What a Lost Camera Taught Me about Fate in Hoi An, Vietnam
I broke one of my ironclad Rules of Travel getting from Da Nang’s airport to Hoi An, Vietnam. No taxis. Then after my camera took off in that taxi’s back seat, I took another to chase it down.
After negotiating the seething mass of movement, miasma, and neon that is Saigon followed by days of shivering in the persistent misty fog of Da Lat’s valleys, I was ready for the caress of coastal Hoi An and its Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. You know how it is—there are so many miles on your travel pack that the dust on it weighs more than the threadbare remnants of clothing inside. Your mind requires clearing.
I gave myself a pep talk: Buck up, woman! It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to you; you’ve had cancer.
Hoi An’s rich history as a port and trading center resides in the ancient Chinese temples, spice warehouses-turned-restaurants, and lively riverfront. When the port silted up after a thousand years and the coast receded a few miles, the focus of the town became its dynamic market, gorgeous architecture, and hundreds of tailors. Hoi An is the spot to replace those worn travel clothes. My plans included purchasing a skirt to replace one split up the backside while riding a motorbike through potholes in Cambodia, and a silk jacket so I could at least pretend to dress up if opportunity arose. My companion needed trousers.
Keen expectations took a turn toward dismay with the camera’s loss. We were briefly buoyed by the guesthouse clerk’s offer to phone the taxi driver. He was headed to the Da Nang train station with another fare who claimed innocence about our camera. Hopes dashed, we crouched on the sidewalk outside the guesthouse, discouraged. Which is how a man named Tranh found us, offering his taxi to rush to the station. We grasped this last straw, but when we reached Da Nang, our camera and its new owners were on their way to Saigon.
We rode back to Hoi An, silent. My travel partner and I barely traded a glance, careful not to lay blame about the camera. That’s another of my Rules of Travel: be uncommonly kind to others during transition days between locales, when you’re most anxious, sweaty, moving into yet another unfamiliar place, and likely to get lost in the process.
It wasn’t the money, I thought, it was the memories in hundreds of photos lost. A month of travel through Cambodia and southern Vietnam. Who was I kidding? Of course it was the money, too! Buying another camera meant the loss of travel funds. Our budget was stretched thin to provide maximum travel time.
Tranh caught my eye in his rearview mirror. “Barbara, do you believe in fate?” I wasn’t sure what I believed. He began to tell his story.
Tranh joined the South Vietnamese Army at age 18, and learned English working with American Special Forces. Choosing sides in the civil war forever altered his future. He married and had children, but his home was burned and food stores destroyed.
When Saigon fell in 1975, Tranh spent two years in a reeducation camp. For 10 years, he and his wife were not allowed to work; his 5 children could not attend school. Persevering, Tranh learned mechanic’s skills, fixing cars for anyone who risked hiring him, but those jobs were scarce. A Buddhist, Tranh believed he was fated to go through those awful times.
In moments, my perspective on the camera’s loss changed. I gave myself a pep talk: Buck up, woman! It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to you; you’ve had cancer. Cancer was the worst thing. You’ll be angry for a couple of days, then you’ll get over it and it will become a travel tale.
Decades after the war, there were people in town who would not sit down with Tranh for a cup of coffee; emotions remained high. We invited him to lunch, sharing egg rolls and a Hoi An specialty, Cao Lau: roast pork with wide noodles. His sister, Bich (beek) spotted us through the restaurant window and joined in. Bich was a brilliant tailor; 24 hours later she had replaced my torn skirt and presented me with a copper-rose silk jacket along with a powerful hug.
For days I wandered Hoi An’s lanes and waterfront. I crossed the bridge to Cam Nam island on foot and returned in a boat hand-poled by an ancient woman wearing a nón lá, the conical hat of Vietnam. I shopped the market and tried to identify mysterious foods, rode a rickshaw in the rain, found peace in temples with only incense for company. Eventually, I found a replacement camera.
There are so many miles on your travel pack that the dust on it weighs more than the threadbare remnants of clothing inside. Your mind requires clearing.
Our last morning in Hoi An, an elderly man watched my partner and I prepare to depart. Across the street he called, “Was your camera returned?” We shook our heads. Lighting a hand-rolled cigarette, he apologized. “People in Hoi An are honest and good,” he said. We agreed and wished him well. When the motorbikes arrived to take us to the train station, I climbed on. Adjusting my pack, I turned to see him waving goodbye.
Hoi An, a city central in Vietnam’s geography and history, helped to center me on my journey. I lost a camera and hundreds of photos but learned that in abandoning the Rules of Travel you may find fate, the compassion of strangers, and understand how a lens can come between you and authentic experience.
Photo credit: Barbara Gabriel