Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Out of Touch, Into Hoi An

The one problem with a weblog is that if you're out in the middle of nowhere and want to post something, it can be rather difficult. So I end up with about 5 days of backlog to write about. But that'd be too long, so I'll have to summarize, I guess.
I took off from Dalat in the Central Highlands with my Easyrider guide, Trung Pagoda (I swear he told me that's his name, though I think these guys pick an alias for one part). Trung's a very knowledgeable guy, he learned English from his father, who was a South Vietnamese pilot shot down and captured during the war. He'd hoped to be a commercial pilot after the war, but due to his political feelings he can't hold any job beyond farmer. Trung spent 3 years as a lay person studying in a Buddhist monastery, one he took us to on a day trip around Dalat.
I did a 3 day tour from Dalat north to Buon Me Thout, then east to Nha Trang on the coast where we parted ways. Along the way, he took me to spend the night in a traditional Manong hilltribe longhouse, where I was awakened at 4:30 am when the sun came up and all the animals and people started making noise. The animals all sleep under the house, so my wake-up call was the pig 2 feet beneath me grunting for breakfast. The Manong tribe don't rely much on tourism, and what money comes in from tourists spending the night in local houses goes to the headman, who distributes it for the education of the children. For me, it seems a noble purpose; and a heck of a lot better than having kids pursue you up the road trying to sell you gum or photocopied books.
My guide's main interest is in showing people the Vietnam you don't see when you take a package tour, and he delights in showing off the local industries, such as the silk, bamboo, and rice wine-makers I saw on my day trips. I got to see a tea factory, coffee bean processing factory - both family-owned - and a pair of septagenarian (sp?) widowed sisters who make rice paper snacks to feed the neighborhood children breakfast. Quite a remarkable thing.
I arrived in Nha Trang on the 8th. It's a very touristy city with a very nice beach and boat trips out to the islands for snorkelling, diving and fun in the sun. I signed up for one, not really realizing that it's more of a drinking boat tour than one focused on nature. They can be fun, but when it's just you sitting there and everyone else with their friends, it can get a bit lonely. I eventually met the people around there and went snorkelling (where I realized my dream of getting certified for diving won't happen if I can't see anything underwater without glasses). We had a bit of excitement when a Korean girl panicked and inhaled seawater through her snorkel, briefly passing out. Fortunately, a Dutchman proficient in CPR was there and prevented the crew from severely damaging her when they attempted to rescucitate her. She recovered and was more embarrassed than hurt, but they still took her off for an examination. A fun part was the floating bar, which is what it sounds like, a small raft with wine and everybody has a rescue donut and floats/drinks.
Nha Trang is fun if you're on a honeymoon or part of a group of partiers, so I didn't stay entertained long, and caught a night train to Danang. I met (another) Spanish couple, Gerard and Marta, while looking for a fruit stand near the station. We decided to pool resources and split a taxi to Hoi An, a small, well-preserved town 30km south of Danang. They wanted to stop off at the Marble Mountains, which I'd not heard of, not being interested at all in Danang. I'm lucky I met them, since it turned out the be quite a nice sidetrip. There's a huge marble-carving industry, and as the Lonely Planet guide says, they'd make great souvenirs if they didn't weigh so much. I don't quite comprehend how the showrooms make any money, but they've made quite a lot of statues ranging from Christ to the Fat Buddha.
We arrived in Hoi An on the 10th ready for a shower and lunch. I stopped a random couple walking down the street to ask for a hotel recommendation. They, surprise-surprise, turned out to be Spanish also. Exhibiting that typical inclusive Spanish spirit, they offered to show us where they were I can't believe how many I've met on this trip. My first day in Hoi An I must've met at least 15, including 4 older ladies from Barcelona I'd met on my Mekong Delta tour. Small world.
I haven't seen too much of Hoi An yet, we spent yesterday just wandering and soaking up the culture. Marta's been having problems with the malaria prevention pills she's taking, which makes her skin photosensitive. I'm glad I didn't take anything, since the side-effects can be so severe for such a low-risk problem. Well, low-risk if you use mosquito spray and don't get bitten often, something I haven't managed to do yet.
Well, it seems to have stopped raining for the moment, so I'm off to see about having some clothes made. This is THE place for tailored clothes in Vietnam, so I'm going to see about a suit and maybe a few traditional Vietnamese shirts. Actually, what I really need are more pants. Both pairs I have are filthy, and I can only have one pair washed at a time, obviously. I'm planning on staying here for 4 or 5 days since the small-city atmosphere is so pleasant, and I got a good deal on a hotel room, so I'll post more on books and thoughts. I finished Robert S. McNamara's book, "In Retrospect," a must-read for anyone with a tangential interest in the Vietnam War or foreign policy. His conclusions are also extremely relevant for today, discussing limited war, involving the US in a politically unstable country, and being incapable of understanding the enemy. Next up is Graham Greene's "The Quiet American."

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