Kings of the Road: Part 8. Midway Meanders and a Million Dong Meal (Hội An) – June 2014

The rhythm of the road and the pace of the last few days found us naturally up and at ‘em early, even without the squawking of alarms. A fancier hotel down the road from ours served food, so we hiked down to grab a proper breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, orange juice, and coffee, a huge improvement on the bread and lychee we’d breakfasted on of late. While it had only been a week since we’d had such fare at Bropacker’s Hostel, it felt like ages, and we asked the waiter to keep the coffee and side orders of bacon coming.

We overheard a pair of fellow Canadians (wink!) from Ottawa, who sat at a neighboring table discussing their plan to visit the nearby Mỹ Sơn temple complex. The ruins of the Mỹ Sơn Hindu houses of worship, dating back to as early as the 4th century, are considered a “must do” when in the region, but we were content to skip them and take a day off from biking anywhere. And, honestly, I think we had seen so many temples by that time, having already rambled around the many wats of Bangkok and Siem Reap, and a few in between, that we’d achieved maximum wat-age and could do without seeing another holy place, no offense to any deities reading this blog.

Besides, we had a mission for the day that didn’t include wandering far from the city center. Our bikes needed grease for the chains, and James was in the market for a new gear-shift pedal; and we were confident we’d find them easily enough if we strayed just a little from the tourist beat. But we took our time, moseying back to the hotel to let the food settle and to enjoy the respite from the road. I spent an hour or so reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I’d been given in Ecuador and brought on the South-East Asia trip in the hope that it might provide some useful tips about the latter and longer part of the title. It didn’t. But I did learn a thing or two about talking of oneself in the third person or ghosts or split personalities or something – which doesn’t sound terribly zen either.

Around noon, we set off to find the grease and the pedal. As we’d figured, the streets closest to the River catered to tourists who’d arrived by the busload, so restaurants and souvenir shops lined the promenades rather than mechanic shops and parts stores. There was as much English writing as Vietnamese on the signs advertising eats or trinkets, and the sight of so many words that I could read and pronounce after long days of not understanding a thing I saw took me aback at first.

Unlike the last few days, in which I’d begun to count how many motorists and pedestrians shouted pleasant salutations to us foreign bikers as we rolled past them, “hellos” in Hội An are not simply friendly greetings but traps to lure you into a sales pitch. We’d learned in Thailand and Cambodia to deflect aggressive salesman with pithy responses. Like other bigger South-East Asian cities, the merchants of Hội An will meet you on the street and beckon you inside with words, gestures, and sometimes grabbiness. We humored such vendors politely during our first weeks in Asia, listening to their spiel, engaging in conversation, apologizing for not buying. But we’d since gotten used to the tactics and found curt one-liners to be a good defense. Maybe our progressive abruptness provides a platform for commentary on desensitization, but this blog is more a playground than a pulpit. In any event, cries of “Razors! You buy!” were met with replies of “I shave with a knife.” “Look, look, look!” was rebutted with “No, no, no!” We’d even begun to pre-empt the tailors’ offer of “Suit for you, my friend?” by asking the salesmen the very same question before they could open their mouths, eliciting puzzled looks and precious silence.

kings 8 - soup nazi

 No suit for you!

When we’d come across a shop that didn’t see us simply as walking dongs (Hello, ladies…), we’d venture in and ask for directions to a mechanic. I couldn’t find the Vietnamese word for “motorcycle” or “motorbike” online – even in an ex-pat hot-spot like Hội An, the tourist infrastructure was still developing, and steady internet connections were hard to find without a Vietnamese SIM card – but I did find the word for “automobile mechanic” and used body language to absurdly convey biking.

No one understood what we were after. So we added a secondary goal to our list for the day, that of finding a place where we could get one of our phones jail-broken and a Vietnamese SIM card installed. Not only would doing so make any such further excursions easier, but we’d also have the advantage of using Google maps nearly anywhere in the country, thereby avoiding aimless fumbling for directions and trying to decipher the paper maps we possessed that were in a language we didn’t know.

In one souvenir shop, whose ancient owner couldn’t comprehend our query, I spotted a collection of tobacco bongs, the sort that started us off on our maiden ride, and asked what they were called. When the owner responded that they were “to-bi-ko,” I repeated the exotic word with wonder until James shook his head and informed me, “He’s saying tobacco, moron. They’re for tobacco.”

kings 8 - tobiko

Ohhh. So he isn’t referring to the Japanese word for flying fish caviar.

We kept on, moving away from the River and the tourist hub, the heart of the city and the heart of the dragon. According to legend, a dragon large enough to stretch from Japan all the way to India thrashes underground and causes massive earthquakes in the region when pouty, and its heart lies directly under Hội An. The ancient Japanese devised a way of dispatching the moody monster by building their famed covered bridge over it, piercing it in the heart with the wooden supports, because the art of dragon maintenance is apparently quite fuzzy.

kings 8 - dragon

Witness, for example, the “Mother of Dragons” slapping chains on two of her “children” in between sermons on universal freedom, rather than making even the first attempt to train them.

A cluster of xích lô pilots sprawled out in their cabs, under the shade of palms, half-heartedly waiting for passengers who needed rides. When we approached them and asked for directions, they refused to talk to us unless we hired one. Because they seemed to have no idea what we were asking in the first place and because we preferred walking in order to work out our bike-cramped muscles, we declined and were thus told to move on. As one xích lô-ist shouted to us as we continued down the road, “No ride, you walk.” Fair enough.

After meandering around fruitlessly for some time, we came across a gathering of police officers, sitting in lawn-chairs in a shady spot and joking around with one another. It seemed a good bet that they may know the city well enough to help us, if they understood us, but we were initially reluctant to approach them, conditioned as we had been to avoid the heat while on the road. When we got up the courage to ask, it took some clever and ridiculous hand motions and leg movements on our part and some puzzled and amused expressions on theirs to make our intentions known; but we got out point across eventually, and the spokesman drew a map in the air with his fingertips and set us on the right path.

Sure enough, the mechanic’s spot was where the officer indicated it would be. We were expecting a shop, but instead, a small area of sidewalk contained an assortment of garage tools and a stack of tires to indicate the workspace. The mechanic, however, was unfortunately nowhere to be found. So we figured we might as well move on to the second task of phone unlocking and swing by the mechanic slab again later.

Finding a place to jail-break a phone proved easier than finding grease and a new part, for cell-phone shops abound in Hội An. Most shops didn’t perform the service we sought, because hacking into a smart phone in order to install a foreign SIM is perhaps somewhat unlawful, but after following placards advertising service carriers, we eventually found a guy with the skill and shadiness we needed. It was apparently an involved process, and we were told it would take approximately two hours to complete. As James had been toying with the idea of unlocking his phone since our time in Thailand, his was the chosen candidate, and we left it with the rogue and carried on down the road.

By this point, we’d wandered around for several hours and had burned off the morning’s bacon. So, after checking the still-vacant mechanic spot again, we followed our rumbling stomachs to a café consisting of the usual small and humble plastic tables and chairs, a welcome sight away from the candle-lit wooden tables and decorative seating nearer the more tourist-friendly part of the city. It felt good to escape from the noise around the River, the incessant snippets of English conversation wafting through the waterfront and side-streets. I’d started to become used to and take for granted the peace that comes with being surrounded by speech you can’t understand and, thus, aren’t distracted by in trying to understand, the ability to think more clearly when not constantly barraged by fragments of stories and thoughts from all around who speak my language. On the other hand, we again had no idea what we were going to receive once we’d pointed to words on the menu, but at least it was tranquil while we waited.

Speaking of hands, I’d been opening and closing my right one all during our ramble through the streets, and, while it was still slightly swollen, the pain was no longer constant and as intense. And the backs of James’ hands were scabbing up from his subcutaneous sunburns. We still had over an hour to kill once we’d downed our pork and rice dishes, and we were certain our hotel was scores of blocks away by now, so we sat on a nearby stoop after lunch, smoking, chatting, and letting my battered leg rest.

Once the requisite two hours were up, we made a final trip by the mechanic slab, still empty, before returning to retrieve James’ unlocked phone. Overjoyed that the world of Google maps was now open to us, we decided we’d simply stop at a parts store if we saw one along the road on the next day’s leg to Kon Tum or else look one up with our new access to on-line maps once we’d arrived in that town. So we confidently set off back in the direction of the hotel, only to find that it was a mere two blocks from the phone breaker’s place all along. We’d somehow inadvertently completed a zigzagging circuit of the city and were quickly back where we’d started.

The dragon spirit played a second prank on us when we approached the open-air lobby of our hotel to greet the proprietress. She introduced us to the owner of an adjacent shop that had been closed at least since our arrival, a shop that happened to sell bike parts. The mechanic scowled at our bikes parked nearby and then at us. She then smirked and said something, almost certainly degrading about us, to the hotel proprietress, who giggled in return. Unlike other women I’d seen in Vietnam, the mechanic wore an oversized t-shirt and shorts, her hair hastily pulled back in a messy ponytail and through a golf visor. Unlike Thumb, she was missing a fingernail or two, and her expression screamed that she had no time for nonsense. Moreover, her closed, folded-arm stance declared that she had little time for us.

Undeterred, we figured we’d try our luck and, using the proprietress as a translator, asked if she could grease the chains and replace the gear-shifter. The mechanic, Hội Anna, as we’d come to call her, sneered a figure at us, at which the proprietress again giggled before quoting it in English. James coughed up the $3.50 in dong, knowing he was being ripped off but not sweating the meager amount, and we went up to our room as she fixed the bikes, consulting both paper and Google maps to chart our course south for the next day.

On our way up, a dragon statuette grinned at us from the lobby, as if laughing at the possibility that, in another universe, our day consisted of a two-block walk to jail-break a phone, followed by a two-block return to the hotel, where Hội Anna fixed us up.  In this one, instead, we took a digressive and cyclical half-day tour of most of the quieter alleys of the city.

Once she was finished, we took the bikes for a brief spin around the block. I’d been a little nervous that mine wouldn’t start after a day of inaction, but it sputtered to life with a kick-start and ran well. We parked back at the hotel, letting the bikes idle in neutral hands-free – a function we’d gotten down pat by that point – while the grease spread to coat the gears.

Returning to our room, we relaxed on our chair-less balcony until hunger called. While James practiced card tricks, I read more from Zen and caught up in my journal. As the sun began setting, we set out back to the older parts of town near the River, the dragon heart of the city that time forgot.

2014-06-03 18.19.16

2014-06-03 18.20.05

Along the way, we spotted Hội Anna zoom by on her scooter, mad-dogging everyone on the street.

We dined on the third-floor balcony of a restaurant on the riverbank, under the glow of paper lanterns. Because our senses of humor are not dissimilar from those of ten-year-olds, we were determined to eat a million dong meal, roughly the equivalent of $50, and thought Hội An as good a place as any to do it, a better locale perhaps, or at least easier, than any of the cheaper places we’d been in the last week. So after cocktails to start off with, we each ordered a pizza, several beers, more cocktails, and a slice of cake, until our combined bill was just over a million dong, a feat that takes some doing in Vietnam.

American 90s pop – including, of course, “Wonderwall,” which is apparently obligatory at ex-pat hangouts – and easy listening pumped through the restaurant’s speakers in between the heavy beats of rave music, making for a bipolar auditory experience, a nice pairing with the constant sight of tourist first-time bikers jerkily start-and-stalling down the riverfront. Even though we’d only been biking for a week, each day of riding had been at least six hours, and despite my spill and the much we still had to learn about the beasts, we’d come a long way, baby, both literally and metaphorically.

kings 8 - map

Ha Noi to Hội An. 

Once we’d finished and paid with infantile chuckles, we lingered on the waterside, chatting with locals and travelers alike. The humidity of the night clung to people and places, combatted only by the river breeze and by copying the move we’d seen throughout South-East Asia, that of flipping up the bottom of one’s shirt to expose one’s overheated belly to cool air, a move we creatively called “The Move.” The ability of the rest of the body to follow suit once the belly has cooled off is remarkable, and The Move is quite effective.

And so, led back by paper lanterns and the lit-up main footbridge, our full stomachs hanging out in the wind, we returned to the hotel to pack and rest up for the next day back out on the road.

2014-06-04 20.03.40

So you dare to eat a peach. Is that supposed to impress me? The real question is, do you dare to read on?


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