Hello, Hoi An

Goodbye, Healthiness

After the hectic pace of our time in Hue, the little town of Hoi An was a welcome change. It has that special quality that all old seaside communities share. Narrow lanes and squat ancient houses, dark sleepy streets at night, tired dogs curled on stoops. It is a popular tourist destination, and yet it has managed to absorb this constant influx of outsiders in a way that preserves an incredible sense of tranquility wherever one goes.

We spent quite a few days here, but I didn't take many pictures. The beach outside of town was the best I've ever been to, uncrowded, minimally developed, turqoise waters and pale sand. The perfect place to get burned without even noticing.

There is no night-life in Hoi An. There are those who seek to capitalize off of individuals seeking something to that effect, advertising all-night dancing and drink specials, but on investigation these places really are just a clever feat of marketing, preying on the wishful ambitions of the lonely backpacker.

The town is known for its three hundred odd tailors. Every second storefront seemed to be clothes or shoes, and we took advantage of our prolonged stay there to be treated to the kind of luxuries normally reserved for the other half. I don't know what I really even need a suit for, to be honest, but it was nice to finally wear one that fit.

Apparently much of the town within a couple of blocks of the river, the quaint older part, floods every year. Tourists visit the various historical buildings by boat, and the residents seem to go about their business in a similar way with the market moving on deck as well. It was hard to believe when walking between these rows of mustard yellow houses that they annually are dredged in up to two metres of evil smelling water. When the water recedes, people are left to scrub down their homes and shops, removing every trace of the sediment and human filth only to have it return in another nine months. It is curious that such an old settlement has never adopted the stilted construction we had seen in the "ethnic" countryside further north. I am sure there is some very good explanation.

Perhaps with such dodgy water management it was only a matter of time for my luck to run out here. The local delicacy, Cao Lau, probably didn't do me any favours, and at the rate I was eating it I suppose it was only a matter of time before things started rumbling down below. Cao Lau is a cross between pho and salad, sort of. It is a bowl of salad greens with a portion of thick rice noodles on top and some pieces of grilled pork, usually including tasty bits like the heart. It is garnished with a handful of crispy noodles and a ladleful of a kind of soupy gravy, like a concentrated meat broth with a certain sweetness to it. I couldn't get enough of it, and the average serving size makes it a great between meal snack, or breakfast, or second lunch, or starter...

The danger of Cao Lau, especially when you buy it from some nice old lady who stakes out some little plastic chairs down by where the fishing boats moor, is that it is typically served lukewarm. The sauce cannot be too hot or it will wilt the greens, but the noodles and meat tend to be recently cooked so you won't find it served cold. The result is a gamble, a very tasty gamble.

Burned, mildly poisoned, but very well dressed, we left Hoi An to catch a train to Saigon. Driving to Da Nang, the nearest train station, was like leaving a bubble, returning to the world of chaotic traffic and hectic development. The sandy plains of the area are cordoned off into broad swaths of planned development, grand enclosures for wealthy visitors, some of which boast eerie similarities to North American suburbs. Perhaps you cannot control what people want, but in this corner of the world they certainly have a knack for turning it to their advantage.