May 19th: The Tourist Mecca of Hoi An, Vietnam
Whichever way you look at it, Hoi An is a unique place. This bustling town has carved itself a niche - it's the place to shop for dirt cheap tailor-made clothes in Vietnam. Where else can you witness the sight of tourists chased by tailors, running to avoid capture? In every one of its 100 shops, huge stacks of materials and tomes of Elle, Vogue and Harpers are at hand to create that designer look. Shoe string travellers stand tall, as DJs are measured around them, or emerge wearing gracefully baggy trousers and fitted shirts... The locals seem happy in their teddy bear pyjamas (strangely popular in VN), though no doubt with their expertise they could be the snappiest dressers in the land, in a constant state of style.
Amongst the backstreets, cafes and restaurants spill out from pastel coloured colonial buildings, providing sustenance for shoppers who bounce from store to store. Indeed, for all its tourism cliches, Hoi An is a beautiful town, rich in old architecture, good food and the startling colours of the market. But the point of focus is definitely the tailors, who keenly make their presence felt. It's all too easy to get sucked in, only to emerge half an hour later, dazed and drained, with more clothes than sense. And the plaintif cry of 'my bus (or bike) leaves later,' falls on deaf ears, for these tailors work 24 hours a day/7 days a week, and half an hour is enough time for a whole range of couture, or certainly a shirt or two.
We were torn. On the one hand, it would be sacrilege to compromise our cyclist's minimalist devotion. On the other, how could we come all this way and leave empty handed? So with this excuse, we joined the melee and attempted to untangle the complex web of styles, materials and cuts - the hard currency of Hoi An.
A few hours past...
I was lucky, and escaped with a Japanese silk shirt, a couple of pairs of baggy trousers and a couple of silk boxers. Trystan was less fortunate, coming away with an English wool suit and a whole new wardrobe. All for a little more than 100 greenbacks... Orders placed, we braved the beach, to face pressure purchasing of another kind - the pineapple and postcards sellers who patrol its waters. A safe sanctuary was the inviting and refreshing blue sea, whose backdrop was a few islands dotted in the distance. Each tout has his or her patch, though the braver ones might run across a 'border' in the hope of a quick sale before being rumbled, or flee with the furtive whisper,'You buy from me later, ok?' The relentless intensity of their sales tactics can be annoying and wearing, and more then a few tourists lose their cool. But it's sad to see such desperation in trying to sell just one piece of fruit...
A typical pineapple exchange:'You wan pineapple?'
'Er, no thanks.'
'Hm, probably not.'
And when that later comes and you still don't want any pineapple, the bombshell...
'I no love you any more!'
Should you opt to try the deceitful 'I don't like pineapple.' This is met with a steely stare and the reprimand, 'You LIE to me!'
Back in Hoi An, we had become 'regulars' at a travel cafe serving the usual backpacker fare - shakes, banana pancakes and coffee. The coffee was served dark, like an oil slick above a band of condensed milk; an inverted Guinness. Our neighbours were a posse of old mamas in smoky brown glasses who sucked on thick cigars stuck to their lips. They sat around the table gossiping and playing endless rounds of cards. We suspected they ran the local bicycle rental syndicate and perhaps more... These ageing ladies had a sense of style, power and were definitely cool - they had that Brando look so I named them, 'The Godmothers.'
The cafe was a good spot to watch hapless travellers descended upon by tailors, fresh from the bus. The 'quackbikes' also passed by - ladies who rode around with dozens of live ducks strung to their bicycles - dangling by their feet from the handlebars and squeezed into wicker side baskets, all quacking away. Along with two French girls we had met on the Perfume River in Hue, one of whom had returned to her native Vietnam after many years of separation, we watched all these bizarre sights unfold around us.
The clothes were ready and pressed to go, and we risked financial ruin unless we made a break for it. Trystan and Danish Susanna posed for the camera, looking like the perfect prom couple, their sandles and bicycles shoes adding a suitably surreal touch!
Farewell to Hoi An came with a sunrise mission to the beach, along with Sofus with whom I had spent Thai New Year in April. As the sun eased its way above a bank of clouds, we were surprised by a beach teeming with Vietnamese of all ages playing badminton (very popular in VN), a kind of hacky sack, swimming, jogging, Tai Chi, leg slapping, arm waving and other unrecognisable forms of exercise - one fossil was busy burying himself in the sand... We were amazed by how supple all these older folk were, and inspired by all this early morning motion, we set off on a jog.
By 6.30am, the beach was thinning out again, and soon it was empty. Back in Hoi An, a few pancakes, many cups of tea, and hours of procrastination later, we agreed it was time to turn the bikes North and head for Ha Noi, the hills and beyond...