Hoi An, or, No, Actually, I Don’t Need Custom Loafers

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.

Hoi An Hip

Quaint, adorable Hoi An. Now with complimentary insoles.

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?

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A Brief Solo-Travel Interlude, Regarding Horse Wangs, Ancient Citadels, and Jake the Dog

Citadel III

Some light gardening.

My companions had ridden off into the sunset, the sunset in this case being Cambodia. My passport was completely full, and I felt certain that I was nowhere near charming or rich enough to convince a Cambodian border guard to let me through with a wink and a wad of cash, so I was left to my own devices in Vietnam. I had already been to the south, and so I set off into the distant wilds (approximately two hours on a bus) to Huế.

Taxi drivers swarmed the outside of the bus like angry hornets. They spotted tourists on board and a frenzy began, chum spreading out across their waters. Some began scrambling for the baggage, removing trunks and backpacks and standing nearby, as though hoping the meagre effort would be rewarded with fawning thanks and the acceptance of an overpriced fare. It felt like a pretty poorly put-together dowry for such an interaction, but the sheer number of taxis and rickshaws wedged onto the sidewalk made it difficult to spent too much time scoffing.

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Da Nang and the Church of Our Lady of Giant Floating Eyeball

Buddha of Melting Rocks

Marble Buddha and his stalagmite buds.

Ty has grown obsessed with the idea of a scooter. Of riding one. Of owning one. Of being on one. Of being adjacent to one. In his mind, I imagine there is a vision of him with a black helmet, a coat with a scorpion embossed on the back, of an epic steeple chase across the continent. On his initiative, we decide to spend a day scooting, although both Faith and I are reluctant to drive them ourselves. Faith’s concern is probably just nerves, and they ride together on one scooter to save on costs. My concerns are more realistic, as leaving me alone on a scooter means I would almost certainly crash it, break both of my legs, and somehow end up tangled in seaweed.

We set off in different directions, Faith and Ty on their scooter, while I ride on an impressive motorcycle owned and driven by an elderly Vietnamese man who refuses to tell me his name. I look out to the horizon: the first stop has to be the Marble Mountains.

They make marble things there.

The mountains are notable for the expensive rocks contained within, but also for a hiking trail leading into and around the biggest mountain, as well as two caves lodged within.

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The Aloof Majesty of Halong Bay—Oh Crap That’s an Enormous Jellyfish

Descending Dragons III

Not pictured: 8 dozen other boats.

We had finally secured our cruise for Halong Bay. The streets of Hanoi were lined with travel centres and vacation bookers, each stocked with dozens of glossy books detailing the majestic splendour of their particular line of megafancy boats. We were wracked with indecision because of the mix of information we had been seeing on the internet. For every positive review of a company we found, we found just as many assuring us that the cruise line was corrupt and horrific. We read tales of rats and cockroaches, of soiled linens and terrible food, of overpriced drinks and actual capsizings. We wanted to travel Halong Bay in moderately priced style, but it seemed like we would need to be willing to pay heavily if we wanted to guarantee both our safety and reduce the likelihood of live scorpions in our staterooms.

Once we had finally settled, we set off, stowing most of our excess gear in Hanoi. We were to be on open water, at one with the sea, lost amidst ancient floating mountains and deep within unseen mists. In a single bag we packed only the essentials: some clothes, a few books. Sunglasses and bathing suits. Cameras. Our spirit of adventure.

Also, roughly 2 litres of bargain vodka stowed within empty water bottles. We had read that the drink prices once you were marooned at sea became too much for our tight-wad budget, and the uncorking fees would run nearly 4 times the actual price of the liquor we purchased. We were acting like rowdy teenagers heading to prom, but we felt we needed to be prepared.

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Vietnam Photoglut: Bay of Descending Pretty Things

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And thus we have reached Vietnam, dear travellers. Having already been to righteous ‘Nam before, I was excited to return: to see new cities, to explore new sites, and to eat so much soup that my belly grows distended, pops, and floods a low-rent hostel room with local beef and vermicelli. We hoofed around the north, the south, and that middle part, and all of it was very pretty. When I returned to Canada, I learned how to use my copy of photoshop starting with these very pictures! (Interesting sidenote: the main photo my friend used to teach me photoshop is not included here. We chose this photo because it included a pony, and also an enormous pony boner which she spent careful time removing and replacing with with sky or grass or whatever was behind the horse. Scrubbing the photo of that equine erection helped to illustrate the majority of the tools I wanted to learn how to use anyway. This file is still saved on my computer, under the filename “horsedong.jpg”. Don’t ever use my computer.)

What was I talking about? Oh. Vietnam sure is great!

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Hanoi, via Scavenger Hunt

Not a challenge: finding people doing wedding photos. Hanoi provides many majestic points for people shots.

Not a challenge: finding people doing wedding photos. Hanoi provides many majestic points for people shots.

We had been travelling together for over a month, had seen three separate countries, had spent countless hours with one another. We had taken meals together, slept in the same rooms, waited for one another to finish hogging the damned bathroom. We had helped carry heavy backpacks, helped each other fill out immigration forms, helped each other recover from hangovers. We had talked constantly: about life, about the world, about teaching, about Korea, about ourselves. I knew Faith and Ty about as closely as I could know anyone, and the only step further I could have taken would have been to begin collecting blood and hair samples for DNA analysis.

We were running low on things to talk about.

Thus when we arrived in Hanoi, Faith suggested we construct a scavenger hunt. Sitting in a café, face deep in bowls of phở, we began coming up with ideas of what strange, bewildering sights we might try to seek in Vietnam. I had been to the country once before and chose some things to make the game more challenging and competitive. But really, we just needed a change of pace. We were going to eat the food, we were going to see the things, we were going to walk the walks. Couldn’t we also be on the hunt for interesting novelty along the way?

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Sài Gòn and Nha Trang: You Can Really Taste the Communism

Where the phở at?

The bus had stopped, and we piled into the border control centre. A man collected all of our passports and handed them to the single border agent in a neat stack–he listlessly stamped them one by one. I walked to a baggage check manned by someone not looking at the screen, and then the final agent checking my visa had difficulty flipping the pages with one hand while the other texted. Eventually, feeling certain there was a visa in there somewhere, he waved me onward into Vietnam. Continue reading