death by cuteness: three days in Hoi An (pt 1)

Before we return to our story, another pointless digression!

Things for which I should have my head examined for packing for a trip to southeast asia:

  • Shoes and Socks

    I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. Between the brutal, unrelenting heat and the tendency toward sudden, sidewalk-street-and-storefront-flooding downpours, I haven’t worn anything but my tevas since I touched down in Saigon, and having already had what will probably be my fanciest meal here, am unlikely to wear anything else the rest of the time.

  • Both of my cell phones.

    I swear to god this made some sort of sense in my head at the time. I wanted to have my normal (Verizon/CDMA) cell phone with me on the last day in the states in case Miranda called, and I had this plan that I’d take my old (GSM/triband) cell phone with me here and buy a local SIM chip for it, and somewhere I’d heard rumors that Viet Nam had a CDMA network of its own… Yeah right. Dead weight theft-bait in my backpack, the whole time. I plead insanity. (Interestingly, VN does have a CDMA network in addition to the normal GSM one, but either Verizon has no roaming agreement with them or — more likely, given the willfully stupid nature of the US cell service market — they’re CDMA on an incompatible frequency.

Things which I wish to god I’d brought:

  • An ultralight laptop.

    This may also count as total insanity, but god would it be nice. It’s not that Viet Nam is short of internet cafes — quite the opposite in fact — but despite the fact that I bought a spiralbound notebook and a waterproof pen for the trip, I’ve found it almost impossible to take notes on the road for writing, and so by the time (often days later) when the gods of logistics, travellers’ stomach and jet lag have deigned to allow me some uninterrupted writing time at a computer, I’ve already forgotten half of the names of the places I’ve been, or food I’ve ordered, or interesting anecdotes I meant to relate. A laptop small (and light) enough to fit in my backpack during the day so that I could just type out my notes in the room before going to sleep would be just the best thing ever. Maybe I’ll start crusing ebay for old toshiba librettos or something.

  • Another 2 (or 5… or 10…) compactflash cards
    I’ve, um, filled up two gigabyte CF cards already, and we haven’t even hit the royal tombs outside Hue yet, much less Hanoi.

    Luckily, while CF cards for sale in Viet Nam are incredibly rare and viciously overpriced when they are, a number of enterprising souls here have hit on a very useful solution: “digital developing.” Basically, you walk into just about any random photo processing place and hand them your memory card, possibly put down a small deposit, and come back an hour or so later to find your pictures all burned to CDs for you. It’s a little nerve-wracking for a control freak like myself (what?! if?! they?! break?! something?!!!! yes I’m an idiot), but it beats shelling out $60 for a 256mb CF card, or finding oneself out of space 2/3 into the trip.

But boy, do I ever digress.

The train from Saigon pulled into Da Nang at about 1 in the afternoon, and we stepped out of the car, walked through the station, and into a literal wall of taxi drivers, all in identical green and white uniforms, all clamoring for our attention. We were, I think, about 2 seconds from being trampled to death by their helpfulness when Miranda noticed that standing to the side was a man holding a welcome sign for a Mr. Vinh…from the hotel where we were staying at. Figuring there was a chance we could cadge a lift from them, we made our way through the taxi drivers, introduced ourselves and explained that we were staying at their hotel, at which point they quickly guided us through the crowed and over to their waiting minibus, and immediately took off toward Hoi An…

…without Mr. Vinh, which prompted some worried inquiries from us. In response, we got a somewhat convoluted tale which, modulo fractured English (and, in fairness, no Vietnamese on our part to supplement), seemed to indicate that Mr. Vinh’s schedule had changed at the last minute and that the hotel had drivers waiting for him at both the train station and airport, and that this driver believed Mr. Vinh was probably coming by air. This seemed a little odd, and the oddness was compounded by the greeter then asking to see — and then keeping — our train tickets. The whole thing seemed a little dodgy, and we’re certain that they pocketed our fare directly, but they charged us the going rate for the trip ($10), and if there’s some involved tax scam in Viet Nam involving foreigners’ train receipts, I guess it’s not my problem.

The drive itself was about as uneventful as any drive in Vietnam is (central VN being nowhere near as densely populous as Saigon) except that — and I want to stress here that I am not making this up — our driver had Tourette’s syndrome, or some other related palsy. We noticed it at first when his cell phone rang and before picking up the call he rapidly snapped his neck left and right as if to stretch it, but then after the call was over he repeated the same motion dozens of more times over the trip, generally not even breaking his conversation with the greeter to do it. This was a little nerve-wracking at first, but the tic never seemed to involved his lower arms or hands that we could see, and in general he wasn’t any worse a driver than anyone else in Viet Nam — take that as you will.

We arrived in Hoi An in about an hour, and piled into our hotel, a very new (almost gleamingly so) and very cute three-story affair called the Phouc An (“…Garth” added my internal voice, instantly), built to somewhat resemble an old Chinese trading house, with tiled floors and dark carved wooden beams and ceiling supports everywhere. After dumping our bags, we set out on our first mission in Hoi An: to find a tailor.

A word or two about Hoi An:

Hoi An has been a trading town for longer (much, much longer) than the US has been a country. Situated about midway up Viet Nam’s east coast, with a wide river dock and generally pleasent weather (assuming your definition of pleasent expands to “punishingly hot” from time to time), Hoi An was the site of several full-time trade delegations from Japan, China, and as far away as France and Muslim Spain, from as far back as the 1400s at least. The various (primarily Chinese) resident delegations were allowed to build the community halls which are now among the town’s core tourist attractions, and a quirk of the Imperial tax laws (wherein houses were taxed on width more than height or depth) caused the streets to be lined with narrow, long merchant houses. Miraculously, Hoi An was spared any significant bombing during both the French and American wars, and just as miraculously, the early Communist regime didn’t raze the place to the ground to build cinderblock factories. As a result, shortly after Viet Nam’s re-opening to private enterprise, Hoi An became VN’s first UNESCO world heritage site, and money flooded in to restore the buildings that needed it, followed shortly after by a flood of tourists.

Because Hoi An is cute. Really, really cute. Hoi An is the central charm reservoir of a country that tends toward charming in most places to begin with. The trading sailors of old are long gone, but the houses are now filled with enterprising tailors, woodworkers, marbleworkers and restaurant upon restaurant. The buildings are a snapshot of a bygone era, and most amazing of all: cars and trucks are banned from the streets. There are still cyclos, scooters and bicycles aplenty, but more than any other place in Viet Nam, it’s possible to cross the street without fearing for one’s life.

(And none of the above is even close to the cutest thing in Hoi An, but we’ll get to that.)

Besides its obvious charms, the other thing that Hoi An is famous for is its local tailoring industry: much as in Thailand, dozens and dozens of local entrepreneurs (some far more shady than others) have shops that promise to, in hours or days, whip up custom-tailored clothes of any description, including duplicates of anything you can produce a reasonable picture of, for a fraction of the cost of such a thing anywhere in the west.

(In response to the obvious questions: what we saw of the general working conditions appeared to be comfortable, and I’m inclined to think that spending the money directly on the labor and materials in SE Asia is probably far less exploitative than buying off-the-rack in the US, which is also assembled in the far east, but in what I believe are substantially poorer conditions and certainly poorer wages.)

Both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide had made prominent mention of Hoi An’s tailor shops, but hadn’t given much of a guide to which one to pick, and there are probably close to 200 scattered over the town. Luckily, a bit of googling turned up this web page, which contained detailed customer reports along with (indispensibly) pictures of the assorted tailors. Based on the reports, we picked Le Thi Bich Lan at 23 Tran Phu Street. Making our way there involved passing some rather persistant touts for the other shops (including one woman who followed us on a bicycle for several blocks), but we eventually made it there, and her shop was a wonder: a restored old Chinese merchant house with a ceramics shop up front, an open courtyard in the middle, and then the shady, comfortable tailor shop in back, surrounded by elegant mahogany shelves full of fabric of every description. Usefully, we arrived just as an Australian family was there picking up their clothes for final fittings, and what we saw on them looked fantastic.

Mrs. Lan was a consummate professional (and indeed, appeared to be a bit of a local operator: locals would occasionally dash into the shop to ask her some question which she dealt with quickly and efficiently: the overall impression was a bit like Martha Stuart crossed with Maggie Cheung, and I don’t doubt that anyone foolish enough to get on her bad side would quickly come to regret it deeply), and had obviously figured out how to deal comfortably with wide-eyed westerners: she answered all of our questions, promised nothing she couldn’t deliver, made helpful suggestions, and quoted fair and firm prices. Miranda and I had both brought some pictures of outfits culled from assorted fashion magazines to work from, and Mrs. Lan also provided us with several sample books to look at. After narrowing down our choices and selecting fabrics for each one out of her extensive stores, we were measured in about a dozen dimension each, and then sent along our way with instructions to come again at 4pm tomorrow.

We’d made brief chatter with the Australian family while they were in the shop, and they’d recommended in the strongest possible terms that we try a restaurant called “Mermaid.” Not having any other destination particularly in mind, we looked it up in the guidebook and found that it was just a few blocks from the shop. (Of course, Hoi An being no more than a mile square, pretty much everything was a few blocks from everywhere else.) We made our way there and had a staggeringly good meal primarily featuring a local delicacy called “white rose” or hoanh thanh: tiny rice-flour-dough dumplings filled with shrimp and garlic, served in a piquant fish sauce. I recall that I liked my entree, but damned if I can remember what it was versus the hoahn thanh.

Full but a little tired, we made our way slowly back to the hotel, only to be nearly killed by cuteness. See, we’d sort of noticed that we were approaching the Mid-Autumn Festival on the calendar, but other than the vast number of roadside stands selling mooncakes, we’d not really known what to expect as a result of this. Well, it turns out that the Mid-Autumn Festival functions like a cross between Mardi Gras and Halloween for children in Viet Nam: on the night of the holiday, troups of kids aged between (we gathered) 7 and infant patrol the streets doing Chinese-style dragon dances, for which they are given small amounts of money by appreciative elders. (This understanding of the festival’s function gleaned from a terse mention in Lonely Planet and a somewhat fractured conversation with a hotel clerk; corrections not only accepted but actively solicited.)

Now, dragon dance performances are a little more involved than just dressing up in a sheet for a Halloween costume: you need to practice. Which means, apparently, that in the nights leading up to the festival, the streets are filled with juvenile dragon dance troups practicing their routines, and hordes of their friends, cheering them on. And it was just this that we ran into on the way back to the hotel: a troup of five children (three in the dragon, one drummer and one masked man that the dragon interacted with) surrounded by dozens of yelling and laughing schoolchildren, all under the dim streetlights of Hoi An, marching down the street with the drummer being pulled along in a wheelbarrow.

Cute? You don’t know the meaning of the word. We followed them, enchanted, for about five blocks before they took a break and the crowd dispersed. And wandered back to the hotel, grinning uncontrollably.

A few slightly less cute moments followed once we got back to our room. The packet of rice crackers that we’d stupidly left sitting on the desk had already attracted visitors: Miranda found several tiny roaches rummaging through it, one of which flew away from her as she attempted to swat it. But that was nothing compared to what we were to find in the bathroom: a yipe and a high-velocity exit was to be my first indication that Miranda had made the acquaintence of Boris.

Boris was, of course, our very own Extremely Large Spider. About the size of my palm, with armored forelegs and a quarter-sized body attached to a nickel-sized head, he had taken up residence next to the towel rack.

A hurried consulting of the guidebooks turned up no mention of poisonous spiders in Viet Nam (although the Lonely Planet unhelpfully mentioned that VN was full of as-yet-undiscovered and unclassified species of arthropod), and our careful forays back into the bathroom did not show Boris to be much inclined to move, so we decided to suck it up and share the room with him for the night: we brushed our teeth very deliberately and making no sudden moves, and inched out the door and closed it behind us when we were done.

And thus ended our first day in Hoi An.

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