After half an hour of peddling alongside trucks and scooters on the main road out of Hoi An’s Old Town we reach Tra Que. Also known as Vegetable Village, Tra Que is bordered by regiments of perfectly sectioned allotments. We cycle through them and past countryside homestays, interspersed with small shops and food stalls lining single-track roads beside the vegetable plots. We mostly hear roosters and the distant traffic of the main road.
I’m starting to imagine us making our own healthy living organic cereal TV advert here when-
My front tyre explodes with a visible rush of air.
We give our hostel the name and address of the biggest-looking nearby establishment – a homestay – and make camp outside its gates while we wait for a new bicycle. At length, the homestay’s Vietnamese owner appears. She’s received a call from our hostel’s bike rental people asking for directions to her homestay.
Ann is friendly and unfussed about being dragged into our mobility crisis. As she leads us through her front gates to sit in the more comfortable garden area, we get chatting. I’m struck by her near-native English; it turns out she lived in England for seven years with her British husband, until they decided to swap Hampshire for Hoi An.
A more robust bicycle finally arrives and we continue to a series of mangrove channels leading out to open sea. We are next door to a resort frequented by Chinese tourists. As our coracle bamboo boat bobs through the narrow crab-infested waters we pass a group clumsily attempting to emulate the fishing net throwing technique of the local fishermen. Booming dance music thunders over the water from another group. SIGH.
Back in the Old Town there are tailors and tourist-ready art galleries and restaurants everywhere, and carefully crafted ‘traditional’ pedestrian walking streets to connect them. But despite the blatant attempts to gather in tourist dollars, a nighttime stroll along the river dotted with lantern lights is atmospheric. The bizarre Old Town entrance ticketing system allows you to enter 5/22 designated historical sites for £4. In our top five is the ornate Chinese temple Quang Cong. There the gatekeeper, upon learning that I speak Chinese and (much more interestingly) Kaili is Singaporean-Chinese, insists on taking us out for dinner.
Over dumplings and noodles served in a market hall nearing the end of the day’s trading, our self-appointed guide and Kaili discuss life in the Chinese diaspora members club. He mixes rather obvious advice about learning Chinese (‘learning traditional characters is harder than simplified characters. Of course, it’s also difficult because there are tones’) with heart-felt stories about his past.
“Most of my family is now in California, but I had to stay here to look after my father.” Sending their kids over to the US or Canada is seen as the best thing many Asian parents can do for them.
I leave Hoi An more aware than ever of the Chinese influence in Vietnam.