Good day ladies, gentlemen and computer-literate gibbons. Today’s email ramble comes to you directly from the ancient and disgustingly beautiful port town of Hoi An. Which we reached on Tuesday afternoon, just as the flood waters subsided and the town came to life.
Like a number of people I could name, Hoi An is best viewed by night. But in this instance I don’t mean that as a metaphor for being repeatedly twatted with the ugly stick, I mean it genuinely. I mean that by day it has the appearance of a cute and quaint Eastern fishing village. But when the sun sets, the hundreds of coloured lanterns are lit, the river is a glow with floating candles, and the heavily Chinese and Japanese-influenced medieval buildings really come into their own. It’d make a hell of a honeymoon destination. Actually, It’d also make quite a stag night, but we’ll come to that shortly.
Ever wanted a made-to-measure three piece cashmere suit, but don’t fancy re-mortgaging your house to pay for it? The going rate around town is $50 to $80 USD (that’s £30 to £50 quid to you), including the accompanying silk shirt. And these people are the absolute masters of the ‘copycat’ arts. You can wander into a shop with a torn out page from a fashion magazine, a picture from the internet or even a short video clip from a film and say “here, I want this!”
“I want the suit James Bond is wearing in this scene from Skyfall”.
“I want this Armani suit that I’ve just seen online at £5000”.
The owner will take all of your measurements (“Which side does Sir dress to?”). He’ll ask you to choose your colour and material from the five hundred or so types he has in stock, and return the next day for your first fitting. In 48 hours he’ll have your suit ready, perfectly tailored to your body shape, and unless you’re an expert, utterly indistinguishable from the real thing. Slip him an extra two dollars and he’ll even sew an Armani label into it for you, if you’re one of those people to whom the name on the label matters more than the quality of the goods (ie. a wanker).
It’s not just suits either. Shoes, winter coats, pyjamas, hell, you could probably get a latex gimp suit tailor made for you overnight. And if you’re a girl, well, all the shopping malls of the world couldn’t afford you such beauty or choice. If you came to Hoi An with £600 in your pocket, you’d leave with a wardrobe that would make Imelda Marcos green with envy.
You may recall that when the Top Gear boys came to Hoi An, they each had absurdly flamboyant outfits made to complete their journey in. We considered doing the same, but it’s a little impractical when you consider the length of our stay and besides, we’ve got a much better game to play. One that brings me to Hoi An’s second great institution:
Another wonderful relic of Vietnam’s colonial past. Bia Hoi literally means ‘Fresh Beer’, and the pronunciation is markedly similar to the words “Beer Ahoy”. Which is good, because that’s exactly what the sign ‘Bia Hoi’ means to me.
About 150 years ago, the country received an influx of Belgian and Czech settlers, who wasted no time in doing what Belgians and Czechs do best. They started micro-breweries. The European settlers are long gone, but the tradition of small scale booze brewing has flourished and now in Hoi An, at least half of the restaurants and bars in town serve up their own brand of bia hoi. And with Belgian roots plus a century and a half of experience, many of these home-brew hooches are more than a little bit drinkable. And this is where the new game comes in.
It’s a pub crawl. But it’s better than that, its a “One Pound Pub Crawl”. Also known as: How drunk can Mr Bob get for the price of a Barnsley sausage roll?
Happily, branded beers are a veritable Dom Perignon ’44 when measured alongside Bia Hoi, which is on sale next door to my hotel at 3000 dong a pint, and which many places in town are advertising as low 2000 dong (remember the exchange rate here is 34,500 to the pound, ergo 2000 dong equals less than 6 pence). Another traveller here claims to have found an establishment where he received 5 beers for 7000 dong. At that rate I could sink in excess of 20 pints for my pound coin, and still have change left over for a bag of roasted peanuts or a puff on a shisha pipe.
So the game begins at our hotel with 35,000 dong in my pocket (had to round up, there’s no 500 banknote), and ends when I’ve spent up, been arrested, or been treated for alcohol poisoning, whichever comes first. The only rule is no more than two beers in the same place.
I’ll report back on how it goes. Unless I’m hungover. Unless I’m in gaol. Unless I reached beer number 16 then decided it’d be a good idea to go shark fishing. Without a boat. In the nude. Whilst carrying a doner kebab.
Oh, I also feel compelled to mention a tearoom that we visited called ‘Reaching Out’, it’s a cosy little place set in a 200 year old timber house, and is staffed entirely by deaf and mute locals. Not only is this a wonderful idea, in that it provides employment for people who would otherwise find working difficult, but it results in a gloriously tranquil atmosphere. You just come in, gesture to what you want, then sit down and shut the fuck up. Enjoy your drinks, which are served on antique tea sets and accompanied by some tasty home baked biscuits, take in your delightful surroundings, and shut the fuck up. No awful music, no idle chatter, no pseudo-friendly sales staff bullshit, just a quiet sit, and a nice cup of tea.
One day I’ll open a coffee shop like this. Only I’ll go further. All speaking will be prohibited; you can read a book or a newspaper, you can even play card games or board games, but open your gob and you’re out in the street with your coffee poured over your head. And if you pull out a smartphone for any purpose whatsoever, you’ll be castrated on the spot. With a rusty bread knife.
It’s an idea.
Ok, back to the journey. We expect to be in Hoi An for another 3 or 4 days before setting out again, and this time it’s going to be a real overland adventure. We’ve decided to spurn the easy and modern coastal road to Hue, in favour of travelling inland. First to see the ruined temple complex at My Son before picking up the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail to the border with Laos and all the way back to the coast again. It’s several days of rough roads, steep hills, dense jungle and unexpected bomb craters (the Ho Chi Minh trail was the main supply line for the Viet Cong during the war and was carpet bombed almost continuously for several years). At one point we’re apparently going to have to load the bike onto a wooden boat to travel upstream.
It’s not a journey we could consider doing alone. Even if we could find the way (unlikely), some parts of the trail are so remote and sparsely populated that if we get a puncture or serious breakdown, help could be days way. Luckily, we found Mr Chuong, a local Easyrider with a little Honda 125 and over 20 years of experience as a motorcycle guide. He knows the roads, he knows the people, he knows the history and the languages and best of all, he knows where the all the good food is to be found. He’s going to come with us for the duration and carry our bags on his bike while we follow along on Desmond. $25 USD per day to prevent us from dying. Seems reasonable.
That’s about all for now folks. Speak to you soon.