We caught norovirus in Hội An. Everyone loves Hội An. That’s why they all go there. And that’s why we caught norovirus there. It’s called “cruise ship disease”. Fitting, because tiny little Hội An hosts so many visitors it can be seen as a cruise ship. Everyone who lives there is the crew. We were the passengers.
The crew were so organized. Whoever ran the place must have an MBA from Harvard or Yale. You could see them in the mornings, down the back alleys, beating pork into softened sheets. Later, at countless street carts and fancy old quarter restaurants throughout town the pork would get roasted over smokey charcoal fires. Delicious. And as delicious wherever you went. Equally delicious. It was a company town.
One of the experiences offered by the town was the making of clothes. Go to Hội An and have custom clothes made! And you totally can. We didn’t even want to, and we ended having some very nices clothes made at a good price. I’m wearing a pair of daring green slacks right now, almost a year later, and they are holding up nicely. I sat out by the water, in a little plastic chair that barely managed its job, watching candles burning as they floated by in decorated paper boxes. The burning devotionals were set loose a few hundred languid yards upstream where they were purchased by tourists from stone faced, totally unyeilding women who wore their age as landscapes do, as mountainsides do, not as us mortals destined for the grave do. The universe will pass on, collapsing on itself or expanding forever, who knows, and these ladies will offer the next world a candle in a paper box for a dollar. Silently.
A contrast to the older ladies’ impassivity sat next to us by the water. Youthful Lai was a real chatterbox, such a gifted speaker of English that in her native tongue she must be peerless. I had no interest in buying clothes in this misreable tourist trap, but within a few moments of talking to Lai we had scheduled an appointment. I would learn, as she kept us in town well past when we wanted to leave, waiting for her to deliver the clothes we payed for up front, that she was a month older than I. I came peacefully into this world in an east coast navy town, while Lai was born a year after the fall of Saigon. Her country, which had repelled occupying forces of the French, Japanese and US, would, as she became a toddler, finally repel the Chinese.
“She is so beautiful! Your wife. She is so beautiful”
What do you say to that?
“And you are so handsome!”
She smiled at us as though after a 2000 year wait her savior returned in the form of married middle aged tourists. It was geniune delight.
“You come back tomorrow, we check your measure.”
She’d repeat this numerous times, and somehow the accent made it unclear to my ear if it was “take”, “check” or “test”. In fact, she may have chosen one of the words at random each time.
It was after we were measured for clothes (2 shirts and 2 pants for me, a variety of lady things for Kristin) that we caught norovirus. Travel provides nice bookmarks for memories and though I don’t know where I caught it, I recall where I was staying and where I ate that day. At first I thought it must be food poisoning. That day had seen some daring culinary adventures. Our pattern for exploring the urban core of Vietnamese towns was to wander, seeing things and eating at intervals as opportunites presented themselves. Like a video game world, things seemed to present themselves at a random but even spacing, with more exicting things being rarer, and the things you need always being on hand when they are really needed. Portions were small, prices also small, so I would eat at 4 or 5 places a day. The day I got sick was no exception. And because I thought it was food poisoning, Kristin was doomed to catch it from me as well. No precautions were taken.
We’d walk by a street cart, trying to catch a glimpse of what was on someone’s plate. If it looked good, or just if the place was busy, we’d pull up to the tiny plastic tables (footstools to us) and sit on the tinier plastic supports, knees up, splayed apart to engulf the table area in a valley of shadows. The Vietnamese (it was always mostly Vietnamese at the street carts) would look at us like exotic birds that had landed on the perch by the feeder. They’d look under me with some worry at the unlucky chair I had chosen, and the chef would hold up two fingers. “Two of whatever?”. Sometimes Kristin would signal just one. I had the bigger appetite. And soon “whatever” would arrive.
That day we had quail eggs fried in little boats of rice and flour and served with sauce on a bed of lettuce. Some 10 of them, I seem to recall, though they were not a full meal. They were transcendant. We had a disgusting bowl of cold soup with what seemed like brains and entrails of tiny animals spread throughout. The students next to us, little girls with backpacks, lapped it up as though it were edible. Later when we assigned blame for our malaise that soup was a prime suspect. We also had roasted flat pork on a stick. And we had mixed drinks at the fancy bar in the old town. Western style cocktails with local touches like star fruit and tamarind garnishes.
We ate like kings, and for pennies.
We wouldn’t eat that well again for some time. But Vietnam is kind to the tender stomached. Our hotels provides us with fruit, yogurt, and crusty bread. So when we finally got our clothes we had just enough strength to leave town on a rented scooter. North of town was the city of Danang, and over the mountains from Danang was the old city of Hue.