Sometimes you’re strolling through a picturesque city and something so out of place happens and catches you completely off guard. Like the time in Rome my friends and I were walking through tree lined streets, a few blocks from ancient roman ruins, and we see a car exploding. Subsequent conversation ranged from blaming the mafia to criticizing the public safety officers’ lack of rapid response.
What I’m about to explain isn’t quite as dramatic, but it did feel a bit removed from the idyllic French colonial architecture of the UNESCO world heritage site city Hoi An. It also reminded me to continue to reflect on what travel means for me.
You may recall that I have a complicated relationship with street vendors. In this Pink Pangea post, I share my struggle to reconcile my annoyance for the street vendors in Hanoi by recognizing their dedication to working hard for their families. In the end, I was able to see them differently by realizing that they, just like myself and others around the world, were just trying to survive in the way they knew how. This helped prevent me from becoming irritated.
In Hanoi, it was the street vendors. In Hoi An, it was women offering boat rides that would test my patience.
On a slow Tuesday, late afternoon, the clouds from the downpour that ensued across central Vietnam were subsiding and giving way to rays of golden sunshine. The first instances of deep pink hues were setting in. The orange facades of the historic buildings were even more vibrant in the post-rain light, and hanging plants had a shimmery quality to them.
My sister and I were having a relaxing bike ride around Hoi An’s old town, an area characterized by its many historical influences. We reach the Japanese Covered Bridge, a stunning piece of architecture from the seventeenth century. We pedaled past vendors selling bahn xoai, or mango cakes, and endless cyclos giving lifts to tourists.
We head down Bach Dang, the street lining the Sông Thu Bôm, which is home to colorful and detailed boats of all shapes and sizes.
It is on this ride that we first hear the words “YOU WANNA BOAT RIDE?”
We parked our bikes next to a tree by the boats. Within seconds of clicking the locks shut and sticking the key in my pocket, another woman, this one wearing a non la, sees us and tries to get our attention. Her mouth opens like she’s about to speak and her hand waves us toward her. Then it comes. “HALF HOUR ON THE BOAT?” she screams almost in a wail.
When we ignore her and keep walking, she apparently becomes bothered. “HEY, HEY, YOU, YOU WANT HALF HOUR ON THE BOAT WE GIVE YOU GOOD PRICE.”
I shake my head no and smile as we continue walking further away.
A few seconds later, a younger woman wearing a round rimmed hat sees us. She screams, “YOU WANT GO ON THE BOAT?”
We again shook out heads no. We didn’t want a boat ride at this point. We were looking for a quaint cafe – easy to find in an adorable treasure-filled town like Hoi An- and have a cup of ginger tea as we journaled and people watched.
Before reaching Banana Leaf, where we were to drink and watch the river, we were again asked several times if we wanted a boat ride. When we said no to one woman, another a few feet away would engage with us. Perhaps she was either hoping we would be sick of saying no and give in, or maybe we liked her boat’s style a bit more than the last woman’s.
Happy to escape the continuous propositions from the women offering boat rides, we went into Banana Leaf and collapsed down at a table facing the river. We got our drinks and after the first couple sips, heard the distinctive shrill of the voice of a woman who’s trying to get some business.
As the spicy and hot ginger tea ran down my throat, I overheard, “YOU WANT HALF HOUR ON THE BOAT?!”
I hear a mans voice calms say, “No, thank you,” to which she replies, “I GIVE YOU DISCOUNT!”
I don’t think it worked.
Overhearing interactions identical to this continued for several minutes, it was both entertaining and repetitive. At this point, I’m only getting an audio version, hearing screams and subsequent “no’s” from different male and female accents.
From where our table was positioned in the restaurant, I had to poke my head out a little further to see where the voice was coming from. Jutting out my neck a few inches forward and to my left, I saw a group of 5-6 (or maybe more) women, fully covered and wearing non las. They were sitting and standing on the sidewalk across the street from us next to the boats. A few of them had pulled up plastic chairs.
Our position at the table was excellent to people watch, and see how the women ran the street.
When they were by themselves, the boat women were laughing, making hand gestures, and screaming down the road to their friends. When a food vendor walked past, they would stop for a minute to chat and some of them bought snacks from time to time. Hot dog on a skewer? Please. Mango cake? Two for me! Spring rolls? I’m starving. (I imagine that’s how they answered to the food vendors)
Then, when a tall white man, a western couple, a group of Asian tourists, or a family of four was within 50-100 meters of them, the game changed.
The plastic chairs were quickly pushed away, serious faces replaced smiles and the huddle dispersed into bodies covering all corners of the road, much like a pack of animals tag-teaming to catch its prey.
One woman, who I supposed was the alpha female of the bunch, would start a slow saunter towards the target. The other women would face her but in different positions down the road.
As soon as the tourist in question was close enough, the main woman would scream “YOU WANNA RIDE THE BOAT?”
When the man, woman, group or family said no (in the 45 minutes we watched this happen, I never saw a positive response from a tourist), the main woman didn’t take “no” for an answer.
She would follow them or walk next to them, repeating things like “discount” or “half hour” or “nice boat.”
When the tourist(s) started to get more firm in their no’s, she would make a U-turn to walk away from them, in the opposite direction from her teammates.
When she stepped away, the tourist continuing down the road would be asked at least two more times by two other women before escaping.
On several occasions, I heard people begin to loose their cool. One man said, “I just told you, NO!”
Once the tourist had rejected them and was gone, they would go back to the normal routine. Laughing, joking, chatting, eating. As soon as someone spotted a potential customer, the whole ordeal began again.
Meanwhile, we’re still sipping tea. We had been sufficiently entertained by their determination and the mild yet controlled annoyance on the tourists’ faces.
If we thought that by sitting at a restaurant we were saved from their watchful eye, we were wrong. It happened when I was at my most vulnerable. When I was alone.
As soon as Jennifer got up to go to the bathroom, the alpha female was retreating from another failed attempt at getting someone to go on the boat. Walking back towards her crew, she turned to me we locked eyes. I gave a warm smile, and she stared me down. Gesturing towards the boat behind her, she asked “you wanna go on the boat?”
Again, I shook my head no. I’m more of an observer than a participant, I tried to communicate telepathically.
She walked a few meters away towards her friends, then turned back and walked towards me. Oh, no. Is she going to ask me again? Is she going to be aggressive?
She approached the table and smiled. She didn’t ask me again, but she was a bit forceful. Raising her eyebrows and sticking out her arm, she looked at me and said, “You give me napkins.”
I didn’t have time to give her anything. She just reached on my table and gabbed them herself. Walking away, she smiled again and said, “thank you.” Some of her friends were snacking and needed napkins. You cheeky lady!
What do I gather from watching this episode? Just like the fruit vendors in Hanoi, the women on boats are doing their best. Doing their best to find work, to be determined, and to not give up. That’s something that even the most solicited traveler can understand and perhaps even relate to.
Beyond recognizing that, hustling on the streets in Hoi An also appears to have a social aspect for the women. Yes, it is bothersome for tourists to not be able to walk ten meters without being asked if you want a boat ride. But, I had to remember that I was in their home. I am walking around and creating memories in their sacred spaces. Public space in the old quartet isn’t just a Disney World-type environment for tourists to take pictures of. It is also a space for boat women, locals and other street vendors to converse, socialize, and have shared experiences. The streets are not ours. As tourists, we are not exempt from being hassled. It might seem strange to have a screensaver-worthy backdrop combined with unpleasant screeching voices following you through the city, just as seeing a car exploding in Rome isn’t what you came for. That’s not our decision as tourists (unless you set that car on fire, then yes, that was your decision). In real life, we don’t only get to see and feel what we want. Instead, we get it all. India wouldn’t be what it is without the paradoxes and Ibiza wouldn’t make sense of it wasn’t absurd. Traveling is no exception.
Why do we travel? Isn’t it to catch a glimpse into the multitude of ways of living? To witness a second or a moment of the long and complicated lives of our fellow human beings? Isn’t it take us from our numb and dull existences and to feel things, even if those things might include frustration?
For me, travel is all of the above, and I want to keep this in mind when I become irritated. And lucky for me, most of what I felt in this episode was pure amusement.
Want a visual? Here is a short video of the scene from the second level of the restaurant.
Here is a video of an interaction I saw.