Taking my time in Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An was the place where I spent the most time. The lack of sunshine on most days grounded me and I spent some time in cafes, reading, or observing what was happening around me. Noticing people. Something that I consider to be one of my weakest points is how unaware I tend to be of my surroundings, how out of the dozens and hundreds of faces I may see every day I cannot register a single one. I can be so absent-minded, so stuck in my own world, my eyes might be open and yet I’m not seeing a thing. I suppose that is also a product of the busy life I lead in London when it seems like you are always in a hurry to get somewhere. And if you work in digital advertising like I do, you are always playing catch up. Working in such areas is an interminable run to catch a train. So even when I do go on holiday it takes me a while to go back to a normal rhythm and for my body to forget about that routine I lead in London, in my “normal” life, whatever that means.

Yet, as one of my favourite authors wrote –

“If you can see, look. If you can look, observe”

And sometimes, I only look. I have eyes but I don’t really see anything. It’s like I’m only looking inwards, lost in thought. And I do blame in part the lifestyle I live, the one the modern society almost imposes on us. Yet, I know it’s also a personality trait, coming from my natural introversion.

In Hoi An, I took my time to go beyond looking and start observing. Embracing the principle of slow travelling and allowing my body and my mind to let go of the incessant tick-tock of the clock that seems to be wired in me, to not give a single care about the time, and simply exist.

I wrote in my previous post how I planned to spend a couple of days by the beach of Hoi An, but the weather turned its back on me. I ended up seeing an untamed ocean, a phantasmagoric beachside, in need of cleaning, with trash piling around. I was disappointed but did my best not to let myself be affected by it. I certainly wouldn’t be sunbathing, but I was not to simply be deterred.

I went back to the Old Town and observed.

One of the most gratifying things I did in Hoi An was a coffee-tasting experience at the Reaching Out Tea House, a silent oasis run by speech and hearing-impaired staff, who use their hands and their calm warm smiles to communicate. In every table, there are blocks with written words to help communicate with them. I spent about two hours here enjoying the peace and quiet, surrounded by books by Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc that seem to conceal in their pages the secrets for a serene, happy and relaxed life – but all in Vietnamese, and therefore ineligible to me. It almost seemed symbolic of how I was struggling to slow down and disconnect, and that the key to it seemed to be just in front of me, and yet unattainable. The analogy for my life.

And second, to this experience, was the bike tour I decided to do in the countryside of Hoi An. I would end up dirty with mud but soaked in a feeling of serenity that I had been looking for since my arrival. I definitely recommend the company, – Heaven And Earth Cycling Tours. In a small group, we moved our bikes to a boat taking us to a different island where we cycled through rice fields, saw craftsmen working in both wood and mother of pearl, had lunch in a local family home and tried to manoeuvre a basket boat.

I was somehow in trance, silently admiring the resilience of the people we came across with. Working slowly for their living, either by practising a unique craft that requires complete attention to detail or planting the rice that will feed their family. Knowing that the younger generations will likely not be taking on the same trade. I learned that the rice fields cannot even be sold, so the family has to give it up to a neighbour or another family member so rice continues to be planted. That is a tough job. Spending hours bent in the fields, whether in scorching temperatures of summer or in the rainy days of winter. Overall in Vietnam, I was reminded of how differently people live, in so much tougher conditions, day in and day out to put food on the table. It is a simple, but hard existence, one that I escaped from simply because of the place and family I was born into. I found myself wondering what they dream about, if they were happy and content with the life they led, or if they ever even wanted something different. Even if they ever tried something different. Or even thought about it.

And then we met the Sexy One. This lady is close to seventy now, but a few years ago when she was sixty-one, someone taught her how to say it in English. From her mouth, the words “sixty-one” sounded different, as if she was saying “I’m the sexy one”. As a result, she is now called the sexy one jokingly, but it is a nickname this woman wears proudly and it does suit her extremely. Her joy was contagious, she was constantly teasing the tour guide and finding any opportunity to be close to the young guys on the tour. Of course, it was all friendly, but it was her tenacity and her strength that I truly really admired. This skinny woman was manoeuvring the basket boats as if it required no effort whatsoever – and I was terrible at it, she needed to go and save me from being dragged by the current. Not that I would be any good at any sort of activity that requires upper body strength.

The basket boat, called thung chai or thuyen thung has been used by generations of fishermen in many coastal towns in Vietnam. It is made of bamboo, a lightweight material, and its round shape allows the boat to move naturally with the sea, staying above the waves. However, due to its circular shape, it does require some skill to be able to manoeuvre it, as you may end up spinning and spinning in circles.

Finally, we saw a family weaving traditional sleeping mats. When I think of sleeping I think about a thick, soft mattress, the Vietnamese sleep either on the floor or just on a slightly raised platform, over a thin sleeping mat, made of dried reeds. The guide told us that’s the only way she can sleep. It’s supposed to keep you cool in tropical weather and it helps save space as you can always roll it out and bring it back when it’s sleeping time.

After seeing all of these people working, one thing I did notice is how close to the floor they seem to always be. Instead of sitting by a table or a working station, all of these artisans either sit on tiny stalls or simply support themselves by sitting flat on their feet – not on their toes. They lower the buttocks all the way down to the ankles with the knees slightly spread apart. The guide also taught us how to sit like a Vietnamese and I have to say that is actually a lot more comfortable than it looks. However, I am a much bigger person physically speaking than any Vietnamese I came across. So after seeing all of these people sitting like that, or working with their backs bent in the rice fields, I had a sympathy back pain.




7 thoughts on “Taking my time in Hoi An, Vietnam

  1. This is my favourite of your recent posts. Some interesting observations and lessons about stopping, breathing, observing, absorbing and all the rest of it. Slow travel all the way! I often get amused when I read these ‘Ultimate Guide to…” by so many bloggers. It’s all so authoritative until you see that they “did Montenegro” in five days and spent roughly 5 minutes in each place. I like the everyday moments you managed to capture, this is what travel is I, think. Reaching Out Tea House looks great, while that photo of you with the local lady in the thung chai should go up on the wall in a frame.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Leighton! Slow travelling is definitely the way, I enjoyed having the time to relax, take my time wondering around, not having to rush anywhere and also having the chance to reflect upon what you see and actually learn something…! Those moments are precious to me. And yes, I need to get that one photo framed ๐Ÿ˜€

      Liked by 1 person

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