Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hoi An, Part II: Sand, Sweat, and Fears

The Vietnamese are, to put it bluntly, terrifying drivers. Dave is, to put it kindly, an inexperienced biker. But the promise of sand, surf, and swaying palms lured him — and me — into the chaos of Hoi An traffic each day of our visit. While the town’s small size and narrow streets wouldn’t permit Saigon-level tsunamis of roaring motorbikes (thank goodness), its drivers followed the same ad hoc road rules. We picked up the basics on our first day of riding: each driver has a speed he/she intends to maintain, and will maintain regardless of obstacles. If an obstacle — bike, motorbike, car, pedestrian, cow — presents itself, and the driver wants to circumvent it, he/she honks repeatedly. The relentless bleeps say to the obstacle:

“Here I am, behind you.”

They say: “I move faster than you and intend to pass you.”

They say: “Here I am, approaching you on the left. Do you hear?”

Most importantly, they say: “I understand your way of moving, and as I pass will use this understanding to calculate how much room to give you. So go straight; do not alter your trajectory or speed.”

On a bike, Dave tends to wobble and swerve. On that first trip to the beach, he fell so far behind that I turned back, heart thudding, wondering how I would explain to his parents that I’d let their eldest son plummet into an Indochinese ditch (incidentally, our hotel had no helmets available for bikers). I was sure that he'd lost his balance on the long stretch of road that was under construction, where the street itself had been churned into a four-foot-deep pit of red dirt. Here motorbikes resorted to the narrow strip of sidewalk, passing each other with millimeters to spare between curb drop-off and storefront. I had retraced my steps to this segment when Dave emerged from the red dust, safe and whole.

“Are you okay?” I said. He said he was.

“Did you fall?” He shrugged, didn’t affirm or deny, kept the details to himself.

“You’re riding up front now,” I said.


The next day, we were set to try a new route to a beach that was reportedly quieter, cooler, and just as close to the town center. Dave and I learned of this purported paradise from Randy, a burly white-bearded American expat whose secondhand bookstore we’d visited on a ramble through the sleepy residential neighborhood across the river.

“Our hotel didn’t tell us about that beach,” I said when Randy pointed it out on a map. He chuckled.

“There’s a lot they don’t tell you,” he said.

So out Dave and I set, slathered in sunscreen and sporting our swimsuits. We wanted to swim together and therefore left all of our valuables at the hotel, save a small sum of cash. I didn’t like this plan one bit, any more than I liked the idea of leaving anything, even just our clothes and towels, on the beach unattended. Biking back wet and shoeless was an unpleasant prospect. But Dave was game and I had no better suggestions. Time to take a tiny risk, I decided.

Today’s road was nicer than yesterday’s. To start, there was no life-threatening construction, though I still had a minor heartquake every time Dave wobbled close to a motorbike ripping by at Nascar pace. It took less time to break free from the town’s peripheral sprawl of restaurants, hotels, and local Ca Phe cafés with motorbikes bunched out front like so many weeds. Then there were rice paddies on our left and right, blindingly bright young green and soft-looking, and the farmers wading with their hoes and their conical hats and their water buffalo and their dogs. I didn’t know if it was more happy or sad that people still lived and farmed that way. Eventually the land lifted into sand dunes that looked a lot like the dunes of Cape Cod’s Race Point, except these had cactuses and taller trees and the trees had different, strange-looking leaves. Also, there was the noise and smell of motorbikes.
At the beach we paid 5000 dong (25 cents) to park our bikes and marched down to the sand, which was dotted with mostly-empty lounge chairs operated by a beachside restaurant. Randy had done us right: there were few other people crowding the pristine, palm-fringed beach. No white people at all. Dave and I picked out two chairs, deposited our things, and hopped down the hot sand to the South China Sea.

“This water is like a bath,” I said as we sloshed our way in.

“It’s wonderful,” Dave said.

It was wonderful. The beach as a whole was wonderful, surprisingly similar to the beaches I’d known all my life: children playing in the waves, parents smiling and calling to them, dogs splashing, scent of saltwater spray. Some continents end in the same way; some leisure activities transcend oceans.

Later, back on the sand – where our belongings remained untouched – Dave took out his Kindle to read Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and I opened the copy of Sense and Sensibility that I’d bought at the Saigon airport’s domestic terminal. After a few minutes of reading, I looked up from my book: a strange crab skittered across the sand; my collection of tiny, delicately-swirled snail shells glinted on the towel; a boy chased his wet puppy; mountain islands hulked offshore. I turned to Dave, clicking away at his pages, thick, sandy hair wild with wind and seawater. He looked about as content as I’d ever seen him.

“It’s weird,” I said. “All of a sudden it feels like we’re on a vacation.”


The road had largely cleared by evening, so our bike ride back to town felt almost calm by Vietnamese standards. The sun loomed low and gold over the patchwork rice paddies as we rode past, the still waters of the submerged fields reflecting its fiery glow. At the roadside, farmers burnt their daily offerings to Buddha and the good spirits, releasing wisps of fragrant rice smoke into the heavy tropical air. It was almost dark by the time we glided into the Hoi An’s quaint streets, where tailors and restaurant owners were burning their own offerings of cloth and food, respectively. Down by the river, women sold candles in paper boxes that the buyer might float on the water, sending them back to the sea.

Dave and I were nearly as filthy as I’ve been in my life by the time we reached the hotel. Sunscreen, sweat, sand, seawater, smoke, and road dust caked our overheated bodies. Taking a shower — even one that shared floor space with the toilet — had never felt so thrilling. But when I emerged from the bathroom, it became clear that the room’s air conditioner had barely begun to kick in. I spread myself out on the bed. How did the locals live comfortably with such heat? They were used to it, of course. My theory is that the Vietnamese have a different way of holding their bodies, a looser, more languid way of arranging their limbs. If I paid attention, I noticed it in the tailors lounging and working at their shop, in the men reclining street-side on their motorbikes, even in the women who paced the street with their fruit baskets. This way of being would not come naturally to me, a cold-weather New England creature much more familiar with the opposite stance for combating weather: the tightening of shoulders, drawing in of elbows, and clenching of the jaw necessary for keeping out the winter wind.

Lying on the Hoi An hotel bed, I practiced loosening my jaw, freeing my elbows, and relaxing my shoulders — my own version of going native. The sweat came anyway. I had just one more week to master the heat of a Southeast Asian summer.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hoi An, Part I: Temperate Creatures, Tropical Climes

All our hotel rooms had air conditioning. Everywhere we stayed in Vietnam, the room key doubled as a power card: slide it into its notch upon entering the room and the lights flickered on, the AC remote awoke from slumber. The room generally cooled off quickly enough — except in Hoi An. Here, Dave or I would lunge for the remote the moment we walked into the room and frantically pump it down to the lowest possible temperature, around 17 degrees Celsius, and spend a couple hours sweating before we felt comfortable. We were paying $30 per night for a “Deluxe” bedroom — splurging on a $5 upgrade from the windowless “Standard” option — in a small, recently renovated old hotel whose services didn’t quite keep pace with the glamour of its new marble bathrooms and gorgeous riverside location.

Hoi An, a sunny little haven of yellow stucco houses and palm trees, sleepy restaurants and narrow streets, was paradise after the endless noise, stench, construction, and clouds of Saigon to the South. The town center had few enough roads that we were able to master them, more or less, on the first day. It helped that our hotel hostess gave us a small map — quaintly titled “Hoi An Vestiges of Interest — identifying the town’s historical sites and labeling its streets. These were organized along a placid green river bordered by a quiet lane, convenient both for strolling and for orienting. Best of all, the river led right to the nearby sea — and there was a tropical beach a short bike ride away. We went to the beach every afternoon; the mornings we reserved for exploring the town.

“You wantake pishah?”

The tiny old lady, from whom I’d just bought a bag of cut pineapple, was actually posing for me at a Hoi An street corner. She had the conical hat, the brightly patterned pajama suit, the socks and flip-flops on her feet. On her left shoulder she balanced a set of the scale-like market baskets we saw everywhere: whole pineapples in one, cut pineapples and tiny green bananas in the other. Hoi An is, you see, a tourist town.
I didn’t have my camera, but shruggingly indicated to Dave that yes, he should take a picture. I’d spent three days in Saigon unsuccessfully trying to catch shots of Vietnamese women in socks and sandals. It was supposed to be a sort of joke for people at home: “See? Your dorky dad would be fashionable here.” Dave got out his iPhone. Smile, snap. The lady tried to push bananas into our hands, but we stood our ground and continued walking.

Is it okay to enjoy a town that relies on tourism to keep it alive? Were we skirting some sort of authenticity by staying in a town where the locals had learned to see themselves as novelties, versus an anonymous village where we wouldn’t have encountered another white face? Is there some sort of morality to traveling roughly and unconventionally, or is the urge to do so as common as Western faces in Hoi An? It’s a question that recurred throughout the trip, one that Dave often detected in my tone, one that he tried to put out of my mind so I would remember to take pleasure in our journey.

At this point in our stay, Dave and I had done a cursory tour of Hoi An’s original tourist draw: its eclectic collection of old architecture, including a Japanese bridge, Chinese temple, Portuguese office, and Vietnamese houses that reflect the town’s storied past as Central Vietnam’s main port. Now noon was approaching, and the town’s sultry streets suddenly emptied.

“Mad dogs and Englishmen,” Dave said.


“The poem. ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.’”

“Which are we, mad dogs or Englishmen?”

“I am half an Englishman.”

“Then I’ll be the dog.”

Peering into dim houses, we observed the Vietnamese at midday rest: lounging on hammocks, dozing in chairs, napping on floors. Even the dogs we saw — the sane ones — were sprawled out snoozing in what shade they could find. For lunch Dave and I stepped into a dark café whose utter emptiness might have been off-putting if we hadn’t had a delicious meal there two days earlier.


No one responded save a small bird, housed in a cage near the ceiling, who cooed softly.

“Maybe they’re closed?” I said.

But suddenly a girl, maybe 16 years old, shot up from her makeshift bed of three chairs pushed together. For a moment she looked around, blinking, with a disorientation suggesting she’d been tugged from a very deep sleep. But when she saw us she smiled, nodded, indicated a table.

“I feel guilty — maybe we should let her go back to sleep,” I said.

“I’m sure they want our business,” Dave said. We ordered summer rolls and a unique Vietnamese salad that stands out as one of the best dishes I tasted in Asia: threads of green papaya and carrots tossed with amazingly fragrant black peppercorns and a mysteriously tangy white dressing, all topped with cilantro, peanuts, fried shallots, and baby shrimp.

“What’s in the dressing?” I asked our waitress, who had by now attained full alertness. I ladled up a spoonful of the thin white sauce and pointed to it, then made a questioning gesture. She ducked into the kitchen to ask, and came back with a list of the usual suspects: fish sauce, lime juice, vinegar, sugar.

But what made it white?

“Mai O Nai,” she said. I looked at Dave.

“Mayonnaise,” he said.

After lunch, we had an appointment with one of Hoi An’s contemporary tourist draws: a tailor. The town is home to more than 500 of them, all sewing custom clothing at a fraction of the price you would pay in the States or other Western countries. Clothing stores account for most of the town’s storefronts, their colorful displays of dresses, coats and silk scarves spilling onto the sidewalk. The day before, Dave and I had gone to a shop recommended by the guidebook to be measured for shirts, suits, dresses, and pants. Today we were back for a fitting.

June is the low season for tourism, and the tailors of B’Lan — all petite young women in bright pink ao dais — were lounging by the shop’s entrance when we walked up. They leapt to attention when they saw us, switching on fan after whirring fan as they led us through the expansive store: past the elaborate display area, past the open-air shrine to Buddha with its marble statue and burbling fountain, and into the dim fitting area where the walls were lined with countless fabric bolts that fluttered in the fans’ breeze.

“They don’t leave the fans on when we’re not here,” Dave whispered to me.

“Maybe their boss wants to save on energy?” I said.

“Maybe they just don’t need it,” Dave said.

It seemed impossible that anyone would eschew relief from Vietnam’s humid, 90+ degree heat. Yet none of the tailors was sweating (as we were, profusely), nor did they seem at all uncomfortable. They handed us bottles of cool water, which also started sweating immediately.

Soon Dave and I were shoved into dressing rooms and instructed to disrobe. When our sticky bodies and damp clothes caused embarrassing delays, the tailors pushed aside the curtains and started pulling the garments off our bodies.

“Sorry,” I said to a woman with glasses and acne as she tugged at my sleeve. “Very hot.”

“Yes, yes,” she said. She fanned me with her notepad.

Once they’d freed me from my Capri pants, the tailors set about wedging my perspiring body into the lovely V-neck dress they’d sewn in less than 24 hours.

“Really, I’m sorry,” I said as the bespectacled woman zipped me into the dress, which conformed perfectly to my shape. “This beautiful new fabric – and I’m just sweating all over it.”

“Good fit?” she said, steering me to face the mirror.

“Oh – yes!”

I ventured beyond the curtain to show Dave. A small army of pink-clad tailors surrounded him, pinching and marking the chalked-up foundation of a wool suit jacket draped over him. At 5’ 8”, he was a giant amidst the Vietnamese women, shoulders and face and dazed grin well clear of the tallest tailor’s head. Beads of sweat swelled at his temples, burst and trickled down his face and into the stiff new collar of his dress shirt.

“This first time you get clothes fit?” A tailor asked me.

Yes. We can’t afford luxury in our country, but in your country we are kings.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The next several posts will recount my recent trip to Vietnam and Thailand

There’s the cheerful travel blog form, so fun and easy to read, a catalog of meals, colors, street names, the dutifully snapped photos, the funny foreign language jokes. You’re convincing yourself and everyone else of what a good time you are having or had, that your trip was worth it, the expense and exhaustion and time, the sweat, dirt, and nausea. It was worth it. Isn’t it always? However much goes wrong, haven’t you always learned? Hasn’t your mind changed, grown, attained new heights and depths? Of course it has. There is perhaps no unworthy trip.

Very little went wrong on my recent trip to Asia, and what did go wrong was laughed off within hours. Because of (or despite) this, the trip was worth a whole lot to me: a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge, a lot of fun. I can’t claim perfection, can’t adopt a voice of infinite cheer — that would seem somehow unfair to Vietnam and Thailand. I can tell you what I saw, heard, and smelled; I can tell you what I didn’t see, hear, or smell. I can claim to have understood a few things and much more easily confess to having misunderstood or simply not understood many more. Endless chatter in foreign tongues, expressions of face and word that might or might not have been attempting to communicate what they did in fact communicate. A general feeling of being apart, not just in race, language, and culture, but in expectations, in daily rhythms, ways of holding and being oneself. Try as one might, the world would remain impenetrable. You can only go so deep in 17 days.

Last time I was abroad, in France, the goal was not just to travel but to study, live, blend. Yet despite speaking French (well enough), befriending locals, and exploring the region, five months in Provence barely nicked the dense wall of my ignorance in all the matters that mattered. I was still on the outside, still a neophyte. How much outrageously more, then, must I be ignorant of Asia?

Maybe I would have absorbed more if I’d written about the trip as it was happening, provided a running score of the towns we encountered and meals we ate as we encountered and ate them. But I was too lazy or exhausted or caught up in the joys of traveling with another to do any real writing on the ground. Did I mention that I had a companion, the wonderful Dave? Neither of us had ever had ever traveled as half of a pair, and I found that learning to be and go together — a surprisingly easy, happy lesson — proved almost as much of an adventure as Asia itself.

In the past, I was accustomed to seeing places “as a writer,” which is to say alone. Even when traveling with others, I formed my most important memories apart: in England it was abandoning my group to explore the medieval castles on my own; in Provence it was daily solitary walks in the countryside; in Maine it was letting my mind wander in the potato fields. But traveling with someone, I mean really with someone, is the opposite of observing the world as a writer. Every observation is immediately shared, immediately identified as an experience and shaped as one memory in two minds. This is not to say that Dave and I didn’t have individual thoughts about and reactions to the places that we visited — of course we did — but rather that the dialog we wrote together, our collective impressions, became the text that defined the nature of our trip-as-it-was-happening. This shared text is invaluable, a funny and beautiful narrative that we’ll be able to return to again and again as the trip becomes fixed in our memories. It bears a certain resemblance to the blog form: a tone of general cheer, an impulse to make the best of every situation, a tendency to prove to ourselves that we were having the best possible time or even a very good time — which we usually were. Our shared story acts as a sort of proof that we were there, together, in Asia.

But now that I’m back in the States, now that I have some time to myself, I can pick back through my individual memories of Vietnam and Thailand to create a new text: not a lovers’ dialog but a writer’s stream, a selfish, pungent collection of moments that might distinguish my small sip of Asia from the sips and gulps of the millions of others who came before. Isn’t that to some extent what we all want, we outsiders drawn to those parts of the world most distant from our own? To feel that we have seen something slightly different, or seen it in a slightly different way, or seen it slightly more intensely than anyone else?