There are times when I must come off as a kind of travelling contrarian. While I occasionally allow myself Big Dumb Tourism trips, I generally prefer to act aloof and uninterested whenever I am confronted with the usual traveller path. Roads, after all, are for suckers: gravel is better, topped only by beaten earth, and surpassed only then by wild jungle, completely untouched by man. If the road has already been hoed, it probably already sucks.
This tendency was particularly pronounced in Hoi An, a city in central Vietnam famed for its shopping. Fine suits, handmade dresses, and uncountable varieties of custom shoes are available for perusal and crafting. There are bins stuffed with thousands of black market DVDs, including up-to-date boxsets of Breaking Bad. Other shops swell with piles of coppery jewellery, or thousands of books turned in by previous travellers (meaning numerous copies of 50 Shades of Grey, and most of Dean Koontz’ catalogue in German). Storefronts sag with the weight of shoe displays, tiny columns stretching to the sky, each piece of footwear displayed on glass and metal and wooden pedestals. There are shops bursting with fabrics, lined with dapper and elegant mannequins, and operated by hungry, nimble-fingered seamstresses ready to shred and sew a custom three-piece suit for you in under twenty minutes or your pizza is free, including hand-made, cruelty free pocket square, sewn from real yak’s brain.
Given that I hate suits, and also being measured, and also shopping, the finer consumerist points of the city were lost upon me. I walk down a busy central street past dozens of quaint , Chinese-styled buildings, and dozens of shop owners call out to me. Some wave, some gesture to their wares. A few times, people run across easygoing pedestrian roads full of bicycles and rickshaws to talk to me. They tell me their names, and ask me for mine. They want to know what brings me here. They want to lull me into a sense of trust and convivial spirit. Maybe I would be interested in going to their shop afterwards, just for a peek, maybe a cup of tea, perhaps a free, no-pressure taking of all of your measurements and silk preferences?
No one particularly believes you when you tell them you don’t like suits, as such a claim seems like the cheapest and most uncreative of lies. But then, most of my excuses for fending off the advances of various shopkeeps are taken as poor, abrupt, and confusing, as though I am shouting epithets in Swahili. I don’t want a suit. I am unemployed, and have no need for a suit, and even when I am employed in the future, I will not want one. I simply want to wander. But people rarely go to Hoi An to not shop. The words I speak must be in a different language, and maybe I just don’t understand the purpose of this town.
People try to sway me, but I will not be rocked from my non-money-spending purpose. Hoi An is exhaustively quaint, and it is easy to spend a day sitting under an awning sipping tea and whiling away the hours. In tiny alleys I seek temples and assembly halls, the Chinese dragon statues, the airy garden wedged between two narrow cafes. By night I sit at the river, refusing boat rides, to watch at the town’s lights flicker to life. I watch a wedding photoshoot by an elegant covered bridge. I spend a whole afternoon following a Korean tour group, trying to see how much I can actually pick up. I eat in the sunshine, and feel miles under my feet, and never once consider how my life could be improved by a custom, handmade cravat.
I begin to feel like I will soon be placed on a tourist black-list, as though the Greater Hoi An Travel Authority is watching me and keeping note of my spendthrift ways. My whole second day, the only money I spend is on meals, and I retire from the town not long after the sun sets. After buying nothing at a night market, I sleep and rise early. I sneak down my hostel’s steps in darkness, creep by the sleeping, prone form of the check-in staff who sleeps in a mesh tent in the lobby. What I really want is not in this town, and it is to be found at sunrise.
It is just past 4 a.m., the only time of day in central Vietnam where the weather is cool and gentle. In time I am picked up and whisked away for a pitch-black breakfast, served by a grandmotherly woman wielding an enormous tin teapot. We eat spicy sandwiches, still hours before daylight will break.
The streets are different at this time of morning, when the sun is still gone. They are wider now, older — they speak of a town that was here ages before shoes and suits and bootleg DVDs. There are lanterns, fragments of old language, people in those early hours who thrive in the still. Polished, oaken shutters on every window. It is a television show, set in colonial era Vietnam. Outside of the city, women practice tai chi with crimson fans under the milk-and-tea sky. Markets unfurl. People begin the day, the world, over coffee and ice.
We arrive at our destination: My Son, a holy land. Somehow Hinduism has found its way here, has survived all this time. Shiva, Uma, Ganesha rest in these old bricks, underneath the shade of a foreign mountain, aside the cool wind of a foreign river. Far from home, amid deep bomb craters, they are solace for a whole different people — they became a new understanding in a totally new place.
The sun rises and breaks over these aging stones, licks the side of temple structures and the hills which attempt to overtake them. We are here hours before any other people will set foot, and it feels like discovery. New sites are being uncovered and restored with each passing day, fragments of history loosing from the shale and sediment and rising to the surface. Lingams are unearthed, devas and devis rise from the ground. Their homes will be seen and loved once more.
There is peace to be found, and calm, wherever you travel. It can be hard to track down, sometimes it is difficult to quantify, and sometimes it has already been relentlessly commodified. But it is there, if you look deep enough. If you wander from the path. And sometimes you might even have time for a pair of custom loafers.