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  • Jean Rafferty


Last year, on the 29th October, 39 Vietnamese people died of suffocation in a lorry in Essex. To us they're a statistic, but to the Vietnamese, family is all important and nowhere is that more evident than in the beautiful city of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I went on holiday there last year and had a wonderful trip. But this year, my pleasure in those memories is shot through with sadness for the families who lost their loved ones.

There were seven of them, some in long shorts and short-sleeved shirts, others in pedal pushers, but all in the same gaudy material of red water melon slices dancing on a black background. It was obvious how it had happened. When you ask how much something is in a Vietnamese market, they say, How many you want? and the price goes down the more you buy. It was obviously an economic decision for the whole family to wear the same thing, though I wondered how the teenage girl liked being dressed the same as her seven year old brother.

It reminded me of my own childhood, when all six of us children had brightly coloured beach shirts with racing cars on them. This was what we called snazzy in the 1950s and it was touching to see that the concept had survived all those years and continents away.

You think of family a lot in Vietnam, where every hotel has a shrine to the ancestors, with incense and sweets and sometimes bottles of beer to ease their journey to the afterworld. As we approach the first anniversary of the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people in a pressure cooker lorry in Essex, families all over the country will be tending their altars that little bit more carefully, praying for their children that little bit more fervently.

My sister and I went to Vietnam last year, a journey we'd longed to make ever since we saw the film Indochine in 1992. Vietnam looked such a beautiful country, from the lush green tea terraces of the north to the surreally dramatic limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay, a magical petrified forest emerging from emerald green waters.

Now we were in Hoi An on the Thu Bon River, an exquisite little hotch potch of a town which was once the most important port in the South China Sea, trading in spices, food, and ceramics from the 15th century on. It is now a World Heritage Site, its old quarter thronging with visitors to see its eclectic mix of architecture, from ornately carved temples to elegant colonial villas to crumbling riverfront shop houses with tiled roofs and wooden balconies.

We had booked all the hotels and transport ourselves, arriving in Hoi An after a 65 mile taxi ride from Hue, a charming city on the Perfume River with an Imperial Palace complex that takes a whole day to explore, though many guided tours whisk you in and out in a morning. Our driver was Mr Top, from VM Travel, an agency whose secretary was Mrs Pansy, a conjunction of names that kept us speculating. Were they the Vietnamese version of Mr Clockerty and Miss Toner from Tutti Frutti?

We never got to meet Mrs Pansy but Mr Top was a gentle and amiable young man who took us to various sights along the way, including a gorgeous and empty beach resort at Lang Coc, the serene Lap An lagoon whose rapacious vendors he warned us off, a noodle lunch in a local cafe in Da Nang, and the Marble Mountains, a series of limestone karsts where you toil up a sheer path with Buddhist temples and statues round every corner, though you would have to be exceptionally spiritual to think of anything other than long cold drinks at the end of it.

Internal travel in Vietnam is cheap and easy but the taxi journey was the best 50 quid we spent on it, culminating in a trip over the Annamite Range of mountains and the dramatic Hai Van pass, as well as gaining an insight into the home life of the Top family, who all live together in a small flat in Hue - nine adults, two children and a pair of huskies, who sleep on Mr Top's bed. As Vietnam is a very warm country and huskies have a fluffy double coat to protect them from the polar ice, we wondered how his dogs survived, but he said they simply went for walks at night, when the temperature was cooler. This was better for security too as such beautiful and exotic dogs are much desired there.

Mr Top said he didn't get much privacy but it was fun living with your family as they all took part in karaoke in the evening. After-dinner karaoke is clearly a big thing in Hue as we'd seen a family sequentially murdering I Will Survive in a house down the lane our hotel stood in.

'My mother is Superwoman,' boasted Mr Top. 'She does everything in the house. She's in control though she only went to school till the 11 plus because of the war. She never goes out of the house at all.'

He said he couldn't afford his own flat as his monthly pay was only 140 US dollars and he and his three brothers were all paying for the youngest to study economic law at university. Anyway, Vietnam was a corrupt country where land was so dear it could cost 14 million US dollars to build a house in Saigon town centre, $10 million in Hanoi.

He deposited us in the haphazardly picturesque town centre of Hoi An, a teeming kaleidoscope of people and colour and ancient houses built by the Chinese merchants whose industry propelled this place into its pre-eminence as a port. The most famous is Tan Ky House, a 200 year old shophouse with a sombre interior lit by lanterns that illuminate dark wood panelling, red and gold lacquerwork and exquisite inlaid mother of pearl chairs. The feeling of being in a museum is somewhat alleviated by red plastic stools that weary sightseers can actually sit on.

There are a number of these ancient shophouses dotted over Hoi An. Our favourite was one we happened on by chance, in one of the many back streets of the town - it wasn't on the list of attractions included in the visitors' ticket, which gives you access to four historical sites of your choice. A middle aged lady in the traditional ao dai greeted us as we came in, telling us that eight generations of her family had lived and worked there. She showed us a low, square, wooden table. 'My grandfather worked there, hammering silver during the day,' she said. 'At night that is where he slept.'

The family still lived in the house, though her niece, a dainty and demure young woman in her twenties, came there to work but lived in another house with her own parents. The multi-generational living harked back to earlier times in many towns in Britain. My own family lived in a flat in Glasgow with three girls in one room and three boys in another, luxury compared to my father's generation with four or five families sharing a single toilet on the stair outside. In Vietnam, everything was compact and multi-functional, a reminder of how lucky we are in the property-owning democracies of the West and just how much room we take up. We saw lots of shophouses where eight or nine bikes were lined up in the ground floor living room, in the same space where the family watched television or partook of karaoke of an evening.

In the next room a very old lady lay on a bed, so motionless we weren't sure if she was alive or dead. Grandma, said Auntie. She moved us on briskly to a further room, where another great Vietnamese tradition was in evidence - the domestic shopping opportunity. There was a wide array of silver jewellery, all made in the house, according to Auntie, though there wasn't a craftsman or a workbench in sight. But who could resist silver earrings shaped like the non la, the traditional Vietnamese conical hat, even if it was factory made?

Auntie beamed at our choice and ushered us back to the front of the house, where her beautiful niece served us tea and a snack of delicious frozen coconut yoghurt with a beancurd sweet more granular in texture than Scottish tablet but similar in taste. As the Vietnamese have a predilection for condensed milk in their coffee we suspected they shared their main ingredient.

There were grander places in the official tourist attractions, but Auntie's was the most fun. The guide books tell you there are loads of things to do around Hoi An, such as go to the sandy beach at An Bang or take Vietnamese cookery classes, but we only had two days and three nights there so we just wandered the streets, marvelling at the bougainvillea tumbling from ornate wooden balconies; the dragonfruit and durian and limes piled high in the market; the lanterns everywhere, brightly coloured in the day and luminous by night. The people everywhere.

The people make Vietnam, not because they're charming or polite or hard working, though they're all three, but because they're straightforward. Eastern manners, whose deference can make Westerners slightly queasy, are undercut here by mockery and irreverence. In the market, I pored over photographs of dresses that the tailor had copied from the internet. $150 dollars? I told her I couldn't afford to buy them at that price and only bought them when they were reduced. She rolled her eyes. 'You actually don't have any money, do you?' she said with a derisive giggle, declining to make me one dress, which wasn't nearly as cost effective for her as three.

We made the requisite visits, of course, went to Cau Nhat Ban (the Japanese Covered Bridge) built by Japanese merchants in the 16th century, its supposed ochre paint somewhat diluted by thousands of tourists tramping across it. We went too to the Guangdong Community Hall, one of five community centres built by Chinese merchants in the 19th century. The guidebook more or less said if you'd seen one you'd seen them all, so we plumped for the one nearest the bridge. More red and gold lacquer, some rather curious horse sculptures, and the Hidden Dragons, which were far from hidden, their grotesque ceramic writhings dominating the small courtyard they stood in.

In between the history we went for cups of coffee or cool glasses of mango juice. Everywhere we went there seemed to be young people being photographed in Western wedding dresses. This is a huge industry in Vietnam - you find bride shops down the seediest alleyways and in little villages in the middle of nowhere. One couple were clearly local celebrities, both in dark glasses, the bride doll-like in a white two-piece with a lotus flower motif on the front, the groom striking manly poses in his white tunic. A small crowd congregated round our cafe, where he came for a break. The baristas, snazzy in bright white shirts and straw trilbies, lounged nonchalantly against the wall, studying the snaps they'd taken on their camera phones.

At night Hoi An became even more magical, hundreds of coloured lanterns shimmering in the trees, the water dancing with red and golden and purple light. We found a bar on the other side of the river, the wittily named Kieu Gardens, and sat drinking mojitos from Polynesian tiki mugs and watching the boats glide up and down the water, the lanterns a myriad fireflies glowing in the dark.

On our last night we went for a trip ourselves. Boats were lined up all along the quay, low lying sampans with lotus flower lights on the prow and orange lifejackets on the seats, a courtesy that was not extended to the Vietnamese who travelled to Britain in that airtight, suffocatingly hot lorry in Essex.

We floated downriver, lanterns all around us, in an otherworldly universe of colour, the boats we passed seeming formless, merging into the vivid pinks and iridescent greens of the lights they carried. In the darkness we felt hermetically sealed off from the people on the riverbank, flowing from one colour to the next, like swimming inside a rainbow.

All around us people were releasing paper boats with lighted candles to remember their loved ones. We dropped them into the black water too, this one for our parents, another for our brother Peter, our cousin Tom, and more for the friends who were not ancestors but were family because we loved them... Zen and Liz and Andy and Hilary... The paper boats bobbed down the river away from us, waves eddying around them, the candles sending their tiny flicker of light into the night before the water closed round them.

Images courtesy of Mary Rafferty

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