The Secret Map

Returns: Vietnam

A stream of motorbikes broke away from the road traffic and spilled onto the sidewalk. The red traffic light merely signified a new route as opposed to the cessation of movement. I asked my taxi driver why this was happening. “It’s just Monday morning.”

That was Ho Chi Min city nine years ago. Nine years on, I watched with astonishment a young man casually ripping my insoles out from my shoes and, shortly after, gluing rubber to the undersides of what was supposed to be a quick sewing job to the top side of one of them. It was clear that the same hustle-hard mentality of the Vietnamese hadn’t slowed down one iota since my first visit.

Hanoi provided some fine street photography opportunities but I was glad for the respite the natural paradise of Ninh Binh, two hours south of the capital, provided. The constant soundtrack of city horns was replaced by horns of a buffalo variety.

After meeting fellow Brit traveler Laura in a guesthouse in Da Nang city, we rode to Hoi An, a sleepy fishing village I’d spent nine years cherishing as a highlight of my first trip to Asia. Upon my return, save for the famous yellow walls, the place was unrecognizable. Mass tourism has transformed it into more of a theme park than a community, with countless businesses selling identical products and waves of Chinese and Korean tourists wading through the streets with cone hats and selfie sticks.

I later came across a National Geographic article decrying the same phenomenon when the journalist had returned after nine years away and came back at the same time as my first visit. I found this as amusing as it was poignant. The secret map to Hoi An had been leaked long ago, and the current line of coaches all along the river was the latest result of the word getting around.

The hard-sell hustle of Hoi An hawkers was mercifully replaced on nearby tourist-free Cam Kim island – all rice paddies and organic living – by eye-lit smiles, “hello”s and a general wonderment as to why we’d ventured away from the tourist zone.

Always venture away from the tourist zone.

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