Travel Journal

Fri 15 to Mon 18 Hoi An and the hills behind

(Wednesday 3 August 2011) by Julia Bartholomew
I’m a slow learner at reading the coded descriptions in the Lonely Planet and should have known that a town described as a ‘living museum’ would be overrun and that its atmosphere would have suffered as a result. Hoi An is pretty but its charm has been eroded by the presence of too many tourists and the town’s efforts to cater to the tastes of those tourists by lighting the place up like a Christmas tree, including, inexplicably, giant illuminated plastic statues of kittens in the river: a spectacle worthy of the Chinese. I’d arrived in the evening to the full glare of the town’s illuminations but my second impression of Hoi An in the calm of the following morning was much better. Also, whilst restaurants were suddenly western prices, street kitchens were still ubiquitous and I had excellent chicken rice still for only about 70p. My disappointment at Hoi An’s tarnished charm spurred me on to get away from my fellow tourists and go and explore more of the real Vietnam and I arranged to spend a couple of days on the back of a motorbike with an ‘easyrider’ biker, to explore the hill villages behind Hue. I also had a few sartorial matters to deal with in Hoi An, as I needed a dress for my brother’s imminent wedding , and the town is brimming with tailors. I picked one that looked promising, ‘Tina’s’, and set about picking styles and materials, had my measurements taken and arranged to come back after the bike ride.
I spent two wonderful days gripping on the back of a fairly powerful Honda, piloted by my eminently trustworthy and competent guide, Hai, who promised me, amongst other things, swims in waterfalls with no one else there, villages inhabited by ‘minority peoples’, and a friendly monkey. Hai is distinctly higher in the biker hierarchy than the men who rest horizontally on their motorbikes on street corners asking passers -by ‘moto? Moto?’ ‘Where you go?’ ‘I take you where you wanna go’. He wore a shirt with collar, had a large and powerful bike and I felt in very capable hands. The trip had everything. We stopped regularly for various local treats from the roadside, like sugarcane juice, where a lady minced up sugar canes and somehow extracted the nectar-like liquid from inside. We had lunch of fat flat rice noodles in spicy soup with chicken, fresh herbs and bitter salad leaves, and broken up bits of rice cracker. I never quite knew where we were going or what to expect but every time we stopped, Hai would scamper off somewhere, bound off into the undergrowth, me trailing behind, to show me something with boyish enthusiasm. We stopped to see melons, pineapples, bananas and dragon fruit, all growing in one garden. He uprooted a small tree to show me the manioc root growing underneath, which people in the hills used to eat during the Vietnam war. We saw paddy fields where women in colourful loose cotton trouser and shirt combinations and conical hats toiled and we saw them lugging heavy baskets up the road, the menfolk notable by their absence. In traditional communities it is the women who do all the work, as well as child-rearing of course, whilst men gather together to drink tea and play cards. We crossed some terrifyingly precarious bridges to visit villages, where people were extremely welcoming and not at all bothered by my rather intrusive tramping around and peering into their huts and taking pictures. Inside peoples’ homes they have an altar type arrangement, with the ubiquitous photo of Ho Chi Minh and Communist flag, sometimes a T.V, certificates to say that the children have been to school, and on the roof skulls of chickens, pigs and any other animals that have been eaten that year. A curious montage. Each village had a tall communal thatch hut on stilts, just like the one at the museum, and Hai told me that underneath the hut a buffalo would be slaughtered on special occasions. Hai led me off the track to deserted waterfalls to splash in, as promised, and we stopped overnight in a basic and rather down-at-heel-hotel in a town somewhere up in the mountains, where we were the only guests. For dinner, Hai bbq’d us venison cut into little bits on a grill over a clay pot with charcoal in. For breakfast, Hai even managed to find me fresh baguette, still warm, just the thing with omelette and Vietnamese coffee (rocket fuel). That day I got more waterfalls, as promised, enough to now make an entire calendar for 2010 of myself bikini-clad under a waterfall. I was also introduced to the friendly monkey, who belonged to a family and who’s ignominious fate I learned was to be sold for $10 US for medicine. He was at least enjoying his last days, pulling the tail of the puppy and peeling lychees with exemplary skill and speed. One or two interesting things I noticed in some of the villages on the way back to Hoi An: many of the villages announced themselves to the visitor with large, colourful banners straddling the road, presumably put up by the government, and certainly give you a sense of having arrived somewhere, even if it is somewhere fairly nondescript. I saw several obviously new, brightly painted public buildings, like schools, so the government is clearly spending money on countryside communities. I also saw one or two large and elaborate houses on streets of very simple dwellings. Hai told me those probably belonged to the few lucky ones who had managed to strike lucky sifting for gold in the river and who would also give money from their fortune to their village. Everywhere we stopped the women asked Hai the same 3 questions: was I married, did I have a boyfriend and how old was I? My average age was put at about 18.
We got back to Hoi An in time for a final fitting at the tailors, which felt especially decadent after two windblown days in the hills, and then the sleeper bus down the coast to Mui Ne for a dose of horizontal time on the beach.


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