November 29, 2012

Vietnam By Lantern Light

While on our night train from Hanoi, we passed over the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) which separated North Vietnam and South Vietnam during the war. Our destination was Hue, a city which served as Vietnam's capital from 1802-1945 under the Nguyen dynasty. The 13 Nguyen emperors were just puppet rulers under the French, but they were responsible for some of Vietnam's most extravagant buildings.

Our first stop was The Imperial City, a sprawling complex within two moats where the emperors lived. Some of the buildings are stunning, but only 20 out of 148 survived the war. 

The rest of the complex is tall grasses where you can barely make out the foundations of former buildings. Just like with the Roman Forum, you have to use your imagine a bit.
In the wooded hills just outside of Hue, the emperors built their royal mausoleums…each unique and peaceful in its own right. 

To get to the mausoleums we took a cruise on a dragon boat down the Perfume River (which doesn't smell like anything special). Along the way we passed pretty pagodas, Vietnam's form of Buddhist temples.

From Hue we took a short 3-hour train ride hugging the coast of the South China Sea and landed in Da Nang, which we merely used as a transportation hub. On the way to our next town we bartered with our cab driver to let us quickly stop at the Marble Mountains, a wooded mountain full of caves where a dark and damp den of alters leaves a lasting impression.    

Our cab driver was amusingly excessive with his honking. We could not stop laughing as he would just lay on the horn with only an open highway in front of him. He was a shady guy who tried to divert us to his friends' marble statue stores, but we weren't having it. At least we knew that no matter where he took us, we would get there safely…and with the entire neighborhood aware of our arrival. Beep beep!

Finally we arrived in beautiful and charming Hoi An

This small town is full of postcard images…wonderfully preserved merchant houses with centuries of weathering, a lively market, and lanterns hanging from every building. 

There are boats with eyes painted on the front to ward off evil spirits. There are also sets of wooden eyes above the doorways of the houses.

This is the first city in Southeast Asia that we feel like actually tries. They create atmosphere simply for the sake of atmosphere. In that way it reminded us of Europe, and once we saw it, we realized how much we had missed it.

There are wrinkled old Vietnamese men asking us if we want a boat ride and women who flash huge smiles when we buy little potato and coconut cakes for 25 cents. It's easy to spot families enjoying dinner together or just laughing at something that we will never understand. The family unit seems very strong here.

On the 14th day of each lunar month (which didn't even fall on November's full moon), Hoi An has a celebration. In fact we gave up trekking in the northern hills of Sapa just so that we could be in Hoi An for the Full Moon Festival. It also happened to be our 300th day traveling. Reason to celebrate! 

When we walked out of our room in the morning, the hotel hallways were full of smoke. We were a little alarmed until we went down to the lobby and realized it was just burning incense. All over town people set out offering tables under the moonlight.

Little kids dress up in their Vietnamese best and sell floating candles along the river.

It's considered good luck to float a candle. It's easy to spot them in Hoi An any night of the week, but during Full Moon Festivals, there are hundreds.

There are also games throughout town. Bai Choi is like musical bingo with live instruments and singing MCs. Each player gets a wooden paddle with three words. The MCs draw a stick and sing a song announcing the word while a man parades the word around on a large board and then hangs it on a fishing line. Another man runs around passing out flags to anyone with a match. The first player to match all three of their words wins. After four games, we actually won!

There's also a game where you get blind-folded with a mask and then try to break a clay pot with a stick. Despite the locals' attempts to verbally steer us in the right direction, we both whiffed.

Hoi An has the best food we've had since Chiang Mai in Thailand. We feasted on scrumptious local specialties and seafood dishes. We took a cooking class with a beautiful and sweet instructor named Van. Among many other things, she taught us how to dissect a squid. Now they're not so scary to me anymore. 

In recent years, Hoi An has become internationally famous for fast-turnaround custom tailoring. For two years Steve has looked forward to getting a custom suit made here. It’s really the only souvenir from our entire trip that he wanted.

Picking a tailor in Hoi An is the hardest part because we've read that there are over 600. We quickly narrowed our selection based on online reviews and then went in to compare them. Some stores are wonderful in terms of customer service and look-books but gave us a scamming vibe when they wouldn't label their fabrics. We came back to the same store a couple of times and got different answers about material composition and prices. It's quite unbelievable that they would be stupid enough to pull something like this considering the amount of competition in town.

We finally went with A Dong Silk, a tailor who clearly labeled their materials and prices and had the fabric pattern that Steve liked. The first step is to look through their catalogs and pick out a cut for them to copy. They asked Steve so many questions that had never even been on our radar before. Should the lapel be 6 cm or 7 cm? Should the back be double vent or a single vent? Should the collar be spread or pointed? What does all of this even mean?! It was so fun! I'm glad I had a man traveling with me just so that I had a reason to go through this process.

Once the cut and the fabric were picked out, they checked, then double-checked, then triple-checked the measurements to make sure they got them right. 

I mentioned that Hoi An prides itself in fast turnaround. Steve's first fitting was the next day. So that night we actually got to go across the street to the factory and see his suit being made!

All-in-all he had three (very necessary) fittings. Our wonderful sales lady, Loanc, even came in for the last fitting on her day off just to close everything out. After losing so much weight, this is Steve's first piece of clothing that actually fits him. My man looks GOOD!

Meanwhile, I was also attempting to get some leather boots custom made by a different company. They kept making stupid mistakes – like not following their own measurements. One day we were in the showroom with the sales ladies for a fitting and they had to call in the shoe maker. There were some Vietnamese words exchanged, and then he grabbed the boots and literally ran off to his motorbike. So funny.

After four fittings they just could never get them right…and they knew it. We were so surprised when they actually offered to give us our money back. Maybe Hoi An should just stick to what they do best…suits. 

One day we rented bicycles to go to the beach which is only 4 kilometers outside of town. Given that Hoi An has a beach, our new business idea is to open up a custom tailored swimsuit shop. But since this is Vietnam, there would have to be some sort of side scam involved. That's not our style.

Right before we left town, we made a last minute trip across the river to Mr. Minh Hien to buy some lanterns. He didn't even have to work for our money. We were in a hurry, we knew what we wanted, and we didn't try to negotiate. He seemed happy, but even so, he still tried to up-sell us. That's just how these people are. They are never satisfied even if you did just pick them out of the five other vendors, who are standing next to them selling the exact same thing for the exact same price. They are always hustling for another dollar. If you happen to be in a bad mood that day, it's annoying. If you happen to be in a good mood that day (which we were), it's sort of charming.   

Sometimes we are just so tickled by what we a motorcycle making its way through traffic loaded up with lantern skeletons.

Or a real-life three blind mice.

Or the old woman who fell asleep by her bananas.

But easily our most vivid memories of Hoi An will be the romantic lantern-lit streets. 

This has hands-down been our favorite place in all of Southeast Asia. In the week leading up to it we were starting to feel run down, but Hoi An was exactly what we needed. It rejuvenated us and geared us up for the last leg of our trip.

We spent 5 days in this tiny town. That's more than we dedicated to London, Rome or Melbourne…and we loved it.

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