Small towns have this kind of universal quality to them. They all seem to follow strong morning routines and rituals and there is usually no shortage of “characters” with nicknames taken from their occupation (Doc/ Mike the butcher) or appearance (Big John). And not without some irony. (Big John is 5ft2).
As a traveller, I find visiting small towns kind of like walking onto the set of a well-rehearsed musical – everyone knows their place and purpose, except you, the person who wonders around aimlessly crashing in and out of scenes like a underpaid extra. But still you want to raise your hands and voice…
“Oh what a beautiful morning
Oh what a beautiful day
I’ve got that beautiful feeling
Everything’s going my way”
…in the hope that the woman spraying her sidewalk clean or the shop owner putting out his stock will drop what they are doing and pick up a chorus line or two. And then go about their business, without ever acknowledging that special harmony you just shared.
After a few days you start to see the patterns and routines emerge. Instead of constantly bumping into the same characters randomly at the same time of day, and thinking it coincidence, you start to expect them as markers of time and space.
The old town of Hoi An has that musical quality in more ways than one. It has that stage set quality, with quaint houses and shops, dripping with Bougainvillea and Jasmine, and all adorned with Chinese lanterns that creates a mood lighting at night, so magical that you find yourself swaying instead of walking. Then add to this some UNESCO world heritage sites, an old covered Japanese bridge and a few thousand tourists cycling around the narrow streets, all pointing and taking photographs, and you have a modern day musical with too many story threads and sub plots to follow on Twitter.
The mornings are always the best time to view these local routines come to life, mostly because the heat forces people to retreat after a few hours and commerce calls them to account for their day.
Here is how my Hoi An musical plays out every day:
The musical opens with a call from the boats, signalling the first scene of the day – the fish market.
It’s 5am and the scene is set to bed music of activity, a myriad of small sounds and big movements: descaling, cleaning, cutting, bargaining. The women chatter in between and over clients, making light of serious competition or because of it. We hone in on a chef and fisher woman in the midst of a negotiation. She sells. He inspects. She pushes quality and freshness, he murmurs about price and size. The crescendo ends with the chef holding is prized fish above his head, queuing laughing from the minions below and then, just as suddenly the bed music of market activity.
Our next scene is set for 6am. The sun already high in the sky. Our migrating muse enters on a bicycle, camera on hip, hat on head, sunscreen dripping the slow Vietnamese coffee drip. She takes a sip of the water from her basket, waiting for the traffic lights to countdown her entrance into the activity, long in motion. She passes her first stock character who shouts “easy rider” to her as she rides past. She smiles at her ignorance. She had thought it a joke of her riding style but now she knows he is calling her to take a motorbike tour with “Easy Rider” tours. She tries out one of her rehearsed greetings, “sing chow” and hopes it sounds like some version of “hello”. She passes the same makeshift food stalls, where men and woman squat on red and blue plastic stools the size made for Montessori classrooms. They eat their morning noodle soup, Pho, with chopsticks in hand and sauces on the side. She turns left, past the coffee shop versions. Same Montessori furniture, but now the tables are smaller and decorated with tumblers of black ice coffee and their cold green tea counterparts. The green tea is a chaser, free with every coffee purchase on the street. Still on course she passes a makeshift badminton game that is taking place on a quieter street.
She notes familiar sounds like birds and the absence of others. Unlike musicals set in the West, there is a distinct absence of dogs on the streets, if not on the menus. There is however an abundance of bird sounds in this Eastern musical, sweet songs that draw you into the many tailor and craft stores, where they welcome guests from their cages. The muse sees a couple of travellers, with papers in hand; looking at the names of each restaurant they pass. It must be nearly 8am, the meeting time for the cooking courses that many local restaurants offer. They find their intended destination and go inside to enjoy their welcome drink before heading back out to tour the market, guided by their eager chef or guide. She has ticked that box and eaten her wobbly spring rolls.
Migrating muse is still on course, winding her way over bridges and past stalls, enjoying the softer light and brighter hues in her many scenic photographs: the blue boats against the blue sky. The golden bridge against the brown river. The colourful flowers flowing over heritage buildings. The rows and rows of handmade shoes, leather bags and clothing on display. The restaurant signs with their happy hour specials. These will all feature in the album of her Hoi An life.
She turns into the street she calls haute couture and comes up against a traffic jam. Big groups of well healed tourists on their walking tour of the city. Is it 9am already? Her drenched silk vest confirms this. She has but minutes to get off the street before she turns into a pumpkin. The roasted kind.
By 10am if you are still on the streets, you know you have been cast as one of those mad side characters, the ones that gate crash scenes, spiting soliloquies and prophesies at the well healed who quickly retreat into their handbags and exit stage left, leaving you with your well-prepared monologue but no audience to applaud your efforts.
“Oh what a scorching hot morning
Oh what a iced coffee fuelled day
I’ve got this deep gut feeling
That even Imodium can’t take away”
Time to migrate on…
pic: hoi an