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Hoi An

November 2nd, 2000 · No Comments

Traveling to Hoi An

Days 307 thru 312

Hoi An is a town that will always hole a special place in my heart. Located 30 kilometers south of Da Nang, on the Tho Bon River this not so sleepy town is bustling with activity. Parts of it looks the same as it did 150 years ago, with French Colonnade buildings for several blocks. Many of the buildings are now being restored, but for the most part, they look rather old and tired. Housed in the tired but charming buildings are dozens of restaurants, variety shops and tailor shops.

It wasn’t exactly love at first site.

The Open Bus took us directly to a hotel in Hoi An. What a deal, or was it? We were starting to see a pattern here and immediately our guard went up. While Sarah was negotiating the price of a room, I went downstairs to be near the bus. but I was late, the bus left. Our luggage was still on it! I freaked and yelled up 3 flights of stairs to Sarah, “the bus is gone!” She panicked to, everything we had brought with us, except our money was on that bus. Including my computer.

The bellman assured us that the bus would come back. We didn’t feel very sure that he understood we were so upset. We thought he thought we wanted to continue south and he was telling us it would come back that night. By night our stuff would be long gone. Darn! Why had we both gone to see the room!

Our panic was misplaced, after about 10 minutes the bus indeed come back. Our luggage was there! Whew! That was a close call!

Hoi An Hotel

Hoi An is a very special place, it stands out in Viet Nam as a Vietnamese Venice. Not knowing what to expect prior to arriving I was absolutely delighted to find the town so quaint and charming. The town was once a port, built on a river. Over the years the river receded leaving the town untouched by further development. Today the river remains, but only small boats navigate it.

Tourists flock to the area and over 200 tailor shops have sprung up, offering custom made clothing from silk of all varieties. Prices are unbelievably low.

That is the reason we are here!

Sarah and I came to have some clothing made. We heard from several sources the place to come is Hoi An. We settled into our hotel quickly and set out to fortify ourselves with lunch before shopping for a tailor.

The minute we hit the streets, people started hawking their services at us. “Madams, madams, please come into my shop, look around.” “Madame where are you from?” “Madams, need ride?” “Madams come here, see my lovely suits, I make cheap for you!” It was non stop.

We were overwhelmed by the aggressive friendliness of the locals. Their intensity to obtain our business never stopped. These people are amazing. I watched them as they were told “no” a thousand times, but they kept asking. It is a way of life.

One young lady came up to me and something about her made me talk to her. She seemed to be practicing her English and I naturally was glad to help. She finally exposed her intentions when she asked us to “come visit my Mother’s dress shop”. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was just another way to get business. We told her we wanted to eat first, so she give us both a business card and made us promise to stop by. Just to get rid of her, we promised!

We found a nice looking restaurant to have lunch. Seated outside near the riverfront we continued to be approached by young vendors selling us everything from clay pipes to saffron in a ground form I’ve never seen to kitchen utensils. We never had to leave our seats, the merchandise came to us.

Miraculously, after we finished eating the young lady appeared to be sure we would visit “her mother’s shop”. After all we had promised, so we followed her through the maze of the market, past the fruit stands, then the blood and guts of the meat market and finally the fish stalls. I hopping all the while that the dress shop was beyond smelling distance of all this. If not, I would just die.

It was. The shop was filled with women waiting for us to appear. They had pattern books, material and cold drinks to keep our attention. They also had orders not to let us leave until we purchased something. It was “buy or die” time for us.

We bought!

KK’s new dressI started out with a chocolate brown cashmere wool suit and black silk top. The suit was $25 and the top was $8. At these prices I didn’t think I could go wrong. The workmanship of the clothing I could see was professional looking. Actually, I think this is where the ready made garments in America are made, well actually not in Vietnam, much of our stuff comes from China. These folks work in sweat shops for peanuts. At home I couldn’t even purchase the material for this price. What did I have to lose?

The next day I anxiously went for my fitting. The suit was magnificent, I was so pleased. In the meantime I found another shop I liked even better. The first shop put way to much pressure on me to purchase, pressing me for decisions before I had time to think. I didn’t care for that, and it resulted in me ordering one outfit I didn’t like and probably will never wear. Oh well, it was cheap and I’ve made fashion mistakes before and probably will again!

All in all the experience in Hoi An turned out to be exciting. I bought a whole new wardrobe for myself and started buying gifts for others. It was a shopping frenzy for 5 whole days!

The amazing part is, I spent no more than if I had gone to Nordstrom’s back home and bought one nice suit. Now I must figure out how to get all this stuff home!

Since there are so many tailor shops in Hoi An, they have difficulty in “standing out”. We were walking home one evening when we saw this sign. It read, Ugly, short? Fat?“UGLY? SHORT? FAT?….VD? These chicks know how to fit you to make you look good….”

It was hilarious, we stopped and laughed then went into the shop. The sign was made by some American who wanted to tell the world he was pleased with his new clothing. There’s nothing like a personal referral, I ended up liking this shop best of all. They were good.

Nhi Trung Cloth Shop

Roof tops of Hoi An

Each morning I walked out he would come to greet me and see what I was needing. At first we wanted to rent a bike to ride, upon inspection we found that his bikes were really bad. The brakes were long gone and the bike wobbled as it rolled. We told him his bikes were no good and went 20 steps down the street to another vendor.

Our Hoi An rental bikes were a deal at 5000 dong a day (70 cents). Unlike our Odyssey bikes, they were upright bikes, complete with a handy basket on the handle bars. The bikes were all to small for me. My legs are a few inches longer than the average Vietnamese, so even rising the seat, I was still crouched down. I didn’t mind, actually it was fun to be able to ride from place to place rather that walk.

On the third day I for a mere $4 U.S. I rented a new motor scooter for the day. The Street Concierge helped me negotiate the deal, including my driving lesson, which consisted of, “4 down”. Meaning to shift I had to click the peddle down 4 times. Not being able to speak English, he forgot to tell me where the clutch was. It had been 25 years since I rode a motor bike, so I did take to it, after a few minutes. The clutch wasn’t on the handlebar as expected. I rode around in high gear, only when I stopped for “valet beach” parking did I learn how to downshift, by pushing the back of the gear shifter. There was no clutch, or if there was, I didn’t find it. Just the same the bike worked!

Hoi An Street

Our shopping took us to various places, some were the actual “sweat shops” that were making the products sold in the shops. It was of interest to me to see the young people, mostly teenagers working on the handicrafts. They sat on the floor carving wood inlay, working in dirty, dusty conditions with poor lighting. I asked permission to photograph them, they looked to their supervisor for approval or maybe it was translation and were given a “yes” nod. They young folks would continue working, looking down and not at me. When I was done, I would always show them their picture on my digital camera. They marveled at the image of themselves, smiling as they went back to work.

As always, I visited the market in Hoi An, which also was the only means of buying food in theSidewalk sales area. For the people of the area, they too shopped at the market as opposed to “running down to Safeway” for dinner. The market was quite an experience.

First of all it was open every day and very early. Sarah and I got down there at 8 a.m. one morning and it looked like it had been opened for many hours. I was a woman carrying about a dozen live chickens in her hands and reached for my camera. Just as the camera was “booting up” the batteries died. Darn! I so wanted that picture.

Instead, I took off in search of batteries. As typical fashion in Viet Nam, a vendor noticed myYoung Vietnamese Salesman eyes searching her wares and asked in broken English what I was looking for. I told her batteries and when that didn’t register, I took the 4 batteries out of my camera and showed them to her. There was immediate recognition. She motioned for my to follow her and off she went, charging through the crowd. I found it difficult to get up her pace, their were slow moving shoppers and the canopies overhead were right in my face. I kept having to duck or bend over to crawl along the pathways. Everyone is short here!

My new guide took me to an associates stall, but she only had 2 batteries, I needed 4. Off we went in a different direction, this time the lady run up in her attic, coming down with a whole package of some “off brand” battery. I searched for the expiration date, but after finding none, I bought 4 for 15,000 dong, thinking I would just have to chance it.

The lady who helped me now wanted me to buy something from her. She was selling primitive kitchen utensils and some unidentifiable spice, all of which I had no use for. I kept telling her, “no thank you.” but she kept insisting. Finally, I just said “thanks” and walked away. They just don’t take “no” for an answer, almost like 2 year old children!

I headed back into the market to look for more “photo opportunities”. Not finding the live chicken lady, I headed for the “fish department”, it was conveniently located next to the river! Walking over the fish scales, heads and tails on the floor, I decided at that point the new $3 sandals I bought would not be accompanying me in my suitcase. I could just feel them soaking up the fish juices on their silk sides. Oh well, they hurt my feet anyway!

Finding a great shot I turned my camera on, only to have it boot up and turn itself right back off. The batteries were no good! Terrific. I just wasted 15,000 dong, because there was no way I was going to go back to that stall and try to get my money back, then have to tell the other women 10,000 “no’s!” I would go buy some more and chalk it up to a mistake.

Back home finding batteries would be very simple. I could name off dozens of places that would have good, reliable batteries. Here I didn’t have a clue. I just walked along trying to see them. Eventually I thought of going to a film developing store, which I did. They had some for me and luckily for me they lasted for a day, but still not as long as a set of normal batteries would last. I guess Viet Nam is hard on fresh batteries.

Food CourtIn the market there was a lot of organization so far as what merchandise was sold. Each area was like a department so you would know where to go to find what ever it was you needed. There was even a “food court”. Women came and set up their kitchens with grills and woks and had a full menu of food. I was intrigued by the food, but not willing to sample it. Later I meet a lady from South Africa who had eaten there. She was a cook and was so thrilled to be able to taste the “real” Vietnamese food. It was so inexpensive and very delicious.

Sarah and I ate 3 square meals a day, but we ate in restaurants where we could feel comfortable. The places were basic but clean. Most cater to westerners in offering dishes that we are accustomed to seeing. I was brave and adventurous and kept trying local dishes. I enjoyed everything I ever ordered, we never had a bad meal. Even the so called “high cost” of the restaurant was never really high. Our meals were always under $5. We never walked away hungry!

The worst part in dining were the people who would walk right up to our table and try to sell us things. After school the children would hawk postcards or clay whistles. They were all insistent and would not leave us alone. I think they purposely had a system where they would take turns coming, trying to wear us down.

The routine was predictable. First they would ask, “where you from?” “America” we would answer. Then it was, “How long you stay?” We would say, “I don’t know.” They would ask us to buy, whatever. When we said no, then they wanted to know if we had any coins from America. If I had brought a jar full of pennies and given each one, I would have had an empty jar. There were a ton of kids who did this the entire country. I think they are sent out to the streets by adults and coached on how to pester.

One young man captured our hearts with his quick wit and charming smile. He looked to be about 8 years old, but was in fact 10. He spoke very good English and talked to us about school and how he only went from 6 am until 11 everyday but Sunday. He spent the afternoons until late evening selling postcards to tourists. Sarah told him if he came to America, he could be the next Bill Gates. He said he would like to go to America. We told him to pack his bags, we would take him. He knew we were joking and for the next few days every time we saw him we would have fun, joking about going to America.

During the day and at the end, Sarah and I would arrive back at our hotel with stacks of shopping bags. The street concierge would try to sell us another bag to put our luggage in. We would tell him, “not yet.” The dress shops in the area would shout, “you come see me!” or “come help me, buy from me!” They were all friendly shouts and curious stares. They must have been wondering what it would take to get our business.

The day I rented the motor scooter, I practiced driving for awhile, then Sarah hoped on thePlucked chickens back, with a death grip grasped my middle and we rode out to the beach, 4 kilometers away. Now I don’t want to say that Sarah didn’t trust my driving skills, but at first she was holding me to tight, I found it hard to breathe. After a few minutes hyperventilating, she finally eased the grip a little. It was easier to drive when I could breathe!

A block before we got to the beach, the main road ended. We had to park the bike with a parking attendant. He gave us a “claim check” and took the bike away. From there we walked to the beach. We didn’t know what to expect. The beach itself was very nice, but at the entrance their was cluster of open air restaurants and then dozens of beach chairs, all lined up in a row. We could have been on the French Riviera or Costa del Sol. But no, it was Vietnam.

Immediately the beach vendors stalked us. “Buy from me, necklace?” “Please, no buy from me, help me!” There was no rest for the weary. We wanted just to be left alone with some peace and quiet.

A lady motioned for us to sit in her chairs, at the same time a competing lady motioned for us to do the same in her section. How do you choose? We opted for the closest ones. I was directed to a beach chair that looked normal, but when I sat in it, the back was not attached, I sat all the way down to the sand, wedging myself with my butt on the ground and my arms and legs flailing in the air. There I was pinned in and laughing, then the beach vendor pipes up and says, “Lady you wear my necklace, shit don’t happen!”

I roared in laughter! His timing and English was so perfect for the moment. It was classic!

Eventually, I managed to get up from my unsightly position. I was unharmed, despite a couple of tender soon to be bruised places on the back of my arms. I tried to negotiate a price for the “shit don’t happen necklace,” but I just couldn’t afford it. So I guess I will have to continue on my risky way, without a necklace!

The following day, when I walked out on the street the locals made me feel very special. They all knew I drove a motorcycle, some made motions with their hands like giving a bike the gas and queried with their eyes if I wanted to rent their bike. I was a mark for yet another service. My leasor wanted to know if he could drive me to Hanoi. I told him I was going to Saigon, but by airplane, thank you very much.

The funniest is when they started asking if I was married. That is when I pull out the picture of my 3 kids! That always scares the men away! My kids are all bigger than they are!

We were scheduled to fly Vietnam Airlines at 3 pm, but late morning someone called the hotel from the airlines to give us notice that the flight would be 2 hours late. The receptionist told me the minute I walked in the door. I was in shock from actually having the airlines give us the consideration of a telephone call. It was a first for me!

My parting scene from our hotel was rather sweet. I had put a few items in the trash can that I didn’t want to carry. There were 4 dead batteries, 2 oranges, partial package of cookies, a candy bar that had melted to a solid mass in the bottom of my pannier, my 4 day old fishy sandals that hurt and some dirty old Chinese yuan. I went back to the room to pick up something Sarah said I left, when I opened the door, the 3 maids were sitting on the floor with their legs spread, sorting out the “loot” I had left behind. One gal was wearing my sandals they were exactly twice as big as her feet. The others were eating the oranges. They were slightly surprised to see me and giggled at being discovered. I told them to keep it all and they were so delighted.

One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure.

I wish I could have left them more. I have so much.

crabsA basket of Crabs with their claws neatly tied.

Floating Bike BoatA floating bike boat

Shoemaker ladyThis woman made me a second pair of sandals, sutom fit to my feet for $8. I probably paid too much, but they are very nice. (I didn’t use them to walk around the market either!)

Tags: SE Asia · Vietnam