The tailors of Hoi An
Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
In our second class cabin, there are 6 beds squeezed in, and I am glad that we have the bottom two bunks as it looks like you need to be a monkey to climb up to the top pair. We share the cabin with a 51-year old Vietnamese lady who speaks good English and is returning from visiting her children in University in Ho Chi Minh. There's a 41 year old gentleman who gets on the train with her who we mistakenly think is her husband. Then there's also a 30-something year old accountant who speaks some English and his bored 12 year old son who are travelling with us.
We are depressed to find that these second class cabins have no mattresses whatsoever on the beds - just a sheet of stainless steel with a rafia mat on it. I mutter something to Rachel about it being 'good for the back' whilst deliberately putting out of my mind that I probably won't be able to sleep.
The train sets off on time at 7pm and moves with a ponderous pace through the Vietnamese night. Moving through the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh we are just a few feet from the open frontage of the houses lining the trackside. We peer in and see big families eating their dinner on the floor infront of huge TVs cheering along Vietnam who are playing Thailand in the South East Asia soccer final.
On the train, the guards have connected an ancient sounding shortwave radio to the croaky train's PA system. Although we don't understand Vietnamese football commentary, it must be impossible to make anything out over the squeaks and chirps of a broadcast that sounds like it was recorded during the 1940's. Unfortunately Vietnam loose badly to Thailand in a 3-1 defeat, so the mood turns fairly dispondent on the train and everyone is soon falling asleep. As a Scotland supporter I can relate to the Vietnamese feelings of defeat, although to be fair I don't know much about finals
Soon we decide to retire for the night and pull up the thick duvet as protection against the chill of the brutally cold air conditioning. One further disadvantage of no mattress and a steel bed is that every bump and shudder of the carriage on the track is amplified through the bed structure. I wonder how old this train is? As I lie in bed I ponder that it would be possible to take the train from Stranraer (station nearest my home town) to Saigon. Head up to Glasgow, overnight to London, through the Channel Tunnel, a few connections to Moscow (probably from Paris or Amsterdam), Trans-Siberian to Beijing, three days through China from Beijing to Hanoi, and then this train (in the opposite direction) from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City at the end of the line. I wonder if anyone has done it before? I don't think I'd be volunteering, I think to myself, as the train bumps along noisily at a snail's pace.
In the morning, after limited sleep, we get brought some instant noodles for breakfast, a nasty reminder of the meal that is lowest in the food hierarchy which we ate too much of in China. We read our books for a bit and some of our cabin buddies get off at an unmarked station. I comment to Rachel that it will be hard to know when to get off as the stations are not identified clearly
We get off at Dan Nang and look about expectantly for the throng of Westerners that Rachel predicted would be on the train, so that we can share a taxi to Hoi An. There are none at all in the sea of Vietnamese faces, so we head outside to the pack of taxi driving wolves that await us.
It suddenly strikes me that the temperature in Hoi An is at least 10 degrees lower than it was in Ho Chi Minh - I feel an unexpected surge of energy as I push out of the station into the dull and overcast day.
We decide that rather than pay USD$15 for our own taxi all the way to Hoi An, we will take a taxi to the bus station, 1km away, and there take the public bus. The first taxi driver we meet tells us that the bus station is now 5km away, so I walk past him feeling annoyed at being lied to within about 10 seconds of walking out of the station. A motorcycle driver offers to take us there for 5000 Dong each (GBP 0.19). As I'm about to take him up on his offer, a minibus driver tells us that he's just dumped a load of travellers at the station and wants to get back to Hoi An, so he will take us for USD$3 each
Predictably the minibus driver does not take us where we ask him to, but pulls up outside a hotel where he can claim commission. Rather than arguing with him I tell him we'll take a look at the rooms and if we don't like it we'll move on. The first room is USD$10, and has no window - I ask for a room with a window and a little cheaper. The next room is USD$8 and has a window, but is tiny - I ask for something bigger. I am shown an enormous room with balcony at the front of the hotel - but its USD$12. The lady escorting me around then says we can have it for USD$13 with free breakfast. I am very tempted, but tell her its way over budget and my wife can decide for us. Downstairs Rachel plays hardball, threatening to get back in the minibus if we can't have it for USD$12 - with breakfast. It seems all the training I've been giving Rachel has paid off and we get given the room at USD$12 with breakfast. The minbus driver speeds off delighted, and we look forward to the grand feast in the morning and lazing around in our huge room in the Huy Hoang Hotel.
In the afternoon we take a little walk around Hoi An. There's a spring in our step because its so cool compared to the heat of the Mekong Delta. The houses in the centre of the town are built in French Collonial style with faded yellow walls, tiled roofs, balconies, and shutters
The restaurants in town specialise in Vietnamese seafood dishes. We eat some delicious meals over the few days that we are there. The set-meals for USD$4 or USD$5 are enough to feed two, and include four or five courses that include delacacies like white rose - a dumping with prawns, squid, spring rolls, and fresh fish cooked with herbs in banana leaves. However the dessert of creme caramel served up in two restaurants was a real disappointment - a tiny portion of badly made custard, in a plastic urine sample container, with caramel sauce that is over-burnt.
On the theme of deserts, I also try a Banana split (20,000 Dong or GBP 0.70) in a cafe of the same name and I am surprised by how bad it is for a signature dish. Sloppily laid out with insufficient ice cream, no nuts, and no cream, only the bananas themselves are tasty. In South East Asia the dairy industry, although growing, is still in its infancy, and people just generally do not know how to make good desserts using dairy products.
The next day we take a tour of some of the most interesting buildings in Hoi An by buying a 75000 Dong (GBP3.00) ticket that gives us access to 5 places of our choice in and around the old town.
Firstly we stop off at a 200 year old chinese merchants house, Tan Ky House, which is still lived in by the 7th generation. The style is mainly Chinese with some Japanese and European influences. The interior columns are made of dark ironwood, and there are no windows - instead the house opens into a compact courtyard which lets light into the rooms. In the courtyard there's a well, and at the back of the house, the door leads directly to the river. In the main living room there are a number of shrines for worship of the ancestors, and the room is full of dark, richly carved furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. After being given an introduction by one of the staff looking after the house, I see a well-dressed bespectacled and middle aged lady arrange some things on a desk. I can tell immediatley that she's the owner from the way that she carries herself with confidence and familiarity around the house. I tell her her house is beautiful and she smiles and shows me a 200 year old china cup in one of the display cabinets. She informs me that if its filled to more than 80% then the contents drain out completely by themselves; a way of punishing people who are too greedy when serving themselves. I scratch my head briefly then conclude that the drinking vessel must operate by having a siphon built into the figure in the central part of the cup.
We walk over the Japanese covered bridge at the far end of the town which is beautifully constructed from timber with coarse carvings. Half way over the bridge is a little temple built into the structure which has a peaceful atmosphere with its burning incense sticks and glowing candles.
The Chinese merchants who brought wealth to Hoi An years ago set up large meeting halls and temples specific to the area of China that they originally came from. We head to the Cantonese Hall in the hope that we will see some architecture similar to Rachel's ancestors old house in Hong Kong. Immediately we spot the use of granite for the steps and the door frames, and the familiar grey brick used for the main structure. The roofs are also tiled in much the same way, with the dragons on the roof top. Looking around in the back yard of the meeting house we see a fountain in the form of a dragon constructed cleverly from tons of old crockery.
We are just in time for a demonstration of Hoi An folk songs and dancing in the cultural centre down the road. The mesmerising music from the huge array of unfamiliar instruments is really catchy and I enjoy the show a lot, although its spoiled a bit by the ebb and flow of tourists from the large tour groups. I remember we went to a similar show in Louang Phrabang in Laos and I fell asleep after about twenty minutes of the soporiphic tinkle tinkle music. It seems that the music in Vietnam has a bit more pace and dynamism.
Next morning, breakfast in the hotel is a nice surprise because we can order everything we want from the menu. After Vietnamese coffee, fresh orange, pineapple and banana shake, and a chocolate and banana pancake I am satisfyingly bursting at the seams. Rachel has the same as me but also manages to squeeze down a fruit salad too.
We go to My Son, a group of ancient Cham dynasty ruins 40km outside Hoi An on a USD$3 daytrip. The ruins date over a span from the 4th Century to the 12th Century, and most of them are in pretty bad shape compared to the spectacles at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Nonetheless amid the piles of bricks we see intricate apsara carvings and stones inscribed with the ancient Cham writing. No one can interpret the mysterious writing now, even the decendents of the Cham who live on in the area. Around the scattering of ruins, dark forested slopes are swathed in cloud and it threatens to rain heavily.
Once we're back on the bus, the rain really starts in earnest and it starts to feel really cold. In Hoi An we go for lunch across the river in a non-descript restaurant with Kat and Gregg who we met on the tour. Turns out that Gregg and Rachel work for the same company; I reckon Greggs job as marketing manager in Sydney has to be a pretty sweet job albeit dealing with cup-a-soup on a day to day basis could be part of the reason that marketeers like their careers to move fast. We eat pizza and Kat is disgusted to find that her Pepperoni pizza means 'pepper only' as it contains no meat whatsoever and copious quantities of bell pepper.
In the evening we eat dinner in Cafe Des Amis, where there is no menu just the choice of vegetarian, meat, or seafood set dinner. We are joined by Americans Caitlin and Dev, as well as Australians Kat and Gregg. The conversation is interesting because both Dev and Gregg's fathers served in the Vietnam war. They share stories of how their respective dads dealt with the hardships during and after the war, and how their counties didn't properly recognise the service rendered when they returned home. I did not realise that over 8000 Australian troops fought during the Vietnam war, and only recently were recognised as having given active service.
The food turns out to be fairly mediocre and highly priced (200,000 Dong or about GBP8.00 for two), and the owner-chef is seriously drunk when he greets us. See what happens if you are highly praised in Lonely Planet, Footprints, and Rough Guide? The only culinary high note is that we order a bottle of Vietnamese Dalat white wine (80,000 Dong or GBP3.00) which turns out to be tasty and enjoyable. I was expecting the harsh putrid vinegar of the Chinese wines.
In the afternoon, Rachel disappears into the tailor's market and out of the downpour to get measured up for some new clothes while I laze around for a bit. She returns all flustered but effusive because she's been measured up for a new jacket, two new skirts, and a top, all to be tailored for USD$41. She excitedly informs me that she is to collect them tomorrow afternoon.
Next morning after our monster breakfast we borrow the cook's and the receptionist's bicycles to cycle the 5km out to the nearest beach. The sky is a brooding grey which makes the cycling easy due to the chill in the air, and nearing the beach we can hear the huge rollers pounding onto the sand. We push our bikes along the seafront through a grove of coconut palms and find some chairs laid out under a parasols. We figure this is a good spot because it might rain. I throw off my clothes and run into the boiling surf of the South China Sea delighted to find that the water is pretty warm. However an intermittently visible brown scum on the surface makes me think twice about spending too much time frolicking in the waves. I get out and, bursting with energy from the cold wind, tell Rachel that I'm going to jog up the beach for half an hour. Rachel curls up in the deck chair with two fleeces and a scarf and continues reading her book. My first outside jog in six months is a pleasant one as I skirt the foaming tide that pushes its way over the wet sand. After about 15 minutes I remember that I am topless without any suncream on and I recall the agony of being burnt before in Australia and Spain on cloudy days. I get back to Rachel out of breath and jump into the surf briefly to cool off before retiring into my deck chair to read for a bit.
After an hour or so we are too cold to stay lounging about on the beach, so we cycle back to Hoi An. The freewheel on the cook's ancient rickety bicycle starts operating on both forward and reverse pedalling so I shout to Rachel to stop as I can go no further. Some young school boys grab a brick from the roadside and pound the rear axle a few times which to my relief miraculously cures the problem, and we continue on our little cycle ride back to Hoi An.
In the afternoon I go with Rachel to collect her new clothes from the tailors market, just a stones throw from our hotel. Even to my untrained eye, the first skirt looks a terrible fit, and it comes to just below the knee, when its supposed to be 3/4 length. Rachel has to argue with the unfriendly assistant to get her to make some fairly major modifications. Not a good start. The next tailor has made a good job of her top and it just needs some minor tidying, so things are looking up. The third tailor has made a skirt and a jacket. The skirt is perfect, but the tight fitting chinese-style silk jacket doesn't follow Rachel's curves very well, so also needs major surgery. Rachel and I walk out with two of the four items hoping that the mods will turn out OK. Rachel comments that buying these clothes is supposed to be fun but feels really stressful.
Early evening Rachel collects the remaining two items of clothing. Fortunately the modifications have gone well and I think the clothes are exceptional value for money compared to buying in the West. She tells me that the lady doing mods to the skirt was really unpleaant and kept demanding more money but she just ignored her. So, I think if you need something, and can stand the stress, it sounds like a great idea to get something custom-made.
In the evening we sample more of the local grub including the local speciality Cao Lao, a dish of noodles, beansprouts, slices of pork, pork crackling, and greens. Rachel remarks that we have also had this from the roadside cafe's and it tastes even better there for a bargain 5,000 Dong (GBP 0.18). Along with Cao Lao we have rice and vegetables and an enormous tasty chunk of tuna fish grilled with herbs in a banana leaf. The restaurant also serves us the most delicious Mango Lassi, probably the most tasty drink I've had in Vietnam. The bill comes to 85,000 Dong (GBP 3.00).
Next morning we eat our last big breakfast at the hotel and jump on the 8.00am bus to Hue, looking forward to the welcome we are going to get in Vietnam's most friendly town.