Words by Dave, video by Carmen
“The rain is coming on Thursday,” the café owner tells us. “Not long now.”
Every evening in Hoi An dark clouds rumble up from the horizon and flash with electric friction. The air is charged with the promise of rain.
And then nothing. The dry heat of Vietnam’s central coast lingers as an extra blanket that teases sleep out to the early hours. When the morning comes the sun rises high, scorching the earth through a cloudless sky, a merciless orb that casts no shadows.
It’s so bright that sunglasses barely cut the glare. Shirts become rags. Your back drips at breakfast and the barest hint of breeze is like taking a breath after a deep dive.
We’re in Hoi An for the hottest time of the year – the pocket of days right before the wet season is due. And even though it’s hot as a cauldron, we’re still out and about. After all, so are the Vietnamese.
The women ride around wearing full-length trousers and shirts with facemasks and gloves to protect themselves from the sun and keep their skin looking as pale as possible. The men work their butts off from early morning to midday and then relax in the afternoon with a siesta and some ice-cold beers.
So when we signed up for another Vietnam Vespa Adventures, same company as the one we went with in Saigon, we were keen to do the half-day tour so we could beat the heat.
Vietnam Vespa Adventures in Hoi An
Our tour would take in the verdant countryside surrounding Hoi An where farmers grow wide green fields of rice, long horned buffalos chill out in mud pits and all manner of ducks, geese, and chickens chirp and peck amid the vegetable and herb crops. Out there, people work in the heat and the rain, unchanged traditions for hundreds of years.
We slapped on sunglasses, sunscreen and long trousers and packed our hats and plenty of water, before being picked up on beautifully presented Vespa scooters by our drivers at around eight in the morning. I reckon the temperature was already hovering close to thirty degrees Celsius, and from the growing triumph of the sun we known it will get hotter still.
Our first stop is the ferry dock by the inlet river, and our drivers thread us through the bright blacktop streets of Hoi An’s old town where you won’t find on air-conditioned building.
It’s all UNESCO heritage listed to protect the character of the French style stucco buildings. But the tree-lined boulevards throw plenty of shade, and we take a few short cuts through narrow laneways throbbing with cooler air and startled pedestrians.
Hoi An began its life many centuries ago as a trading post that took advantage of its natural harbour and reliable waterways. The French colonists developed it as a port town and the riches that flowed through it eddied into classical buildings, many painted yellow, and at night they are lit up with a kaleidoscope of colourful lanterns, making it all seem like a dream, even in the bright light of day.
A short ferry crossing
The shade blinks away as we emerge into the unforgiving heat of the docks where a wooden ferry hip and shoulders the quay, swinging on the morning tide. Our Vespas are loaded on board and we step on – “watch your head,” ringing in my ears as I bash my head on the low beams of the sunshade.
The ropes are cast away and our venerable craft chugs away under the power of its clapped out marine diesel, brackish smells of tide and the day’s catch of fish following us. The bow aims for Cam Kim island, and in no time at all the hull swings to port at the other side and docks with a nudge.
Hard at work in the midday sun
Back on the bikes, legs up and over onto hot seats, our drivers gun us through a small village shaded by phalanxes of bamboo and willow trees then take us along a long canal where dredges are going hammer and tongs to create a new rice paddy.
Everywhere people are working – digging ditches, threshing rice fields, sowing crops or riding scooters hither and thither. The temperature is pushing thirty degrees by now, but the morning’s work has only just gotten warm.
Sight seeing the local spots
We come to a boat yard where scores of men are building ships the old fashioned way – wood and hard work. The great ships beached on the riverside look like whale carcasses as the sun browned men lift up ribs and beams and cross fittings. Our guide Trihn tells us each ship costs at least US$100,000 but will earn its cost many times over with a bit of luck, fishing on the ocean.
Our next stop is to a family temple, an intricate and peaceful place set aside from the humdrum day. Inside its courtyard stands an open room filled with burning incense sticks, carved idols and lettering, all dedicated a mix of families who paid for its upkeep while they are alive and bequeath an amount when they die.
Trihn tells us that in Vietnam your death day is more important that your birthday, and that on the anniversary of a loved one’s passing people will come to the temple to pray and honour their memory. Curdled streams of incense connect us to the gods and the afterlife, and as we walk back into the land of the living I shiver, despite the cloying degrees – I’m a little superstitious, and the temple’s a powerful place.
It’s a bumpy ride now. Roads in Vietnam are often just the dividing line of walled up earth between rice paddies, the hardest currency in the nation. The path is narrow and pitted, sliding between the slimy squares of mud and emerald stalks bowing in the seaward wind, and I hold on tight, keen to be a good pillion passenger.
The countryside flowing past is a painting. Bands of green for the crops, purple smudges make the distant mountains jagged as spearheads, the stinging blue sky whipped with perfect clouds. It’s as stereotypical as you can imagine, and unreal – just unreal.
We brake to a stop outside a whitewashed home where the courtyard has been given over to a tarpaulin spread with rice husks drying in the sun. Inside the shaded veranda a pair of women are working a loom, weaving dried grass mats. They can make a mat in four hours, and Trihn tell us they earn around US$1.50 a day for all their sweat and toil. It’s a living, but not much.
The sun is at its zenith now, and it’s thirty-five degrees at least. The road opens to a straight, long section and the Vespa roars along, the slipstream cooling my face and bathing my sweaty back. Strangely enough I’m getting hungry, and our bikes zoom off the road onto a narrow path that leads to a small village where piles of hay have been gathered into what look African huts.
We’re led to a dark room that’s as hot as an oven, because it is one. A roaring fire heats a griddle where rice batter is being cooked into very thin crackers the size of dinner plates. A lady rolls them onto a handle and then unrolls them on a rack to cool.
“Who would like to try?” Trinh asks, and I’m swiftly volunteered. Luckily I watched the lady’s technique pretty closely, and manage to do a decent job of it.
The crackers are a simple snack served in the morning or whenever to keep people fuelled up for their work. Take two crackers and put a sheet or gluggy rice paper between them, then smash it in your hand. Each broken section is like a big chip, which you dip into a fragrant fish sauce with ginger. Very delicious, and very filling.
The adventure continues
Back on the road, herd of cows and their new calves block our progress, and the stock boy swishes them out of the way with a flexible bamboo pole. He’s not fast enough for a few of them, who sneak mouthfuls of fresh basil and spinach growing in neat squares, the cash crops of some unsuspecting farmer.
We stop at a local café for a quick café sua da – a delicious blend of chipped ice, condensed milk and black Robusta bean coffee – then it’s time for the big test of courage, the bamboo bridge, with the temperature gauge surely pushing forty.
The Vietnamese are hard workers but they are also smart workers. They use the things their natural environment has given them to full advantage. In Hoi An’s famed vegetable villages you can often see long palm leaves being used to shield furrows of crops from the sun and the birds, an elegant organic solution.
So is the bamboo bridge, only on a much larger scale – over 350 metres of ingeniously constructed bamboo spans the shallow, muddy river and brings us back from the island to the mainland.
We’re back in Hoi An in time for lunch, our morning all work done. Now it’s time to drive to the beach and have a few beers. Well earned.
Have you ever been on a tour of Vietnam? What was it like? Let us know in the comments below!
Thank you to Vietnam Vespa Adventures for hosting us. As always, our strongly worded opinions are our own
What you need to know:
When to go: You can book with Vietnam Vespa Adventures online here. They run most days, depending on the numbers.
How to get there: Vietnam Vespa Adventures will pick you up from your hotel.
Cost: US$76 per person