Archive for the 'Hoi An' Category

Apr 15 2008

Hoi An: Hello, you buy someting?

Published by under Hanoi,Hoi An,Vietnam

“Wake up! We are in Hoi An. We would like for you to get off of the bus now to look at this hotel. This hotel has pool, bicycles, is your home away from home. It is very cheap, very nice. The places in the center of Hoi An are many more expensive and very bad.”

I woke up from the brief nap I’d been enjoying on the bus ride from Hue (say it: Hway) to Hoi An to find that the rickety bus had stopped in front of a large hotel just outside of the old city center, and a bus company representative was starting his sales pitch. Unfortunately, along with those friendly convenience store stops you have to endure when riding a bus in SE Asia, you also have to put up with stopping at some hotel that has bribed the bus company.

“Seriously?” I said to Ben, groggily. “We have to deal with this crap again?”

“Madam,” a hotel employee said, walking up to our seats. “Have you booked hotel in Hoi An?

“No, we haven’t,” I replied.

“Please, come see a room in this hotel. Just a moment, that is all.”

“That’s okay, we would like to check out several guesthouses.”

“But do you know that they are not as good and more expensive? Many people in the center try to sell you bad hotels. This hotel is very nice.”

“No, thank you.”

“Just come see, if you no like, you no stay, get back on the bus.”

Thanks to his unwavering insistence and Ben’s realization that we could hop off the bus here and easily walk to other guesthouses in the area, we reluctantly agreed. It was a fine hotel and a fine price, but because I’m so tired of people pushing stuff on me and I do not want to encourage this sort of behavior, I refused to stay. Ben, who was more tired and is generally more reasonable, did not agree. But he indulged my righteous indignation, the patient man he is, and we set off to check out other hotels. (Although the bus company refused to let us actually disembark at this hotel – they insisted that if we were not going to rent a room, we would have to re-board the bus and be taken to the actual bus stop in town.)

We found a room relatively easily, thanks to a guidebook recommendation, that turned out to be cheaper and had wifi – painfully slow wifi, but wifi nonetheless. Plus it had pink, ruffle-y mosquito nets, instead of your plain, boring white ones!

We’d read that Hoi An has its own regional culinary specialties, and since “culinary specialties” are our specialty, we sought out a restaurant about an hour after arriving in the city and ordered every single one.

As we sat on the outdoor patio waiting for our food to arrive, a woman walked up to us carrying… one of those things. You know, those things. You don’t know? I just realized I have no idea what they’re called. Let’s call them flibbertigibbets. It’s a long bamboo pole with woven baskets hanging from each end that a person hoists on one shoulder – they are ubiquitous in SE Asia, and a very popular way for women, in particular, to transport items or sell their wares. Here’s what I mean:
the streets of Hanoi

So ANYWAY, a really old woman carting a flibbertigibbet walked up to our table. “Hello, hello!” she said, loudly.

“Hello,” we replied. She stared at us for a minute.

“HELLO,” she said again, motioning to her baskets, full of an unidentifiable small, brown fruit.

“Uh, hello, no thanks,” we replied, shaking our heads.

“HELLO, HELLO,” she said again, as she picked up a bunch of these fruits and shook them in my face.

“Hello! No, thank you!” I said, and she resignedly walked away.

“Pretty convincing sales pitch she has,” Ben noted.

It was a fitting start to our days in Hoi An. As the city is smack on the well-defined tourist trail of Vietnam, the merchants of Hoi An have learned a little English to help them communicate with us tourists. Unfortunately, their vocabulary consists of four words: “hello, you buy someting?”

You cannot walk down the street in Hoi An without hearing “hello, you buy someting?” from nearly every Vietnamese person you pass. I one day hope to find the English-speaking tourist who decided to educate the citizens of Hoi An so I can give him or her the giant slap they deserve.

Because it doesn’t even make sense. It’s not “welcome to my shop” or “please have a look around.” After about a dozen “hello, you buy someting?”s and a dozen “no, thanks,” in return, I’d shout “Look, the fact that you have this cart/stand/store/flibbertigibbet set up indicates to me that you indeed have goods available for sale. So ‘hello, you buy someting?’ is annoyingly redundant. If I want to purchase anything, I will browse your wares. Maybe, then, I will ‘buy something.’”

To which they reply, “hello, you buy someting?”

We were both feeling irritable, sniffle-y and sore throat-y during our first days in Hoi An, which we used as an excuse to stay in bed, drink banana shakes, and watch satellite TV. Aside from MTV Asia, which plays awesome Asian boy band videos, there was one English-speaking channel option on our guesthouse TV – a channel called Star Movies. Apparently, to make it into Star Movies’ rotation, it is required that a movie have a budget of less than my monthly salary, star as many D-list actors as possible, and have been seen in theaters by no more than a couple dozen people worldwide. Bonus if the movie went straight to DVD.

We watched Vin Diesel’s “The Pacifier,” a movie starring the Duff sisters (Hillary AND Hayley), a movie where they make a really big deal out of Kirsten Dunst boinking a Hispanic guy, and a movie about a vampire baby. Over and over and over again.

But, honestly, we enjoyed it anyway. ‘Cause some days you just want to do nothing and gorge yourself on junk food.

Speaking of which, the tourist industry of SE Asia has determined that Westerners need two food items in order to survive: Pringles and Oreos. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a vendor selling Pringles and Oreos in any SE Asian city that’s remotely touristed.

I don’t even LIKE Pringles or Oreos, and have no idea why they’ve decided these are the mainstays of the Western diet. But you know what? They’ve starting to convince me that, yes, in fact, I really do need those Pringles! I’m not going to lie: meal after meal of rice or noodles makes those American snacks start to look pretty darn tasty, my friends. You can try to resist, but your efforts are futile. I find myself actively craving something I don’t think I’ve ever in my life bought at home. I’ll be lying in bed at night cursing myself for not picking up a package of Oreos at the minimart.

When we finally got around to exploring Hoi An, we discovered that it is a beautiful, charming coastal town: crumbling colonial-style yellow buildings line a waterfront crowded with colorful fishing boats. It’s been an important port town for centuries and, like so many places in Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Of course, none of that is why anyone comes to Hoi An. People come to Hoi An for one reason: its the best place in SE Asia to buy cheap, custom-tailored clothes. The citizens of Hoi An have taken advantage of their reputation and every other store in the city is a tailor shop.

Ben and I were wary, as usually, and unlike everyone around us, hadn’t come to Hoi An expecting to tailor clothes. I didn’t want to get carried away and end up ordering a bunch of clothes that turn out to be junk – we’d heard many a horror story about bogus tailors, or just shoddy ones.

I had to admit, though, that the idea of it did intrigue me. Thanks to my gangly limbs, I can’t ever find clothes that fit me. Could they actually make clothes here that go down to my ankles and wrists? How novel!

So one afternoon we reticently stepped into a tailor shop off of the main street – one we’d heard was reputable and, even from the outside, seemed more legit that its colleagues. As I suspected, it didn’t take long for us to get swept up in the process, as we perused catalogues, marveled at the hundreds of gorgeous fabrics lining the walls and watched as many happy customers came and went with their beautiful, perfectly-fitting clothes. I couldn’t help myself: I ended up ordering a winter coat and dress pants. Ben, who’d been sitting quietly at a table, leisurely flipping through catalogues, surprised me with the announcement that he was going to order a suit. So he spent the next hour browsing various fabrics and fits and dictating exactly how he wanted his new suit to look. His custom-tailored, Italian wool/cashmere blend, pinstriped suit ended up costing a whopping $130.

Ben being fitted for a shirtThanks to their incredible one-day turnover, we turned up at the shop the next afternoon to find our clothes were ready for our first fitting.

I can’t describe the feeling as I pulled on my new pants. I nearly cried. They didn’t tug in any places, they didn’t bunch. They went all the way down to the floor, they didn’t squeeze my waist. They fit me perfectly. It was like they were made for me.

I know what you’re thinking: DUH. That’s what custom tailored clothes are all about! I know, I know. But actually experiencing it was, after a lifetime of wardrobe frustration, a near miracle.

So I ordered another coat, three more pairs of pants, a business suit and a dress. Oops! Then Ben realized he could order ties at $4 a pop from any material that struck his fancy. Yeah, we spent the majority of our day at the tailor’s. We had to buy additional luggage to carry our purchases home from the enterprising young women selling just that in the local markets.

To get around town, Ben and I had rented bicycles on our first day in Hoi An (at less than $1 per day). We didn’t have the guts to rent them in Hanoi, even though it’s a popular local way to get around, but we felt safe in Hoi An, which is notably quieter, quainter and less trafficked.

bikes in Hoi An Rented bicycles in Vietnam come with two fun features that you don’t find on bicycles ridden by those above the age of ten in the States: baskets and bells. I enjoyed carting things around in my basket probably more than most healthy 25-year-olds should.

Ben and I decided to adopt the local horn-usage technique when riding through Hoi An. That is, honk incessantly to alert others of your presence. They, in turn, better get out of the way or be run over! The tinny ping of a bicycle bell doesn’t have quite the same effect as a blaring car horn, but it worked nonetheless! We received strange stares from pedestrians and moto drivers as we careened through intersections ringing our bells like crazy, but every one of them paused to let us pass.

By the end of our time in Hoi An, Ben and I were desperate to get off the tourist track, a surprisingly difficult proposition in this country. We have experienced our most challenging culture clash yet in Vietnam. We’d had several other frustrating incidents, including one with a cobbler in which I had to get all in her face and sassy, which I really did not want to DO, but I’m sorry, I’m not going to pay for shoes I did not order! Tired of being seen only as giant walking dollar signs, we hired two drivers and two motorbikes, piled our luggage on the backs, and decided to head for the hills!

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Apr 14 2008

Run DMZ

Published by under Hanoi,Hoi An,Vietnam

The overnight bus from Hanoi south to Hoi An ain’t a thing of beauty. On the plus side, it actually contains beds, which is a first for us on any overnight bus experience. But on the other hand, the proximity of the beds in the rear of the bus forces unwanted stranger spooning, the potholed roads ensure that half your night is spent airborne, the driver incessantly honks the loudest horn in the universe the entire night, and there is only a six-hour respite from blaring Vietnamese karaoke on the speaker system. When the karaoke resumed around 5:00am, Brittany got mad enough to climb down from her bunk, clamber over the tightly-packed rows of prostrate passengers, and make it to the front of the bus to ask the driver to please turn the karaoke off, at least until sunrise. He deemed her request worthy of no more attention than a shoo-ing hand gesture, which has been an impressively bottomless source of daily anger for her ever since.

When the bus stopped for breakfast several hours north of Hoi An at 7:00am, we stumbled out of our cots confused, sleepless, and smelling of other people’s B.O. Neither of us wanted the bus to take this meal break: having given up on the hope of sleep on the bus, we were both eager to simply get to Hoi An, and collapse at the first guesthouse we found. So when a local tourguide approached us at our breakfast table, proposing that we abandon our ride and sign up with him for a day tour of the nearby war-time de-militarized zone (DMZ), I’m not sure why we considered this a good idea. It could have been the book of reviews from satisfied customers he excitedly showed us, but I think it was probably his promise to deliver us the rest of the way to Hoi An in a minivan.

We soon learned that there was much more to our new guide than his attractive possession of karakoke-free transportation. His name was Hoa, and as a teenager, he fought for the South in what the Vietnamese know as the American War. He was excited to discover that we are Americans (weird, this never excited anyone in the North…), and he happily informed us that during the war, the American soldiers gave him the nickname, “Jimmy.” Hoa’s expectant eyes revealed that we, too, should now call him Jimmy. And so we did. I should also mention that our status as Americans earned us other special privileges, such as the admonition, “Hurry up, Yankee!” every time we lingered behind in the same way our predecessors must have. Also, we were treated to an informative audio presentation of every English-language swear word Jimmy learned from the Americans. American soldiers know a LOT of swear words. And now so do all the small children visiting the DMZ that day, whose horrified parents doubtfully banked on their educational field trip including such vocabulary supplements as “M*****f***ing son of a b****!!!” But I digress.

Our DMZ tour consisted of several minivan stops. The first was at an unmarked field, and while our driver stayed with the car, Jimmy led us down an equally unmarked path. We weren’t even out of sight of the minivan when he stopped us to point out some sort of ammunition shell overgrown by weeds. It was eerie at first to juse see it sitting there by the path, but we’d soon get used to the fact that stuff like this has, in so many places, simply never been cleaned up. And just like in eastern Laos, so much of it is dangerous unexploded ordnance. Yes, we stuck closely to the defined path after that. A path disconcertingly flanked on one side by innumerable identical trees in mathematically precise rows. I couldn’t make sense of this forest’s precision until Jimmy explained these were all rubber trees, planted to re-forest an area decimated by Agent Orange and napalm. This answered my question, but did nothing for the disconcerting feeling.

Old southern bunker (Vietnam DMZ)The reason Jimmy brought us to this field, and the reason we’d so quickly spotted old ammunition, was because this was a battlefield where Jimmy had fought years ago. He brought us to a bunker where he’d beem stationed, and invited us to climb on it as we much as we wanted. “Climb on it” hadn’t really been my first thought upon seeing the bunker, but since these are possibly Brittany’s three favorite words (that, or “More. Nutella. Now.”) it worked out nicely. It was here also that Jimmy showed us his battle scars: two bullet wounds on his legs, and a gash atop his skull from shrapnel. You could really say three bullet wounds on his legs, since one bullet left an entrance AND exit hole. Jimmy concluded this presentation with the declaration that he is an unlucky man. I suggested that, since he is still here, he is actually a very lucky man. Jimmy looked like he pondered this thought for a moment, but it could have just been gas.

Soldier Cemetary (Vietnam DMZ)Back to the minivan, and on to our next stop: a cemetary for fallen soldiers. Specifically, fallen Northern soldiers, because the cemetaries are indeed separated. The particular cemetary we visited was dedicated primarily to young soldiers, aged 16-18, and was home to far more rows of small white headstones than we managed to see in one visit. Just as the overwhelming numbers began to sink in, Jimmy told us that this cemetary was one of 72 in this area alone, a testament to the catastrophic death toll absorbed by the north Vietnamese. During our visit, many faithful visitors came to light sticks of incense at the headstones of friends and family members, and to pray at the large central monument to the Unknown Soldier.

Our third stop was a short drive away: the 17th Parallel. The selection of the 17th Parallel as the North-South division makes a lot of sense after seeing it in person, because it’s actually a river. Not much room for confusion there. More confusing is the title of “DMZ”, which is something of a misnomer in Vietnam. While it is true that several kilometers on both sides of the 17th Parallel were left neutral when the North and South divided, the title of “de-militarized” meant absolutely nothing once war broke out. The north Vietnamese poured over the 17th Parallel with no hesitation, and some of the fiercest fighting of the war happened on this contested soil. But during the pre-war years, the DMZ represented an ucompromising division. Once the designation of a 17th Parallel was agreed upon, the two Vietnamese governments gave the people of Vietnam a grace period and an ultimatum: pick your side, and make sure you’re on it two months from now. So for two months, the bridge over the river at the 17th Parallel was a walkway for people leaving home, friends, and family to get to the side they wanted, or felt they needed, to be on. After that time, the bridge was closed to all traffic, armed guards were posted on both sides, and the people of Vietnam were officially separated.

Crossing the 17th Parallel Bridge (Vietnam DMZ)Today, the bridge that once served as the only (closed) connection between North and South has been overshadowed by a much larger, modern version, better equipped to handle today’s large volume of automobile traffic. But the old bridge is still there, and open once more to pedestrian crossings. We walked with Jimmy across the bridge to a small museum that doesn’t seem to get any visitors, and we pondered a huge stone monument on the southern side of the river. The centerpiece of the monument is a statue of a woman with her small child, staring across the bridge and into the northern distance. Jimmy explained that she is the wife of a soldier who left his family to cross into the North before the bridge was shut down, and she is now forever waiting for her husband to return.

Visiting the 17th Parallel set Jimmy off on an angry tirade about the stupidity of his government. Between creative strings of English-language swearing, he conveyed the fact that the southern Vietnamese (like him) are still being punished by the government for being on the wrong side of battle. As a father, his most passionate example is that public school is free to the Vietnamese… in the north. For those unfortunate enough to live in the south, the government provides no such service. Health care is free only to northerners as well, and all these services are funded by the higher taxes levied upon the South. I asked Jimmy if he could just simply move to the North to begin taking advantage of these opportunities, and he informed me that even if he did move, the government would still know exactly where he came from, and continue to saddle him with the burdens of a southerner. Jimmy lamented that the reality of modern Vietnam, still divided in so many ways, is never what Uncle Ho wanted for his people.

Our final stop of the afternoon allowed us to check out something I’d really wanted to see ever since arriving in this country: Viet Cong underground tunnels. Well, it did and it didn’t. I had been specifically imaging the tiny hidden tunnels that Viet Cong guerrillas had used to sneak behind enemy lines and pop up, as if from nowhere, in the middle of dense jungle. Those sort of tunnels turn out to be more prevalent down closer to Saigon (NO ONE calls it Ho Chi Minh City) and I hear they are open for tourists to try and squeeze through. The tunnels we visited here in the DMZ, though, were not used for tactical warfare, but to house a hidden village of northerners! They were living too close to the border for comfort, and knew that if the southerners were to find them, it’d be lights-out. So they did exactly what any reasonable group of people would do in this sort of difficult situation: become mole people.

How some north Vietnamese lived underground (Vietnam DMZ)When I say “become mole people,” I mean it. The residents of this village carved out an extensive multi-tiered underground labyrinth by the ocean shore, outfitting it with all of the accommodations they would need to live healthy, well-adjusted, mole people lives. Ducking low, we followed Jimmy through a hidden entrance, down a dark set of stairs carved into the rock, and into the unlit world of the underground village. Beneath the earth, we visited rooms designated as family living spaces, a communal laundry room, a maternity room, and an underground well dug to ensure that the residents of this village would have to leave the safety of its confines as rarely as possible. The villagers had even cut additional staircases descending to levels many meters deeper into the earth, allowing them to put as much rock as possible between themselves and the surface in the all-too-frequent event of overhead bombing. We went down to the first two levels, but only stared down (with the help of flashlights) at the bomb shelter that composed the third, and deepest, level of the maze. I ultimately emerged from the underground complex with the realization that I’m maybe a little more claustrophobic than I’d reckoned, and with a new-found respect for the unbreakable will of the Vietnamese people. I mean, I have substantial doubts they could even get WI-FI under there. How did they blog?? I shudder to think.

Officially finished with our tour, the minivan hit the road, as promised, to take us the last few hours to Hoi An. Except somehow we ended up getting dropped off in the city of Hue, which is still a couple of hours north of Hoi An. We quickly checked out our guidebook’s entry on Hue, and found the author insisting that Hue is worth visiting for its ancient citadel with riverside pagodas. But we were tired from getting no sleep on the karaoke bus, and too grumpy to care about pagodas or citadels, so we closed that book and went to sleep. Which is why I have nothing at all to say about the city of Hue; in fact, I already barely remember being there. I worried at the time that I might later regret missing out on seeing Hue, but as it turns out, I don’t. Ha! It’s always nice when things work out. I DO know something about Hoi An, the tailoring capital of SE Asia, but that story will wait, as stories so often do, for next time.

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Apr 12 2008

Hanoi Addendum: Water Puppets!

Published by under Hanoi,Hoi An,Vietnam

I can’t believe I forgot to mention the water puppets!

The ancient peoples of Northern Vietnam entertained themselves by putting on water puppet shows! Probably in their rice paddies. A theater in Hanoi maintains this proud Vietnamese tradition with much-heralded nightly water puppet shows.

When we first heard about Hanoi’s famous water puppets, we, of course, thought, that is so lame. Seriously, a puppet show? Who likes that? Little kids or something?? How dorky!

Okay, so really when we heard about the puppets, the show skyrocketed to the top of our things-to-do-in-Hanoi list. Whatever. I’ll stop pretending we’re not huge dweebs.

So one evening in Hanoi we booked it over to the water puppet theater and snatched up the last two tickets to that night’s show (tickets that were only available thanks to a cancellation. Apparently you have to make something called “reservations.” Not sure what those are, but I’m told it has something to do with people who “plan ahead”?)

I’m happy to report that water puppets are awesome! Apparently puppetry transcends lanuguage barriers because even though we couldn’t understand a single word the narrator said, we found the show entertaining. The puppets themselves were impressive — multi-jointed, fire-breathing, water-spouting affairs.

What ARE water puppets, you ask? Instead of attempting to describe them, please enjoy the following video snippets of the show:

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