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The Hoi An Hustle

A grey dawn broke the darkness of Hoi An. As the streetlights gently flickered, I found myself alone by the walls of the ancient city, with centuries of travelers beside me.

Their bones are gone or buried, but the ghosts of Hoi An linger. Its famed 15th-century Japanese bridge is said to have supernatural powers. Its ornate, Chinese temples still stand, fighting an ever-growing flood of tourists, and the slow rise of the Thu Bồn River that comes with the ocean tide and takes the town’s streets for its own every now and then.

The man in a green jumpsuit waddled over, grunting and pointing at my camera. Many of Hoi An’s residents speak English, but this man—peering at me under the lid of a dirty helmet—did not. We stared at each other blankly, curiously, until I showed him a few shots on the screen of the black Nikon.

Seemingly appeased, he grunted once more, nodded, and walked away.

The surly man might have been the closest thing to law enforcement I’ve seen in Hoi An. And that’s a strange thing in a town whose existence relies on a bizarre blend of Beale Street, Disneyland and Venice. Though the streets are quiet now, throngs of tourists will descend on the riverfront within hours. In America, the place would be littered with security guards and police. Here, the police are either so well hidden so as not to stand out, or they simply aren’t needed.

I’m not experienced enough, yet, to tell, but the solo run-in with a pseudo-cop is probably enough to freak some people out back home.

People ask me why I wander.

Part of the answer is pain; the other part hope. Pain because the ghosts of Hoi An aren’t the only ones haunting me—especially during the holidays, where even here the Christmas trees remind me of good times gone. I often find myself a little apart from the group, walking a few steps ahead or behind, my mind wandering between the past and the present, between memories of people whose roles in my life have diminished and the ever-changing world of the present.

Hope because most of the time, I’m in that present. Hope because every piece of soil under my toes seems to bring me closer to the realization that humanity is inherently good. Hope because just as I love the ghosts in the past, I love the people in the present. And I love soaking in every bit of the places we go.

Everyone on this trip brings a different skill to the table: a jester, a coordinator, a navigator, a foodie and a critic. We are wanderers all, and I think we’re all chasing or running from something.

For the next several days, we’re covering that ground together.

A few hours after the quiet morning on the river, I found myself back with the group, our feet tapping the tiles of one of those ancient temples. A calm filled the air—the kind of reverent silence that accompanies religious places.

Without a word, we put flame to incense and placed the smoldering sticks near a shimmering, golden altar: a nod to Hoi An, a nod to a place where people have come together for centuries, a nod to the places we’ve still got to go.

Written by

When an urban developer bought my apartment building in 2016, it pushed me out of the soulful streets of Memphis, and outside, into a life on the road. I soon found out that travel was both a cure and an addiction. And I plan to keep going, with readers alongside, for as far as this road can stretch.

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