HOI AN: A TALE OF RED LANTERNS

It's 6:30am on Saturday morning and I am sitting in the waiting area of the Saigon Airport. My friend Chau had insisted on bringing me to Hoi An on the occasion of the four-day weekend celebrating both the Vietnamese Reunification Day and the International Labor Day back to back. Since I am new to the country and only had the chance to spend time in Ho Chi Minh City during two business trips, she insisted on showing me another face of Vietnam with a more traditional flavor to it. Getting the local experience is not an occasion that presents itself every day. Therefore, I seized the opportunity as it came. Although, I must admit I have hesitated before accepting this tempting offer. In the Western culture, bringing semi-acquaintances over to their parents does not happen precociously. Especially not in my family. Believe it or not, I have childhood friends who have never set foot in my family's house until my farewell party before I moved to Germany.

I’ll try not to buy a horse at the market... or even worse, someone’s mother!

Vietnamese for beginners

To get from Ho Chi Minh City to Hoi An, we must fly to Da Nang first, and then transit on wheels to Hoi An. While we are waiting for the boarding to start, Chau is explaining to me the different tones in the Vietnamese language. Just when I thought that Mandarin was a complex language with their four tones, the Vietnamese language has six in total. To illustrate the subtile differences, Chau used a very basic example with two letters only, but so many differences in each tone. Just when I thought German was a difficult language to learn, Vietnamese comes back to the charge with even more complexity! See my point:

  • Ma = Ghost
  • Má = Mother
  • Mà = However
  • Mã / Mả = Horse
  • Mạ = Rice plant

Let alone the pronunciation! I'm not kidding, they all sounded the same to me! I'll try not to buy a horse at the market... or even worse, someone's mother! Well, I guess every day is indeed a school day and I still have much to learn in my new country of adoption.

After 10 minutes walking, I double-checked the distance on my phone and realized it was 8 minutes away by car, and about an hour away by foot.

My Grab account got suspended

From the airport, we had two options to reach Hoi An. Those being to hire a Taxi for 350 000 VND or catch a local bus from the Central Bus Station for 25 000 VND. "When in Rome..." for motto, we opted for the latter - the most local of the two. To reach the Central Bus Station, we called a Grab that never came, another one that cancelled, and one more that couldn't find us even with Chau speaking with the driver in Vietnamese, not to mention that we punched the address into the app while booking the ride. At some point, Chau suggested we started walking since she thought the station was only 8 minutes away. After 10 minutes walking, I double-checked the distance on my phone and realized it was 8 minutes away by car, and about an hour away by foot. Really, Chau? When I tried again hiring a Grab, it didn't work anymore as no driver would pick up my booking. The bottom line of this frustrating series of events was that I got my Grab account suspended for having a too high cancellation ratio in a short amount of time. You see, Grab operates on an automatic algorithm that spots irregular activities to avoid having their system cheated by hacking bots. Imagine a competing company sabotaging the Grab service while providing a flawless offering on the market. The problem with such a security system is that it doesn't account for the cleverness of the drivers. If this happens to you, don't panic! Although you won't receive a notification stating that your account was suspended, you will end up in an infinite reloading loop for not finding any driver in your area. There is no explicit option to reactivate your account. The way to do it is through the in-app "Contact us in English" option. Just mention what happened and make sure you get their pity. The Grab Customer Service will investigate your account with your username and provide you with a detailed explanation and root cause of your account suspension. Normally (and if your act was on point), they will manage to reinstate your account within minutes. In the end, I was able to book rides again within 24 hours.

The Pursuit

We ended up booking our ride with Chau's phone not to waste time, crossed one of the city's majestic signature bridges and finally reached our destination. We wasted so much time with those Grab shenanigans that once we got to the bus station, we saw the little yellow bus connecting Da Nang to Hoi An leaving right before our eyes. Our driver then proposed to chase after the bus so we could catch it, so he made a U-turn, crossed the same bridge a second time and started honking. Next thing you know, we found ourselves right in the middle of a Bond movie scene - minus the gun shooting - while zigzagging between motorbikes. We finally caught the bus and rode to Hoi An for the next hour.

Thanks to an unknown Western traveller who gave us that tip on his way out of the restaurant.

Banh My, please!

One of the top items on my checklist while in Hoi An was to enjoy the best Banh My in the world according to Anthony Bourdain. I have been a fan of the New York City chef for years now. On one episode of the Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations series, Bourdain and crew visit Hoi An and stop by Banh My Phuong to get their hands on the Vietnamese delicacy. My friend Aliki (from Aliki en Route) had recently posted about this place and even told me it was a must. Although she had warned me about the never-ending queue to order the almighty Banh My, I came to realize that the queue was actually for takeaway orders and that we could simply walk in, take a seat and get our order served at our table within 5 minutes. Thanks to an unknown Western traveller who gave us that tip on his way out of the restaurant. So Chau and I took a seat on the first-floor balcony with a view on the street and ordered three Banh My's (that's two for me and one for Chau) and two fresh coconuts. Chau's favorite part of eating a Banh My are the two ends of the bread because of their crusty texture. A local joke goes by saying that one should never eat the pointy ends of the bread because they are dirty from the chefs using them to scratch their backs in the kitchen. I found that pretty funny, as I happily left my ends for Chau to enjoy. Although I don't pretend to have Bourdain's culinary knowledge, those two Banh My's were hands down the best I ever had. There was just something special about the bread that Hoi An is reputed for and the mix of ingredients. I enjoyed those Bah My's so much that on our last day, we drove from Da Nang to Hoi An once more - by taxi this time - to satiate the craving. To this day, I still can't decide which one was the best between the Beef & Cheese or Spicy Chicken & Cheese.

All of a sudden, I had the feeling to be on vacation.

Hoi An Ancient town

After a brief afternoon walk by the beach, we headed to the Ancient Town, an all yellow town built in a Japanese architectural style. Gorgeous. Althought, what brings the most beauty to Hoi An is when the night falls, the whole town enlightens from the thousands of lanterns hanging all over - Hoi An's trademark. While wandering around Hoi An, what struck me the most was how laid back the mood was. Everything around me seemed to happen in slow motion. It was very different from what I have come to experience so far in Ho Chi Minh City. Lanterns everywhere, arts and craft shops, small indie coffee shops all over... what's not to like? All of a sudden, I had the feeling to be on vacation. It's a good feeling to have, especially after having gone through yet another relocation process to another country.

 

 

Of course, once we were there, everyone thought I was Chau’s boyfriend as she introduced me to all her relatives by using a numeric denomination.

Death anniversary

The next morning, I had a bowl of beef Phó for breakfast at a small kitchen by the side of the road. After breakfast, Chau and I headed to her village where she invited me to her Great Grandfather's death anniversary. I was quite surprised to be invited to such an event, as Chau and i are simply friends and have only seen each other in person at three occasion. Chau is a very generous person by nature. Besides, when I asked when the death happened, Chau's answer was that it was more than 25 years ago. In fact, Chau has not even met him as she was not even born when he passed away. A bit weird if you ask me, but it's in the Vietnamese tradition to commemorate the dead. Chau assured me that it would be a festive atmosphere where her whole family - all living in the same tiny village - will gather at their grandparents' house for some traditional dishes and (a lot of) beer. Of course, once we were there, everyone thought I was Chau's boyfriend while she introduced me to all her relatives by using a numeric denomination. "This is my uncle #8, this is my aunt #3, this is my cousin #12...". Hierarchy is very important in Vietnam, as it determines the article one would use to refer to a person, being a formal or familiar form - the equivalent of using Sir or Madam as opposed to someone's first name. That explains why everyone was asking me through Chau's translations: "Where are you from?", "How old are you?", and "How old is your mother?". Apparently, my answers would have determined the level of formality I would have been attributed by my hosts.

I was then invited by one of the uncles (I forgot which rank he was in the family) to join his table for dinner. Traditional dishes prepared by the women of the family kept coming on the table. Everyone was insisting on cheering with me. I figured it wouldn't make sense to them that I was in the middle of my seasonal two-month cleansing and therefore didn't drink alcohol (twice a year, I don't drink alcohol for two months straight), so I just asked Chau to tell them I was on antibiotics. Very much like in Morocco, it is tradition in Vietnam while hosting a large group of people for a meal that the women prepare and serve the food to men and children, and eat later when every guest is satiated. After dinner, we headed back to Chau's family house while avoiding harvests of rice and peanuts drying directly on the streets for lack of space. I found a comfortable-enough position on straw mat and under the anti-malaria bed net and napped for a good two hours straight. Taking naps is not part of my usual habits, but it seems like the extreme heat and slow-paced lifestyle of the Vietname countryside had the best of me.

The site is actually pronounced “Mee-Soon” and it’s an archeological site gathering several Hindu temples from the Champa dynasty.

My Son Heritage Site

After my nap, Chau and I drove to the My Son Heritage Site - a UNESCO World Heritage Center. Chau's father had arranged a motorbike for us to make our travels easier. I have to be honest, I did not know about this site before Chau mentioning it to me. Although, I have seen from the airport in Da Nang a few travel agency advertising mentioning "My Son Heritage Site" and at the time, I was very intrigued in which father was so important that he built a complete heritage site for his son (ba-dum, tsss!). The site is actually pronounced "Mee-Soon" and it's an archeological site gathering several Hindu temples from the Champa dynasty. The Champas were a Hindu people spread all across South East Asia. We can find other Hindu temples from the dynasty in other countries, including Borobudur (Central Java, Indonesia - which I had the pleasure to visit in October 2017), Angkor Wat (Cambodia), Bagan (Myanmar) and Ayutthaya (Thailand). My Son is perhaps the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indochina, but a large majority of its architecture was destroyed by US carpet bombing during a single week of the Vietnam War. Looks like living in countries once bombed by the US Army is becoming a recurring theme.

On the way back from My Son, Chau asked if I would be keen on driving the motorbike myself. I was a little nervous as it was the first time that I found myself at the command of a two-wheeled vehicle since my road bike accident of 2016. We headed to an empty and very isolated rice field where - with her instructions - I took both the handlebar and my courage with two hands and drove very slowly through the rice fields. While I gained a little more confidence, I brought the motorbike to the road with Chau sitting behind me and we headed to her high school English teacher where we had plans to have lunch. I drove a few times during that weekend. It went well for the most part, despite seeing way too many times a bunch of young drunk fellows driving back home in an irregular trajectory. I guess that life on the countryside is no different from other countries - even in Canada - where young adults think it's alright to take stupid risks just because they are out of sight from the police. Just a week ago, I saw a young woman dead on the road from District 1 to my apartment in Ho Chi Minh City. She was ran over by a (probably) drunk driver who crossed to the other side of the boulevard. From that day, I decided to use Grab cars at night rather than motorbikes. I was told that life was cheap in Vietnam. Only, I didn't think of it in that way.

From the hotel, we bought a pair of tickets for the event and headed there for the festivities.

Da Nang International Fireworks Festival (DIFF) 2018

On Monday, April 30 of 2018, Da Nang hosted the Opening Ceremony for the 2018 edition of the Da Nang International Fireworks Festival. Being from Montreal, I am no stranger to such a competition as I grew up watching a very similar competition called International des Feux Loto-Québec, hosted at La Ronde - the amusement park located on Montreal's Parc Jean-Drapeau. I've even enjoyed watching this competition through my adulthood when I was still living in Canada. From the hotel, we bought a pair of tickets for the event and headed there for the festivities. Tonight's competition opposed Vietnam to Poland in an amalgam of pyrotechnics and music transforming the skies of Da Nang into a quilt of shooting stars. Sometimes, Chau surprises me with comments that unfortunately unveils the singularity of her character. She hasn't travelled much in her life, which limits her knowledge of the world to her village around Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City, and more recently Bangkok and Singapore. When the Opening Ceremony began, she told me how it was a tradition in Vietnam to have the dignitaries from the hosting organization welcome the guests and members of the attendance with a formal speech. To that remark, I thought: "Yes, the same decorum applies all around the world the for any type of event, including the World Cup, Olympic Games or any other competition." But, hey! Who's judging?

I am no stranger to locals asking to take a picture with me - a request that I normally grant with pleasure while asked politely.

A DAY AT THE BEACH

The next day in Da Nang, we went to its beach which quite frankly has nothing to envy to Miami Beach. It was beautiful, clean, and well served by any type of recreational activities such as jet skiing, parasailing, or just laying on a long chair with a fresh coconut. After a few minutes enjoying the waves, something very weird happened as I was walking back to my long chair. A Vietnamese woman, laying on a chair with her American boyfriend pointed her phone camera in my direction and snapped a picture of me! What she didn't know is that my chair was right behind hers. Therefore, when I walk around and layed on my chair, I saw her pinching out on her screen to zoom into a picture of myself. I am not the most muscular man on planet earth, but I am quite in good shape. Although I would probably go unnoticed anywhere in the western world, I stand out quite a lot in Asia as I am taller, larger and darker than most Asians. I am no stranger to locals asking to take a picture with me - a request that I normally grant with pleasure while asked politely. However, what I hate the most is to be snapped in the face without any warning whatsoever. This time, I didn't let it slide. The conversation went a little something like this:

  • Me: "Excuse me!"
  • Him: "Yes?"
  • Me: "Could you please tell your girlfriend to delete the picture she just took of me?"
  • Him: "Excuse me?"
  • Me: "You heard me. Your girlfriend, she took a picture of me. She thinks I didn't see her, but I can clearly see myself on her screen as we speak!"
  • Him: "Oh, ok... I am sorry, it won't happen again.", he said in a very uncomfortable way.
  • Me: "It's ok. You don't see me walking around taking pictures of strangers, do you?"
  • Him: "I understand. I'm not the one who took the picture, but I assure you it won't happen again."
  • Me: "It's ok. I'm sure you were not aware of your girlfriend taking pictures of other men.

The whole conversation happened as the woman was literally melting of shame on her chair. I know what you're thinking. Coldblooded, right? I have to admit it gave me quite the right amount of satisfaction to call her out on such behavior. Besides, how many times do people walk away with murder without having anyone say anything?

Red Lanterns

Over the course of the weekend, I have come to notice a few red flags in the local culture's behavior, or red lanterns if you will. Those lanterns have brought me to the conclusion that should allow myself more time to assess the local culture in order to embrace it. I will be seeking more opportunities to connect with locals and learn about their mindset, customs and traditions. Just like I did for my German cultural immersion, I will most definitely be writing an article about the Vietnamese traditions you have never heard before. Be on the lookout for this post. At this pace, it will most definitely be published very soon, as I keep being amazed with the cultural diversity our world has to offer!