A tailored trip to Hoi An

The Chinese Bridge in Hoi An
The Chinese Bridge in Hoi An

Hoi An is famous for its tailors and dressmakers. Every second shop in the old town is one or the other and people flock from around to world for the custom made suits and silks. That’s definitely what Amy had come for and after some not so gentle persuasion it’s what I also got.

We caught a surprisingly comfortable overnight train from Hanoi down to Da Nang. The taxi ride south to Hoi An provided a horrifying premonition of the Floridaeske development that is underway on that coastline strip. Our senses were assaulted for the majority of the thirty-minute taxi ride by an endless procession of outrageously ostentatious beachfront resorts, all half completed. Every passing kilometer further diminished my expectations for Hoi An but I needn’t have worried, we swung a right and headed about five kilometres in from the coast until we arrived at the little gem that is Hoi An.

At Amy’s behest we got to work rectifying the clothes situation post haste. Along the way we encountered many people who were in the same mission as us but it seems they had all done their homework on the net, researching reviews of the various tailors and dressmakers on blogs before committing to getting anything made. Amy and I went old school instead. We walked the streets and looked at the actual products themselves. That is how Amy found Yaly and I found Mr Xe.

Mr Xe is a frenzied but friendly little man who spends his life in a little tailor shop set on a corner in the heart of the Hoi An old town. Camp as they come, when it comes to suits, he is an absolute perfectionist. We were walking along the street went his displays caught our eye and we stopped for a closer look. Three minutes later Amy had talked me into getting a suit made.

I was expecting the process to be more tedious than sitting through a friend’s holiday slide show but I certainly got more than I bargained for with Mr Xe. I loved it. My fittings involved me standing their while Mr Xe meticulously pruned and straightened the said garment before taking a step back and declaring either “I am happy!” or “I’m not happy!” In the case of the latter the article was sent back to the sewer for alteration. At one point I was bundled out of the shop still in my suit, handed an umbrella before driven through pouring rain to the sewer’s house for some personalized alterations.

I am sure I could have gotten a suit cheaper if I had of gone elsewhere but I doubt I could get have gotten a better one. I had five fittings over three days, Amy had nearly twice as many for all of her faboulous creations.

In between we enjoyed the many other joys Hoi An has to offer. Despite the development going on around it the old town has maintained its charming traditional architecture. Even sleeping there was like going back in time, Minh A Ancient Lodging House had it all, ornate hard wood paneling and beams, partitioned rooms, a stone well and rising damp. Then there is also the amazing local specialty dishes, including: “white rose” steamed shrimp dumplings; “cau lau” noodles with a mix of spouts and greens, topped with sliced pork and served in a savory broth; and fried wonton. Apparently the nearby beach is really nice but as it rained constantly for the entire duration of our three-night stay there we confined ourselves to the town and aren’t in a position to comment.

Amy went to Hoi An on a shopping mission. Four days later I left with two two-piece suits, two extra slacks, six shirts and seven ties. If had a job I would look like a consummate professional.

Meet Joe Brown: the funest man in South East Asia

Aye, aye, captain Brown
Aye, aye, captain Brown

Hundreds of Hanoi travel agencies offer package trips to Vietnam’s most famous natural attraction; Halong Bay. While they have different schedules, durations and cost, essentially they all include the same thing: return bus trip from Hanoi (four-hours each way) and sleeping out on the bay in a traditional Chinese junk.

Every day there is a mass exodus of tourists from Hanoi that head down to see the bay, which stretches from mainland China in the north to the Gulf of Tonkin and is filled by thousands of limestone karsts and islands that leap out of the green waters in various sizes and shapes.

We jumped aboard one of these trips with low expectations. But as it turns out we got super lucky as our trip was also patronized by a Mr. Joe Brown: Englishman, amusement arcade owner, parish councilor, comedian, loud mouth, piss head and all round good guy.

Joe Brown is a big kid stuck in the body of a thirty-two year old. A little pudgy with a slight limp, he plays the role of the jolly fat man with assured confidence, always laughing, cracking gags and playing the fool. A smoker and drinker, he loves to talk. It doesn’t matter what about, just as long as there is conversation.

Proudly English, Joe was able to look me in the eye and tell me that England was the most beautiful place in the world. The fact that he is a modern day Peter Pan who refuses to grow up is proved by his choice of profession; amusement arcade owner.

Joe is also a parish councilor and on our walk through a super impressive and incredibly well lit limestone cave in one of the Halong karsts he told us about the recycling scheme he had implemented in his village. We also heard about his plans for developing his parish, one included planting hundreds of shrubs in the shape of a giant airplane so that it can be tagged on GoogleEarth.

Like they did every Christmas, Joe and his Thai wife had spent the previous couple of weeks visiting her family and were doing a bit travel in Asia by the time we ran into them. She looked incredibly unhappy for the bulk of the trip, probably something to do with the fact that her mother had died a couple of weeks before and she was shit scared of boats. Joe tried to ease her pain by getting pissed, wrapping a towel around his head and blasting out some karaoke with the boats crew right outside of her room until 3am. She did perk up markedly the next day but I think that was more to do with leaving the boat.

Joe has spent the past five years building up his tolerance to chili to the point were he has “given up illicit drugs because chili and prescription pills are enough”. He definitely loved his chili, coving everything we ate (surprisingly enough of the food on the boat was palatable) with spoonfuls of it. Joe also enjoys dabbling in a bit of sleep deprivation as it “does strange things to your mind.”

He convinced our guide to let him skipper the boat, he sang for us, drank with us, made us laugh and shared his story. You’re a good egg, Joe Brown. Halong Bay was a much better place when seen with you.

Happy times in Hanoi

The crowded streets of Hanoi
The crowded streets of Hanoi

Our minivan sluggishly made its way through the gridlocked streets of Hanoi’s Old Town. A sea of red and movement surrounded us; no matter where you looked people were waving flags. They waved them while standing on the street, waved them while hanging out the windows of buildings, waved them from the back of motorbikes and out of car windows. The people of Hanoi were celebrating. The Vietnamese football team had defeated Singapore 4-1 to qualify for the final of the South East Asia Games.

This spontaneous outburst of nationalism made blatantly obvious that Hanoi is Vietnamese through and through. The city was a definite a change of pace from sleepy old Laos. The streets are tight (as opposed to the wide boulevards of Saigon), busy and loud. Motos, cars, bicycles and street hawkers jostle for position on the road. Everywhere you look life spills from the tightly packed tumbledown buildings onto the street. People sit, eat, talk and laugh.

At first glance it appears chaotic but there is a kind of ancient intimacy about it. A feeling that it is the way it has always been and always will be. If Saigon is a teenage kid, growing fast and looking to get somewhere in hurry, then Hanoi is a mature adult, comfortable in its own skin, but still learning new tricks.

We enjoyed evading death whilst wandering the streets. Soaked in the hustle and bustle. Had fantastic Pho (noodle) while men smoked their opium pipes around us. We were subjected to the standard hotel scam. And just like every other foreigner visitor to the city we booked a trip to Halong Bay.

A relaxed ride from My Tho to Chau Doc

Having arranged transport at the hotel we made our way out to the front where our chariots awaited. Our destination, Chau Doc, on the Vietnam/Cambodian border. A direct six-hour trip where one can appreciate the tranquil surrounds from the spacious air-conditioned comfort of a deluxe coach, so our trusty salesman assured us.

On the back of our respective motos, we snaked in out of traffic on the semi-paved road at a bowel loosening 90km/h.  Amy’s driver had taken it upon himself to comprehensively flog my driver in a race neither Amy or I wanted or needed to have. Heading in the opposite direction to our ultimate destination we sped past at least three highway bus stops situated closer to our hotel. We arrived at the roadside tarpaulin that served as a bus stop, both shaken and pale (and who wouldn’t want to be whiter here? It makes you attractive to everybody from street-merchants to muggers).

While we waited a stocky Vietnamese woman of about sixty took it upon herself to protect Amy’s virtue.  A grunt indicated that our fellow traveler was satisfied with the bra strap to singlet ratio. Ten minutes feasting on the highway dust and fumes then we were bustled on to our awaiting chariot.

It was obvious from the early stages of our journey that our driver, Speedy Steve from Saigon as I came to call him, was of the Brock school of driving theory. The bedrock principal of this theory holds that the best way get somewhere is to get there quick. As such straddling lanes is preferable as it maximises ones options, which includes the other side of the road and the footpath. So we went up the 1A at pace, the fringes of Hi Chi Minh flying by, little road-side mechanic shops, open-air restaurants and tightly packed ramshackle open plan houses.

All Vietnamese drivers (be they in charge of bus, car or moto) love their horns. It was obvious from the outset that Speedy Steve had taken his love for the horn to another level. He especially loved using it to tell all the jerks in his way to move aside, quickly, or end up on the grill of his hog.

About an hour in, Speedy Steve was forced to jam on the anchors. Pulling to a screaming halt we managed to surprise three lanes of traffic. As fellow passengers looked for the source of our hilarious hiatus, I snuck a glance at our hard man of the road. A weary shake of the head seemed to concede that this wasn’t going to be his day. The Saigon traffic police usually content themselves fining foreigners but today Speedy Steve had been nabbed by the only two traffic cops working the 1A. Twenty minutes, an animated exchange, a little tea money later and we were back on our way.

Not long after the skies opened up. Amy and I both reveled in the novelty of liquid precipitation falling from the sky (having come straight from Melbourne’s big dry) but not Speedy Steve. His shoulders tightened in frustration as he was forced to reduce his speed back to a paltry life-threatening.

We pulled in for our first roadside stop. Speedy Steve’s death-defying feats of automotive skill meant that we enjoyed a thirty-two minute break instead of the customary thirty minutes.

After a couple of hours back on the road the urban fringes had given way to the lush green wetness of the rice fields sprawling between the small townships of the Mekong plains. The pastoral splendor of our surrounds was lost on Speedy Steve, less people meant less opportunity for toot’n. The constant rain had also forced him to curb his natural inclination for ridiculous speed. Deprived of his two great joys, meant a shit-boring day for Speedy Steve.

Everybody knows the best way to combat boredom and tired eyes is with a Nanna nap. Now Speedy Steve was nobody’s fool so that was what he opted for.

A couple of factors proved problematic:
a) Sleepy Steve was in command of a bus carrying 35 passengers.
b) The bus was traveling at 110km/h down a semi-sealed road
c) The semi-sealed road had been rendered marginally slippery by a torrential tropical downpour.

Nobody would have been any the wiser to Steve’s snooze had he not lost his shit when he woke, causing the bus to fish-tail out of control.

Luckily a restaurant veranda was conveniently located on the other side of the road up ahead. This provided Speedy Steve something to bring our little joy ride to an abrupt halt on.

Several people bundled out to inspect the damage, the veranda was collapsed in a heap, the side of the bus had received a substantial work over and all the passengers on the left hand side (including Amy) got a face full of thatching from the restaurant roof. Despite this we all agreed it was a small price to pay to ensure Speedy Steve was well rested.

Either our little scrape with death or an arbitrary decision by Speedy Steve brought about a change of rig at the next town. Everybody was herded into minibuses.

We had climbed aboard our crowded chariot and someone used our ignorance as a punch line, something along the lines of, “Stupid round-eye, they come to our country and don’t even bother to learn the language.” Everybody laughed. We laughed. We didn’t get it. Good call though, we didn’t have a fucking clue where we were or how long we had to go.

We stopped to deliver some mail, then to deliver some rice. Domestic duties fulfilled, we hit the highway again. After an hour or so we pulled into another bus station so the driver could ask our destination. Relived that our fellow passengers also said Chau Doc, we waited while the driver counted heads. Our driver mumbled something prompting a tirade of abuse from our fellow passengers. Obviously, not enough so we waited.

Sure enough, a 1975 Mitsibishi seven-seater rust rider rattled to a halt next to us. We all clambered in. As I was the biggest, I got the best spot, right above where the back shocks should have been.  The rear door wouldn’t close because of my bag so we had to drive with it unsnibbed. The constant banging behind my head provided welcome distraction from the constant banging of the back axle on my arse.

As we had traveled 10km we had to stop for brake fluid. We traveled another 10 km and whoola, we were at our destination, only nine hours, a brush with death, three changes of bus, and a broken coccyx later.

Hot in Ho Chi Minh

Dinner in Ho Chi Minh
Negotiating the traffic of Ho Chi Minh

We had wandered into a little restaurant near the Ben Thanh market, right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh. We found seats where we could sit adjacent one another. Just days earlier the lovely Amy, girlfriend and companion in our six-month Asian adventure, and I had finally abandoned our professional lives in Melbourne.

We had spent the morning exploring a labyrinth of ramshackle laneways. First impressions were of a city well and truly on the move. The city felt alive. The air is hot and humid, life fast and busy. The hum of a million Motos was punctuated by a thousand different horns. This was Ho Chi Minh’s mood music.

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