We’ve now reached Central Vietnam, and it’s still hard to equate the reality with the image I grew up with from American newsreels, especially as I’m reading Vietnamese literature.The jungles have been hacked back to more than 70 kilometres from the towns, so we look out at flat fields, rice paddies and the odd slash of red neon.
I’ve tried reading Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches’, but like other books from the period its psychedelic freeform prose now feels painfully dated and virtually indecipherable in places, so I’ve opted for Bao Ninh’s astonishing ‘The Sorrow Of War’, which gives a much better feeling of what happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And there are still signs of that time around. Landmine clearance continues to this day, and it is not uncommon to meet amputees in the streets.
Stepping into Hoi An is both walking back in time and into controversy. In 1999 this 16th century port was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, but instead of becoming a museum the ancient houses were sold as shops. There is a school of thought that suggests the buildings should have been preserved empty, but this is also the argument put forward by a friend from NYC who complains that London is losing its Dickensian alleyways. My response there has always been to ask; ‘Do you expect us to walk around in top hats just so that you can satisfy your desire to see us conform to Victorian stereotypes?’ so I have to wonder, have we the right to insist that other nations keep their ancient monuments for us to crawl over with our cameras, or should they be allowed to live as well?
If the answer is the latter, where is the line drawn? The worst of both worlds would be to allow the ‘right kind of shops’, so that you end up with some kind of horrible heritage craft zone. On balance, I feel the shops are fine, but Hoi An is at a crossroads. If it becomes brasher, it will turn into another Phuket. At the moment, the balance is just right, except near the 400 year-old covered bridge, where a scrum of tourists stand jammed together (still not as bad as what has happened to Florence, in truth).
There are some sensible checks in place. The key protected area is ticketed and monitored, and motorbikes are not allowed. The sudden drop in sound is wonderful, as all you hear is the ringing of bicycles, and I wish I had come here earlier. Also, there’s no plastic signage, only wooden boards, and traditional silk lanterns light the way. Across the river, as if to prove that humans cannot be silenced, the non-heritage area shops are pumping out bad disco.
Between the Perfume River and the river Bon cranes still fly above the sparse treetops, and workers toil in the rice fields. There are rumours that the dressmakers behind the tailor-shops are there for show, and that the real work is farmed out to battery machinists on the outskirts. But there is also a point when you should really stop reading Tripadvisor, the whiniest site on the planet.
I regret that I couldn’t get to the far north this trip. Also, I passed on Halong Bay, popular for those who want to see Bond-style islands, as I’ve been to similar, much quieter areas in the South China Sea. I’ll be continuing further south in a few days, heading for Na Trang and then Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).