First, I had a very surreal moment last night when I opened up Yahoo! News and found Liberate headlining the tech section…weird. You never really expect to see people you know in the news. ( http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story2&cid=569&ncid=738&e=1&u=/nm/20021228/tc_nm\ /tech_liberate_dc , if you’re interested.)
I hope things are OK there, but I suspect not. I’m rather glad to be out of the picture–the last couple months there have been no picnic, and frankly I’d rather be traveling. If you’re still there, my thoughts go with you.
At any rate, I have now spent four delightful days in Hoi An, a place I recommend highly to anyone considering Vietnam. It’s a small town, filled with craftwork, small tailor shops, and pretty French-Vietnamese architecture, and somehow manages to be touristy, delicate, and hyperactively solicitous all at once. It’s also filled with the most beautiful handicrafts, from woodcarving to Chinese watercolors to gorgeous lacquer panels (modern painting, bronze and copper work, ceramics, etc.–lots of etc.). Because it rains/drizzles constantly, the roofs are covered with green moss and small plants grow from cracks in the ceramic tiles; very picturesque.
The energy is a curious blend between laid-back and energetic: shopkeepers are constantly soliciting you to enter their shops, and some will actually come out and grab your arm to escort you to their shop down the street. However, it’s all done with a smile and a light heart–more like welcoming a happy sister than anything else–so it’s not at all hassling, more like fun. My overall sense of Vietnam has been like that–people are very friendly, and while they’re definitely trying to sell you things, they aren’t nearly as predatory as shopkeepers in Cambodia or even Thailand. Probably the best description came from a friend of mine who visited Vietnam earlier:
“The first morning I was there, I bought a loaf of French bread from one of the women there. Thereafter I was marked as a bread-buyer, so whenever I ventured out in the morning, a flock of women would descend on me and try to sell me bread, pressing the loaves into the flesh of my arm to show me that it was still warm…they didn’t seem to understand that one person can only eat so much bread, and so that after buying one loaf I wouldn’t want more. It might have been alarming, if it hadn’t been so tiny (and so cute).”
Me being me, of course, I’ve spent an awful lot of time in the tailor shops. I can’t help it; I love silk, especially Vietnamese silk–it’s soft, billowy, has those beautifully changing colors, and has those brocade designs I really love. And it looks absolutely fantastic on me–so I’ve been buying a lot of it. The good news is, it’s really cheap–$2/meter–and the seamstresses are excellent–impressively top-notch. Cheap, too. I’ve had them make two pairs of silk pants, three mandarin blouses, and one Western blouse. Plus an ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress. Total cost, about $80 (!).
So I’ve spent a respectable amount of my time in one of the tailor shops, looking over fabrics, chatting with the shopkeeper, and helping her pull in random Western tourists via happy-customer testimonials. (“No, really! It actually *is* silk! You’re not in Bangkok anymore!”) Most of the rest has been spent wandering around the town–I’ve been around for long enough now that the shopkeepers all recognize me, especially since they all think I’m Vietnamese.
So I’ve started having more interesting conversations with people, and in fact the seamstress has invited me to a friend’s wedding later today. (Traditional Vietnamese, with the bride in red and everything.) I’m going, of course! in my new ao dai. (Hey, I might as well have *some* reason to wear it…I have no idea where I’m going to wear it back home.) I’m going by her shop at 3pm today so she can help me find a small wedding-gift for her friend.
And that’s been my experience in Vietnam so far…the women have been very friendly, very lighthearted, welcoming me more or less as a long-lost sister. It probably helps that I look Vietnamese, and am American as well…there are many overseas Vietnamese in the U.S., so they see me as an overseas sister, even though I’m really Chinese. It’s made for a very lovely experience, and I plan to come back to Hoi An–maybe next year, on vacation. If you’re thinking about traveling to Vietnam, I strongly recommend Hoi An. Even with white Westerners, everyone is very friendly. If I had a month to spare, I think I’d find a small guesthouse, settle in, and just hang out.
People here help each other, too. If one tailor shop is busy, the women next door will pitch in and help (even though they’re nominally competitors), if a laundry is overloaded, they send it out to the next one. I was in a tiny cafe chatting with an Australian expat…his girlfriend came by to eat with him, but upon noticing the crowd, jumped up and vanished into the kitchen to help. That was the last he saw of her for half an hour…she was in back, chatting with and helping the chef. It’s that kind of place. The sort of grim Western competitiveness (or insistence on self-sufficiency) just hasn’t occurred to them.
(Sometimes this is a little surreal; for example, last night, I ordered beef fried with tomatoes and onions and pumpkin soup. A few minutes later, the waitress comes back: “Sorry, we no have soup.” I said that was fine, and sat back to wait for the beef. Ten minutes later, another girl came out, and waited politely for my attention. I said, “Yes?” She said, “Excuse me, we have soup.” I was wildly amused by this–it exemplifies travel here. Sometimes they have it, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they don’t have it and then they do. At any rate, I’m pretty certain that during that ten minutes, someone was canvassing the town in search of soup…I love it! It was tasty, too.
Anyway, if and when I have time, I want to spend a good chunk of time here, hanging out…it’s a wonderful place to spend time, and I really like it. Being a chameleon of sorts, I tend to soak up the thinking of the people around me–in Cambodia, that was really unpleasant. Here, it’s lightheartedly fun. I don’t think I’d want to stay here forever, but it’s a great place to relax.
That being said, tomorrow I move on to Hue for a day or two of touring (the Demilitarized Zone and some palaces, temples, etc.), then on to Hanoi. In Hanoi I plan to do some adventure trekking–they have splendid karst (limestone) caves, kayakking trips, etc. to Halong Bay, and also some hilltribe treks, I think. After that I’m not sure–I may head overland to Laos, or I may shell out and fly to Vientiane.
I’m still debating what to wear to this wedding: the ao dai is lovely, blue-purple over white, but I also bought a gorgeous mandarin blouse–orange/gold/red, all the colors of flame. Worn over black silk culottes, it’s just stunning. Tiger colors, too. 😉
(I never would have imagined that I’d look good in bright orange, but it looks fantastic. I’ll see if I can get a photo.)