The next Venice and the kindness of strangers

After spending the morning paying a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s dead body at his mausoleum (and cutting an entire city block’s long school group so that we could ditch the queue and get in faster), we boarded our flight down to Danang in Central Vietnam, and then spent the evening exploring Hoi An, a little ancient town that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was exactly as it looked in photos I’d previously seen – a ┬ásmall river with boats beckoning tourists to hop in for a ride, floating lanterns lit by candles dancing atop the water, old storefronts decorated with lanterns of endless colors. Each and every street was decked out with lit lanterns hanging across it. And while it was beautiful and worthy of many photos, it irked me that I heard so much English everywhere, not just from the swarms of tourists on the main drags, but also even from the shop owners and workers. I saw signs advertising menus and souvenir items fully in English and with prices quoted in U.S. dollars. This is not what I wanted to come here for.

One of the restaurants on my list, Morning Glory, is a reputed establishment in Hoi An, known for their mi quang and cao lau noodles, both specialties of the city. Unfortunately, when we arrived, there was a huge crowd of tourists waiting to get in and be seated, and when I tried to tell the host at the front that we were a party of 2, I was dismayed to see an Excel spreadsheet fully in English of all the dinner reservations by time and party size on her screen. While we were waiting, we briefly looked at the menu and noticed that everything was priced at about three times the cost of anything else on side streets that had a more “local” feel. So Chris insisted we not eat there and we wandered off to lesser traveled to streets and ate at three different spots for a third of the price. We didn’t ┬ácome to Hoi An to feel like a tourist and be around other tourists. We came because we wanted a local feel.

And a local feel we certainly got. After enjoying banh mi sandwiches at a local spot that was known for its house-made pate and mayonnaise, we both were overwhelmed by how light the bread was; crunchy on the outside, but probably the lightest and airiest insides that we’d had… ever. Even though we both ate a sandwich each, we didn’t feel full at all and instead were able to enjoy two more dishes at two other spots. We proceeded to a mi quang restaurant and had these noodles with mixed seafood and meat, and then ended the evening of savory foods in a tiny alley where of the three dishes they served, one was their main specialty: banh canh, a tapioca-noodle soup dish with fish cake and vegetables that had noodles with a chewy and nearly addictive texture. It was served with a baguette (delicious and airy, just as we expected), pickled chilies, and teeny tiny limes that had an orange flesh and tasted more like a cross between a lime and an orange. Yet while we were entering the alley to be seated on Chris’s favorite tiny stools, the camera bag he was holding accidentally knocked over some bowls, resulting in two getting damaged. We were apologetic, and I realized I never looked up the translation for “sorry.” So at the end of the meal, we paid 30,000 (about $1.30 USD) dong for the bowl we shared, and gave an additional 20,000 dong (about $0.86 USD) and waved towards the bowls we broke. The workers initially seemed confused at the extra money we put on the table and looked at us and each other quizzically, but when we motioned towards the bowls, they hesitated, then all broke into big smiles. And while we said “thank you” in Vietnamese, they looked at us warmly and said “thank you” in English.

And even walking out of the tiny alley as they closed up their food stall, I tried to take a photo of their stall sign, and one of the workers noticed me taking a picture and even adjusted the light so that I could get a better picture. When he looked at the frame on my screen and saw that another light was in the way, he adjusted it so that it pointed another way. He smiled at me, and I thanked him and said goodbye.

The little moments of travel when you have interactions like this are always enjoyable and heart-warming, and remind me that even when stupid things happen, the kindness of strangers is something we rely on. So many good people exist in the world and just want to be good to each other. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that, but these moments serve as a good reminder to me.

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