Thursday, August 24, 2006

Many happy returns
(Retracing your steps along Cua Dai Beach)

As travellers we make a lot of promises wherever we go. We always say we’ll come back – and in an ideal world perhaps we would. But after seven years in Vietnam, it’s only Hoi An that I’ve been to several times a year, every year without fail.

In this chunk of time the changes to the old port town have been significant. What once seemed a sleepy old place is now alive with tourists all year round while an over abundance of tailors, restaurants and gift shops blurs the mind.

Now these changes are starting to stir up the coastline. On the way in to Cua Dai beach from the airport in the neighbouring city of Danang, the taxi driver tells me there’s big plans for what is called China beach, which runs south from the port city.

As we swerve around an old man with no arms who’s cycling a bike, he points from one place to the next telling me how a string of resorts are planned. He tells me this is good for everyone.

The road we’re driving on, which goes behind Marble Mountain, is a work in progress. Along the sides of the road half-houses are left standing, people’s front rooms have been cleared to make way for the construction. Regardless, life goes on. The front door is now where the living room used to stand. Chinese symbols that were once above family altars now front the house. Children play outside as labourers shovel cement and lay asphalt on the road to be.

On Cua Dai beach, where a number of high end resorts are happily fully occupied, everything seems as it always was.

I find my old friend Hon’s restaurant and settle into a seafood banquet of fried squid, boiled crab and a bowl of clams with Larue beer on ice. Hon tells me she’s moved which is why it took a while for me to find her. After three years when the lease is up the local government insists they move spot. I’d always wondered why they never bothered investing in the shack-like restaurants.

There are a dozen or so places like Hon’s in a row. The owners and helpers dressed in denim jackets, and wearing handkerchiefs for masks, coo the sunburnt backpackers shuffling down the beach, inviting them to sit in the deckchairs. Sitting is free if you buy a drink; so naturally a few thrifty travellers just buy a bottle of water and camp out for a few hours. Hon tells me every three years her lease is more expensive making it harder and harder to survive.

In the sea Vietnamese children swim in t-shirts. The younger ones carry broken bits of polystyrene as floats. They stop and stare as an old Dutch woman in a skimpy bikini goes out to test the waters.

The sea is deep blue and calm but suddenly a wave comes out of nowhere to the sound of a motor. Everyone looks up to see guests at the Palm Garden Resort on a jet ski buzzing past the moored fishing boats.

As you sit on the beach hawkers come past one by one. A geriatric lady selling cigarettes and tiger balm; a young girl with jewellery who looks for a promise ("maybe later you buy?"); a plumper manicuring-massaging lady; and an old disabled man who walks on his hands with a copy of yesterday’s Vietnam News.

Further down the beach, near the entrance more local Vietnamese customers can be found sitting on plastic chairs under the shade of thin trees drinking iced drinks for less than 25 cents.
In the late afternoon taxi drivers play dice while xe om drivers sit in a sliver of shade, all playing the waiting game; as the day progresses the beach will empty and tourists will head to town for a stroll along the river, or to hit the tailors before dinner and drinks. The shuttle bus from the Victoria Resort shoots past first. A few more young backpackers on rented motorbikes are next. Then come the brave ones who cycled out in the searing heat. Two remaining xe om drivers look edgy until a couple of sunkissed English girls hitch up their skirts and jump on the pillion. The drivers’ faces light up as the buxom girls squeeze closer. They’re too excited to even mention the price. Happy days indeed.

Yes, it’s the cliché of the travel writer to say you’ll always return, but as I leave in the twilight, Hon waves me off with a sincere, “see you later”. She knows I always come back. I bet I'm not the only one.

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