Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday happy birthday, happy birthday to me… 279 days in.
Hoi An is an ancient city with a history dating back over 2000 years, though not that you would know if a visit to it’s museum was your only point of reference with almost half of the exhibition space taken up by a particular 20 year period; come on Nam! On average the war cost the lives of 150000 Vietnamese a year, at present road deaths total 28000 per year and are rising – and they aren’t even trying to kill each other (although you mightn’t guess if you saw them!); will they fill museums dedicated to the incompetence of the government in looking after its citizens?
The street scene in Hoi An is a different matter however; with well preserved old buildings jostling for your attention and lanes that come alive at night from the soft glow of lanterns of all colours, the town has plenty of charm. We spent the day peering into the homes of local residents with dark wooden features and water marks from high flood levels over recent years (though Trump would be happy to see that 1968 holds the record high point to date, what global warming!). We finished this off with a traditional dance show and game of bingo, where I happened to draw out the lucky paddle that belonged to Helen, winning us our own lantern, fab – it’ll look great next to the one we bought just an hour before!
As this particular day was also my birthday we decided to live it up a little with pre-dinner drinks, and Helen’s first taste of Bia Hoi, or fresh beer, and at only 20p a glass we treated ourselves to a second helping; oh yes, tonight was starting off pretty wildly! We then took a walk along the harbourside (well, the few boats that dotted the riverside promenade) and found the most expensive looking restaurant in town, continued on a bit and found a cheaper alternative. Needless to say we finished off the night in a cake shop, yum!
The nearby ancient site of My Son was the destination the following day on a two coach heavy excursion. Although the ruins were nowhere near as extensive as Angkor or Ayutthaya, they demonstrate the fantastic knowledge of the local craftsman in manipulating the clay to produce bricks so durable they outperform the modern day equivalent in durability by a factor of ten – and counting! But the best part of our eighty strong conga line tour was our irrepressible guide whose imagination, humour and genuine insight all dispensed in a manner more befitting a spoof Kung Fu film was spellbinding! We returned to the offer of eating dinner with our host family and fellow traveller at the guesthouse (not a free offer, mind). We accepted and munched down a lovely meal and chatted over travel stories and Vietnamese traditions, one such newly acquired pastime being karaoke. Needless to say, with a few beers to the good and in high spirits (it was the day after my birthday after all), Lin, Bassie and I jumped onto a moped and found the nearest venue. It was full. But no need to fret as most streets have a karaoke centre and we soon had our own booth with huge screen and speakers set to distort. With the menu completely in Vietnamese we had to keep calling for help in finding songs that we could all enjoy. After irrevocably laying damage to various classics from the likes of Lionel Richie to the Animals, I thought it was time for something more modern, but Taylor Swift was all I could think of. Seeing an opportunity to not have to return to our booth every three minutes, I was cunningly asked “do you like Taylor Swift?” And with my positive reply we had four Taylor Swift songs lined up back to back with one rouge inclusion of Wrecking Ball in the middle. It was a task to big even for me to see out and so with the midnight hour approaching we bailed.
Heading north we arrived in the city of Hue (pronounced in the manner of a Geordie football fan), the imperial city. Last time I was in Hue, it was overcast and damp; this occasion was no different. We traipsed from our hotel to the citadel but with the rain getting heavier, my toe getting bluer and ourselves getting miserabler, we decided to head back and warm up in the luxury of our room with satellite tv. Five episodes of Travel Man later and we were warm and happy.
Determined not to let a second day be such a washout, we hit the road on a scooter and visited the tombs of dead emperors. These guys lived the highlife and having 100 wives and even more concubines was all the vogue, but I was shocked to hear that some of these mausoleums are not even 100 years old yet; emperors alive in the twentieth century with over 100 wives, wowzers! Although this was of no lineage benefit to Tu Duc who never managed to father any successor to the throne despite, presumably, numerous attempts!
Our final stop of the day was Thien Mu pagoda, a pleasant enough temple with grounds housing many fantastic bonsai trees (the Vietnamese easily out bonsai the Japanese on number and scale, even if that does sound like an oxymoron). The real claim to fame is that it was from here that monk Thich Quang Duc struck out in an Austin Metro and burned himself to death in order to appear on a Rage Against The Machine album cover – now that most definitely is a sacrifice Nepal! The car was driven back to Hue and is now an exhibit at the pagoda. And that wrapped up a rather standard few days of seeing stuff that rich people forced poor people to build for them; time to get back to nature!