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.