Dazzled by Lanterns

Day 349 – 13 February, 2016
Stephie and I arrived in Hoi An at 5:00am on what was supposed to be an overnight bus to Da Nang. The bus wasn’t scheduled to stop in Hoi An, our destination, so we asked the driver if he would let us off on the highway a few miles outside of town. Of course, we expected to arrive after the sun was up because everything seems easier (including sorting out a taxi from the side of the highway) in the light of day. A taxi wasn’t in the cards, but of course, two mototaxis had been expecting us. They always are.

Bleary-eyed from the kind of restless sleep you can achieve on an overnight bus, we each balanced our backpacks in front of our respective drivers and ourselves behind. I would be staying with some friends at an AirBnb they had rented, but it was 5:00am and too early to show up on their doorstep. I decided to go with Stephie to her hostel to wait until a more appropriate hour to call my friends. Unfortunately, her phone battery had died on the bus and she had no way of looking up the address to her hostel. We spent the next 30 minutes or so darting up and down streets of a sleepy Hoi An and not coming any closer to where we needed to be. As the time was nearing 6:00am, I thought maybe it was late enough to go directly to the AirBnb even if I would have to sit outside for a little while. I felt guilty leaving Steph, but I was nearing zombie phase and we were spinning our wheels (quite literally). I invited her to come with me, but she had found an open cafe where she could charge her devices and would soon be able to retrieve the address.

The mototaxi left me on the front porch at a quarter past six o’clock and it was completely shut. I didn’t even question it when I saw a cafe across the street. There were people sitting outside watching TV and I was hopeful I could order a coffee. I walked to an empty table, banging into things as I maneuvered my 2 backpacks through the cramped patio, and sat down. A young woman came and offered me coffee. An elderly man from the adjacent table shifted his chair to join me. His English was basic, but he asked where I was from, if I had had a long journey, if I needed anything else. He tried to explain what they were watching on the television, but that was more difficult through a language barrier. As we sat silently staring at the TV, it dawned on me that I wasn’t sure if I was actually at a cafe or if I had just walked into someone’s private yard and made myself at home. In my defense, cafes and private homes are often the same thing in Asia. Either way, they were all very kind and accommodating and it was a comfortable place to wait.

Saying I was meeting friends in Hoi An is somewhat of a misnomer. They were most definitely friends, but I had never met any of them. Back in the summer of 2013, my friend from Chicago, Molly, said that I should meet Bill. She and her husband had known him in college and knowing us both well enough, she thought we would have a lot in common. She said the only problem was that he was living in India at the moment… Molly connected us via Facebook and e-mail and a dialogue began. Bill had been teaching English all over the world and this concept was completely foreign to me. I knew people did it, of course, but I didn’t really understand how it works. Do you have to have experience? What certification do you need? What kind of benefits do you get? Where do you live? HOW do you live as an ex-pat? Whether he knew or not at the time, Bill was a key person who helped me to realize that life doesn’t always need to be about the cookie-cutter American lifestyle. I briefly considered teaching English myself; I still didn’t think it was practical or possible for me to quit my job and just….travel. I remember telling him that I had dreamed about volunteering with cheetahs in Africa, but that it would never happen because I would never have enough time off work to participate in the program that I wanted. His response made all the difference. He said that if I wanted to do it, I would find a way to make it happen. This was the summer of 2013 and the first seedling of an idea was planted in my brain – could I really leave my comfortable perfectly happy life in Chicago to do something different for awhile?

Fast forward to 2016 and I’m almost one year in to an extended world tour. Bill is now living in China and still teaching English, but February is a holiday month. Bill and his girlfriend, Stephanie, his two brothers, Matt and John, and two other friends, Currie and Sofia, were touring Vietnam for the month and we knew our paths were bound to cross. Hoi An was the place and as luck would have it, there was an extra bed for me so they were all very kind to include me in their plans. Even though I had never met them, the fact that Bill, Matt, and John were all from the Chicago area was a nice reminder of home. And if I were ever to forget they were from Chicago, I just had to listen to Matt’s accent and it all came flooding back. Love your accent, buddy!

One day, we went to a beach where the water was icy compared to the warm waters in Thailand and Cambodia. Another day, we rented motorbikes and drove to the My Son temple complex quite some distance from the city center. Even though he may not have been completely confident, Matt let me ride on the back with him while I attempted to navigate. A brief journey on the highway, dodging other motorbikes and trucks, soon changed to country roads, where our obstacles were most likely cattle. At night, we went to an open mic night where Matt was due to perform (impressively I might add!). This amazing group of people had so warmly welcomed me into their inner circle and as so often happens, we had to go our separate ways after only two nights. I was staying on in Hoi An and they were heading south.

Hoi An was an incredibly charismatic town, with paper lanterns decorating the old quarter. I can’t quite place my affinity for Hoi An. I didn’t actually do much there. It was marginally more expensive than other places in Vietnam. Aside from My Son, I didn’t have any particularly special or remarkable experiences there that couldn’t have been had in any other city in the world. But I really loved that place. It was the perfect combination of old world charm and modern sophistication.

One thing I did do to fill my time was shopping. From the perspective of someone who has done almost NO shopping in 3 years, Hoi An was a dangerous place to be. Before travel, I didn’t shop because I was trying to get rid of stuff I didn’t need instead of accumulating anew. Now I don’t shop because I have to carry everything I buy on my back (if you’re a shopping addict, you should try this as therapy). If it’s not known for its colorful lanterns or its UNESCO designation, then it’s known for its tailors and shopping. Signs boast of custom-made clothing within 24 hours – a business suit, a formal gown, leather boots – nothing is off limits.

I commissioned some black distressed leather sandals and a black jumpsuit. Both were finished well within 24 hours and the quality was superb. I only required one extra fitting for the jumpsuit so that she could adjust the length and the sandals were perfect on the first try. I know many professional designers don’t require a lot of time to produce a new custom-made piece, but the cost was just unbeatable. I paid $44.54 for both.

I reluctantly left this lovely town, again joined by Steph, but it is a candidate on the short list for my favorite city in Asia.

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