KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
In some ways, we were dreading our return to Hoi An after seeing the incredible changes that prosperity has brought to Hanoi and other parts of Vietnam. At the same time, leaving the country without seeing one of our favorite places again didn't seem right. Who knows when we will be back in Vietnam, and I wanted to see if it had changed irreparably? If it had, it would greatly affect our motivation to return to Vietnam for what would be a sixth time.
We called the Phu Thinh II hotel to see if they had a room, and when I gave my name and said we are from Canada, the receptionist said he remembered us and was happy to welcome us back. We arranged to have a vehicle meet us at the Danang airport for the 30km ride to Hoi An. It was all so easy; it was beginning to look like we were meant to return. When we landed and I spotted the driver holding up a sign, he spotted us too and his face lit up with a big smile. "I met you at the airport last time" he declared. We had made the right decision for sure.
As we entered Hoi An it looked like time had stood still these past seven years. Sure, there were a few new hotels, but Cua Dai Street seemed remarkably the same and we craned our necks to see if Phap or Xi were in their restaurant, the Phu Thien, across the street from our hotel. Xi spotted Anil before we spotted her and both her arms shot up in the air with the most enthusiastic of greetings. We signaled that we would come for lunch once we had checked into the hotel and then found we had been assigned our old room, overlooking the rice paddies. For people who love challenges and changes, it was amazing how much we enjoyed finding things so familiar.
When Xi saw me, she stroked my cheek and said with a sigh, "You've become so brown". Vietnamese women take great care to cover their arms and faces from the sun and this was the first time we hadn't arrived directly from Canada during the depths of the winter months. I just sighed too.
We had a great lunch at the Phu Thien; it was good to see Hang, their seven-year-old daughter, and Thien, their four-year-old son. The whole family is so warm and friendly; they really help to make our visits to Hoi An complete. I remember being surprised on one of our visits when Xi took me into the bedroom at the back of the restaurant to surprise me with the sight of a new baby boy.
We didn't do a whole lot during our four days in Hoi An, but for the first time, we ventured out for a walk into the rice paddies that we have always admired from the balcony of the hotel. I'm not really sure why we never did it before; I guess we must have been keeping something new to do for our next visit. We were startled to find a heavy fog blanketing the town when we woke the first morning. I worried that we had just missed a period of brilliant blue skies and were in for inclement weather. We stalled for a while at breakfast, having several cups of velvety smooth Vietnamese coffee and yet another chewy fresh baguette.
Finally, the fog had lifted enough for us to set out along one of the wider paddy dykes, one that we had seen some farmers cycle along. There were women working in the fields transplanting seedlings and men plowing other fields with water buffalo. It was great to see the work up close and we were surprised to see that many of the women were simply thinning areas where the newly sprouted rice was thick and moving the seedlings to places where there were little or no sprouts. We learned later that this area can now harvest three crops a year because there is a reliable amount of water. The farmers have changed their planting techniques and now sow the rice directly in the paddies instead of starting the seedlings elsewhere and then transplanting the entire field in one go.
Our biggest surprise was to see that all of the farmers are elderly; many of the smiles that greeted us as we walked along were toothless grins. I had no idea that all of this hard work was carried out by the senior generation. When I mentioned this to Phap and Xi, they both nodded and told us that their mothers work in the rice fields. They didn't seem concerned when I asked about who would take over the work when the current farmers were too old to continue. There has never been a shortage of peasants in the past; they can probably not imagine that there ever will be. Still, Phap and Xi are running a business and sending their children for extra lessons on days when the schools are closed, so I don't imagine they see farming in their children's future.
The remaining two days in Hoi An were spent riding bicycles outside of the small town to areas we had not seen in the past. We enjoyed getting out along the river and by late morning the mist was completely burned off and the sun was warm and the breezes refreshing. We encountered people living upstream working with the clay dug from the riverbanks. Many were making simple pottery using molds and wheels. We saw several families preparing small square tiles and drying them in the sun. These would be shaped into roof tiles once they were semi-dry.
At the end of the day, we would relax by the swimming pool and then drag our weary bodies across the street for a delicious meal prepared by Phap and Xi. One evening, they were excited to introduce us to a fellow Canadian, Janice Beddard. Janice is a few years from retirement but has taken a one-year sabbatical from her teaching position in Iqualuit. She is travelling solo and we were enthralled to hear her stories, especially those of Lhasa, Everest Base Camp, Nepal and Bhutan. She travelled on the slow boat from Thailand to Luang Prabang and gets around by hiring motorcycle drivers or rickshaws to take her to sites outside of the major centers. And we thought we were adventurous!
Alas, our one-month visa was due to expire on January 14th and it was time to leave Vietnam. We never seem to have enough time in Hoi An, I guess we'll just have to come back yet again, to stay the two weeks that this wonderful World Heritage town deserves.
We booked a Vietnam Airways flight all the way north to Hanoi in order to pick up an incredibly inexpensive flight on Air Asia to Bangkok. On our last trip, our flight out of Danang was delayed five hours. We didn't want to risk missing our Air Asia flight so we made plans to spend one night in Hanoi. I was pleased to get the opportunity to have a meal at Café 69, on Ma Mai Street once again. I think I had my best meal in all of Vietnam there, earlier in the month.