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Apocalypse Forgotten?
Racheal Walker

So now that Iraq has finally been "liberated" from that evil tyrant, Saddam (according to the Bush administration spin machine at any rate) one cannot help but wonder when the next cohort of occupying forces will move in on Baghdad… You know, the ones that tote Canons instead of semi-automatics; whose uniform typically consists of sandals, shorts and Ray Bans, instead of combat gear, flak jackets and desert boots? Yes, I’m talking the tourists, who seem to flock to a war zone with even greater zeal than a division of Messrs Bush and Blair’s Allied "freedom fighters".

It seems there’s nothing better that a good bit of tragedy, genocide or wanton death and destruction to get that tourist dollar pouring in. How long before adventure travelers the world over begin clamouring for a glimpse of Saddam’s resplendent palaces, constructed with the generous financial aid of hundreds of thousands of starving Iraqi children, perhaps picking up a few comedy WMD key-rings as souvenirs for the folks back home? How long before backpackers decide upon the picturesque Tora Bora mountains as the next trekking hotspot, with the added incentive of a full cash refund courtesy of the CIA should they haplessly happen upon the elusive, bearded world’s most wanted whilst tending to their ill-fitting-brand-spanking-new-hi-tech-walking-boots-induced blisters? How long before honeymooners begin planning two-centre jaunts to Liberia’s most war-torn scenic spots? I mean, take a look at the de rigeur destinations currently currying favour… look at Auschwitz, look at Cambodia… look at Vietnam…

The latter has become a veritable backpacker’s darling in recent years, second now only to Thailand on any "Indochina Highlights" tour of South-East Asia. It’s easy to see why: with endless stretches of mountain-backdropped white sandy beaches; seafood to set those saliva glands a-salivating (I mean take a look at a map – you’d be hard-pressed not to find a decent bit of cod in this quasi-omni-coastal country); world-class diving; a truly sublime climate; and most importantly, an innumerable assortment of war-related tourist sites (Massacres? DMZs? Battlegrounds? They’re all here!) to have history buffs utterly moist with anticipation, ‘Nam does appear to epitomize Shangri La for the contemporary adventure traveller. To the victor emerging triumphant from the gauntlet of Vietnamese immigration procedure (perhaps the only reminder in this increasingly market-driven society that one has just touched down in a Communist country… the blissful absence of a McDonalds notwithstanding) the spoils…

In seeming testimony to this, the Ho Chi Minh trail has become well worn of late, by a caravan of Berghaus boots, their owners itching to catch a glimpse of the former Saigon’s eponymous communist hero’s Play-Doh-esque corpse in the mausoleum at Hanoi; admire the breathtaking (if you allow your gaze to drift upwards to the spectacular bejeweled dragons and other Chinese characters adorning the roof eaves) World Heritage-listed Imperial Citadel at Hue; enjoy a spot of diving or snorkeling amongst coral reefs off the coast of Nha-Trang; pause for a moment of nauseous reflection at the sobering War Remnants Museum (formerly the Museum of American War Crimes, until the potential of tapping into the US tourism/pilgrimage market was realized) in Ho Chi Minh City; or indulging in an obligatory Apocalypse Now moment by taking a boat trip through the labyrinthine canals of the Mekong Delta...

Anyone craving some respite from the hothouse tourbillon of congestion, and honking horns (surely nothing can remind one more forcefully of the transience of human existence than the near-miss of crossing a Vietnamese city road and coming face to face with the grim reaper in the form of a pollution-masked rider absent-mindedly bombing along on his/her Honda (day)Dream) that tends to characterize South-East Asian cities, need search no farther than the unhurried Bohemian rêverie of riverside Hoi An. Easily accessible by minibus from Hue via the pictorial Ocean Cloud Pass, Hoi An is admittedly becoming somewhat of a tourist trap, its seductive charm like a siren, luring the urban-weary tourist to come and partake of its laid-back vibe, its astonishing (for such a small town) array of culinary and shopping opportunities and quaint architectural delights, all eminently explorable on foot or by going native and hiring a bicycle.

Sightseeing opportunities abound in Hoi An, though they are not of the conventional "Oooh-yippee-yet-another-pagoda-that’s-only-the-fifty - second-this-week" format. An important port town in the sixteenth century attracting merchants from the world’s great trading nations, present-day Hoi An continues to belie its glorious, mercantile heyday with its rich fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European architectural influences. A combined ticket, allowing access to a choice of four of Hoi An’s most visit-worthy sights can conveniently be purchased from the town’s tourist office.

The curio-filled Chinese merchant’s house Tan Ky House, a gorgeously-preserved example of the town’s many charming 200-year old, wooden-fronted shop-houses, and the ostentatious Cantonese Assembly Hall are both worth an awe-induced gawp, as is the unquestionably kawaii Japanese Covered Bridge – appropriated as the symbol of the town by the Hoi Anians (Hoi Anese??) and thus an absolute must.

What Hoi An is really becoming reputed for amongst backpacker circles, however is… its shopping. Controversial perhaps, but I am willing to stake my reputation as a fashion goddess on the claim that this tiny, sleepy, Vietnamese town boasts greater "whip-out-the-plastic- and-treat-yourself!" temptations than Paris, Milan and London put together… Why? Well in Hoi An, the shopper’s creative imagination has full reign… sartorial fantasies can be realized unbridled. Step into any one of the town’s innumerable haberdasher’s and you will be greeted by the tantalizing vision of an Aladdin’s cave of cloth… reams upon reams of fabric in all colours, shades and patterns, supplemented by enormous piles of Vogue, Elle and various other "style Bibles" from which to select your clothly object of desire. Simply take your pick, and a sexy little number will be rustled up quicker than you can say "I’m in heaven". Like winning the Golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s House of Style…

As if it couldn’t get any better, prices are economic good sense-defyingly reasonable - expect to pay around $25-$30 for a suit – and quality can be exquisite if you shop around. A worthwhile investment for the ladies is the omni-flattering, traditional Vietnamese ao dai; a two-piece of contour-gliding, Chinese-collared tunic over a pair of floaty, silken trousers and officially the sexiest outfit in the world according to my male traveling companions. I paid $16US for mine, and managed to pick up a pair of matching, beaded shoes – hand-made to fit my own ugly feet (I found myself on the receiving end of some quite brusque Vietnamese let’s-not-beat-around-the-bushness when, during a foot massage I was quite unceremoniously informed that I am a "pretty girl" but that I have "ugly feet", before being asked by my masseuse if I would like her to "scrape off" said offending patches of dry, two-solid-months-in-me-flip-flops skin. Delightful!) – for a jaw-dropping $10 in the cobbler’s next door.

Hoi An - Vietnam

For those whose shopping preferences do not tend towards the sartorial, Hoi An is the perfect place to pick up a piece of original, local art with its plethora of independent galleries. A day can easily be whiled away browsing, chatting to the artists and watching them at work… And if all that just seems too much like hard work, why not wind down in one of Hoi An’s excellent restaurants and cafes with a plate of steamed fish in banana leaf or a bowl of the local speciality cao lau (thick rice-flour noodles in a light broth topped with beansprouts and pork-rind croutons), a chilled bottle of Tiger beer in hand. Mmmmm… with this vision in mind, the thought that one is chilling out in a former war-zone is almost inconceivable….

So, next stop Baghdad? Enough parallels have been drawn between "Gulf War II" and the quagmire that was Vietnam, and if this country so often synonymous with conflict, rampant counter-democracy ideology and US military failure can rebuild and lodge itself firmly at the top of the tourist agenda, well who knows…? I found the people of Vietnam to be so warm and welcoming (the infamous two-tiered pricing system aside: one price for Vietnamese; another astronomical [by comparison – in truth it’s still pretty damn cheap for even the most impoverished Westerner] price for the rest of us), that one would be forgiven for forgetting that it’s only a matter of 30-odd years since they were the victims of another exercise in military masturbation carried out in the name of "freedom". However, constant reminders in the shape of napalm-scarred beggars lining each Ho Chi Minh street corner, attempting to elicit a few dong from passing neo-imperials in tourist garb (it is not untenable to imagine that the recent wave of Western travelers to Vietnam’s shores may be viewed as such) reveal that although the enchanting charms of Hoi An allow for a temporary amnesia, pushing recent history to the backs of minds, it is certainly not a case of Apocalypse Forgotten…
© Racheal Walker Feb 2004

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