Hoi An and Son My (My Lai)

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The lads and I flew into Da Nang in the early afternoon, and were picked up by our next hotel and driven to Hoi An, a little burg on the Bon River (Song Thu Bon) about a half-hour south of Da Nang.

Hoi An is a UNESCO world heritage site, a status it achieved in 1999. A great deal of effort has gone into preserving the remarkable architecture of the old buildings of Hoi An, much of which is due to its long association with Chinese and Japanese traders, many of whom settled in the community and organized thriving sub-communities. And while that statement is true, it's also true to say that Hoi An has become a centre for parting tourists from their money—not that there's anything wrong with that. But more on that later.

During the American War, Da Nang International was one of the busiest airports in the world, and the US facilities centred in Da Nang were huge. For quite a bit of the drive south from the airport, we travelled along the fence that surrounds the old US facilities, the large quonset-type hangars and other buildings still visible from the highway as they crumble. It's grotesque, but what can they do? It was also fascinating for the lads, as they were able to contemplate just how large the US attempt to subjugate the Vietnamese people became. (The fence goes on for some ways.)

We'd decided to spend a few days in Hoi An after quizzing our friend Nell Hottke on her travels in Viet Nam. She's lived here for 1.5 years, and has visited quite a few places. In the end, we chose Hoi An over Nha Trang because we wanted both touristy stuff and historical stuff (typical North Americans, we want everything!), and Hoi An was within driving distance of the My Lai memorial, which clinched it.

As mentioned, Hoi An is a UNESCO heritage site, and a tourist mecca. Its specialty is tailors—you get made-to-measure clothes of any kind in a day or two. (What's your hotel? When you leave? Come in tomorrow 11am for fitting! You leave tomorrow? Come in tonight!) A made-to-measure shirt costs around $15. They don't do racks, you want off-the-rack you won't find one. And since that specialty became the prominent retail industry of Hoi An, hundreds of tailors, and undoubtedly "tailors," have set up shop. So if you're into getting some clothes made, it's pretty difficult to figure out who are the tailors, and who the "tailors."

Fortunately, there're lots of denizens of Hoi An who'll give you free advice on the matter. After we checked in to our hotel, we headed down Tran Hung Dao (street) to find some lunch, which we achieved at the Viet Trieu, a nearby cafe. There we met Luy, our server, who, in addition to taking our order in the usual way, asked us what we wanted to buy in Hoi An. Telling her we weren't really there to buy anything didn't deter her from letting us know that her sister owned a clothing shop, and we should go have a look, because it was the best in Hoi An. (Later, a motorcycle taxi guy, on learning we didn't need a taxi, gave us a card for his mother's clothing shop in the market. When we saw him again, he asked us if we'd been. We hadn't.) Our hotel had a made-to-measure clothing shop two doors down, which was apparently the best in Hoi An.

You get the picture.

But you walk around seeing so many clothing shops, and you get ideas. Andrew ordered a beautiful sport-jacket with Mao collar (he intends to be the first to bring Mao collars back from the '70s, where they languish). I visited a leather shop recommended by Lonely Planet, and got a gorgeous motorcycle jacket. (I wanted it shipped back to Canada, so when it was finished the store called the post office, who sent over an employee with a selection of mailing boxes, who proceeded to wrap things up for shipping. The shipping charge went on the store's bill. Amazing!)

I was trying to rent a car to drive to My Son to the My Lai memorial, but, though we were constantly passing bicycles and motorcycles for rent, there didn't seem to be any car rental agencies. So I asked at the hotel desk, and the gal there said they'd happily rent us a car and driver for $65. Well, I only wanted the car, I said, I'd do the driving myself.

A word about the reception staff at the Thanh Van Hotel in Hoi An. Unlike any of the other places I've stayed in Viet Nam, the stuff you wanted got done, but the gals weren't afraid to let you know what an idiot they thought you were. They didn't say, "You're an idiot," but they'd have conversations with each other, the tone of which, accompanied by raised eyebrows, left little doubt what they were thinking of you. (Not that the little doubt means I couldn't have been wrong.)

My desire to do the driving produced in her a look of incredulity, "You wouldn't want to do that," she said. I figured she thought westerners couldn't drive in Viet Nam traffic; since I'd already done that quite successfully, I begged to disagree. Never mind. No car without a driver.

Later I re-thought my stance, and decided $65 wasn't such a bad deal for a driver and car for the whole day, and at least we could be pretty sure the driver wouldn't get lost, which I couldn't say about myself. So we went back and arranged for it to happen. Later, I ran into one of the other gals at the desk, one of the sweeter ones, and she told me I was very lucky to have been given the driver I'd have—he was her husband!

And, not surprisingly, I realized the day of the trip I was very glad to have had a driver, as My Son would have been very difficult to have found on my own. And Linh (not sure of the spelling) was an excellent driver, the best I've seen or ridden with in Viet Nam. He wasn't afraid to go fast when the situation warranted it, and yet he was very careful around other vehicles, especially bicycles.

The memorial itself was, as expected, a gut-wrencher. It's not as if I weren't familiar with the subject—the My Lai massacre was an incredibly brutal act of wanton savagery against defenceless women, children, and elders, an act of collective punishment we'd understand immediately, viscerally if it had been committed by Nazis, or even if it was alleged to be about to be committed by Qaddafi's troops. That nobody was punished for it in any proportionate way deeply indicts the US government and military, and should deeply shame the American people (and does, of course, many). But to reflect on it amongst the people to whom it happened is an entirely different matter, and one I felt deeply.

And let's not just remember the massacre itself. The US military returned to Song My in 1969, as news was beginning to get out (and complaints by US soldiers to their superiors began to be heard), to try to remove all evidence of the massacre, bulldozing much of the 4 hamlets that make up the Son My area into the ground. Those who survived were herded into a "strategic village" (concentration camp), in an attempt to control them. Finally, in 1972, the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam—"South" Vietnam) destroyed the concentration camp itself in an intensive bombardment.

As we'd pretty much gone through the exhibits after about an hour, and the lads were getting antsy to put their earpods back in and leave, I was just about to walk to the guestbook, sign it, and make an exit, when I was approached by a young, 30-something Vietnamese woman in an ao dai. She was guiding an American woman through the exhibits, and would I care to join them? Indeed I would, and did, and so did Andrew and Duncan.

I never managed to get her name, but she had grown up in Son My, and was one of six residents of Son My who work as guides at the memorial. She spoke English well, and passionately.

(My Lai is one of the hamlets attached to the village of Son My, which is a few kilometres from Quang Ngai city in the province of Quang Ngai. As many of the photos of the massacre are from the killings that took place in My Lai, it became known as the My Lai massacre, even if it more adequately could have been described as the "Son My massacre." This still causes lots of confusion. I'm not sure if my guide was from My Lai, the Son My area, or what. In any case, she clearly had not yet been born when the massacre happened.)

She took us around the exhibits briefly, showed us a Viet Nam government video on the massacre, and then took us outside where some of the original foundations of homes of the victims have been preserved (or perhaps recreated—who knows?). She even pointed out to us the two trees that had survived, one with many bullet holes in it. All very worthwhile, and quite moving.

By the time our guide was finished with us, we were all very hungry, and our driver was quite happy to go as well.

Most of the rest of our time in Hoi An was spent in touristy stuff: walking around looking at the official "old houses;" eating good food; turning down the many, many entreaties of sidewalk vendors to buy stuff; visiting the market; being fitted and re-fitted.

One of the high points was on our last day in Hoi An, when we had the time to rent a few bicycles to ride to the beach, a beautiful one known as Cua Dai. Not everyone on the beach was a tourist; there was a group of Vietnamese teenagers having quote a noisy, fun time for themselves, and I enjoyed watching them. I said "high points," but unfortunately Duncan ended up with a dud bicycle—his chain kept coming off. On the way back from the beach it fell off and wedged itself into the frame in such a way that it couldn't be put back on, so when I went back to find out what had happened to him he was walking it back to town, a trip that would have been about 3km. I remembered something I'd seen the Vietnamese do, and it got us out of that particular jam. Duncan got on the back of my bike (there was a carrier, as on all other Vietnamese bikes), and he guided his bicycle along with his hand while I pedaled. I felt so Vietnamized!

That night we ate dinner at a place I'd spotted during the ride to the beach, a restaurant called Som, perched on stilts with open windows right in the river. Its slogan was "Slow food for slow living." Don't know about the "slow" part, but the "good" part was certainly there. Duncan and Andrew shared a bottle of red wine, couple of lushes. Given recent bouts of gout, I ,sticking to beer.

Later that night, Andrew and I set out to find "the Sleepy Gecko," an expat-owned pub on Cam Nam Island across the river from Hoi An that is recommended by Lonely Planet. We knew the address, but the lack of street signs on the island foils that old technique. Going on the description that the Gecko has a view of Hoi An across the harbour, we crossed the bridge to the island, turned right, and kept on walking, walking, in the dark, long past the point where we thought we'd never find it, and there it was! Not surprisingly, there was only one other punter in it, Roland from Austria. But every time you ordered a beer, they also poured a shot of "rum" for you. (Pretty sure it wasn't really rum, but it certainly was liquor!).

Andrew drank some of my shot, and then we hauled our arses home to get ready for the flight to Ha Noi.

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