I've been plugging away at the writing since I got through the unexpected move and banged through Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot in about a week. If that sounds like a lot, it is: Hue, Danang and Hoi An comprise about half my total word count, while writing about Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot takes some diplomatic finesse because of how murky things are in the highlands (the social-political relations, not the air or the views, which are great).
Here's some of what I can't squeeze into the book about each town:
Hue (pronounced 'hway' or 'way', not 'hue' or 'huey') was where I first started to overdose on cultural sights. There's only so many imperial whatsits you can look at in a day before the ironic voice in my head withers in fatigue. I've never been one to diligently work through all the royal doodads that any culture puts on display (that's why I spent most of my time at Versailles lounging in the royal gardens rather than meditating on the royal fripperies), but now that the job called for it ... Well, I sucked it up and did it.
I don't like to play favourites, but I will say that of all the imperial tombs I liked the crazy Khai Dinh construction best, mostly because it seemed the least traditionally Vietnamese after all the others I'd seen. Also, I saw it around lunchtime, which is why its blazing blackness is forever seared into my memory.
Danang was great because it was a regular non-touristy city and every expat I met there loved it for being a regular non-touristy city. It's always been panned in previous editions of the guidebook, but I give it a big thumb's up. When you can walk for blocks without a single person trying to hawk you a postcard, conical hat or xe om ride, that's a precious thing.
Also it had excellent Vietnamese food. I'm not crazy about the local noodle speciality mi quang, so I went marginally upmarket and hit all these neat little Vietnamese restaurants instead. Writing the Danang restaurant section was hard last weekend when I was stuck at the laptop without a hearty meal within reach.
Hoi An I didn't like when I first met it. Too quaint, too much like a movie set and too many damn tourists. After Danang --- when locals would do a double-take at seeing me pass them on the street and I wouldn't see another foreign face for hours unless I popped into Bread of Life or Bamboo 2 Bar --- Hoi An seemed like some purgatorial outpost wherein I'd been cast to test my patience with relentless street sellers --- "Hey you! Come here!" --- and bellyaching tourists.
Then I met some really lovely people. Then I heard some really lovely stories (personal ones, that don't get disclosed here or in the guidebook). Then I figured out that "Hey you!" is a direct translation of the Vietnamese term for addressing a stranger (the way in English you would say "Excuse me"). Then I lingered in Hoi An longer than I'd planned to --- also because Yan Wei joined me and hey, who am I to deny her a few days of Hoi An magic (especially since we spent most of our time out of town)?
I'd go back to Hoi An in a heartbeat now, mostly to hang out and eat lots of fabulous food (Morning Glory, Mango Rooms and Casa Verde, I'm lookin' at you). But not cao lau. I don't care if it is Hoi An's pride and joy, it just doesn't do it for me.
Kon Tum, then, which was very dusty and very poor. These are towns in Vietnam that you visit not for food or nightlife or ancient relics, but because they've got exotic minority (read: marginalised) villages in the area. These are places where you smile at the kids but keep them at a distance because how on earth can anyone do enough to help them all. I felt growly inside when we saw a packed tour bus leaving a "popular" orphanage and later a foreign couple dropped in on the orphanage's nursery with their guide to cuddle some poor babies (though I was a drop-in too, even if I did forbear from the cuddling).
I still feel growly. Ask me about it some time.
Pleiku was like the older sibling of Kon Tum, with slightly better but not necessarily trendier clothes. We found a cool cafe to hang out in and Yan Wei picked up a fan (the kind that wants to practise her English with us) at the market, which led to an earnest but awkward hour spent in that same cafe.
Buon Ma Thuot (pronounced 'boon me tote') had no good restaurants. All our sightseeing outside the town was great, but when we got back and had to scrounge up dinner --- well, let's just say that 'scrounge' is appropriate because there really wasn't much to pick from, even including street food options. You know a town is lacking in dining options when even our well-informed tour guide couldn't recommend us a place.
I'm skimming over the details, of course, but I have to conserve my strength for tomorrow's writing. One more major town to write about, then I switch into editing and cutting-text-to-meet-the-word-count mode. I hope I've set aside enough time for that.