KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare - the train was due to leave at 8:11 p.m. and it was only a few minutes late arriving from the south. We already knew from our tickets that we were not able to all be in a compartment for four, so we gave the tickets that were together to David and Jeong Ae and Anil and I took the other two tickets that were each in separate compartments. Not too thrilled about this arrangement but the train was full and there was no flight the next day from Nha Trang to Danang.
When I arrived at my compartment, I found a Vietnamese man already sleeping on my berth, using my bedding. When I showed him my ticket, he jumped up, gathered his luggage and backed out saying "Sorry, Sorry". Well, I was not too pleased to say the least. There was no way I was going to climb into the berth with the bedding he had been using. The other people in my compartment were two Australian female backpackers and another Vietnamese man. He must have thought he had the worst luck to have to share a compartment with three foreign women. The Australian gals offered to take the top two bunks, and as my assigned one was on top, I was happy to agree. I finally cornered the conductor and he arranged to get me some clean bedding. I settled into my berth as the two Australians headed off to the "hard seat car" to drink beer with a male friend of theirs who had not been able to get a seat in the "soft sleeper".
I read a book for a while as the train rattled into the night, and the man in the other lower berth put the blanket over his head and talked on his cellphone for what seemed like forever. I am sure he was calling everyone he knew to get sympathy for his poor luck in having to share his compartment with female tourists. After a long time, he finally finished his calls and settled into sleep. I never did hear the Australians return to their berth so I must have fallen into a deep sleep because they were there, all rolled up in their blankets on the top berth when the conductor came around at 5:30a.m. to tell us that we would be stopping in Danang in ten minutes.
For the first time since we started our travels, I had a moment of doubt about travelling all over India by train. I really began to wonder if it was something that I could manage, let alone enjoy. When I thought about it more clearly, I realized that what was bothering me most that I was all alone in the compartment. Poor Anil found himself stuck with three French tourists who didn't speak a word of English and weren't interested in any kind of communication anyway. David and Jeong Ae didn't fare much better sharing their compartment with the leader of a group of backpacking tourists and her most difficult charge. The grumpy traveller had a hissy fit when David sat on the edge of his berth so that he could put his suitcase under the seat. The tour guide apologized to David out in the corridor - I guess the guy was a problem all round.
Still, the night did pass, we were in Danang and the driver that we had arranged to meet us was waiting with a sign with my name spelled "Mickey". We piled into his large seven passenger van for the drive to Hoi An - a little piece of heaven on the South China Sea. We found that he was taking a new highway built along the coast - the old one passed through the villages further inland. It was just past six in the morning, the sun had just risen and the beach was filled with joggers, people playing badminton and large numbers of hearty souls frolicking in the ocean. We passed along the beach made famous in the TV series "China Beach". Here the waves were more agreeable and the sight of sea in the morning was soothing after our long night on the train.
We arrived at the Phu Thinh II hotel, for our third visit since 2003, and were warmly greeted by the manager. As he shook our hands and looked us in the eye, he suddenly recognized us and his smile changed from one of a simple token welcome, to an ear-to-ear grin. It was great to be back again - to such a warm welcome and to the rooms overlooking the pool and the rice paddies just beyond the courtyard. David and Jeong Ae stayed in the same room that Paul and Cathy Moreau had been in - the same one that we were given when we returned on our trip seven months later. We were right next door, which made it all convenient when it was time for breakfast or a swim.
The others who travelled with us will remember the confusion that used to reign when we would go down to the patio for breakfast. Now that the hotel has become very popular with tour groups, the breakfast is served buffet style and there is an omlette station where eggs are made to order. We all loaded up on great mugs of terrific Vietnamese coffee and fresh (hurrah - we weren't obliged to use sweetened condensed) milk. I sent my omlette back to be "overcooked", once bitten, twice shy. It was great of the hotel to let us check in so early in the morning, after very hot showers and a change of clothes we set off to see the town. Our first stop was the little restaurant directly across the street from the Phu Thinh II hotel - appropriately named - the Phu Thinh Restaurant. As I crossed the busy street, the woman who shares the business with her husband looked up and recognized us immediately. She gave us the warmest of Vietnamese welcomes - but immediately told me I was much fatter than the last time I was there. You know, she was nothing but honest. I told her I was through working for a living and now my next focus was to travel and get in shape. I told her the next time she sees me; I will be a changed woman. We all laughed and hugged each other.
Our next stop was Friendly Tailors, just down the street from the hotel. We had been directed to this specific tailor by a friend, Diane Grice, back in Edmonton. We had tons of garments stitched there on our last visit and already had plans for a new wardrobe. When we arrived, her daughter recognized us immediately and called her Mom on the cellphone. Nu arrived moments later on her motorbike and once again there were hugs all round. I introduced her to David and Jeong Ae, and then explained that in fact, Diane Grice was first a friend of theirs; I had met Diane through the Lalondes. This made us all feel very much at home and we proceeded to spend much of the day planning for new clothes; selecting fabrics and discussing designs.
In the evening we went to the Phu Thinh Restaurant for a terrific dinner - I was delighted to see that the restaurant has become very successful and the owners have been able to make significant changes to their living quarters at the back. I had worried about them when I heard that there had been a devastating typhoon on October 1st and that the Cimarron typhoon was looming just off the coast. Fortunately, the improvements they made helped their tiny establishment weather the storm and the Cimarron typhoon veered north to China and spared Hoi An this time. Still, November is the month when typhoons are at their most dangerous - they have been known to have as many as seven in one season. All around town there are marks on the walls of buildings with dates written to indicate the various high-water levels during the many floods the town has endured.
One of the most delightful things about Vietnam is the sight of hundreds of school children riding their bicycles to and from school each day. As I mentioned earlier, half of the populations of Vietnam is under 25, so you can imagine that there are tons of children to educate. For this reason, there are two shifts of classes each day so the late morning sees many children riding home, and many more heading to school. The children all wear uniforms to school. The girls wear the traditional dress in white, while the boys usually wear navy blue trousers, white shirts and thin red ties knotted like boy scouts. The girls usually wear hats to protect their faces from the hot sun, but they also wear cloth covering the lower part of their faces. This serves to avoid the sun darkening the lower part of their face, as well as helps to filter out some of the pollution from the traffic on the roads. Many of the older girls also wear long gloves covering their hands and forearms so that they too do not get too darkened.
While we sat eating our early dinner, the students in the afternoon classes were heading home, passing in front of our table near the street. We noticed a most unusual thing with several of the students. It is common for a cyclist to carry a second student on the back of the bike - they usually sit on the "luggage" carrier, as small metal stand that is intended for small packages, but is used all over Asia to carry the most amazing loads. I have started a Yahoo Photo album of things sold on bicycles - will have to build up the photos before I share it with you. Anyway, as the students rode by our cafe, we noticed that both of the students were pedaling the one bike. It took us quite a while to figure out how they were doing this. In all our travels before, we had seen many people giving others a lift, but never both of them pedaling. We finally could see that the person on the back was somehow catching their sandal on the very outside edge of the pedal, just enough to ensure that there was some assistance provided in moving on down the road. Not everyone was doing this, mostly the girls were helping each other, but it made for quite a sight.
The next morning was Sunday and David and Jeong Ae went back to the tailor's as they planned to do some business with Miss Nu, for their shop, Artifacts, back in Edmonton. This gave me some free time to go to an Internet cafe and work on my journal. I was surprised to see that the place was packed with young teen boys all playing the same computer game on each of the twenty or so computers in the cafe. It was a game where several computer-generated figures, all dressed in t-shirts and jeans, were dancing to disco music. I couldn't really figure out how it worked, but it may have been that each figure was operated by a different player and they all had to dance together and then take turns taking center stage and "strutting their stuff". I had always thought that the internet businesses must be relatively expensive for the Vietnamese to use, but if that many teens can spend a whole morning wasting internet time on games such as these, it must be within reach of more families than I had previously thought.
Anyway, we finally got a free computer and I was able to upload my photos taken in Cambodia, both to my Yahoo Photo album and to the trip journal. I finally took a break about three hours later and went for my first dip in the pool at the Phu Thinh. It was a refreshing break after so many days in the heat and humidity.
In the afternoon, when David and Jeong Ae were done, we walked to the old town and took a one-hour trip in a boat on the Hoi An River. This is something we had not done in our visits before, because in the past, we had always come in the dry season and the river was very low. As we were at the end of the rainy season, the river was very high and it was ideal for a scenic trip downriver towards the ocean and into some of the small channels that form when the river is high. As we boarded the boat, we noticed that the river was about two feet lower than the street level, in fact we had to walk along a plank of wood down to the boat. We had a driver who spoke very little English, but it was very pleasant to chug along the water and take in the sights for ourselves. Just passed the old town the river widens and we were able to see some fishermen casting their nets into the river. I was delighted with some of the photos I managed to take that captured the nets in mid-air.
A little farther on, the driver pointed out some of the terrible damage that had been caused by the major typhoon that had hot Hoi An at the beginning of October. There were twisted and gnarled trees all along the riverbank and we saw several houses that were flattened or roofless. We can see why so many houses are now made of cement and indeed, why so many of the metal roofs are lined with sandbags all along the edges and at the peaks. The people in the Phu Thinh restaurant told me that during the October storm, they spent fifteen hours huddled in their home at the back of the building, holding on to their children for dear life and praying that they weren't all blown away. Most buildings in the old part of town are at least two stories, so that the people can move their belongings to the upper floors to escape the flooding. This is part of their way of life, they seem to take in in their stride, but proudly show us the high-water marks on the walls of their homes.
The boat trip was a wonderful way to relax during the afternoon - David took a turn at driving the boat - and we had plenty of laughs. At one point, we were asking the driver about palm nuts and he pulled the boat over to the bank and cut off a large palm nut cluster. I had seen such clusters when I lived in Nigeria in the 1970's, the nuts are crushed to make palm oil. I took a picture of the cluster just after the driver deposited it at the prow of the boat. You can see my foot in the photo - it gives you an idea how very large it is - but I have to tell you, it’s very heavy too!
A few minutes after I took the photos, it rolled loose and crashed down onto my leg and then landed full force on the top of my foot. It made a small cut on my shin; the worst was the arch of my left foot. The driver did not seem too concerned, but then I didn't let on how much it really hurt. When we landed back at the dock, I looked down and my shin was bleeding a little, and my foot was bruising. I showed the driver and he threw his head back and laughed loudly. I thought this the strangest reaction. As he moved up the plank to help us off the boat, David whispered that this was a very Asian way to react when a person is really embarrassed. Once I climbed up on to the wharf, there was a sudden flurry of activity as several women arrived from all directions with Tiger Balm to apply to my cut. Once I was slathered with the balm and started walking away from the boat, it seemed that the whole wharf had heard of the accident and everyone came out to console me (I was really quite okay) and it was then I knew that the driver was probably mortified that one of his passengers had been hurt and that he might lose his job. I assured everyone that I was fine, and they all looked most relieved.
That evening, Miss Nu invited us all out to the beach area of Hoi An to go for a walk at sunset and then have dinner nearby. We had a great meal, lots of laughs and ended the meal by candlelight as the power went off in the middle of our dinner. The moon was full and lit up the surrounding area with a soft glow. We were very lucky that the lights went out, because this reminded Miss Nu that there are Full Moon Festivities each month in the old town of Hoi An. The streets are closed to all except pedestrians and the only light in the old town is provided by hundreds of traditional lanterns. We would not have wanted to miss this special time in one of our favorite places in Vietnam.
We said goodbye to Miss Nu and set off in a taxi for the old town. She climbed aboard her motorcycle, high-heels and all, and headed back to her tailor shop. There was a lot to do to organize there thirty or so tailors to begin work on the large order that the Lalondes had made. Hoi An is best known all over Vietnam for its tailoring, tourists rarely leave without acquiring some custom-made clothing, usually stitched up in a matter of hours.
The old town was absolutely magical, only lit by the colorful lanterns. We walked up and down the now familiar streets and arrived back at the boat dock to find that the water had risen up and over the wharf and was spreading across the street, blocking our path. This meant that the river had risen over two feet in the intervening four hours, a function of the rising tide at the mouth of the river. Hundreds of paper lanterns were floating on the surface of the river near the boat dock, and children were running up and down the quay with delight. One young boy was just pulling himself out of the river after falling in pursuit of his floating lantern. I tried to take some pictures, but even though it was only 7:00 p.m., it was already too dark to catch the magic of the setting. I just turned off my camera and let the atmosphere soak in completely.
It had been a full day, and by 8:30 we hailed a taxi back to our hotel. It was a short walk, and the sun was not beating down on us anymore, but David commented that it was the best dollar we had spent on our entire trip, we were all in. The next morning, we would have a few hours and then it was time to move on to the capital, Hanoi. We had booked a flight from Danang, so we couldn't extend our stay any longer. It was with great sadness I left Hoi An for the third time, without getting my fill of this special place. I vowed to myself, that now we are retired, we will come back and stay put for an extended time. Between Hoi An and Hanoi, I could easily pass weeks and weeks in Vietnam, for at least as long as the government would grant me a visa to stay.