How much d’you want for that? (I’m goin’ to the store). Man says three dollars. I say alright – will you take four? Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
Five men, amputees all, sit by the roadside hawking cheap fans. I’m not a fan fan – if ever I come back from the east with one for you, feel free to take it as a sign my ardour is cooling – but have a soft spot on disability and like to do my bit. My proffered fifty-k note is causing confusion though. They want five per fan and think I’m trying to buy a bag of twenty with it. A shop keeper spots the impasse and comes out to explain what I already know: this is not a bartering sitch. The one useful thing she does is open the bag to pull out a fan.
“This – five thousand. No fifty thousand for twenty!”
Showing commendable wisdom I renounce the urge to hand-signal that I’d sooner stick pins in my eyes than walk away with twenty of the buggers. I take the fan and leave the men, clearly a team, with a smile and the fifty note.
* * *
This is Hoi Anh, port town for the Chams who held sway from seventh century to sixteenth. The shipping action moved forty kilometres north to Danang when the estuary silted up but its prettiness, famed night bazaar, beaches and 10th century Hindu ruins at nearby My Son make Hoi Anh a big draw. Strolling round on my day of arrival, for the first time encountering farangs in serious numbers, I was reminded of Totnes in Devon. When a man suggested I take his picture – ‘one dollar only’ – I knew I was seeing the Vietnam that had disenchanted my Yuletide friend. But just as you’ll still find the old east-end spirit in gentrified Hackney – if you look for it and engage, only engage – so does the principle apply even in Asia’s Phukets and Goas.
The law of supply and demand, always volatile in Asia, works in intricate ways here: not all to the disadvantage of the farang. My hotel room, a fiver the night, is not only the cheapest so far but the nicest. Hotels have sprung up like toytown, paring margins to the bone for the hotelier. More is expected, and for less.
* * *
My second night In Hoi Anh. I’ve spent the day visiting surrounding villages on a hired bike. It’s dusk by the time I glide back through narrow streets already filling with tourists but, ingenue that I am, I’ve yet to realise that things have barely started. More to the point, I’ve yet to realise that most of the narrow roads bringing me to the quayside will soon be closed off to motor traffic as the night bazaar gets into full swing.
I ease onto the water front – one mistake with the throttle will mean big splash and heap of trouble – park the bike on its side-stand and walk away without a backward glance.
This is Vietnam, right?
It is, but when Vietnam meets Totnes the rules change. What I will learn tonight is that I may just as well have left it under a lion at Trafalgar Square on New Years Eve and hiked over to Leicester Square to catch a show; all the while expecting my faithful steed to await patiently my return.
Blissfully ignorant I stroll about. This is a pretty place, though I know the farangs will have spoilt it rotten. That’s a practical judgment, not a moral one. I hope I never get to be the farang tourist equivalent of a ‘self-hater’.
On a floating cafe, a man strums accoustic guitar. The tunes are predictable – Yesterday. Chiquitita. Greensleeves. Que Sera Sera – but he plays with skill and subtlety, and I’m happy to linger over my overpriced coffee till the midges and moskies get to me.
Shoulda brung the deet.
I return for the bike. Except it isn’t there. OK, deep breath. Must’ve left it further down the quay. No? Up the quay then. I’m walking faster now, not quite the relaxed chappie of a few minutes earier. It doesn’t take long to let in, and begin calculating implications of, the fact my little yellow yammerhammer isn’t remotely where it’s supposed to be.
Back to the boat, a husband-wife operation: he strumming middle of the road toons; she serving and cooking, her English not stretching beyond taking orders. She shouts over an elderly Viet tourist. His English is only marginally better but they’ve understood my plight and are taking it seriously, more than I could expect in the UK from two people whose respective priorities are or should be to (a) make money, (b) have fun.
Also indicative of the higher moral standards out here is that as I run through possible explanations, including the correct one as it turns out, I don’t for a second entertain the possibility of theft. I’ve left bikes with key in ignition many times here, including downtown Danang at night. These are law abiding people.
Viet tourist leads me off boat to local on quayside bench. Vigorous exchanges ensue. I don’t understand a word but can read tone and body language as well as the next guy. The vibe local man gives off, as he repeatedly points over the roof tops while his hands chop out a set of left and right directions, tells me this is a routine event.
Man leaves bike in stupid place. Traffic cops impound it. End of.
I’m relaxed now with the bigger picture but there’s devil in the detail. How I’m supposed to find destination unknown with only the vaguest sense of the way seems as apt a metaphor as any for this confusing set of events we call life. The streets are heaving, my expectations of success low. After a few minutes I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Quay Bench Man, clearly no more confident of my competence for this errand than I am. It takes every bit of Finest English Reserve to refrain from hugging him in gratitude and relief.
He leads me up a narrow alleyway busting with atmosphere. Out onto a heaving walkway. Left, right then left again till we arrive at the police station as a fresh batch of confiscations is being wheeled into the pound.
I thank QBM profusely – he’s too well dressed to offer money (tricky business this tourist game; easy to get things wrong either way) – then turn to deal with the constabulary. They don’t speak English either but it isn’t long before I’ve grasped that I can’t have the bike till nine-thirty. Later I will discover that the impoundment isn’t a means of getting me to reflect on my wrongheaded and iniquitous ways. There’s no chance of my riding or even wheeling the bike through these throngs. It stays put till trading ends, and the heaving streets empty.
Presenting myself at the cop shop at the appointed time – having witnessed, in the interim, locals laying into one another with fists and crash helmets in a traffic dispute … silk clad men playing chequers in China Town … Australians slamming down (of all things) tequila sunrises in the Happy Time Bar – the desk sergeant indicates fifty-k as suitable penance for trouble caused. It slides neatly into the breast pocket of his tunic.
I switch on the engine in delight. What a dashed civilised place this is. If you don’t agree, try parking a motorbike in a comparable spot at a venue in the UK – the Quay at St Ives, say – on a Saturday night in high season. Think you’ll get off with a three hour confiscation, and one pound fifty ‘fine’?