Where to begin with Hoi An? Well it's about 800 km south of Hanoi but it feels a world away. Smaller, much smaller, than Hanoi and I have to say, that after a few days in Hanoi, all the better for that. Hoi An's main street carries far less traffic than any street in Hanoi, but still enough to allow it to be a busy, bustling place. Despite its bustle. Hoi An has a relaxed, rather laid-back air. The same air that it must have once had before it grew into a far from 'touristy', tourist destination.
The hotels, shops, spas, restaurants and a thousand other small business that have grown up to feed it's new tourist industry are still locally owned. The money generated by these small businesses stays within Hoi An. And very efficient they are too. Despite it's tourism, Hoi An still has it's 'real place' feel. People still farm rice in and around the town. Water buffalo still provide the muscle for this work and appear to enjoy their right to roam amongst the traffic and tourists of Hoi An.
I'm feeling decidedly chilled. Hoi An is to be enjoyed for its own sake, enjoyed without the trappings of 'touristy' things to do. We rent a bike, that marvellous workhorse of South East Asia, the Honda 50 step-through. Not for something to do, but to provide assistance in doing very little; drinking coffee on the pavement, a light lunch on a side-of-the-road restaurant and calling in to do a little shopping, are all so much better when you've got a bike. I had of course brought my licence with me, not only that I also brought my international driving licence as well, as I had somehow thought that these may be needed when I was planning this trip back in Wales.
“300 000 Dong! Here key!” said the lady renting bikes.
And the bike was mine for twenty four hours.
For all the apparent chaos, the people who run the myriad of local business are remarkably efficient and competent; the young lady who owned one of the many spas, typified the entrepreneurial spirit. Her spa, that's a 3 x 3 metre shop with some comfy chairs and a table for massages was set back off the main street on one of the side roads. The slight lack of passing trade was more than made up for by her utterly charming, polite and ruthlessly effective marketing approach. She was also extremely good at what she did.
“Hello! You want massage lady?” She said to Alison in her bright cheery
“No thanks.” replied Alison.
“Ok, so maybe you want pedicure?”
This line was delivered in such a beguiling way that it was hard to refuse. The subtle little glance down at Alison's feet which implied that to walk even walk one more step without such a treatment would be unthinkable.
“30% off all price today!”
That was the clincher. We were lead into her shop, the full width glass doors were opened and we sat there on very comfortable chairs, with a cool, if somewhat noisy, breeze wafting in from the street. And here we sat while she, and a friend squatted down in front of Alison's feet to commence work. The two of them when hunched up and squatting in the Asian manner, appeared to occupy the smallest possible volume that two human beings can possibly occupy and here they remained for thirty minutes intense work. Ten beautifully pedicured and painted toe nails were the result. All for less than £3.
How long Hoi An can retain its charm is hard to say. How long before big business moves in with the explicit intention of shipping money out of a developing country? Building 'palace' hotels, those dreadful all-in, providers of the Standardised Holiday Experience, an experience so awful that parachuted into any one of them, you'd be hard pressed to tell if you were in Vietnam, Thailand or Timbuktu; employing a few local people at minimal wages whilst simultaneously removing any sense of ownership or control from the people who most need it.
That maybe is in the future, a long way in the future I hope, for now it feels that you're in Vietnam, vibrant, buzzing and utterly delightful Vietnam.