I’ve already talked about one bad experience with a tour in Vietnam, so now it’s time to talk about a great one. The suit making process takes a few days for all of the fittings and adjustments that may be needed. To fill one such a day we decided to join the Heaven & Earth bicycle tour around some of less frequented areas of Hoi An. Assembling at the small office on the other side of the river from the old town our group of nine chose our bikes and lathered on the sunscreen in preparation for the day ahead.
When our well spoken, cheeky guide and her assistant came and introduced themselves I was taken aback. Here we were, in shorts and T-shirts sweating profusely in the 34 degree, 85% humidity heat whilst our guide was wearing long jeans and a thick jumper. Confused?
Throughout Southeast Asian culture the color of your skin can say a lot about your beauty and status in society. The belief, more prevalent in women than men is that the lighter you are, the more beautiful you are. Almost every skin product you will see in a pharmacy or supermarket will contain a whitening agent of some sort. Even deodorant. Want to find a tanning oil in a non-touristy area? Forget about it. It seems that we really do live in a world in which no one is happy with how they look. I’ve had barbers, guides and random people I meet all complement me on my white skin, which I had been trying to tan in Thailand, and some even half-jokingly asking if we can swap skin. I have been told that it stems from the belief that if you are dark, it means that you must work in the fields in manual labor all day long, while the lighter and more successful people traditionally worked indoors. It is an interesting inverse perspective to Western culture whereby some believe the more tanned you are, the more beautiful you are.
The women in Hoi An take the tanning prevention to a level above what I have seen anywhere else by wearing thick jumpers, jeans, face masks, gloves and long socks that cover their feet in flip flops. They believe that the thicker the better and when we informed a woman that she would get the same protection from a good, long sleeve shirt she didn’t believe us.
With that back-story explained, we put foot to pedal and began to cycle to the river where we would board a ferry to a large island which is a major residential and agricultural center for the town. Our first stop was a boat building factory with no employees to be seen. Our guide provided insight into how the boats were made to order for roughly $1500, of which the family that makes them only receives a few hundred dollars for the months work. Next we stopped by a business which makes wooden boxes, frames designed with patterns laid with shiny shells. The three staff were all working in unison, each performing their own intricate role for the final product. What really stood out was that there was no sales pitch whatsoever or guilt trip to buy anything. If you saw something you liked, you could buy it for much cheaper than in the market.
After that, we got back on the bikes and rode through the small lanes, passing houses that in a few months time will be semi-submerged due to flooding on our way to the ice factory. Once again there was no else around so it didn’t feel as if we were interrupting anything as the guide explained the process to make the ice, along with some interesting anecdotes before we got back on the bikes. From there we rode through beautiful rice and straw fields until stopping at a house where there was a young boy and his sister working alongside huge piles of straw to split before being dried, died and turned into bed mats. By this stage the heat of the day was firing down and we all needed to take a break at a rest stop and rehydrate.
The final two stops before lunch were at a house that makes Vietnamese basket boats and a brick making factory. The basket boats were quite an ingenious invention devised to avoid a tax that the French had introduced on normal wooden boats. When an official walked through a house, all they saw was a large basket when in fact it was actually a boat. Those who wanted to could also have a quick paddle in a boat. Finally, we came to a brick making factory where we could see the clay being shoveled and shaped into bricks that were then placed in the sun to dry for a few days before being cooked. We also learned that women who spend 10 hours a day carting the bricks between the stages earn a mere $2.50 for their efforts, redefining my concept of a hard days’ wage. Lunch was at the home of Heaven & Earth’s owner’s wife whose family has long been making bed mats for locals in Hoi An before we boarded another boat to head back to town.
The tour stands out to me as one of the best I’ve been on, and the only tour I’ve actually passed on a business card to other travelers for. It provides an insight into lives and customs of locals which will dissipate over the next 1 – 2 generations as family traditions are broken and livelihoods sought out through means of higher education. The complete lack of sales tactics was a refreshing touch, largely unseen elsewhere in Vietnam whilst the guide was fun, spoke impeccable English and made a real effort to get to know us as well as share her life and stories.