I’ve been stuck in Hoi An for four days. I arrived on Friday afternoon on a bus from Kon Tum, and the first bus/train I could get back out was today, Tuesday. Yes, it’s full-on summer holiday madness in Vietnam – especially on the weekends, when the locals go for weekend trips with their out-of-school kids.
Then again, Hoi An isn’t such a bad place to be stuck. It’s on the central coast of Vietnam, part of the main tourist corridor between Saigon and Hanoi. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so the old town is well-preserved, if a bit over-authenticized, or rather, overdone (think paper lanterns *everywhere*). It is *the* place to buy custom-tailored clothing. I was deeply tempted by a wool jacket with a hood and silk lining, which the shop could have made for me in an afternoon for $30 (and I’m sure I could have bargained that down to about $20-25). I’m sure someday I’ll kick myself for not doing it, but hey – I’ve only got so much room in my pack, and a wool jacket takes up a shitload of space.
There are also a few nice beaches nearby, which comes in handy in the searing heat of mid-day. I have to admit I overindulged a bit here – my butt has been Barbie pink for two days. So much for evening out my tan.
As for Kon Tum, I spent a lovely couple of days there. The first day I rented a bike from my hotel and toured the nearby hill-tribe villages and veggie farms on my own. The next day I hired a guide with a motorbike to take me further afield, and to explain things to me. Like my guides Nzhia in Saigon and Mr. Hung in Dalat, Jean Ho in Kon Tum is in his late-50’s. A former army captain for the South Vietnamese, he worked closely with the Americans in the Central Highlands during the war. Since many of his men were from local hill tribes, he speaks most of the dialects. Now he’s a bookish English teacher who supplements his income working as a guide during the summer holidays. He’s got an extraordinarily sophisticated vocabulary but terrible conversational English and pronunciation. If I didn’t understand what he was saying he would spell out the words, and I would often do a double-take at his word choice: “r-e-t-i-c-e-n-c-e,” he’d spell, or “c-o-r-o-l-l-a-r-y.”
With less schtick than Nzhia and less tourism-bull finesse than Mr. Hung, he’s been my favorite guide so far on a personal level. But as a guide he’s got a bit to learn. Yes, he made sure I got a full day of his time (we started at 8 am and ended around 6 pm), but a good portion of that time was me sitting around while he chit-chatted with the locals. And like Robin, my hill-tribe guide in Burma a few years ago, he was obsessed with asking the local women how old they are and how many children they had: 45 with 10, 38 with 6, 30 with 6, 40 with 9, etc.
He would also point out how “dirty” they were – kids without shoes, covered in dirt. Remember how I said I had yet to see real poverty in Vietnam? Well, here it is. The hill-tribe families subsist on their farming – rice, corn, manioc, sometimes other veggies or even rubber trees. The homes we visited were stripped of any sort of decoration. Often the house was just four brick walls with a concrete floor and no furnishings – not even the old calendars and bamboo mats I saw in the hill tribe village homes in Burma. They drink water from gourds, carry firewood or their harvest in bamboo backpacks, and often have only rice to eat, once a day.
They are also fiercely independent. “They are like the Americans and French,” says Jean. “They like their freedom, and do what they want.” He said so bitterly, unhappy that the minorities don’t have to pay for farmland and tribal land, unlike ethnic Vietnamese. But I’d bet he wouldn’t trade places with a single one of the families.