“Boat ride, one hour!” “Motorbike!” “Taxi!” “You buy lantern!” “You buy something from me!” “You take picture of me!” “Happy hour!”
While these were the phrases shouted at me daily as I wandered the streets for the first few weeks of our stay in charming, laid-back Hoi An in Vietnam, they have recently started to fade away. Not because I’ve donned headphones or become immune to the sounds of locals trying to make money from the often frighteningly frugal tourists who visit this pretty city. It’s because they now know me.
It’s no brag. The vendors, drivers and kids making money after school now know that I’m not here as a tourist. While for some I’m the guy who never buys anything – unless it’s food from a street vendor – for others, sighting me is about simply knowing not to waste time on a sales pitch. There’s no point in interrupting a pumpkin seed eating session, a game of cards, or an impromptu pedicure on a friend for a guy who isn’t looking for a table-runner, lacquer bowls or a cheesy photo opportunity.
Living like locals is something we’ve long championed. Do the sights? Absolutely. But then if you feel that something for a destination, dig a little deeper and learn more about how the locals live. That’s all it’s really about. I’m not about to grind rice for a living but I will learn to make my own rice noodles. I will never be a local fisherman but I will be in a place long enough to know when the fishing boats go out and return.
After a month in a small town like Hoi An, I obviously don’t feel like a local yet. I don’t even feel like a temporary expat. But every day out on the streets where I was once greeted with a sales pitch, I now get a smile and a hello. I shake hands with local bar owners, chat to the waitresses at restaurants I frequent, and swap small talk with street vendors. I get served before other foreigners at my local Bánh mì stall, get charged local prices, and get more chilli and pork.
But even better, now as I walk the streets, I hear less noise and more signal, which is fantastic in a town that sees so many tourists pass through. Free from most of the usual distractions, I now see more detail in the buildings, start to note when the light is just right on a certain street, and now, when someone yells out to me, it means I probably know them.
Once you’ve reached this point, it gets harder to leave. Just as many of the traders who visited here over the centuries ended up staying, we’re thinking of sticking around. This place has that certain something that makes me want to learn its rhythms and discover some of its secrets.