We went to bed like excitable children on Christmas Eve, strangely enjoying the anxious energy that flowed through the hotel. But it wasn’t Father Christmas who was visiting that night. There had been rumours, whisperings, murmurs about the special someone that was coming. It was someone powerful. Someone we should fear.
Hushed conversations and strange preparations had been occurring throughout the city; trees were cut back and shutters were nailed down. Everyone was preparing for her arrival.
This all occurred with a well practiced efficiency that went unspoken. No body mentioned her name or spoke of her approach, as though saying the words aloud would make her inevitable entrance come sooner.
She was someone with the potential to destroy this fragile world. This world that we were welcomed into like old friends. A world where we mingle between poverty and wealth, splendour and slums. This world is Vietnam. A world like no other.
We arrived in Hoi An before she did so, thankful, had the opportunity to appreciate the city without her unwelcome influence. We wandered through the grand yet quaint, French colonial style buildings, standing tall and proud but with a cute, dollhouse feel to them, once painted in bright pastel colours that have since dulled to mellow, rustic beauty. Delicious patisseries, unique boutiques and the famous tailors were crammed into the narrow, cobbled streets and even the rain couldn’t disguise the undeniable charm of Hoi An.
It was this rain that was signalling her approach. This was her coy warning, a wash of rain to cleanse the city before she made her grand entrance.
The rain had been falling incessantly, tumbling from the heavy black clouds and then dancing its way down to earth, hour after hour, day after day, until this beautiful city was soaked to its core, overripe and swelling as rain bled into every nook and cranny the city had to offer.
She has been sneaking up on us for few days by this point, biding her time, working up her energy and momentum so that when she did strike, we would receive her full blow and every ounce of damage she could pour upon us.
She arrived in the night, under the cover of darkness like an unwelcome guest, bringing along angry black clouds and gusts of wind that tagged behind like gate crashers at a party. We knew that Typhoon Katrina has finally arrived.
The river charged like soldiers at war, unafraid and determined to fight, despite the consequences. The river banks exploded like canons but with double the force and destruction. The dangerous water escaped and charged for our fragile world, obliterating everything in its path and sending it to a dark, watery grave.
We awoke the next morning with an eager expectancy. We were told the previous night that the storm could cause a tremendous amount of damage and up to 3ft of flood water. There was a possibility of being confined to the hotel for days but it was strange that such destruction provoked such excitement, even in the staff.
Something had changed and we could feel it in the air. We could hear it in the hushed voices that hurried down the hotel corridors and in the silence and darkness that engulphed us. The steady roar of motorbikes and the usual commotion of city life were gone. Even the anticipation and tension that filled the air before the storm had dissolved and was replaced by a hushed, relaxed quiet.
We were trapped in our hotel yet their was no hysteria, no manic or desperate attempts to escape. There was just an undeniable electric current that passed between us all. This is ironic, however, because electricity is the one thing we didn’t have. As promised, the storm had not only stolen our freedom but also our power, so we were left with no lights, no air conditioning and no hot water.
There were no windows in the budget hotel rooms so, with no power, I awoke to complete and utter, disorientating darkness. I stumbled around for a few minutes while I fell over the contents of my backpack that were scattered around the room before I finally found the door and poked my head out.
The entire length of the corridor was lit up like a shrine with tiny candle nubs flickering and twinkling and illuminating a strange scene before me. The entire contents of the ground floor had been moved up a level and given a temporary home away from the flood water; tables, chairs, desks, computers, fax machines, sofas, book shelves and even a huge fish tank had been slotted into any available space. It looked like a mixture between a church and a second hand furniture store.
Gas cookers perched precariously on wonky old tables and were set to provide us with meal after meal of instant noodles and fried eggs. The staff laughed and joked and chatted noisily as they cooked breakfast in the darkness, filling the air with not only delicious smells but also a joyful family feel.
I momentarily wondered if I was still dreaming but cautiously took a step into this strange scene. I was instantly attacked by a tiny Vietnamese woman who pushed a large bowl of noodles into my hands.
‘No, thank you,’ I politely refused; it was far too early for such a large serve of noodles.
But she simply pushed a little harder while her eyebrows knitted together furiously in an expression I dared not contend with. Her face instantly softened as I took the bowl and we exchanged a friendly conversation which neither of us understood but we both walked away smiling.
I shuffled away, slightly bemused, to the end of the corridor where the only precious window in the hotel was to be found. I was both shocked but also mesmerised by the steady gush of water that surrounded us. The creamy brown flood that rushed through the streets rose to almost triple the predicted level and surged along with a depth of almost 9ft.
People hung out of their windows from the tall buildings that crowded the narrow street. They threw objects from window to window and chattered noisily over the water that swam beneath them.
I finally tore my eyes away from the water below and squeezed back through the corridor to the hotel staircase where a pyjama clad crowd, also clutching half eaten bowls of noodles, had gathered to witness an unbelievable sight in the hotel lobby. From the safety of the second floor we watched as wooden canoes, carrying food and water, floated into the submerged reception area and moored up to the staircase.
Guests from the ground floor were also moved up a level or two where they shared with strangers and new friendships were formed in the darkness of communal bedrooms. Endless games of cards were played by candle light and we strained our eyes, reading book after book, as one day rolled into two which rolled into three.
It didn’t take long before the novelty of the storm began to wear off and cabin fever set in. In our tiny, darkened rooms there was no way of differentiating between night and day. The night times brought no relief from the stale, hot air that clung to our clammy skin and provided little relief for our gasping lungs. Our undersized rooms became oversized coffins with the kind of darkness that engulfs you, it wraps its heavy arms around you and refused to let go.
The only thing that kept us sane during the long, hot nights was the happy and relentless hotel staff. The Vietnamese aren’t exactly well known for being cheerful and relaxed but something about the storm seemed to relax us all. The ladies cared for us like our own mothers would, feeding us a continuous stream of hot, fresh food and ensuring we drank plenty of water while the men entertained us with dangerous stunts as they sprang out of the hotel windows and sank into the deep water below.
The staff slept on mattresses in the corridors where their friends and family joined them. Most of them lived on Hoi An’s lower ground and their houses had been damaged by the flood, but from their smiling faces and warm welcomes you would never know. I was amazed and inspired by their ability to survive such an ordeal, with so little distress or anxiety. They bustled around us like this was a normal event and the hotel gradually turned into a huge, multi-cultural family home.
Despite the influx of new and interesting characters joining the hotel, I felt like we’d been trapped for weeks. But by the fourth night, there was light at the end of the tunnel. The storm clouds were passing and for the first night in over a week, Hoi An saw a starry sky and the heavy rain had turned to a light drizzle.
Our luck was beginning to change and a new found friend in the hotel had some useful connections in the city and ordered takeaway pizza. We put our orders in with dubious enthusiasm. The city was still flooded with 5ft of murky water, there was no way any one would be cooking pizza, never mind delivering it. But three extremely long hours later, a tiny woman in a small boat arrived in the darkness and paddled into the hotel with a wobbly stack of pizza boxes. I felt like I was cheating on our Vietnamese hosts and their abundance of noodles, but the pizza was a welcome distraction from our long dull days and the novelty of it arriving by boat was something I couldn’t miss out on.
Our Rooftop Retreat
Our fifth and final day brought a strange antithesis of scenes. Mother Nature had finally pulled her finger out and fixed our dismal weather situation. The sky dazzled us with a brilliant blue hue, a shade we had almost forgotten after so long under the cover of thick grey clouds. The sun shone so brightly it took a while for my eyes to adjust and it happily shimmered without a single cloud to block its warm rays. As the floor water slowly evaporated and drained away, so did the sombre atmosphere of the hotel. We were still without electricity but our spirits rose and the excitable atmosphere returned, sparking energy, light and life through the narrow corridors.
The budget hotel may not have had any windows…but it did have a roof top pool. This area was strictly off limits while the wind was throwing roof tiles around like it was a javelin contest; but once the sun was shining, every guest in the hotel congregated on the hot tiles and lapped up the sunshine while splashing around in the overflowing pool.
From our rooftop paradise, it was easy to forget that the flood water still stood at a stubborn 3ft deep. If you dared to poke your head over the rooftop wall, it was an entirely different situation in the street below.
Boats bumped their way through the street, laden with tools and labourers, prepared for the massive clean up operation. One boat pulled into our hotel lobby laden with tailor made suits and dresses, the produce that Hoi An is famous for. These were ordered prior to the flood and the busy tailors had worked tirelessly through the storm, sewing and stitching by candle light in the upper floors of their small shops. Once the clothes arrived, the cluttered hotel corridors became catwalks while everyone showcased their new clothing, parading up and down and receiving as much enthusiasm and applause as a fashion show in Milan.
Katrina is Swept away
The following morning, as the last of Typhoon Katrina’s puddles were swept away, so was the magical spell that enchanted our hotel the previous day. This was suddenly a real hotel again. There was no more lounging in corridors on mattresses with the chef’s elderly grandmother or applauding as the Maintenance Man jumped out the third floor window. There were no more misunderstood conversations that occurred in five different languages or communal pots of instant noodles, simmering gently on a wobbly table on the staircase.
Katrina had wreaked havoc and destruction across much of Vietnam but she forced everyone, from all walks of life, to come together and bond over our unlikely situation.
There was a flurry of activity while the clean up operation occurred with the speed and precision of a military operation. The men lugged fallen branches and broken doors away or carried heavy furniture back to its rightful place on the ground floor. The women busied around, sweeping, cleaning, scrubbing and generally arranging and flustering in a way that only women can, until they were entirely satisfied that everything was back to exactly how it should be.
I felt as though I had been swept up in a typhoon (not dissimilar to Typhoon Katrina), twirled around in a whirlwind of mayhem before being gently placed back down in a pristine and calm hotel lobby. No body batted an eyelid. There was not one suggestion that we had just been imprisoned in this very hotel for nearly a week with flood water submerging the entire ground floor.
The beautiful girls were back behind the reception desk, the whole place was spotless and many of the guests were checking out in a calm and patient manner. I looked around, confused. Had I just dreamt this last week? Then I caught sight of the fish tank from the corner of my eye and noticed a few very sick looking fish.
I was sad that the familiar family feel had gone from the hotel but the prospect of stepping out onto solid ground was overwhelmingly exciting.
The train tracks had been washed away so virtually every guest from the hotel headed to the airport together, our previous entrapment just a distant memory, another funny travel story for when we get home.