Dinner at Em's

The first day we arrived in Hoi An, we took a walk around the town to get our bearings. We've taken to doing this as soon as we set down our backpacks in a new place, because the bus will either drop us at an out-of-the-way hotel, hoping we'll choose to stay there so the busdriver gets his commission, or we'll become immediately disoriented by the vendors who jump on us as we arrive, trying to sell us all manner of things. Cigarettes? No thanks, we don't smoke. Fake photocopied books? No thanks, read 'em all. Two-for-one shots at Klub Krazy Apple? Well, I think you're ten years too late on that one, but why not try that high schooler struggling off the bus behind us?

There are two things that are a given when we do these casing-the-joint missions. The first is that I won't complain when Sean stops for the eighty-sixth time to take a picture of something cool---"the sky here! It's pure poetry! And let me just take my millionth photograph of a person wearing a conical hat!"---and the second is that he'll humor me when I find a local supermarket and have to wander each and every aisle reverently, peering at curious Vietnamese delicacies and sighing extravagantly over such overpriced imported exotica as Pepperidge Farm mint milanos. I don't think you can possibly realize how much you might want a mint milano until you're in a place where a single packet will cost you two nights' accommodation.

On our first day, we were accosted by several people as we strolled around the town, including a lady in a yellow baseball cap who offered to make me a dress and then immediately lost my custom when she grabbed my bottom and said "big bum!" (the bitch), and a very lively woman named Cuc, whose sole mission, it seemed, was to get me to part with my unwanted body hair at some point during my time in Hoi An. (I did actually end up going back to her on my last day to submit myself to the incredibly painful process of threading. While my legs are now as smooth as the top of a pint of Ben & Jerry's before you make that fateful dip into it with your spoon, you should know that having someone rip each of your leg hairs out at the root with a long piece of white sewing thread is probably fairly comparable to slathering those same legs with liquid cotton candy and then breaking open a wasps' nest and inviting them to come and have at it.)

But of course I'm getting off track. One of the people we met on that first day---and to whom we promised our business later---was a woman named Em (pronounced "aim"), a river worker in her mid-40s with five children who woke every day at four in the morning and whose eyes, she told us, were getting increasingly worse. We met her on the bridge that slips over the sludgy brown river running through Hoi An, a staunch contrast to its blue skies and cheery turquoise and ochre buildings. She and her friend somehow convinced us, before we bid them goodbye, to take a boat ride with them a little later in the week. They did this mostly through flattery, pinching Sean's cheeks, pointing to his eyes, and cooing "so handsome! so handsome!" This is a technique I will have to remember.

A few days later, deciding we actually were rather in the mood for a gentle float down the river---every piece of clothing in town now having been tried on and ordered in our size---we returned to the bridge to try and find Em and her friend. We felt some sort of allegiance to them, having promised we'd come back later. When they weren't there, we briefly considered finding someone else to take us on a boat trip---which could have been accomplished in, oh, 0.003 seconds---but decided in the end to wander around a little bit more and then go back and see if they were there.

And it worked. An hour or so later, we were standing up on the bridge, surveying the harbor for one of the women we recognized, when Em herself came up behind us, and we all had a good laugh about finding each other again. She took us out on an hour-long trip, during which we talked a little, but not much. I did some Holiday Math in my head---normally used for calculating the final tab at the bar, and thus super easy and very slow-paced---and determined that she would have been a little girl in the Vietnam War. (I'm kind of obsessed with the Vietnam War at the moment---or the American War as it's called over here---and am finding that I can't help but try and engage people in conversation about it. I think perhaps this might be a little rude.) We chatted a bit about her family and where and how she grew up and then I said "And so during the war, you were...." And she said "Yes. I remember it. I was always hungry."

Em & Sean

And because this was kind of heavy and maybe not the best conversation for a fancy-free float down the river, and probably because she wanted to put a stop to it, the next thing she said was "Tonight you will come to my house for dinner!"

My first thought was to refuse. You may find this hard to believe but I'm not particularly socially inclined; often, I'd rather curl up with a bag of M&Ms and three new episodes of Scrubs than go out and Hit The Klubs, or whatever it is the kids are doing these days. My brother Tom has long liked to joke that I am middle-aged, and this may be true, except middle-aged people are far better at making conversation than I am; I laugh too much and speak too loudly and trip over myself trying to agree with whomever I'm talking to, and generally I behave like an insufferable dork. And sometimes---depending on who I'm talking to---my voice does that irritating Madonna-esque lurch between English and American because I get confused AND I HATE THAT MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD. If we ever meet and that happens, I order you to punch me in the face. So at first I was going to say no. There were too many things to think about! And so much pressure! Should I bring a hostess gift? But where would I find a nice bottle of olive oil or a tasteful bunch of lilies at such short notice in a fishing village in Southern Vietnam? What if I needed to use the toilet and wasn't sure how it worked, or what it if was too close to wherever we were eating and I had to try and pee silently but couldn't and everyone heard me and then pretended not to? What if the food was weird? What would we talk about?

But I got over it. In fact, I soon got quite excited about it. Sean and I accepted gratefully, and we met Em on the bridge at seven as planned. She walked us to her house---the pretty way, along the river, which killed me; the other way was shorter but unlikely to impress us as much---and there we met her youngest son, Tung, who was doing circles in the street on his bike. He was thirteen but looked nine. In the summers, he sold postcards to tourists like us; the money he made, he gave right back to his parents. The house was modest but the family was immensely proud of it; they'd lived there five years, having moved from the bamboo hut they'd worked their way out of. They'd be paying for the new house, said Em, for the next ten years. They all still slept on the floor.

Sean and Tung and I talked in the living room with its shrine to Buddha and its bare walls and its concrete floors, while Em cooked in the kitchen. I hesitantly asked if she needed help and was shooed away immediately. Upon learning that I was English, Tung wanted to talk soccer. I felt woefully inadequate, knowing precious little about the subject, but wanting to try anyway. "David Beckham!" I said. "Manchester United! His wife is Victoria Beckham, and she's way too thin. And also I know the name of another player! Wayne Rooney! Wayne Rooney! And, um, Liverpool! My brother likes the team Liverpool! Also......David Beckham!" Tung just smiled.

We ate on the floor, cross-legged, everyone ignoring me as I tried to make polite conversation. Perhaps in Vietnamese society you're not supposed to talk while you eat, but the silence was killing me and I struggled to fill it. Afterwards, when the bowls had been cleared away, we chatted a bit longer, and a couple of neighboring cousins and aunts came in through the open front door---and I mean open; just a hole in the wall, no door to speak of---to observe the foreigners sitting in the front room. We talked and laughed, and Em pulled out a small notebook she kept for visitors to write in; she'd met people from all over the world on that bridge and she'd invited them all in, just as she'd done us.

As we left, she said "meet me on the bridge again tomorrow afternoon. I have something to give you." And we met her there, and she was beaming, and she presented us each with a small beaded necklace she'd bought, and I felt ashamed that we'd never even brought her a hostess gift in the end, us with our tourist dollars and our cushy lives. Tung waved and waved when he saw us, and he wrote down the family's address so we could send postcards later. We hugged and thanked and smiled and parted again, all wishing each other luck, whatever that might mean.

Sometimes I can barely bring myself to make even the smallest, simplest alliances, because I'm just not good at the thought of never seeing people again. Maybe this comes from moving a lot growing up, or maybe it's just that I've said so many goodbyes and I just don't want to say anymore, at least not any that mean anything. I feel overcome with an indescribable and overwhelming sadness when I leave people, even people I've only known for a day. It seems so weird that my life will go on, and their lives will go on, and yet our lives will never again go on together.

Em and Tung

Sep 03, 2006

Holly, I think this is my favorite post of yours so far. It was so well written, I could see it all playing out in my head. And in the end, I cried. Thanks.

Sep 03, 2006

that was lovely. thank you for sharing!

Sep 03, 2006

You have such a talent for story-telling and I really admire the fact that you're meeting "real" people on your travels, not just hitting the tourist traps.

Sep 03, 2006

That was beautiful--the post and the sentiment. You have such a kind soul.

Sep 03, 2006

Yes to all the above.

And to the sadness. Sometimes when I think about what I'm REALLY doing when I say good-bye to someone, it takes my breath away. This whole living-in-time-and-space thing is a bummer.

Marmite Breath
Sep 03, 2006

Beautiful writing, Holly.
Two things.
(a) I was planning to get my eyebrows threaded. Thanks for convincing me not to. and
(b) My voice does the Madonna-esque lurch too! And if this is possible, I hate it even more than you do. The horrible accent all depends on who I'm talking to. Perhaps if we ever meet, we'll both do it and end up punching eachother in the face all day while we share crisps and Fox's Glacier Mints.

Sep 03, 2006

Oh God. that was a lovely story.... what a good trip you are having, mingling with the people . that was precious that she invited you to her house. i look so forward to your adventures, and am thrilled when i check back and there is a new story you have told. :) xox

Sep 03, 2006

Beautiful. Wonderful. Thank you, Holly. It's so amazing to be following you on your journey.

jenny lee
Sep 03, 2006

what a beautiful, yet completely sad, story. you said " and I felt ashamed that we’d never even brought her a hostess gift in the end, us with our tourist dollars and our cushy lives" i got choked up.

i don't think i ever read the story about why you are on this trip. can you or someone point me in the direction of the archive of that? or just tell me the story. thank you

Sep 04, 2006


Perfect. I'm in love with Em and Tung, and if I ever make it to Hoi An, I'd want to find them.

Also, Jenny Lee: Holly talks about the trip HERE.

Sep 04, 2006

I am delurking to say thank you so much for sharing your trip. I am loving reading about it (you are describing it so well), and loving seeing your pictures...just beautiful. When you started talking about the trip I had thought "There are many places I'd rather go see then Southern Asia"... you have made me change my mind, dang it! ;-) (My "Must See" list is too long as it is!)

Sep 04, 2006

One thing I adore about blogs is that it's like a book that never ends, except that wait! It's real people! (Not that people in books aren't real, but let's not talk about my belief in an alternate book-character universe, where they're all walking around talking to each other and being friends. or perhaps enemies.) Yours is especially so. I can't believe that we've gone from recapping the Bachelor to this. It's really wonderful writing, Holly.

And I would sit on a couch and eat M&M's with you anyday. You are my kind of people, except much classier and more accessorized.

Sep 04, 2006

Coooool. Em is my age, you know. I grew up with Vietnam; it was there on TV from my first awareness of the world. Although I expect my experience of it was a world apart from Em's.

Regarding leg hair, buy a Panasonic epilator. I did, and it rocks my world.

Love the photos. I still can't believe my website was designed by someone who can look perfectly scrumptious even when floating down some Asian river. No, not you, Holly. That other one.

jenny lee
Sep 04, 2006

thanks jes :)

Sep 04, 2006

Who the heck in our family likes Liverpool? Certainly not Tom and certainly not Luke. We are from Rotherham and don't you forget it!

Sep 04, 2006

I just loved this entry. It made me think back to my time in Kenya, and about my friend Jael, who I lost touch with over 15 years ago but who named her son after my family.

Sep 04, 2006

Gee, it´s about time that I write a comment here. I am a swedish girl who has been reading your blog for a few months now, no idea how I found it... ANYWAYS; its absolutely amazing. Your writing is so impressive and you seem to be a really cool person. I hope you will carry on with this blog foreeever! And if you ever release a book I will buy it.

No doubt.

Sep 05, 2006

This was a beautiful entry... gorgeous.

They gave you their address? Send them a little gift a week or two from now, later in your trip. You will feel so much better about not having brought a hostess gift, and it will totally make Tung's day... Something they can't find in their town, or maybe a soccer jersey for Tung...

Sep 05, 2006

JB, that's an excellent idea.

Susie, TOM likes Liverpool -- or used to, in the 80s. Don't you remember when Uncle Martin bought him a soccer ball and signed it with all the names of the Liverpool players, making a new fake salutation from each one? "Hello Tom! From Bruce Grobelaar!" "Hi, Tom! Best Wishes! From Gary Lineker!" Actually, maybe you werent't born yet.

And Rotherham is for the rugby.

Sep 05, 2006

"Sometimes I can barely bring myself to make even the smallest, simplest alliances, because I’m just not good at the thought of never seeing people again."

Those are such sad words!

But this post is proof you don`t let this sentiment rule your life.

Sep 05, 2006

Rotheram is not for the rugby! There is no Rotherham rugby team! Daddy watches football games in Rotherham....and paints their stadium red! You better take the above comment off before he finds out, otherwise you wont be allowed home for Christmas.

Sep 05, 2006

Burns, I don't think Gary Linekar ever played for Liverpool... are you sure that you're not remembering a dream?

That said, pretty much all little boys supported Liverpool at some point during the 80s. How about Ian Rush, John Barnes, Alan Hansen? Do they ring any bells?

(btw, I second the epilator suggestion - changed my life.)

Sep 05, 2006

Great post. Fantastic pics. Thanks!

Sep 05, 2006

I get so excited everytime you have a new post up. Seriously, girl. Your writing is amazing and I felt like I was sitting right there with you eating dinner.

Except, I'm so curious! What did you guys eat? Was it good?

Also, I had to laugh while reading your mental process regarding the dinner invitation. I'm the same way..and in the end am always glad that I do say yes but get totally worked up before I can accept!

Sep 05, 2006

I just wanted to note how pleased I am that you are taking advantage of the cheap fashion.

Sep 05, 2006

What a fabulous experience, and one many tourists would have shied away from.

It's so strange sometimes to think about all the people we encounter on trips or even just in our daily lives, people we never see again. You captured it beautifully here.

Sep 06, 2006

Somehow I think you will appreciate that I am in the Bahamas listening to Whoop That Trick reading your blog. Love your voice. Even i I have never heard it.

Sep 06, 2006

if I meant, not i....typing is not m skill

Sep 06, 2006

if I meant, not i....typing is not my skill

Sep 06, 2006

I check here every day hoping for a new blog entry. This is as close as I'm ever going to get to a trip such as yours. I love hearing about your nontraditional travel experiences, the connections you make with the people you meet and your genuine joy to be there even when it's hot, you're tired and feeling ill. The photos are lovely too. My 13 year old daughter doesn't read the blog but I've shown her your photos of skylines and city streets and she wants me to tell her when new ones go up.

I know it's been mentioned before but I dearly hope that you will turn these adventures into a book. A travel book wherein the heroine roughs it but remains stylish and well groomed with lovely nonsensible shoes and is still adventurous, climbing the Great Wall, going on iffy boat rides, charming young children into smiling for the camera and charming a Chinese guard to get back a contraband guide book. Who wouldn't love to read that and see the pictures?

Thank you for sharing your adventures, for bringing a little bit of travel fantasy into my boring work day.

Sep 07, 2006

As always Holly, you takes all all with you with your words (good thing or your backpack would be VERY heavy) and it is a great trip. What an awesome entry and as always I was disappointed when I reached the end. So looking forward to your next entry and adventure.

As always, thanks for sharing.


Sep 07, 2006

i love your blog and i am touched by this entry. simply wonderful.