Our exit from Saigon was to be an overnight train departing at 11:20pm, giving us a bonus night to partake of the rich nighttime street culture.
We began with a drawn out session of beers, appetizers and a meal at a Mexican restaurant with nice outdoor seating1, and were happy to participant in some of the local commerce by purchasing a Paulo Coelho book from one of the venders toting stacks of books about the street. I’m a big fan of his work The Alchemist, and this promised to be a good read on the train2.
From there we let ourselves get talked into massages at a super sketcheroo massage parlor. Tracy and I were situated in a dark, narrow room up on the third floor of a small building with 5 massage tables in a row, separated each by a curtain. I opted for Thai-style, a sort of preview even through Thailand was still 2 countries away. My tiny-yet-nimble masseuse adeptly maneuvered all about as she contorted me for one great stretch after another, standing over me on the table and pulling my limbs this way and that. Tracy heard me giggle from two tables over, but what she didn’t know is that it was because on several occasions I swore I was like 2 steps away from being offered a happy ending. And because I find the “naughty Asian massage” cliché just a kinda hilarious if not offensive, well, I found my situation oddly both super relaxing and genuinely funny.
She whispered in my ear sweet nothings about upgrading my 45 minute massage for the hour long option, to which I relaxedly mumbled “sure, if my wife is okay with us spending the extra time”. My masseuse tried to clear this with the Mrs. but due to a gap in understanding came back with a reconfirmation of the fact that we’d chosen the 45 minute option. When I shrugged at the report that 45 minutes it would be, my masseuse scandalously insinuated through wicked whispering that perhaps I feared my wife. I know this is probably off script in this sort of situation, but I couldn’t help but just chuckle3.
Still, all in all she was a sweet girl and gave a really good massage. She implored in hushed, urgent tones that I give her a tip right then while still at the table rather than have it go through the house. Sure thing, a generous percentage on top of about 6 bucks was worth every penny4. Tracy and I regrouped, paid up to the matron in the stairwell, and were on our way.
The hospitality of the Beautiful Saigon III Hotel shone once more when we returned at about 10pm to pick up our bags. Tracy was heartily invited to take a shower in the lower level bathroom and was given ample towelage to do so. A cab was summoned on our behalf and the bellhop politely insisted on carrying our big bags to it.
Training Through the Vietnamese Countryside
I was so looking forward to taking an overnight train but found it a bit hard to sleep. As you might imagine, a sleeper car in Asia doesn’t easily allow the stretching out of my 6’5″ frame, and I must be getting too fickle as a sleeper for the rattle and hum of a massive locomotive making its way down decades-old tracks to be a soothing ambiance. Still, a worn but clean pale green blanket looking like standard military issue was a most welcome piece of comfort for the ride5, and earplugs given to me by Yee-Pin back in Singapore turned out to be quite the godsend.
A few chapters in my bootleg book plus a brushing of teeth with questionably potable water and it was lights out.
I awoke to the sun rising over the Vietnamese countryside that was whipping by our wide window. Rural and pleasant, rice paddies dominated the landscape with what appeared to be plastic bags mounted on sticks, as if masquerading as scarecrows6.
Turns out in the night we were indeed joined by two others, a fellow my age and his mom, from Japan and traveling about Vietnam as part of the work for his non-profit. We made acquaintances when I overpaid for I guess 3 cups of tea from a woman poking her head into our car at one of the stops7. I offered my third cup up to Soren on the top bunk across from me and netted a few good hours of company for it.
Upon arriving in Da Nang that afternoon Tracy and I headed a few blocks out to a bus stop, looking to catch a 40 minute ride which would take us into Hoi An. There we found a couple of native guys also waiting, and for no real reason save for to be nice one of them offered me a banana, of which I was delighted to partake. People are great.
Our first order of business in Hoi An, as if to further convince ourselves that yep, we’re well sated on the wandering-aimlessly-with-our-backpacks-in-search-of-lodgings front, we wandered aimlessly with our backpacks in search of lodgings.
It wasn’t entirely aimless though, for we were headed clearly towards the old part of town, the veritable perennial festival of lanterns that is the riverfront of the ancient city. Every night, just after dusk the city comes alight with its myriad lanterns lining streets and bridges, and dotting the water itself in candles floating aboard small containers resembling colorful, translucent Chinese take-out boxes. The visuals are most definitely worth a look over at Tracy’s blog.
Unexpected Appreciation for High Fashion
One of the signature facets of Hoi An is its thriving culture of tailors. During walks through the main streets you’ll see shop after shop offering high fashion made to order. I usually don’t pay much attention to designer clothing. My understanding that “fashion” fashion, as it’s practiced most places I’ve been, is priced generally some 3-10x what I’m used to paying for comparable garb, thus my perception of it generally blocked by a thick veil of “yeah, that’s not worth it to me so I’m not going to pay any heed whatsoever8“.
But here in South East Asia the prices make my mind so much more open to considering, thereby enabling a glimpse into that joy of standing starry-eyed in the windows of some Madison Avenue gallery, imagining myself in such smart attire strutting into some fancy place amid important people. Let that in for a moment, and dang, I have to admit the wear upon this endless stream of both male and female mannequins looks sharp indeed.
Tracy and I stopped at the robe (kimono?) shop one evening and picked out a pair of really kickin’ silk robes, thereby lending credence to my arguably rash decision to do away with our old ones before this trip. “Don’t worry, love, we’ll get better ones later” I assured her. Thanks, Hoi An!
The process of getting tailor made clothes is as easy and welcoming as it is affordable. Just saunter past one of the open storefronts and pause to look with more than a fleeting interest9 at some of the garb on display, and a friendly tailor will warmly greet you, usher you in to be sat in front of a large stack of catalogs, and gracefully guide you through the pages to pick out something you like. Measurements are taken, a small deposit is left, and you’re sent off to return 24 hours hence to pick up your made-just-for-you selection from one of the American-brand designer catalogs. For about $30 Tracy got a flowing blue blouse and a remarkably nicely form-fitting white collared button-down shirt.
Maybe it’s the near 8 months of seeing only clothes from the same ol’ rotation speaking, but in that shirt she looks good. Traveling as we are for the next 5 months there is to resist the temptation to order a nice new suit or other such svelte garb, for we would need to tote (and make good and crinkly) such things for some time to come. So instead, I submit to you (and my future self) a tip for a future endeavor: come to Hoi An with a near empty suitcase and leave with a new wardrobe.
- A bastardized experience for sure, but the more legit food cart-style restaurants didn’t seem as appealing for hours of milling about. When an eating establishment consists of 2 or 3 tables, it feels wrong to monopolize one for such lengths. ↩
- Dear Mr. Coelho: 11 Minutes was quite enjoyable. If you read this, please let me know where I can send you a few bucks, because I’m not sure you got your proper due from this sale. ↩
- I mean really, I wasn’t about to fall for the bait of reasserting my self-directed manhood and up it to 60 minutes, much less double-down on independent machismo and opt for the hand job which may or may not have been on implicit offer. ↩
- Er, Dong. ↩
- For the lack of company in our sleeper car I was tempted to grab a second one from the bed above, but was paranoid that we’d be joined a few stops later and didn’t want to be that guy. ↩
- Turns out that yep, that’s what they are and that’s why they’re there. ↩
- The offers in these situations are delivered so smoothly, the unaware (or groggy from a night of overnight train sleep) are apt to mistakenly assume they are a complimentary part of the transit service. Deja vu from the overnight up to Tikal. ↩
- I happily own my cheapness here. Frugality like this is the stuff of tradeoffs which enables other things like, say, travel. ↩
- About 6 seconds should suffice. ↩