Fire fighting heroics in Hue, Vietnam

Life on River in Hoi An - Vietnamtravelblog

Life on River in Hoi An

Nick Claxton has never ventured outside of Europe before but a combination of too many years in London, a lack of proper responsibilities and an unhealthy admiration for Michael Palin now means he is spending a year travelling the globe. A terminally-disorganised 24-year-old taking on the world – solo. Here is his 26th blog entry:

Hoi An is unlike most Vietnamese cities.

Formerly a port city in the 16th and 17th centuries, its Old Town is packed tightly with Chinese-style shop-houses while the atmospheric riverside also harks back to the colonial era with its paper lanterns, French-style restaurants and covered bridges – perfect for a stroll as the sun goes down.

The streets are even mercifully clear of the hordes of motorbikes that plague Ho Chi Minh City, although the hundreds of tailor shops provide a certain menace of their own.

More than 400 tailors are reportedly plying their trade in Hoi An, crammed one after another into this small riverside town.

This means rock bottom prices are on offer for made-to-measure shirts, blouses, dresses and suits, but the intense competition has its downside: be prepared to smile and shrug off the attentions of salesmen almost constantly during the day – but thankfully, they’re not so insistent at night.

I had no desire to remind myself of work back home by buying a suit (even for just US$50/£30), but if you’re in the purchasing mood, then give Hoi An’s tailors a few days and attend multiple fittings to get it right. I met one pair of girls who had to wait three days extra for their dresses before they finally could squeeze into them. Despite the low prices, you can definitely get quality garments eventually, but remember – this isn’t Savile Row!

Apart from the tailors hawking their wares, the pace of life in Hoi An seemed much slower than many of the other towns we’d seen further south. As I’d planned on taking it easy after spending eight days on the bike, Hoi An’s chilled vibe was ideal. I spent the hot days in restaurants or enjoying the view over the fields from outside my room, before mixing with other backpackers down in the bars along the river in the evening.

Hoi An is perfectly placed for tourists travelling along Highway One as its roughly halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This means popular haunts such as the Salsa Club or the always-rocking King Kong Bar are packed out most nights.

Most of my nights were spent dancing on King Kong’s pool table – meaning my days were mainly filled by nursing a hangover. But, more often than not, I still managed to drag myself downstairs and rent a bicycle for around 25,000 dong (£1.10) or grab a taxi to the nearby Cua Dai Beach.

Here I could watch the kite surfers, unwind with fellow bleary-eyed travellers and marvel at the peace on this spotless arc of white beach – where fifty years earlier the gentle sound of the waves may have been broken by the whir of choppers or the crack of rifle fire.

Within a few days, I felt both recuperated and buoyed by the engaging tales of the north told by other travellers. Also, many others were all following the same trail through Laos, so we had the promise of meeting up with some of our newfound friends again.

Eventually, we bid goodbye to Hoi An and made the short trip up to Hue. Nik and I had passed through here before on the bikes and so we headed back to the same hostel for a short one night stay – just so that Ciaran could get a flavour of the old imperial city.

The Perfume River slid slowly by and the oriental influence was just as prevalent just as it had been when Nik and I dashed through Hue five days before. It turned out that only real difference to our stay this time came as we sat in the bar just around the corner from the Nguyen Tri Phuong Hotel (three-bed shared room US$20).

Our first hint of trouble came when a Vietnamese guy pulled up on his bike, conducted a frenzied search through the bar for us and then urged us to come back the hostel in broken English.

Naturally, Ciaran and I left it to Nik to find out what it was about. We had beers to finish after all.

But a shock awaited us when we arrived back at the hostel. Our room was covered floor to ceiling in a thick layer of ash. Clothes, bags, beds, everything had been dusted grey and the roof was marked with a deep black scorch mark.

A quick glance at the scene showed clearly what had happened. The wall-fan had built up so much heat that it had blown clean away from its fixing and shot across the room and onto my bed, where it had set alight the covers – just where my right leg would have been if we’d had an early night!

By threatening me with a fiery death (well, sort of), the Nguyen Tri Phuong Hotel had already lost any chance of my money or recommendation – but they managed to make me dislike them even more by attempting to pin the blame on us. Thankfully, we soon convinced them otherwise – I think suggesting that we ask the police their opinion may have had something to do with that.

Anyway, despite the minor conflagration, none of our stuff had been damaged – other than picking up a new coating of grey – so we dusted it off, threw it into another room and then headed back to the bar.

However, our inflated stories of fire-fighting heroism had worn thin by the next morning. So it was decided that we should take the whole incident as a not-so-subtle hint. That afternoon, we left Hue for Hanoi – hoping for a slightly less eventful time in Vietnam’s capital.

Nicolas Claxton