Beaches and Seams

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The road was perilous. It writhed and undulated around mountains as though the pavement itself was trying to shake us from its spine. The irony is that out the window, this vengeful road is nowhere to be seen. Only the earth falling away below is visible, ever waiting to swallow you whole. Dalat is situated 1500m above sea level and as any physicist will tell you, that's a long way to fall. Almost 5000 ft for the metrically challenged and for those who've been up flying with me, about 5 times the height I generally fly around the city. The driver would let the bus accumulate speed to the maximum possible turning speed, holding down the brake just enough to keep us on the road. An hour and a half of this and there was more of the brake pad in the air than on the wheels, so acrid that even the driver couldn't ignore it and pulled over. 15 miuntes overlooking the abyss while they dumped cool water from a mountain stream onto the brakes and then we were back on the bus, still not using the engine to slow our mad rush to the bottom. It was only a matter of time, I knew, before our brakes would fail entirely. I just hoped that it would be somewhere near a runaway lane or where we wouldn't have too far to fall.

Although I'd brought a book to read and was quite tired due to a lack of sleep there was no closing my eyes. The valley floor materialized in the distance and the brake pads were vapourizing once more and I watched intently in the hope we would reach it. As fast as we seemed to be moving, the valley seemed agonizingly far but finally we turned one last corner and there was no longer a dizzying drop out the window. I was going to make it to Nha Trang, a city on the coast of Vietnam, after all. I arrived with Nathan, the Kiwi I'd met up in Dalat and a couple other girls we'd met on the bus and began the hunt for a place to stay. The first thing we noticed were how aggressive the touts are here. Where others would take a "no" or two, they'd eventually leave you alone. Here, short of ripping them off their bikes and introducing them to a left and right, they will stalk you no matter how much you ask, demand, and yell. After all, they want to claim the commission for herding you in to a hotel even if you did your level best to shake them and ignore and do the opposite of everything they said.

Nathan and I checked into a place called Sunflower Guesthouse, quite central and $4/night each. We had the worst meal I'd had in some time at a place that had relatively decent and cheap beer, explored the city, and I booked myself on a SCUBA dive for the next day. Nha Trang is pretty well known as the place to dive in Vietnam, and while not comparing with other dives, it was well worth the price. For $45, I had lunch and three dive sites and saw my first octopus! Finally!! I have been wanting to see an octopus since I first started diving and there, where I least expected it, an octopus left the shelter of the rock and swam off, quite a big one. We dove off an island not far from land at three sites, Madonna Rock (my favourite site), Pipe Beach (home of many many pipe fish, relatives of the seahorse), and Moray Beach (famous for Frog Fish and where I saw my octopus). On the dive I met a nice couple from Melbourne and after dinner they invited me back to their five star hotel for a swim. I didn't turn them down.

One more day wandering the beaches and relaxing around Nha Trang and we were off on a night bus to Hoi An twelve hours north. Hoi An is also a beach town, but more importantly it's famous for the sheer number of world renowned tailors at quite reasonable prices. So after getting off the bus at 7:30 in the morning, checking into the Grassland Hotel (equally far from everything, but beautiful rooms and free bike rental) I was tailor shopping. The hotel gave me a free ride into town, or rather, the tailor "Blue" did, and I checked them out. My first inclination was to simply get prices and start shopping around, but I quickly realized this was more complicated than a simple "a suit costs x" and moreover, I had no idea what I wanted. What colour? Black? Gray? Brown? Stripes? Even if different fabric cost different amounts, how could I compare prices when I didn't even know what fabric to look at. And so I spent over an hour looking through magazines and realizing that I definitely wanted a gray suit as well as a black one. And I thought a brown one would be nice too after seeing them in the catalogue.

Finally, I'd decided on three suits and styles and therefore fabrics after a lot of comparison and gleaning what knowledge I could from Ms. Yum Yum, who ran the store with a sister and a few other friendly girls. I got a price from her, quite reluctantly, and then went on the town. I got a really good price from Nhu Trang - the owner came to see me personally. I didn't feel so confident there, although I had no reason not to. She certainly told me of some things to be wary of with other tailors, and then I went comparing some more. Another tailor seemed quite good and I'm somewhat convinced I could've gotten a great gray suit from. It gave me some confidence that after our chat and picking out some materials to price out, and when I was about to leave, she wanted to assure me of the quality and brought a suit jacket out. It was one she'd done for her husband, in gray, and - I quietly noticed - the same material that she'd picked out for me. As well, there was an Australian couple in the store who swore by her and said this was their fourth time here. And she offered, reluctantly, to match the price I'd gotten from the other tailor. I probably would've stayed there, truth be told, but for two things: 1) I really didn't think her black fabric was anywhere near as good as at Blue. 2) I couldn't remember the design for the black suit I liked - quite unique.

So back to Blue, where not only could she not match the price, but she realized she'd made a mistake in her math and couldn't give me the price she'd quoted. Perhaps a wiser man would've left at this point and gone to the tailor with a much better price who was either honest enough to pick me out a suit the same as her husband's or devious enough to let me fill in the blanks on my own. But Blue had the design, it had better material for the black and brown suits, it had people who I could communicate with a bit better, and she had the design for the black suit I wanted. I don't want to get an average suit, I want a nice, quality, tailored one. So I stayed with Blue and while it took a few days and fittings (the Aussies I'd met, who admittedly didn't look that savvy, said the other woman always got it right the first time), in the end everything turned out exactly as I'd hoped it would and I'm very excited to wear these clothes at home in a not-so-sweaty environment. And more importantly, I'm pretty sure the extra I paid was worth the extra attention to detail, the quality, and the experience.

Enough about suits and clothes, though. While my tailoring was never far from my mind the whole time and while I was in and out time and again throughout my stay, there is much much more to Hoi An than tailors. The old town is exceptional, authentic, and alive today as ever. Towards the end of the year, it is transformed and more specifically submerged as the water level rises 3m and motorbikes are kept in attics while boats become the primary mode of transport. Families move upstairs and the entire town bears only the vaguest resemblance to what it is. The famous Japanese An Hoi footbridge, rather than being a simple decorative piece or a backdrop to a really bad band, actually crosses water. Obviously I never had the opportunity to see it this way, but you can imagine the magic of such a place that people have been living in for many years, moving up and down as the river floods and ebbs.

The food of Hoi An also gives the city its charm. In addition to many places for great Vietnamese food, it has some delicious specialties that would probably be world famous were their recipes not closely guarded secrets. Cao Lao, for example, a delicious noodle dish that I call the Vietnamese Phad Thai. All I was able to find out about its creation is that water comes from a certain well, they take certain types of wood and leave it in the water around sunrise, mix in 'some ingredients' later in the day, strain the broth, heat it and then moisten the noodles which are mixed with some greens, pork, fried croutons of a sort, and enjoyed. Fried wonton, with a homemade sweet and sour. Special 'Quang' noodles. In addition to finding a great restaurant with cheap beer and delicious Cao Lao and a restaurant called Co Dam that Nathan discovered with amazing dishes the owner made us that don't even have a name I decided to take a cooking course here. I'd met a couple having some street food the night prior and joined their cooking course at Hong Phuc the next evening. We stuffed a fish with some fresh ingredients we chopped, diced, and sauteed, wrapped it in banana leaves and barbecued it. We shredded, wrapped, and booked our own spring rolls. We sliced, diced, and fried up some squid with lemon grass, garlic, and chili. And we brewed up our own sweet and sour sauce and smothered some fried wonton in it. Yes, Hoi An has some of the best and most unique food in Asia and I definitely took advantage.

Nearby are some ruins called Me Soon (spelled My Son) that are 1800 years old. Unfortunately, the Viet Cong took to hiding here during what they call the American War over here and naturally the Americans dropped bombs and leveled many of the ancient towers including the crown jewel, a once 24m high tower now 2-3m high. Some of the buildings were still intact, however, or listing into a bomb crater, and the red brick seemed to age the buildings all the more against a fresh blue sky and green landscape. We took the boat back, a mistake as there's little to see except a small village that is essentially a tourist trap. And the old town is filled with historical buildings and sites worth a visit. But if that's not what you're in the mood for, you can always head to the nearby beach, which is nice and hawker free compared to Nha Trang. I spent my last evening there and maybe stayed a little too late as it was getting pretty dark on the way home. But a local guy pulled up beside me and drove alongside or behind to light the way. And, eventually, pulled alongside again and basically pulled me home. Yes, it will be a hard place to leave, but tomorrow morning I'm off once more to Hue a few hours north.

Nha Trang and Hoi An Photos

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