Days 222 - 224
The Fast Talker
After surviving our bus trip into Hoi An (during which we paid twice as much as the locals), Katie and I found our lodging. The sign outside said “Home Stay,” but that was a stretch. Our room, and the building in general, were quite nice, but it was nothing like our last home stay in Can Tho, where the mom taught us how to make spring rolls, and their neighbor showed us around the city. This place was simply a hotel with a “Home Stay” sign in the yard.
The owner was a short and slim man with crooked yellow teeth who wore an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt on top of a wife-beater. All day he sat on his living room couch, smoking cigarettes, playing with his iPad and awkwardly flirting with every female who entered the place. He didn't flirt with me, but he did grab my arm and try to sell me stuff whenever I walked past him. “You could use a suit. My sister has a tailor shop, she'll give you a great price.” “You want to take a tour? My friend can set it up.”
His wife was quite nice, though. She literally did all of the work around the hotel, from cooking, to cleaning, to showing guests to their rooms, to actually booking those tours and managing the finances. Because of her, we did enjoy our stay, though the hotel would be much better off if it got rid of one of its employees.
Yes, My Son
One of the most popular attractions around Hoi An is the ancient Hindu temple of My Son, dedicated to the god Shiva. While not as big or impressive as Angkor Wat, My Son's recent history still made it worth a visit. During the American War (as it's known in Vietnam), some of the Vietcong were hiding in the ruins, so the US military carpet-bombed the site. Our guide even showed us two of the bombs that didn't explode, as well as an impact crater from one that did. Some of My Son has since been restored, but most of it was damaged beyond repair in the war. Perhaps the most interesting part of My Son was the restoration itself: the 30-year-old bricks were falling apart, but the original bricks from 800 years ago were still in fine shape.
One day Katie and I rented bikes to explore some nature around Hoi An. Our goal was to check out Marble Mountain, about halfway between Hoi An and Da Nang. We rode north along the coast, past huge rice fields and tiny villages. As we approached the mountain, we understood how it had gotten its name. Piles of marble were lying next to the road, and there were giant marble statues of Buddha and Confucius standing outside of shops. As we rode, a lady on a motorcycle pulled up next to us. We had a nice conversation, until I realized that she owned one of the marble shops, and she was only talking to us in hopes that we would buy something. She did allow us to park our bikes, free of charge, and she even covered them with cardboard to protect them from the elements. Splendid!
As soon as I saw the glass elevator to the summit, I knew that Marble Mountain would not provide the solitude in nature I was seeking. In fact, several temples were on top of the mountain, and hundreds of people were walking around. We joined the crowd and made the most of it. While not an amazing nature experience, the bike ride to the mountain made it worthwhile.
On the way back to Hoi An we stumbled upon a little restaurant, with bowls of something similar to seafood gumbo for $1. The family who lived there was very friendly, and the food was delicious, perhaps our favorite meal in the country so far. In fact, we both wanted seconds. But the language barrier prevented us from communicating this to the lady selling it. When hand gestures using my empty bowl failed, I took out my cash. The lady insisted that I had already paid and wouldn't take any more money. Finally, it clicked in her mind that we wanted to buy another bowl. She laughed hysterically, and called out her family members to watch as we continued to eat. I guessed they had never seen anyone eat so much. But when the food's that good, I don't mind being laughed at. It was the perfect lunch before our long ride, through the tropical heat, back to Hoi An.
A nice town?
“Hoi An is a nice town, if you take away all of the bad stuff,” Katie said.
Motorcycles ruled the streets. The sidewalks were full of parked motorcycles, leaving nowhere to walk but on the streets. One of the main attractions in town was a bridge, but it was so packed with people taking photos, it was hard to walk across. And even despite all of the pedestrians, people still managed to force their way across the bridge on their motorcycles.
One day we rode our borrowed bicycles around the countryside. Hoi An was surrounded by bright green rice fields, filled with flocks of white storks. (The scarecrows wearing cone hats clearly weren't very effective.) Buffalo grazed on the grasses and fishermen trolled the rivers with giant nets. The idyllic villages were mostly devoid of traffic, and every other house had delicious coffee and pho for sale.
That night we met a friend of a friend of a friend and his friend for a drink. The “fresh beer” (their name for draft beer) was only twenty cents a glass, tied with Isla Margarita in Venezuela for the cheapest beer I've ever had. We sat outside and had a long conversation while flickering candles floated along the river next to us. Recalling the beautiful rice fields and the delicious food and coffee, I realized that Katie was right: if you take away all of the bad stuff, Hoi An is a nice town.