Ahhhh now Hoi An is a VERY diferent kettle of fish to some of the other places we had visited in Vietnam. It very much reversed the negativity built up since leaving Saigon and we think it no coincidence that the area surrounding Hoi An/Danang is strongly Buddhist compared to the rest of the country.
We ended up staying over a week although the town itself is very small. We made a lot of friends and spent many days cycling around visiting people or going on trips or just enjoying the lovely little cafes and the nice food.
The first friends we made were on the other side of the river to Hoi An (imaginatively called An Hoi) on the first day. We stopped to talk to some lovely little kids and before long one girl dragged Cheryl off into their home,(which was no more than a shack but immaculately tidy and well kept) to meet her family. Before long I too was settled in drinking tea and agreeing to take a little boat trip with her father - perhaps the best excuse to give them a little bit of cash in return for their unprompted and genuine hospitality. So we went for a lovely little trip that took an awfully long time without actually going anywhere learning Vietnamese nursery rhymes from the little girl who had tagged along. It was such a lovely day and we agreed to return later for some drinks which was fabulously surreal - ended up with Cheryl giving, after some persuasion, a rousing rendition or four of "head, shoulders, knees and toes" and I gave them a verse of jerusalem that took them all by suprise. By 'all' I mean a gathering of perhaps 20 souls within a very small room no more than 10 feet square with kids running around and the adults getting merry on Biere Larue. Very memorable.
That same day Cheryl had made friends with a lady called Mai who very kindly gave us some of the peanut sweets that she sold to make a little money from the people on the tourist buses in for the day. We later bumped into her and over something to eat she suggested that we go with her to the market the next morning to buy some food and she would give us a cookery lesson. It was a lovely sentiment but we both felt awkward at times. It wasn't that there was an expectation that we would pay for the masses of food and other sundries at the market - with the exchange rate and everything it didn't cost a huge amount of money so we couldn't begrudge it in the slightest - but it just felt like we were a necessary evil in order to cook up a feast. Hard to explain but it was lacking the genuine warmth of the other family we had met and left us feeling slightly uneasy.
One day we went to a small village 20kms away called
Thanh Quang with a chap called Mr.Phong. We met him
one night outside one of the restaurants that he dubs
his "booking office" and got chatting. He is a very
interesting individual, who can talk at length about
history or language or religion or politics or any number of topics in excellent English. He was an officer in
the South Vietnamese Army during the American war,
whereas his uncle was a Colonel in the Viet Cong. It
is for this reason that Mr.Phong only spent one year
in the "re-education camp" after the war but because
of his past he has never been allowed to do anything
other than labour work on building sites which he is
now too old to do. We spent a wonderful day with him
being shown around his village and understanding the
superstitions and traditions that pervade Vietnamese
life. Later we were fed the most delicious meal
prepared by his wife. When we get home next year we
shall send him a book on Windsor and racing at Ascot
which I know will make him very happy.
We made friends in the cafe we used to go to and chatted with an ozzie couple we met when in the Mekong Delta and only bought our newspaper from the same man on a great three-wheeled wheelchair contraption that propelled itself with a backwards and forwards movement of the steering wheel. So all very sociable and very welcome. Our leaving dinner with the delightful family in An Hoi was touching and sincere. They had prepared a great feast for us but contained all meat dishes which they couldn't join us in because it was a Buddhist day of lent and required them to observe a vegetarian diet. Cheryl had prepared some excellent large print laminated photos of the family that we had taken over the course of the week which was so well received and she had got the lovely people at our hotel to translate a message expressing our thanks to them.
Yes, it was a magical week but we left at the right time. We explored the Cham ruins at the Unesco world heritage site of My Son (an hour on the back of a motorbike in the driving rain is GREAT fun!!) and the next day we packed our bags and caught the bus to Hue, three and a half hours north.