It’s a long drive in the minibus from Hué to Hoi An. Luckily, the scenery is spectacular, as we trundle through the mountains, catching glimpses of the ocean. I’m still trying to plough through White Teeth, but there are too many competing distractions going on outside the window.
There are also plenty of stops along the way. At Danang, a museum full of mad Hindu stone sculptures: rampant dragons, elephant deities, multi-bosomed goddesses, and more phallic symbols than you could shake a stick at. At lunchtime, a quiet, vast, unspoilt beach (unfortunately, K and I are not Beach People, so we bury ourselves under a parasol and try not to snarl too obviously). Mid-afternoon, the Marble Mountains: a spectacular network of mist-laden caves, Buddhist temples and slippery tunnels.
The Marble Mountains are also home to the most aggressively persistent sellers of marble goods on the planet. As soon as we get off the bus, we are engulfed by a swarm of young women, one for each member of the group. “What’s your name?” “Marble, you want to buy?” “OK, maybe later! Maybe later!”
All the street sellers say this in Vietnam. Maybe later! Maybe later! Then, when they see you again (and they always see you again), the words are thrown back in your face. You said later! You promised! It’s all very playful, though – very good-natured, always with a smile on the face, and people will take No for an answer. Compared to the seriously irksome street hassles we endured in Egypt, it’s a breeze.
However, the Marble Ladies are a breed apart. As we exit the Marble Mountain complex, which is a good 20 minutes’ walk from the entrance, there they all are, waiting for us. Each one of them has remembered the name of their prey. Mike! Mike! Over here! You buy! You buy! You said Maybe Later! You promised! Again, we are surrounded. The Marble Ladies are grabbing and pulling at us, or slapping our arms (hard) for added emphasis. Keep smiling. Don’t get riled. It’s all a game.
It has been observed throughout the group that I consistently seem to be getting proportionally less street hassle than anyone else. People ask me to share the secret of my success. I pause to consider. Well – I never make prior eye contact with the vendor, and I never look at the goods for sale. If approached, I say “No thank you”, just once, politely but firmly. As I do so, I make direct eye contact with the vendor. At the same time, I give them my broadest, most open smile, while slowly shaking my head through about 90 degrees, and slowly raising my right hand in a kind of “stop the traffic” gesture. It seems to work, every time. I am asked to demonstrate my technique to the group. Maybe this will work for them – or maybe it’s just because the vendors all have excellent emotional intelligence, and have recognised me for the curmudgeonly, tight-fisted old git that I truly am.
Having said all this – of course I buy the occasional trinket, or set of postcards, along the way. You have to. People’s livelihoods depend on stuff like this. However, I’m a hopeless haggler. I just can’t play the game. People see through me in an instant. I resign myself to paying over the odds, and remind myself that this is still an outrageously low sum.
K and I have lucked out in Hoi An. While some of the group are consigned to cramped, noisy, airless basement cells, we languish in our very own mini-suite, with polished panelling and heavy traditional furniture, all in rich dark woods. Perhaps, in retrospect, we shouldn’t have mentioned this to the rest of the group…
Hoi An is the prettiest town in Vietnam, its well preserved 17th and 18th century buildings fairly dripping with old world charm. However, it is clearly changing fast. The main streets of the old town are largely given over to tourist shops and restaurants, and there are Australian backpackers everywhere. This hasn’t spoilt the intrinsic beauty of the town just yet – but I don’t have a particularly good feeling about the future.
In the evening, in a simple looking establishment on the waterfront, we enjoy our best meal of the entire trip. None of the meals we have eaten so far have been anything less than excellent, but this place scales new heights. Excuse me while I plug it: Hong Phuc, 86 Bach Dang St. Tel. 0510 862567. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The tiny little scallops are particularly spectacular.
We round off the evening in Tam Tam, a wildly popular French-run backpacker bar which plays fabulous jazz-funk and French reggae. Oh look! Over there, in the corner! Fraulein Dings-Bums! Enchanté!