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 caf├ęs 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.

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