By the time we flag down a local taxi driver who is sleeping in the car by the side of the road, the sun is already going down. From Danang to Hoi An is about 20 kilometers and he looks disinterested. Timothy convinces him to follow us to the house where we are planning to take uncle Quý with us for a night in Hoi An. I am getting used to the metal cushion-less back seat of this motorbike by trying to master the art of levitation-while-talking; I grab the tubular bars running down the sides of the seat and suspend my whole body from the seat in anticipation of potholes while carrying on a conversation with Timothy. After several minutes of riding the back-seat, not only the butt feels the pain, but my arms and legs are increasingly wary. I jump off the motorbike near the front door to find uncle Quý sitting near the door shirt-less, in his shorts, smoking his dieu cay (bong) and discreetly blowing the smoke away from us. Unable to convince him to leave the house, and his cancer inducing PVC bong pipe, reluctantly we leave him behind and cruise down the coast.
Mega resorts scatter like giant gems along the coastline as we drive away from city, they seem to get larger and more extravagant; Timothy taps on my shoulder lightly, “Behind that wall there, four grand a night.” He continues, “Reserved for those with authority.” Resorts turn to smaller-sized hotels as we get near the periphery of the city; the hotels are now further apart from each other and some are left unfinished like the flood of money has dried up and receded from this region.
Taking a detour from the two-lane inter-provincial main highway onto a small dirt road leading to the Marble Mountains landmark we are immediately greeted the locals in houses that are converted into shops selling everything from Buddha statues to giant figures of Mickey Mouse that are made of the same material quarried from the mountains. The driver takes us to where he says is the best view of this landmark, Dong Am Phu (Hell Cave). After wiping my flogged up glasses, I begin my climb to the entry of the cave at the top of these stone steps, I pause for a moment realizing that there are people sitting at the top waving and smiling at me gesturing me to come up; thinking how bizarre this scenario is that I am joyously welcomed to ascend into hell cave, I motion back at them then turn back into the car.
The car suddenly drops down on to a very rough road, “That’s where Danang ends and Quang Nam begins.” Timothy chuckles. The divide between this old French colonial trade center and the older commercial capital of Champa Empire seems to not only visibly evident I can feel it under my feet. A short distance away, crowd of people surround the left side of the road, as we drive by, two motorbikes are tangled up in a wreck as men in oversize tan-colored uniforms adorning gigantic matching helmets standing there with hands over their hips watching as the people involved in the accidents sort things out between themselves.
Hoi An is like maze of old building reminiscent of traditional Chinese and Japanese architecture tagged by concrete street signs that can knock you unconscious if you are taller than 5 foot and are distracted by street vendors. Distinctive lanterns hang everywhere to emphasize the heritage narrative of this town that is traditional only at the façade of the buildings. Inside these buildings are modern shops selling everything from artworks and dresses to aviator sunglasses and sleeping bags. In the middle of this old town is a bridge, Chùa cau (Pagoda Bridge), that was built by the Japanese in the 17th century to divide the Japanese settlement from the local. A pagoda hangs to the side at the midpoint of this covered bridge reminds me of that old Headless Horseman Bridge in Sleepy Hollow. Giving a nod to the stone dogs guarding the bridge we exit to find an Aussie lady asking to take a picture with a couple who look like they have lost their wedding party, wearing traditional Western wedding attire. On one street, a restaurant name Before and Now epitomizes this unnatural union of old world tradition and modernized abridgment of Eastern culture that is both awkward and humorous.
This strange mixture of the Eastern traditional culture and Western modern commercialization thwarts any attempts of romanticizing this World Heritage site. I walk through the old streets lined with Internet cafés, hobby and sport shops, Italian restaurants and makeshift hotels all wrapped inside the a concrete shell of a long forgotten past now awaken to find its innards gutted to make room for a hollow culture that caters to tourists. Streets after streets, the story is the same, the night reveals the real Heart of Asia. Tired and weary residents facing their inevitable future; the weight of its glorious past will eventually become overbearing for this archaic infrastructure. We walk by a spot in an alley that serves “Chicken Rice;” Timothy asks for extra chicken, it is the most memorable moment of Hoi An for me, to sit there in the middle of an alleyway eating distinctively spiced chicken with extra fish sauce at night in this old town.