Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hoi An

Our private taxi arrived at our hotel in Hoi An with an hour of daylight to spare. I felt badly for the tour guide and driver having to go all the way back to Kontum that same night. They wouldn't get back until very early in the morning. I hoped they felt it was worth the however-much-money they got for driving us. The hotel was kind enough to bring us glasses of orange juice and cold, wet washcloths to wipe our faces with as we waited during the check in process. I do enjoy the wet washcloths – it's so refreshing to be able to wipe all the sweat and grime away. I feel especially satisfied when my cloth comes away with smudges of dirt, the proof of my improved cleanliness. We spent 30 minutes in our rooms recovering from the long ride, then headed downstairs to the hotel pool for the complimentary happy hour. The drinks were surprisingly decent being both tasty and containing more alcohol than one would expect from a free drink. The area quickly filled up with other hotel guests, almost all of whom fit the typical backpacker stereotype: young, full of energy, and ready to see the world. Their conversations bordered on excited shouting and hysterical laughter. I couldn't tell whether their energy made me feel more excited or depressed. Once happy hour was over we went in search of food. There were not as many restaurants around as I would have imagined, and most of the ones we did find were very much geared towards tourists. That's what you get from a tourist town I guess. Doesn't mean they have bad food, though. The place we ended up at was alright. We tried a salad with lotus and a well known dish called cau lao (which wasn't that good) as well as a few bia hoi. That was about as exciting as our night got seeing as we were pretty worn out from the long sightseeing trip from Kontum.

We woke somewhat early for the buffet breakfast in the hotel dining area. Amazingly, it wasn't bad. I didn't feel like I was eating reheated left-overs. Then I got to work researching who were the best tailors in the city, as Hoi An is well known for it's excessive number of tailor shops. After looking through pages and pages of reviews, the one that stood out the most was a more expensive, but good quality shop called Yaly's. Mom trusted in my research capabilities and agreed with my choice. By 11:00 AM we were ready to go check out the tailor and the town, our first stop being the former. It was a much grander building than I had expected, almost like a small mansion. The downstairs area had a display of live silk worms and a silk spinning machine loaded with cocoons. Whether it was for display or practical use, I don't know. Past the silk worms there was pre-made clothing, pillows, lanterns, handbags, and other odds and ends. Upstairs was where all the tailoring happened and was filled with bolts of fabric, clothing catalogues, and changing rooms. There was even a little section where you could get tailored shoes, but it was obvious that shoes were not their specialty because the shoe room was dark and abandoned. I sat down at one of the tables and was immediately approached by a smiling young woman who slid a number of catalogues in my direction. I opened the first one and began my search for the perfect...dress, skirt, blouse, whatever. I had no clue what I was looking for. The books were filled with clippings from magazines like Cosmo, Style, Teen, Land's End, and anything else they could find with pictures of stylishly dressed women. I looked through five catalogues and only found three or four pieces that I liked enough that I would consider having them made. In the end I settled on a business-y dress and a Chinese style dress, each at $55. Meanwhile, Mom was doing the same and decided to have a few pairs of pants made. Chuck didn't want to get anything and contented himself with flipping through the books while he waited for us. Next, I went around with my designated assistant to pick out fabrics which was kind of fun. A nice charcoal gray for the business dress, and a red patterned Chinese silk for the other. Then I got myself measured: bust, waist, hips, neck, shoulders, torso, underarms, etc. Photos were taken of me from the front and side, and I was sent downstairs to pay. All I had to do after that was wait until the next day. Hard to imagine them turning the flat fabric into a dress in just 24 hours, especially since I was most certainly not the only one who was purchasing clothing. Moving on from Yaly's we came to our first taste of Hoi An's old town: Trieu Chau Assembly Hall. First, let me tell you a tiny bit about Hoi An. Back in the 16th to 17th centuries the city was a big international hub and home to quite a few nationalities, a big one being the Chinese. Their presence was reflected in the architecture which has, miraculously, survived until today. These preserved buildings make up Hoi An's old town and are a popular attraction for tourists, which is what the city is known for these days with the trade having moved further up the coast to the north. The assembly hall we were at was one of a few buildings that had been used for meetings and general socialization among the Chinese ex-pats. The sloped roof had a lovely pair of tiled dragons peering into a glass sphere, and the wooden support posts inside were carved into various decorative scenes. The old man who guarded the front door (you had to pay him an entrance fee to get in) silently pointed out what he thought were the more interesting parts of the building, although we kept wondering what exactly it was he was trying to draw our attention to. We spent only a short time there before moving on. Back on the road we turned down a sunny alley, past people's homes and gardens, down another larger road, and to the central market. They had the typical assortment of food and souvenirs such as fruit, vegetables, noodles, jewelry, chopsticks, hats, and even some preserved eggs that still had the wood chip coating that was used during the aging process. There was a stall full of wooden carvings, which weren't anything I would want on my shelves at home, but their creator was an interesting fellow. He was busy singing away at the top of his lungs as he violently hammered at a poor chunk of wood on his worktable. Singing and smashing. He seemed to really enjoy his work. Or he was ridiculously bored and making a spectacle of himself for amusement sake. At the edge of the market a pretty, middle aged woman with a cone hat smiled broadly at us and beckoned for someone to sit next to her and take a photo. I knew what I was getting into as I sat down next to her and smiled, so I wasn't surprised when immediately after Chuck pressed the camera button she demanded $1. I was surprised at how aggressively she went about it though. Her smile dropped into a very serious, stern look and she shot one hand out in a "give me" gesture while the other tightened its grip on our interlocked arms so as not to let me get away. One minute she was all puppy dogs and sunshine, and the next she was hell fires and death rays. Upon handing over $0.50 she went immediately back into sunshine mode. I might have been more inclined to give her a full dollar if she hadn't been so ill spirited about the whole thing. Her loss. We moved on and made our way down to the small canal, across a lantern-strewn bridge, and to a small island that was home to a number of restaurants, tourist shops, and hotels. It seemed that very few of the restaurants were open just then, which was understandable because the heat was ridiculous, but left us feeling a little bit disappointed. There was but one place that looked like it might be open, except that there was no one in sight. We shouted "hello" a few times before we noticed movement from on top of the big wooden table behind the counter. A woman sat up and blinked at us in sleepy surprise, then smiled and quickly climbed down to welcome and get us menus. I felt a bit guilty about having waked her, but I justified it by telling myself that she'd rather get some customers than sleep the day away. I tried to order a local specialty called mi quang - a dish that I had been wanting to try, and was on the menu, but that she said she didn't actually have. She kept pointing to some other dish and saying “Same.” If it was the same, then why would she have the one and not the other? Obviously, not the same. There's no fooling me. So I ordered another local specialty called "white rose." It was sort of like shrimp wontons (without the soup) scrunched up so that they look like little white roses. They kind of did I guess. And they were tasty enough. I ordered a sweet iced coffee as well, and instead of telling me she also did not have that, she ran down to a nearby coffee shop and ordered it for me from them. How nice of her! After hanging out there for as long as we reasonably could, we bounced over to a coffee shop on the canal's edge for some more refreshments (we still weren't ready to go back out into the blinding afternoon heat). We somehow caught the attention of a 7 or 8 year old little girl who took a liking to us. Chuck in particular. She kept playing this peek-a-boo game that was cute and funny at first, but quickly became more annoying than anything else. We had to resort to ignoring her. She really could have used a friend to play with - someone to help her tear through all that pent up energy. In my efforts to bore her with my lack of interest I turned my attention to the lantern stalls across the street. Their owners were hard at work making the lanterns, and I was surprised at how simple the process looked. They would start with the lantern's skeleton frame, then take the fabric of choice and glue it to one of the "ribs," stretch it to the next rib and glue, stretch glue, etc. They used some nice shimmery, colorful fabrics. I particularly liked the deep cerulean/turquoise color, so I went to all three stalls and examined their lanterns of that color to find the best one. I even managed to talk the vendor down from $3 to $2 once I made my choice. By that point we had no more excuses to avoid continuing our sightseeing, so we headed back across the bridge and once again into the heart of old town. We took a look at the Japanese Covered Bridge, but didn't go across because the ticket to do so was more than we wanted to pay. It didn't look like it was very exciting to walk across so I didn't feel like I was missing out. We had no specific plan of action at this point, so we wandered aimlessly through the streets and alleys. We wandered into a temple through the back entrance and saw these cool spiral cones of burning incense; got some weird ice cream from a street cart; popped into a souvenir shop to look at all the crap they had for sale. We even spotted another tailor that I recognized from my online research and stopped in. Chuck was convinced by Mom and myself to get a couple of button up shirts for $15 a piece. After picking out the fabrics, Mr. Xe - the shop owner - came in and took all of the measurements. He was quite a bit shorter and smaller than Chuck so it was pretty funny to watch him quickly and purposefully spin around him with his measuring tape flying and mouth working in unconscious spasms of concentration. He was back out the door as soon as the last measurement was jotted down. Once finished we moved on down the road, stopping into a few random shops that caught our interest. Coming once again to the food market, Chuck had a hankering for some watermelon. No one was selling individual slices so we decided to just get a whole, small melon. She charged us $2, which I thought was a rip off seeing as we can usually get a quarter of a melon for $0.30. She did chop it up a bit for us though, which was good. While Mom and I were dealing with the watermelon situation, Chuck sneaked off and bought me a red rose. Such a sweetie! We were becoming worn out from our sightseeing by then, so we headed back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. We went for a swim in the pool which was quite nice, and layed around in the AC of our rooms. After sunset we headed back into old town in search of dinner. It was very pretty at night with soft yellow lights hanging off the buildings and glowing, colored lanterns dangling from lamp posts. We were in search of a tin-table restaurant, but the old town was touristy enough that we didn't find any. So we settled for a nicer place in a cozy, wood-and-concrete building. We sat on the second floor, right on the small balcony with a lovely view over the canal. We tried a number of Hoi An specialties such as fried wontons, egg pancakes, and mi quang (finally). It was all quite good and decently priced and made for a very enjoyable evening. The wait staff, although very kind, weren't exactly on top of things, so when we were ready to pay there was no one around to get us the bill. We wandered downstairs where they went into a flutter over getting us the check and serving us our free watermelon dessert that came with the meal. Then we were finally free to pay and move on. I took some time to get a few long exposure pictures in an attempt to capture the pretty lights in the darkness while Mom went across the canal to check out some sort of show that was going on. Chuck very patiently waited with me while I photographed and a good 15 minutes later we headed over to join Mom. The show she was watching was, as far as I could tell, some sort of Chinese style bingo. There were two announcers singing rather than calling out the numbers, accompanied by a small band. I couldn't figure out what was going on beyond that, though. And then sleep. Long day.

On the 1st we were woken up at 7:30 AM by the sound of hammers banging somewhere in our hotel. Unable to go back to sleep, we got up and got ready for the day. By the time we went next door to check in with Mom she had already left to do some sightseeing on her own. She had been wanting to visit some of the open-to-the-public old homes in the old town, whereas Chuck and I weren't so interested, so she decided to go by herself. I hadn't expected her to leave so early, but we had contingency plans to meet for our fittings at Yaly's at 10:00 AM, so it was all good. Chuck and I had our hotel breakfast and then walked to the tailor shop, where we met up with Mom, just as planned. She shared her morning and the pictures she had taken. She told us about Hoi An's history of flooding and showed us one photo where you could distinctly see the discoloration that the flood water had left on the lower six feet of one house's wooden walls. That's some pretty serious flooding. Another house had some ladies doing Vietnamese embroidery. Some had small temples. It sounded like she had a pretty good time. Once we were caught up (which happened pretty quickly) we went in for our fittings. I was worried at first because both my dresses were baggy and box-shaped, but my assistant lady assured me that it would all be taken in. She pinched and marked the dresses at the waist, bust, shoulders, and hemline, then took them away again, back to the unseen tailor. Mom did the same. We were to come back one more time in the afternoon, to pick up the final product. We headed back to the hotel in the meantime, stopping in a small bakery along the way for some drinks and a pastry. The power at our hotel was out due to electricity rationing, so we opened our balcony doors in the hopes that there might be a breeze. There wasn't any, but at least the day was a bit overcast and not so hot as it could have been. I set up a photo shoot for the lantern we had bought the day before, the embroidery piece Mom bought back in Nha Trang, and a little stuffed elephant I had bought way back in Laos. I had been meaning to photograph those items for a while, so it was good to finally get that taken care of. We left for the old town around 2:30 PM, first heading to Mr. Xe's shop to pick up Chuck's shirts. They were perfect just the way they were, but before we were allowed to walk off with them, Mr. Xe needed to give him the once over and his approval. With a very serious expression he spun Chuck around a few times, tugged at the shoulders a bit and finally gave a curt nod. We were free to go. I have to say, the shirts looked quite good. Then we headed back to Yaly's where Mom and I tried on our clothing one last time. Everything was all taken in and snug with the hems sewed up nice and neat. My dresses hugged the curve of my back while still leaving room for my hips – this can sometimes be a problem in buying commercial clothing, but not at a tailor shop. Same for Mom's pants - they fit just the way she wanted. We had to wait around for some last minute tailoring on one pair, during which time we spoke to a nice, older Australian couple who were also getting a few things made. The woman was a bit of a complainer, but nice none the less. She had apparently been back to the shop a bunch of times already because her clothing wasn't fitting her right. Eventually the pants were finished and we headed back to the hotel to drop everything off. It was close enough to dinner time by that point that we turned right back around for food. We hadn't yet been to the beach - one of Hoi An's other tourist attractions - so we grabbed a taxi in its direction. He dropped us off at a restaurant right on the sand and we were feeling lazy enough (and rain drops were beginning to fall) that we decided to eat there rather than hunt around for some place better. The sun was setting behind distant rain clouds which marred the sunset a bit, but it was still nice. The food wasn't as good as other restaurants we'd been to, but it left us full and satisfied none the less. We taxied back to the hotel, had a few happy hour drinks and talked with the other young travelers, and finally headed to the room to relax for the rest of the night.

We checked out of the hotel on the 2nd and waited around in the lobby for our ride to the bus station. After some time we asked the front desk when it was supposed to arrive and were surprised to find that they didn't have a clue what we were talking about. We had ordered and paid for the bus through them the day before, so we thought for sure they would know when it would arrive. The very girl we had given our money to was standing right there. But they didn't know about any bus. We went into more details, explaining where we were going, who we had talked to, what times they had told us to be downstairs, etc. After some time they seemed to realize what bus we were talking about, but the problem now was that they didn't have any record of us having bought tickets for it. We showed them our receipt and everything, but they didn't seem to think we had paid or they couldn't find our reservation. I was getting aggravated. Someone finally took a look at the book over at the travel agency desk and saw our name. Then they called us a taxi because the free pick-up we were supposed to get was finished with his route and dropping people off at the bus already. The taxi was a free ride which made us wonder if we hadn't been tricked when he dropped us off at a seemingly random street corner and told us to wait there. We were about ready to commiserate with each other about having been swindled when we noticed there was a travel agency in the hotel behind us. They confirmed that the bus to Hue would be coming by shortly to pick up any stray passengers (us and a couple of other people who had arrived), and eventually, it did show up. I found myself impressed that we actually made it on board despite all the missed rides and messed up communication. It was a chaotically functional start to the day.

No comments:

Post a Comment