are full of what seems like fifty different sizes of iPad, totally uniform and really annoying. And realistically, Hoi An, which is a lot smaller and more remote than Ho Chi Minh, would not be any different if it wasn’t for Randy.

Randy is an American guy who has taken up permanent residence in Hoi An and runs his own bookstore from his house on the other side of the bridge. He has a sign that he uses in case he is away that says “if I am not here you can find me at the Sleepy Gecko (his local pub)” and he has an identical voice to the actor John Goodman (Walter from “The Big Lebowski”, seems like every American I meet has character traits from someone in that movie). He was another very interesting guy, very learned on the topic of books, particularly sci-fi, and he would say things like: “Life by Keith Richards? Yeah, I once sat next to him on a plane…” and “…you were in Bali? I first went there was back in the 1980’s with Jerry Lopez and his crew, when there was nothing, and every time I have returned I have thought that it can’t get any worse, and sure enough, it does…”. Despite his mild pessimism and his gratuitous name dropping, he was very generous, and although Nic was meant to get 15 free books with her Kindle purchase (all via dodgy transfer from the endless collection on his PC) he said “…I don’t know why, but I am in a generous mood, so take advantage of it…” and all three of us went through the list, speaking about plots and themes and uploading books until eventually Nic and I decided that, at 30, we had enough to keep us going for about a year.

So, without really knowing how to end this section, that about finishes the trip to Hoi An. We booked the bus trip to a place called Hue (pronounced Hwey) which is a little further up the coast, and I will speak about that a little further down. I don’t want to keep saying that every place is worth seeing, because they all are, but if you want a town that has retained the old values of Vietnam and has not yet sold its traditional essence, Hoi An is your place.