The nicest thing about the Hop Yen Hotel is its two entrances. Being able to enter – front and back – means a detour around Ba Trieu can be cut out, unless you think the curved street is infinitely attractive. The receptionist on duty at the main entrance was petite, slim, demur and wore a long, flimsy, brightly colored skirt. Her jacket was less attractive: gray and close-fitting.
“I’d like to stay another night. Can I move to another dorm? The one there doesn’t have much space.”
“You’ll have to wait until eleven a m. There may be a spare bed by then on the fourth floor. Its check-out time.”
“I see, okay.” Her tone was a bit bossy.
A lot had packed up and left already to catch buses to the next destinations: Nha Trang, Dalat, Mui Ne, Saigon. By this time, I got used to these places being bound together in some sort of big tourist pack. Just clap your eyes on the front of the numerous agencies and you’ll see the names grouped together on notice boards.
I popped across to the restaurant and ordered a light breakfast: a couple of baguette rolls and a tea. Feeling the cold coming along, I wasn’t in the mood for eating much. Ruth, of course, was already settled. I took a vacant seat and listened to what she had to say. It sounded more like a lecture.
“Asia’s characteristics come in three: dust, dirt, mud and garbage; don’t expect much from them. Their brains are not trained as much as ours. Europeans are not their friends. They only want us to extort money.”
I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea being distracted by what sounded like slower, indulgent, self-pitying drivel. Having lived in China for a few years and traveled around other bits of Asia, I didn’t need a lesson. I prefer to see people in this part of the world as having different attitudes, values, a different mindset. Seeing in-and-out busloads of backpackers, adding to the tourist industry, made her last point unnecessary. I felt like echoing the sentiments of a friend in England: Europeans colonized Vietnam for many years, and the West kicked the country in its pants, leaving behind a host of problems. Might its people not have a point? Besides, we don’t have to come.
“I know where I belong. I’m European.”
Perhaps she should go back to Europe, where she belongs, if she couldn’t accept things or enjoy her prolonged winter holiday here.
I made a mistake of twice asking her where the old town is located:
“Always in this direction.” she impatiently signaled to the left from where I was sitting facing the street.
I headed off, leaving her grumblings and loneliness to the wind.
Hoi An is tourism for the tourist: plastered for the visitor is more apt: hitting the main streets of the old quarter, I was immediately mesmerized by old wooden houses, shops harboring handicrafts: materials and lanterns of many colors, others stuffed with shoes.
Yellow and white buildings, some shabbily neglected, left over from the colonial era contrasted the
dark wood. I stomped onto the wooden planked Japanese bridge, called because when the town was named Hai Pho during the 16th and 17th centuries, a Japanese settlement existed at the other side of the river.
It is also a harbor town where Dutch, Indian and Chinese, besides Japanese, traded and settled. During the 10th century, the Cham, or Champa people who controlled the spice trade inhabited the town. With it came enormous prosperity. The town, however small, knows how to attract prosperity from visitors today.
Feeling the effects of plantar facitis – tendon trouble in my left toes – I showed an interest in some small jars of white Tiger balm ointment a couple of street side sellers were trying to flog.
“How much,” I tentatively asked.
“One hundred thousand.”
“No…too much…how about fifty thousand?”
“No, a hundred thousand.”
“No,” she wasn’t giving way.
I began to wonder if the balm would really work. The Tiger picture looked similar to one on a box of sticky herbal pads I’d bought in China. I procrastinated, and then walked quickly away, releasing myself from the pressure to buy. She quickly ran after me.
I resisted all further attempts. Feeling in turmoil because of my attitude and her caved-in persistence told me that I should either make up my mind at once and buy, or turn a blind eye from the start. If you show any leaning interest and then remain doubtful or indecisive, the sellers will only come after you.
A man trying to sell a four-day motor bike tour of Vietnam’s hinterland, or highland outback called ‘Easy Rider,’ stopped me.
“Hoi An, tourist; not the real Vietnam.”
He showed me a map of the route that ends at a resort town further down the coast.
“Look, look…you will go along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, made famous because of the Vietnam War, see scenic waterfalls and meet village people.”
I couldn’t help wondering if experiencing the rural, the traditional, wouldn’t be more exciting with real travel thrown in.
He took out a small notebook of comments penned by some who’d done it. Words such as ‘fabulous, unforgettable, a journey of a lifetime,’ jumped from the page. Photos of their experiences: stopping en route with luggage strapped to the rear of the bike only increased the temptation.
I deadened it. 280 Dollars is a lot of money to spend if you’re on a budget, even though it includes food and accommodation. Besides, having a lingering cold would spoil the enjoyment, and the weather was too cloudy and inclement to appreciate any mountain scenery. I’m sure, though; by motorbike is the best most independent way to experience Vietnam.
Listening to the guy made me miss taking pictures of more Hoi An street life. I was beginning to see the extent that Vietnamese rely on the motorbike – for almost everything. One stood out and quickly passed that was smothered in drooping red and yellow flowers.
I stopped at a side alley and bought a cheap bowl of noodles and two baguette rolls from a vendor stirring a giant cooking pot. Awkwardly getting up from a shortest stool imaginable, I ate a third roll not knowing I’d have to pay an extra 5,000 Dong – but it’s only 25 cents. Some Japanese passed by, dumpy and short, wearing upturned sunhats, and they were traveling in a group. They usually are.
I went back to the hostel and transferred my belongings to the fourth floor dorm up curved flights of unleveled stone. Hearing an intermittent spat onto a wet towel placed near the door, the roof was leaking. For 5 Dollars a night, I’d hardly be expected to complain about it. Besides, feeling under the weather because of the snivels, I couldn’t be bothered, so lay down for an hour.
In the restaurant I met Ruth. It was her favorite hideout, it seemed. A French visitor sat opposite, pouring from a bottle of red. She was talking casually, taking every opportunity to use her French.
He’d already lived in Vietnam for twelve years as a volunteer teacher in some outback area.
“Twelve years is a long time. You must like it.”
“Well, yes, it’s okay, although there are always problems with security of tenure”
“Can you speak Vietnamese?”
“Sure.” He went on sipping and pouring from the bottle while listening to Ruth spout on.
She offered some sensible advice about taking chicken soup and drinking Vietnamese tea for the cold. She also took out a small jar of strong menthol ointment.
“Here, take this. I got it in Thailand. Put a bit under your nose and on your forehead. It’s better than that Tiger stuff. Works wonders.”
The news helped to reassure my refusal in not buying any of the Tiger ointment earlier. I did as she suggested.
We strolled around to the main hostel entrance around 9 pm. The back entrance was closed.
Before hitting the sack I jawed at some length to a young British guy who was interested in my experiences in China. He was going to work a six-month contract in Shenzhen so wanted to hear as much as possible about the giant up north. He also intimated more about the goings on in dorm room accommodation.
“A British guy in Nha Trang was topping it with his girlfriend. No decency. No respect. We give ourselves a bad name.”
A Japanese girl had taken the last bed. Among her belongings was a Vietnamese hat.
Perhaps, like Steve, she should say, “I’ve always wanted one of these hats.”