A few experiments with the truth in Hoi An, Vietnam

Effie-Michelle Metallidis

There is punishment in store for an unnamed travel guide who told me lies about Vietnam.

The first is that Hoi An is the tailoring centre of South-east Asia.

This rumour, embellished by a friend who had bought a full wardrobe for a pittance there in 2006, drove Patty, my friend, and me 600 kilometres north of Ho Chi Ming City to a place where, we were told, the sewing skills of a 100 grandmothers could be had for the price of a KFC meal (which, coincidentally, is the fried chicken du choix of the Socialist Republic).

But a decade of development has brought to Hoi An a stream of wealthier tourists who are accustomed to the mentality that quality only comes at a high price. Many tailors have readily agreed to that deal, making Hoi An a no-bargain basement for couture.

“This one $80 [Dh480],” a bored-looking saleswoman tells us of a slip hanging in the window. Suits would be about €200 (Dh1,060). And a qi pao, the traditional Chinese silk dress that Patty was interested in making, would run her into the hundreds. (Fortunately, we did find a reasonable seamstress who produced a flawless one within a day.)

The second lie, which dragged me away from the first, is that Hué is worth visiting. Billed as the cultural and intellectual centre of Vietnam, the town is four hours north of Hoi An and remains untouched by the urgent development that has swept other parts of the country.

Positioned along the Suong Huong (or Perfume River – which in no way smells of perfume, I assure you), it is reminiscent of a small Paris, with art installations and French colonial architecture lining the river. It was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty – Vietnam’s last – and so may pique the curiosity of those interested in the country’s cultural legacy.

Let me cure that ailment. The reasons for visiting Hué are as follows: a tomb on a river, a tomb up some stairs, and a tomb on an island – wa bas.

Its most intriguingly named attraction, the Purple Forbidden City, was the grandest untruth.

Like the old “Coffee Talk” shtick on Saturday Night Live, the Purple Forbidden City is neither purple nor forbidden nor a city. Sparse, dry grass covers large fields where buildings once stood. The few preserved temples are painted the dynastic red that rules many royal Asian courts, and as for the rest of the imperial city, the Americans bombed most of it in 1968.

“Lies!” I cried when I walked through the charred archways. “What purple? What city? Is the grass forbidden? I’m walkin’ on it, Patty – I’m walkin’ on it.”

Lies may be too harsh a word. Let us say that Vietnam has a way of spinning the truth that makes for an unintended experience. Take My Son (pronounced “mee son”), a Unesco World Heritage Site about 50km away from Hoi An. Touted as the most significant ruins in the country, it holds pride of place alongside other monumental sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia.

The problem is that we have already been to Angkor Wat. It’s majestic. Sprawling. Incomparable.

My Son is located off of an industrial motorway. A lone sign points to its existence 30 winding, uphill kilometres ahead. Half of the ruins are still buried or being excavated. And those that are there don’t have any signs.

Also, we almost died getting there, which makes for a much less enjoyable memory. Despite a heated debate on Facebook over the name of our two-person motorcycle gang – which included Saigon Sirens, Ha Tinh Harleys, Nam Sequitur, and Rouge Riders (if we were still in Cambodia) – the excursion was less of a thrill than the name game.

“Ho Chi [expletive]!” I yelled, as yet another Mack truck barrelled past us, nearly pushing Nam Rider and Scoot Chi Minh – our rickety motorbikes – into an oncoming rice paddy. Despite the majestic names of our scooters, they were no superheroes. They were loaners off construction guys next to our hotel, and we were just happy to get ones with side mirrors for the four-hour ride (most bikes in Vietnam have just one or, better yet, none).

And yet, the unexpected also makes Vietnam endearing. The monthly lunar celebration happened to fall while we were in Hoi An, so we joined hundreds of local villagers in lighting paper lanterns and floating them along the river.

By dusk, the shops shut off their electricity, and only the barest of lights, supplemented by candles, illuminated the narrow alleyways leading towards the water. Pungent incense hung thick in the air as shop owners offered food and flowers – whatever would herald prosperity and good luck – in front of their stores. Prayers were murmured as inhabitants meandered towards the bank of the river, and then, one by one, flickering pools of light bumped one another along silken black, carrying the wishes of their bearers down the way as they have done for hundreds of years.

Patty wished she had made a few more qi pao. I wished I had known about the lies – and the fact that lanterns cost half as much on the other side of the river.

“Oh, Effie, don’t be so negative,” said Patty.

“OK, OK,” I grumbled, and lowered my lantern into the river to join the hundreds of other floating wishes.