I don’t know what to tell you about Hoi An. There is no single story I can think of that would wind a path between all the various sights and sounds. What I can say is that we came to Hoi An for a holiday from our holiday. Globetrotting, we are discovering, can be something of a whirl wind and wonderful though it all is, finding new places to eat every three days can be hard work. No, we don’t expect sympathy!
Hoi An had all the requisite properties for a place to linger, including a beach and an ancient world heritage listed town that pops up on almost every list of South East Asia ‘must sees’. An Bang beach, is by all accounts, one of Vietnam’s finest. It was nice, warm water with good surf and nice soft sand. It is possible however that Australians are well spoilt when it comes to beaches. It was also endlessly long. Well, in one direction anyway.
About two kilometres south of where we were (at An Bang) the beach has totally eroded away. Nothing left. Which is unfortunate for the many many grand resorts built there, now with concrete walls and sandbags holding back the sea. I couldn’t get to the bottom of the disappearing sand. It may have been the resorts too vigorously protecting their patch by building groins out into the surf; natural processes; or rising sea levels due to climate change (as speculated by our hosts).
Slowing down was a new experience in this globetrotting caper. In Hanoi, we had lingered on street corners and watched traffic instead of dodging it. Similarly, one afternoon in the Hoi An old town, instead of walking the streets we sat (and ate icecream) and watched how others do the walking. Watching just one intersection proved as interesting in its own way as seeing many.
You could ‘do’ Hoi An in three days and have ticked off most of the sights, but in staying for 11 days we discovered there was much more to take in as we covered the same ground we did the day before. Still, before we knew it, it was time to move on.
We spent the first two days on the beach. The sky was sunny, the air was warm and the sea was cool but not cold. It was rough and wild though and Amy had many discussions with us about how to spot and avoid a rip. She took this very seriously. We think she probably recalled the story of her friend Cassandra and her mum getting caught in one back home.
The next eight days were cloudy and overcast. Every morning we’d wake up and look outside then look up the weather forecast hopeful the sun might shine, but it wasn’t to be. Which, on the upside, meant we spent much more time exploring.
Each morning’s hearty breakfast (during which I discovered for the first time in my life the joys of Nutella) was followed by a morning of school work. Here I think we are making progress, both as students and teachers. It has taken some time, but there now seems to be a clearer understanding that school work is not an optional extra this year. It will be done! Journals will be written, spelling words will be learned, projects will be completed and Maths and English will be studied. What’s more it will be done with good humour, diligent effort and focus.
We’re not fully there yet, but as I say, I do think we are making progress. It’s hard for Emma and I to play the role of teacher and enforcer of rules on the one hand and comforter and supporter on the other. Probably also hard for Amy and Oliver to see us taking on this strange new role. We have passed through a phase in which I have been chastised by Amy and Oliver for being way too serious. Even Emma I gather was a little confronted by my serious side. Oliver says I am even stricter than Carol (his real teacher) and we know Carol doesn’t take any nonsense.
Back in Laos, while at the Elephant Conservation Centre, Emma and I sent Amy and Oliver off to do some school work in the huts one afternoon while we stayed in the restaurant. We thought some space from us might be productive while they worked. Not long after, giggling greeted out ears and we somewhat reluctantly went to check on progress. We found them both kicking back in the hammocks suspended above the veranda. A hand written note on the door to their room indicated that they were on strike and would do no more school work until they were paid some respect or we could take it up with their union!
I’m not sure Emma or I knew quite how to respond. I think school work was done that day, but I’m not sure. I later recalled a lengthy and involved discussion I had with Amy and Oliver all about unions, management and striking work forces some time back. The information obviously goes in, so they must be learning something.
The best learning seems to take place as they are about to go to sleep. I have found myself in many in depth discussions with them at this time on everything from the sound barrier and why it breaks, to the relative merits of monarchies and democracies. They are thoroughly enjoyable discussions with genuine engaged interest leading to question after question until eventually you just have to say, ‘enough, it’s time to go to sleep’.
But I digress. With schoolwork done we tended to hit the bikes. I’m convinced there is only one bicycle manufacturer in Vietnam. All of the push bikes appear to come in one size and conform to the same functional design. They also have one very comfortable gear which ensures you go neither too fast to work up a sweat, nor to slow to feel you might as well be walking.
Out the front gate of our homestay, every journey began by running the gauntlet of five or so family run restaurants touting for business. The owners of each empty establishment would leap to their feet to solicit you in. It became a little awkward and after a few days we started deviating around the block so as not to disappoint them. There were too many good places to eat and we had our favourites.
At the end of our street was a thin bit of asphalt across an open area which looked like a cyclone had torn through. Turns out it is just the site of yet another massive resort to be built along this stretch of beach. The surface here was covered in thick sand with just one narrow navigable path. Emma tells me Amy and Oliver had expressed their surprise that I had not been down there yet to sweep all the sand away. Those who know my slightly obsessive compulsive tidy streak may find this amusing. I simply replied, ‘never let it be said I did not spend enough time with my children that they didn’t know me’!
Across the bridge along the main road from our beach stay to Hoi An itself was one of the most impressive sights I was not expecting to see in Vietnam. The vegetable village. I loved it. Couldn’t get enough. I’m a sucker for the colours of this magnificent planet and a Vietnamese vegetable village turns on quite a show. Vibrant shades of green of so many different vegies all laid out in immaculately neat and perfectly maintained garden beds surrounded on all sides by slightly ramshackle terrace house like dwellings. It was gorgeous. I took way too many photos.
Out of the vegetable village the 30-minute ride to town continued along concrete paths through the rice paddies. Water buffalo graze, water birds forage and the wind ripples across the verdant green fields. It all feels very oriental when you throw in the odd farmer working the area with their conical Vietnamese broad brim hats.
Out of the rice paddies were a few blocks of traffic madness. Manageable madness unlike Hanoi. In fact, it is a mark of our progress together as a travelling family that we managed, by and large, to ride along quite happily and relaxed in conditions that by Australian standards we would never let Amy and Oliver near.
The traffic would subside as we reached Hoi An old town. No cars or scooters allowed for the most part. Another UNESCO world heritage city, this place also has a really nice vibe. Especially on our first night, when we just happened to arrive in time for the full moon festival. All the electric lights where replaced with traditional lanterns hanging across the streets and in every shop, restaurant, bar and hotel – even drifting down the river in thick fleets.
The Hoi An full moon festival was surpassed, for me at least, only by one other day in which I caught myself shaking my head and saying, this wouldn’t happen at home. We met another family that Emma had found on a travelling family’s forum and before long, there we were, playing bike ‘tips’ in a clapped out run down park with a Russian, her Israeli husband, and their kids from the US.
Round and round we went until Oliver and the Israeli dad made one close pass too many. Down they all went, but the only casualty appeared to be the back wheel of the opposing team’s bike which was now badly buckled. Oops.
We all retired for coffee, but no coffee was to be found. Instead Oliver and his new US friend somehow injected themselves into a game of soccer with four Vietnamese local kids on an odd shaped uneven patch of patchy grass surrounded by streets. An hour and a half of vigorous competition followed. This was Oliver heaven. I don’t think he stopped grinning the whole game, despite being comprehensively out played. These kids had some skills.
The game ended when a city official unceremoniously walked past picked up the ball and walked off. That was the end of that. I didn’t know whether to chase after him and demand he give it back or jump on our bikes and ride off before some other official arrived to arrest us for playing in the wrong spot. Húng, our homestay host, tells us the Vietnamese government is top 10 in the world for corruption so who knows how it all works. The street light outside Húng’s homestay doesn’t work. He also tells us its because the officials there are still waiting for their money!
On the ride back from town each day, or to dinner each evening, I kept peering in at a funky hair salon and contemplating a haircut. Should I or shouldn’t I. I’m not sure this long hair thing is for me, but I can’t quite bring myself to give it up. Maybe just a trim. The funky hair salon was a corrugated tin shed with a rustic looking chair and a friendly looking Vietnamese man. I think partly I just liked the idea of getting a haircut there, for the fun of it. I finally stopped dithering one afternoon – but the man wasn’t there. Guess guess my hair will just get a little longer.
Dinner each evening was always a pleasure. Vietnamese food is easy to love and easy on the wallet. Our favourite restaurant, after a good deal of sampling was the Tamarind Tree. It may have been the food or the people I’m not sure, but probably both. On our last night we all got hugs from the owner. There was almost tears!
Each evening, and sometimes at lunch time too, we’d order our meal then whip out the cards and head into another game of Euchre, our new favourite game. It was boys versus girls all week and although Oliver and I got off to an okay start, we soon found ourselves being comprehensively beaten, trick after trick after trick. It went way beyond luck and I was starting to feel somewhat paranoid. Oliver kept bolstering my spirits by refusing to change teams, telling ‘it’s ok Boo I have faith!’ We finally redeemed ourselves on the second last night… but still lost by one trick in the last round!
The morning of our departure the sun shone full and bright. So it goes. We skipped school to sneak in a final morning at the beach, likely our last for some time. We bid Húng and his lovely family farewell and headed for the airport in a loud taxi with a young driver with a thing for power ballads. Cambodia and the temples of Angkor Wat are calling us on.