My ex army motorbike driver, who’d fought with the Americans during the Vietnam war, and clearly come down in the world a bit since, deposited me on this beach, in need of a cigarette and a chat with some of the other bored xe-om drivers. Xe-oms featured big in my 6 week stay in Vietnam; xe means vehicle and om means hug. Vehicle hug. In Vietnam, the main vehicles on the roads are motorbikes. In Hanoi, there simply isn’t enough room for cars and they are everywhere: on the pavements, in family living rooms, at the entrance of supermarkets. On the highway to Hoi-An, where I was heading, there were only a few cars, but not many, and one feels fairly safe when one’s surrounded by vehicles the same size.
It was November when I sighted the Penguins on this beach made famous after giving its name to a 1990s American TV series called China Beach about an evacuation hospital during the Vietnam War, made in the wake of successful films such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. For the Vietnamese, this was low season for sure, and my request to stop here, not yet the preserve of the big hotel chains busy buying up the coastline between Danang and Hoi-An, was considered amusing. I pulled up my trousers and waded into the warm water to cool off, also appeasing the motorbike burn on my right leg, a common injury for tourists riding motorbikes in Vietnam for the first time.
The Penguins feature high up on the top 20 of my bin tour; they’ve made it onto the flyer of my exhibition afterall! Why four penguins in a cluster, when the rest of the beach was devoid of bins? I must have wondered about that for the rest of the bumpy ride to Hoi-An, where my driver dropped me rather brusquely, aggrieved that I wouldn’t let him take me to his chum’s guesthouse. Hoi-An’s quaintness, its beautiful old wooden houses and historic bridges and, I’ll admit, the possibility of having a large hotel room with balcony and pool for 15 USD soon made me forget about motorcycle burns and awkward xe-om drivers.