when in rome (or hoi an)

As you can probably tell, I haven’t really got into my travels since leaving Australia. There’s been several hangovers which I’ve already gone into detail about that have held me back in terms of enjoying Vietnam for what Vietnam is. I’ve been preoccupied by a trail of thoughts that have been confusing, frustrating and at times upsetting and as such simply haven’t found myself in a particularly happy place. I’ve also been pretty exhausted from what was a long Ashes tour plus the crazy nature of the ‘check in, check out’ nature of the pre cricket travels across South East Asia at the start of the trip. Basically, Vietnam just hasn’t been given a chance because of my mental state.

I left Hue a few days ago and got lucky in stumbling upon an Irish girl on the bus to Hoi An. Every now and again when travelling on your lonesome you tend to meet someone for a few hours, chat about everything and anything to do with life and never see or speak to them again. We were even staying at the same hotel, but never did get round to bumping into each other again. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that she didn’t bother drinking in the evenings ‘just for the sake of it’ and I most certainly do; even so our little chat got my travel juices flowing again. It wasn’t because I found another single traveller (there’s not many in Vietnam from what I see) it was the mere fact that for the first time in a couple of weeks I had a proper chat with someone. Sure, I’ve had brief banter with people in bars and restaurants while smashing random strangers at pool, but it isn’t quite the same as a good heart to heart that most of you back will have on a daily occurrence with a family member or a mate down the pub. This was a bit of release for me, and I got the impression it was for her too. She had been travelling alone for a month after being with close friends for over a year and admitting to having the same troubles that I had been experiencing in adapting to life on the road as a single traveller again.

With her help I located my hotel that wasn’t called the hotel sunshine as I thought it was, but the hotel sunflower instead! I thought that it must have the the Oasis I had been listening to on the first half of the four hour bus trip that had confused my brain into bringing the word ‘sunshineeeeee’ into the mix – however my schoolboy error was confirmed when I noticed I had even written the words ‘sunshine hotel’ in my guidebook. At least the street address was correct….I told you I wasn’t worried about simple things like getting lost in a new city anymore. It seems I can’t even write simple things like where I have booked to stay down correctly at this stage.

Anyway, I arrived in Hoi An to a more pleasant clime than the one found in Hue. I quite enjoyed the cold, wind and rain for a few days, but that was enough. Hoi An is famous for clothing, and tailored clothing in particular. I would suggest that 80% of shops here are involved in offering tourists some form of apparel at knock down prices. I thought about getting something made up, then realised that this was a pretty pointless exercise as I don’t have any room left in my backpack. So, that was one thing in Hoi An that I couldn’t get into. The other thing that was noticeable here after an afternoon stroll round the market and ancient old town was the sheer volume of tourists here. As I mentioned above, they are not single travellers like most backpackers tend to be, but families or older couples on holiday. I expected Vietnam to be touristy, I had several warnings from mates that had been before, but I didn’t expect such a percentage of foreign visitors to be made up of geriatrics in socks and sandals or middle class parents with babies strapped to their chests. Quite why anyone would cross the crazy roads here with a baby in such a precarious position is beyond me.

To ensure my rediscovered travel juices were not drained faster than Rupert Murdoch (sorry, I mean Sky) sacked Andy Gray, I decided it was time to do something irresponsible. The kind of irresponsible behaviour that would make a mother or a travel insurance broker cringe with worry. The kind of irresponsible behaviour that a tour group would look at, tut, then shake their heads and comment on ‘what has become of the youth of today’. If Hoi An is famous for tailored clothes then Vietnam itself is famous for scooters and motorbikes. They are literally everywhere you look. People live on these things, sleep on them, get to work on them, go to see friends on them and no doubt take families on days out on them. They are a way of life here. If you don’t own a mode of transport with only two wheels then you are a social misfit in Vietnam. Cars simply do not work here. They are third class citizens, even behind buses. If you own a car you get stuck in traffic jams, get clipped by bikes and frustrated by pedestrians who walk out in front of you because it seems safer to walk out in front of one car than a dozen bikes or a fifty two seater bus. It was clear to me, I simply had to have ago.

Now, some people reading this will not know my driving record. I have a provisional driving license that I last used in about 2005 where I was seen walking out of a driving lesson after a spat with a fairly obnoxious, short tempered oaf of a driving instructor. I’ve never got behind the wheel of a car since; mainly because I didn’t really need to drive on a day by day basis and also because it’s an expense that I saw far better spent on saving for cricket tours and this here trip. My record on two wheels is much better. I am infamous at turning up for work sweating and swearing after some moron cut me up at the bottom of Holmer Road on a pedal powered bike ride in. Yes, that’s right – pedal power. I’ve never rode a bike with any form of engine attached, even an automatic scooter. So, with that in mind out I went to my bike rent shop that was nothing more than a lady stood under an umbrella who sold various food items such as ‘Mr Potato’ (Pringles to you at home), Laughing Cow cheese spread and Mars bars. Her side line was renting out scooters and bikes out to idiots abroad without the necessary paperwork. I asked her where the automatic scooter had gone which I’d asked her the previous afternoon to keep for me. ‘No, no that is gone’ she said in very broken English, ‘This one better anyway!’ pointing at the manual geared, more powerful looking number. ‘But I’ve never ridden a scooter before, let alone one with gea…’ Before I could could say the word gears she had jumped onto the scooter, handed me a helmet and told me to get on the back. Off we went round to a side street where she gave me a crash lesson (pardon the pun) in how to start the bike and work the gears. After several failed attempts and a grazed left shin I finally got it going, nearly crashing into a passing bike followed by the inexcusable bump into a stationary hedge during a failed U-turn. ‘Slowly, slowly!’ came her advice, shouting at me from the other end of the road. After a successful U-turn and the hand over of 100,000 Dong (£3) I was away.

Straight away I turned onto a reasonably busy road. Sure, it wasn’t Ho Chi standard but there were still bikes passing every five seconds either side of me. I was feeling pretty confident though, as long as I didn’t have to stop at lights or for a group of school kids who were coming out of class for lunch. After stopping at a standard Vietnamese petrol station (see below pic) I was off, bombing my way through the countryside, trying to concentrate on the road as opposed to taking in the views that surrounded me. Paddy fields with straw hatted women working away, flowing rivers full of traditional fishing boats and countless amounts of people going about their daily business. I ended up on a highway that I later found out took you up to a city called Danang. By now the weather had taken a turn for the worse as the rain started to reach Hue proportions. I was getting into it now, feeling confident enough to get my speed cranked up a touch on the long, straight and clear of traffic highway. After stopping for a quick bite for lunch at a random beach café, I headed back to Hoi An, handing my keys over to my rent a bike lady.

I got such a taste for it I did exactly the same yesterday. Getting out of the tourist trap that is Hoi An and exploring some more of this fascinating country. It was quite noticeable on my second, longer and more explorative ride that there are still untapped parts of Vietnam. I started off back on that same road to Danang where I discovered the marble mountains were nothing more than a few big rocks that I had passed on the bus ride in from Hue. Oh well, it was still great to be on the open road so I decided to bomb all the way up to Danang. As you know, this is winter in this part of Vietnam, but even so Danang was dead. There was nobody around – this well designed, modern promenade had hardly any signs of human life apart from a couple of fellow scooter riders from China who kindly took a picture of me looking smug at my new found favourite thing to do in Vietnam. After a rather embarrassing lunch at a Vietnamese seafront restaurant, where I caused great amusement at my failure to eat hardly any of the food prepared, I disappeared back up to Hoi An, stopping off at random side roads to ride through the many villages that littered the area. This was like being back in Kep in Cambodia or Pekenbaru in Sumatra, off the beaten track somewhat with locals shouting ‘Hello’ at me from all directions as opposed to the usual ‘Hello, come and look in my shop’ which has become all to frequent of late.

The good news is that I have started to make the most of where I am again and appreciate Vietnam for what it is as opposed to pining for things that are currently out of reach. Tonight is a long night bus south to the seaside town of Nha Trang where I plan on going on more bike adventures before heading to Dalat where I will be for the forthcoming Vietnamese festival ‘Tet’. I’m still getting used to time alone again, even after nearly three weeks since I last had a ‘play buddy’. The one thing that I have discovered on this trip is that experiences with other people tend to be more enjoyable than ones alone. Of course, they have to be with the right person but fortunately for me they always have been.

In other news my excitement is building at the upcoming visit of a special guest who will be joining me in Malaysia for a holiday……to say I’m looking forward to having a play buddy again is a fairly large understatement, especially one so cool 🙂


4 Responses to “when in rome (or hoi an)”

  1. 1 Martin Chapple
    January 28, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Sounds fun on the bike – very brave!
    Golf lesson tomoz in preparation for our summer fun!

  2. 2 Donna
    January 28, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Enjoying the ‘crack’ with an Irish woman ‘fellow’ traveller…sunshine..confusion …sunflower…learning from a woman how to ride a bike with an engine and gears…and driving yourself out of the now made into a largely tourist tailor city of Hoi An to see what was beyond….the photo of you on the bike…and the reference to looking forward to a best mates arrival…NICE !

  3. 3 Pat M
    January 28, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    You are a nutter !!!
    The roads here in Hanoi are ridiculously overcrowded with mopeds , we have an hour taxi journey each way every day and have seen several crashes and loads of near misses , you`re a brave lad to give it a go mate

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