Thailand and Vietnam: Things have changed

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Thailand and Vietnam: Things have changed

Good news came by e-mail: Raymond is in touch again. The last time I saw him was a year ago when he was managing a luxury hotel in Thailand's Golden Triangle. He was a young and handsome Swiss guy who had the world's best job: making sure the lodge ran smoothly, tasting imported wines, being nice to nice wealthy people, eating beautiful food, and watching the river flow.

We hit it off because he was a heavy metal fan and when I left I promised to post him the new Metallica DVD. But a few weeks later when I sent him an e-mail he was already gone, he had exchanged the trap of paradise for the fume-choked streets of Bangkok again.

But now he tells me he is managing a hotel at Hoi An in Vietnam, one of my favourite small towns anywhere. Although I haven't seen it in a while and from what he says I might not like it so much now.

The first time I went there was 10 years ago and there were only two places tourists were allowed to stay. The tiny town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, had a long history of Chinese residency, the streets were narrow and cars were not permitted, and people went everywhere on foot or by bicycle.

It was locked in the past and I took some black'n'white photos, they could pass for late 19th century images.

There were about 10 foreigners in the whole place and when I went for a shave I pulled a crowd of curious kids and young men. I had one of the best meals of my life -- lightly grilled sting-ray wings -- in Cafe Des Amis by the river, run by an old Vietnamese gentleman who had been trained in Paris. Some girls made me silk shirts for a few dollars and in the market one afternoon I followed a woman singer who lead her blind guitar-playing brother around by a rope. I have no idea what they sang about, but villagers everywhere stopped what they were doing and tears welled up in the woman's eyes. I will never forget it and have a photograph of this poor couple by my desk to remind me that music is made by real people, it is not a career move.

Two years later when I went back, and there were now 23 places to stay in Hoi An -- I was in the unglamorously named Trade Union Hotel -- and the food at Cafe Des Amis was literally inedible. But the beautiful little town was flooded and people made their way through the narrow streets in flat-bottomed boats. It was like Venice, and we ate dinner in candlelit restaurants with water around our ankles.

Hoi An was, although changed in even those two years, still a magical place.

Raymond should have seen it back then, but I guess today he is sitting in one of the two five-star restaurants at the Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort which he manages and describes as a 105 room property located directly at Cua Dai Beach close to town.

It is a beautiful beach, but I wonder if it deserves a high-end resort with an infinity pool, bars, the spa and conference facilities. The beach is monitored, I guess to keep away Vietnamese trying to sell their wares to wealthy Europeans.

However Raymond loves Hoi An and says they even stop the motorbikes -- motorbikes in Hoi An? -- three nights a week. Once a month they turn off all the electricity and there are only Chinese lanterns. That sounds lovely. When I was there the first time there was only power a few hours a day, and the second time none at all because of the floods.

I guess it is still a very beautiful little town and I'd be curious to see Hoi An again . . . but, despite Raymond's invitation, I doubt I'll go back. 

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