Meandering down the Vietnamese coastal route can often seem like a
progression from one UNESCO-designated world heritage site to the next.
Of course, the problem with this embarrassment of culture riches is that
you can't see it all and, every time you skip something, you get a stab
of cultural guilt, particularly as there are so many keenoids to make
you fell bad. But we soon learned to ignore this. Thing is, you see,
coming from the UK, I'd always assumed that the entry bar for WHS status
was set pretty high - if I think of UK WHSs I always think of Durham
Castle and Cathedral and the city of Bath. In these parts, however,
UNESCO seems to have rather lost its sense of discrimination: as long as
it's over 40 years old and not obviously made of concrete, give 'em a
call and they'll list it.
So it was we found ourselves in Hoi An, which is not yet a WHS but is
waiting for UNESCO's rubber stamp. Not that there is anything wrong with
Hoi An: on the contrary it is an extremely charming town with some
lovely colonial architecture. It's just that...well, there are quite a
lot of market towns in places like Northumberland which are considerably
cuter that nobody has ever heard of.
Beer and Loathing
Whilst looking for a hotel in this above-averagely nice town, we met a
couple of Brits, Nick and Claire. Like many of our countrymen, they were
big old drinkers and were keen to what Brits usually do when they meet
up with other Brits in countries where there aren't that many Brits -
i.e. get pissed. Nothing especially interesting about this, except, I
made the mistake of eschewing Tiger (a perfectly acceptable Asian beer)
and plumping instead for something whose name was a few illegible
squiggles. What's,more, my squiggle brew was only 5000 dong a bottle,
not 10,000: in other words, I was paying 20p, not forty! The following
morning I woke up knowing that the extra 20p goes into filtration and
quality control mechanisms. Quite simply, in Vietnam you get the
hangover you pay for. And, if, like me you make the mistake of not
shelling out the extra 20p for a bottle of beer, well, you deserve
everything you get.
All of this makes Hoi An sound a little bit rum - but this is far from
the case. Even though I spent a day crippled by cheap booze and doubted
the merit of its WHS application, I could forgive it everything. Because
it had a nice beach and...it had sun. When you've endured almost a
month's constant rain, the sun really can be quite remarkable. For a
while I just wandered around happily around in the solar glare,
marveling the sharp relief and the bright, almost preternatural colours.
In fact, pleasant though Hoi An was, I could have been in Stevenage and
still been happy.
So a large chunk of our time was spent lazing Hoi An's beach and trying
not to think too hard about how many coliform bacteria the recent floods
had washed into the bay. But we also took advantage of Ho-An's other
attractions. It is Vietnam's tailoring capital and we had the obligatory
ten items of clothing made for about $60. Clothes that you get made in
third world countries represent an interesting relativistic phenomenon.
When you have them made and while you're in the 'host' country they look
fabulous and you strut about feeling as swishly bespoke as a chap who's
just had a Saville Row suit made. But the second you get back to the UK,
they look like a pile of rags and you never ever wear them again. It
must be something to do with all that tropical sunlight.
We were also lucky enough to be there during Hoi An's 'Full Moon
Festival'. Now, although this takes place when the moon is full and is a
party, it should not in any way be confused with its Thai counterparts.
Rather it is a genuine celebration of some date or other on the Chinese
calendar and is largely for local people. That said, it's very pleasant
for tourists too: the town had a fairground atmosphere and was festooned
with Chinese lanterns; paper flowers lit from within by candles floated
down the river; and we were entertained by a traditional singer who sang
in a style that would make your dog wet itself.
After the stage-show was over, we found ourselves at another peculiar
event, which I assumed was some local art form. There was more singing
and some audience members had paddles with strange symbols on them.
Sometimes they gave these to a conical-hatted chap who hung them on a
clothesline after which small flags were handed out; all this took place
in an atmosphere of great and ever-escalating excitement. Then, finally,
one member of the audience who seemed to have more flags than most got
up and danced around in a circle to cheering and the whole thing ended
rather abruptly. I didn't have a clue what had happened but assumed we'd
just watched some obscure sort of theatre. Turning to Jane I asked her
what she though it was all about. She looked at me, laughed and said:
'You do realise we've spent the last hour watching bingo.'
But not everyone enjoyed the full moon festival as much as we did.
Several times during the evening we encountered groups of travellers who
were absolutely gutted. Having been to Thailand, these poor fools had
come all this way expecting a full moon party with booze, ecstasy and
the chance to have sex on the beach with someone with dreadlocks and
multiple piercings. Bless them: instead they'd found something akin to
an oriental carnival where everyone went to bed at about 11pm.
Our only real disappointment in Hoi An was our hotel. As usual Jane had
chosen it and, at the time I thought she'd come up with a bit of a
bargain. Not only was it an attractive looking building, but the
furniture inside our room didn't look like it came from Goodwill. True,
the drains were a little funky, but in foreign climes that is to be
expected. So all seemed pretty pukka until we came to buy some train
tickets - as the town is about 25km from the nearest train station, it
makes sense to go through your hotel. The total was $30, which seemed a
little high so we asked the bloke, who spoke good English, what we were
paying for. He said that it was $14 plus a (not unreasonable) $1
commission per ticket.
When we got the tickets (which have the price printed on them) they cost
$8 each. So we asked the woman who ran the place about this discrepancy
- I mean, you know full well what's going on, but it's always amusing to
ask. She replied that the difference was the insurance. I said that we'd
bought tickets before and Vietnam (much like the rest of the world) does
not require rail passengers to buy travel insurance on trains. Oh, she
said, getting a bit shirty, then it's the station's commission. I told
her, again that last time I bought tickets, the price on the ticket and
what I paid were - astoundingly - identical. At this point, she exploded
Vietnam is unusual in South East Asia in that people actually lose their
temper quite a lot. If you've been in the region for long enough, you
can wind up with a curious role reversal - someone shrieking their head
off, while you keep your cool. So, while the woman (who was a silly
bitch anyway) started accusing me of everything under the sun, I sat
there calmly saying things like: 'Please tell the truth - just tell me
you're ripping me off because I am a stupid tourist. That is better than
insulting me by lying.'
Actually there's a very good reason why (although Vietnamese hotels are
generally the best in SE Asia) you will always wind up in one or two
where they treat you like dirt. It's called the Vietnam Open Tour and -
as a public service - I advise anyone going to Vietnam to avoid it like
cock pox. Effectively it's a coach tour down Vietnam. Nothing wrong with
that per se, but it operates as a sort of cartel; if you take the open
tour, you will only ever be taken to the crappy restaurants and hotels
the open tour drivers get commission from. As Hoi An is miles from the
railway most hotels there have some connection to the OT, so they sell
rail tickets at stiff mark-ups in order to encourage you to get OT
buses. Interesting a high percentage of the people we've met prior to
going to Vietnam said they'd had a bad time there and all of them took
the OT. So, there you go - take the train, it's much nicer.
All of which is a rather orotund way of explaining why our hotel didn't
give a toss about us. The OT bus would obligingly disgorge another load
of unsuspecting tourists tomorrow and there would always be plenty of
business. In fact, all things considered we got off pretty lightly. As
we left the foyer, we bumped into some American girls who'd had all
their cash stolen from their room. Which had been locked, with them
sleeping inside. It really didn't take a genius to work out that it had
probably been a member of staff; I told them this, ensuring I spoke
loudly enough for the desk woman to hear.
The train ride down to Nha Trang is extremely dull and enlivened only by
the occasional appearance of a meal. This is remarkable and noteworthy
in that Vietnamese train food is some of the worst I have ever eaten -
worse, even, than Indonesian ferries and United Airlines, the twin
culinary low-spots of my life. Meals come in plastic trays and
individual items are hermetically sealed into little containers like
yogurt pots. One holds rice, which is OK because rice is difficult get
too wrong. The others variously contain: pork, stewed in its own fat; an
egg, boiled in its own farty exudations; and some leaves, cooked until
they taste not of themselves, but of the plastic container. Truly thisis
the taste of communism and, apart from the rice, inedible. Moreover, as
the drinks trolley only sells dried squid and beer, you're pretty much
stuffed. Unless, of course, you're a Buddhist monk. Then you get a
really tasty looking vegetarian option and get served first. Seeing this
I vowed to don an orange robe for my next journey.
Feeling both hungry and queasy we arrived in Nha Trang, which is usually
bruited about as Vietnam's premier beach resort. Travelling types
generally tend to favour cutesy Hoi An, but we prefered Nha Trang. I
think this was probably because of the climate: this section of coast is
sheltered from the winds blowing rain off the rest of Asia by the
central highlands. As a consequence it's the driest place in Vietnam
and, with its scrubby, rocky coast it looks nothing like the rest of the
country. In fact it is similar to the Med and the town itself feels
rather like the South of France. What'smore it has an absolutely
terrific beach. Although, I am not the biggest fan of beaches, I had to
concede that this one had everything: turquoise water, white sand, swish
offshore islands, irritating hawkers and a single floating poo (origin
unknown) that, at one point seemed to be pursuing me around the bay.
Nha Trang's other great attraction is Vietnam's only thermal mud spa. I
must say I approached the whole thing with a bit of trepidation, feeling
sort of new age and vaguely German at the same time. But what a
revelation! The mud itself is a bit like potters slip and you just
slouch around, pouring mud all over yourself. At first this is all a bit
weird but you soon get used to it, and before long you're wallowing
happily. Even the appearance of two quite startlingly ignorant
Australian women (who were, naturally, as common as mud) couldn't dent
our enthusiasm. My skin came out feeling as if had been polished to a
high buff by all those little mudduals; Jane said she felt much same,
adding that the mud had improved her hair's manageability giving it
bounce, shine and extra body. Truly, in the pantheon of health
treatments, mud bathing is the new colonic irrigation, although in all
fairness it looks much like the old.