In the same way Cambodia was unknown to me aside from some pretty ignorant generalizations; my knowledge of ‘Nam consists of having watched a handful of Hollywood war films depicting the US/Vietnam war, largely from the American side. I did enjoy ‘Platoon’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Hamburger Hill’ and ‘Thin Red Line’; and actually surprised myself with how many Nam films I’d seen! But I was sure there was more to the country than ‘the war’, and more to ‘the war’ than these US made films. (Interestingly when looking to re watch some as a preamble to the visit, the films on Netflix, downloaded in Cambodia, disappeared off the playlist when on Vietnamese shores, perhaps a way of claiming some of the narrative back for themselves).
We knew there was to be a lot to take in – and coming here from Cambodia with its historical baggage, and now entering a new country with its own spectre of war hanging over it; the plan is to first relax, before getting under the skin of this communist enigma and making my mind up about ‘the war’ for myself rather than relying on the shiny celluloid versions.
For this reason we skipped Ho Chi Minh City as we wanted out of the metropolis after Phomn Penh, so flew straight into Hoi An on the coast of central Vietnam. We stay in a lovely homestay where the lady mothers us with amazing Beef Pho brekkies. Nearby amazing Am Bang beach is a bike ride away and the town itself a short trundle too. It’s a dream and we spend a week just loving life actually. Our days pass pleasantly biking about stopping for a drop of Vietnamese drip coffee here and meandering the lovely cobbly lanes of the old town there. Peeking inside Chinese merchant houses, eating Peking duck, and drinking rice wine and watching the river flow by. One day me grabbing a moped to buzz the hour up the coast to Da Nang to go surfing (Charlie do surf!) and Helen doing a photography course around the Hoi An-ese local fish market and boat builders.
It’s a brill little town famous for its brightly colored lanterns and food market which we enjoy one evening grazing up and down the street side stalls of spring rolls and Bun Cha and rice paper ‘pizzas’. Scoffing sticks of satay and sweetcorns too. Other days again spent lazy on the beach with a Larue beer and a spicy seafood salad. Around tea time every day the village youths turn up and have food served on the beach from wrinkly elderly vendors and then the kids swim in the sea fully clothed. They seems to be loving life and so are we. I guess this is not what I expected. Not one of them pointy hats or a paddy field in sight. Not a bitter angry native as the films might depict. Though I did see a man asleep on the back of Buffalo. Missed photo op though as whizzing past on the bike!
To further explore the city we book onto a free cycle tour ran by local university students as a way to improve English. A boat across the river onto Kim Hong a tiny island in the stream. Poodling about here we visit a rice noodle making lady and boat building yard. The woman happily helps us grind out our rice on a stone mill and make the noodle mix. Next we cook it on a hot plate and then cut into ribbons.
She shares her own made ‘Banh Dab’ – crispy rice noodles fried with rice paper, plenty of Jasmine tea, and some crispy rice paper like popadums called ‘Bahn trang’ – all with my favourite soy and garlic and fresh chilli dips.
In the leafy shipyard the boat building men saw and shave and shape the wood in the hot sun. The fresh paint glistens on the bows, the sweat too on their brows. Women bend in a dusty shack making rattan mats. The highlight for me is an small ornate family temple complete with classic looking tiled pagoda, where reverence is given to ancestors, not Gods. A Chinese concept which I like. Remembering family members and praying to them for advice and guidance and to pay respect and give thanks. Chinese influence is strong here in traditions and language and food and architecture and seems interesting given they are both ‘successful’ communist nations. We light some incense and pause and think of our own family who have passed in a search for some wisdom.
That evening we stumble upon a session of musical bingo in the street which we join with glee. Players are given a board with different symbols on to ‘mark off’. Then a man and woman perform a duet to music, seemingly a love story, where at certain points in the lyrics they sing certain symbols corresponding to the bingo boards. It’s a proper laugh and we almost win and I for one intend to try and get it to catch on in Wakey on my return!
Seems like there is more to Vietnam than those ‘Nam stories. As the sun sets on the river, we’ll be sad to leave Hoi An for sure.