When you travel, just as in everyday life, you miss what you can’t have. Reality is a bitch and no matter how exciting it feels to leave all of the comforts you’re used to behind, embracing all that is adventurous and wild and free, there may come a time when roughing it loses its appeal. But as I discovered in Hoi An, it goes the other way too and it is possible to experience luxury-fatigue, to feel suffocated by comfort and over-bearing courtesy in a hotel that is simply way too nice.
What qualifies as a nice hotel depends on personal taste – one person’s honeymoon suite is another person’s crack den – but one thing you always notice when you pay more than you ordinarily would is the hospitality. Hospitality is, in hotel terms, letting people do things for you that you can do perfectly well yourself, something with which, I have discovered, I am just not okay. For me, five star hospitality is nothing but a pretentious milky way of awkwardness and cringe and in Hoi An, I reached crisis point.
It was the earring that did it. I should have just forgotten about it, given it up as another thing lost on the road, just like my waterproof jacket, my only white bra, my shark fin shower cap, but no, I had to go to look for it.
Four or five members of the hotel staff were relaxing around the pool. The sun had gone down, the day was pretty much done and if we didn’t show our faces they might have forgotten that they had any guests in their hotel at all. We could have been safe. If it wasn’t for the earring.
‘Hello miss!’ They all jumped to their feet when I approached them.
‘Hello. I, umm, I just wanted to have a quick look for an earring I lost today.’ I tried to get down onto my hands and knees to look under the sun lounger I had been lying on earlier but one of the staff forcibly dragged me back onto my feet.
‘Oh no!’ he said, visibly distressed, ‘you have lost something?’ He barked something at the rest of the staff in Vietnamese and they instantly began flipping sun loungers on their sides and crawling around on all fours.
‘You don’t worry, we will find it’, he said.
The earring was a cheap, stainless steel hoop, hardly worth looking for never mind enlisting a hotel-wide search party to comb the area but my experiences over the past few days had taught me not to argue, not to interfere, just to leave.
I sat on the edge of the monstrous bed, the size of two doubles pushed together and looked out of the glass balcony doors at the flashlights bouncing off palm trees lining the swimming pool. It might go on for hours. ‘We have to leave’, I said.
‘Oh, okay, When?’ asked Shaun.
‘Now,’ I said.
It had seemed too good to be true. £16 a night, a swimming pool, a riverside location surrounded by rice paddies, a bathtub, breakfast buffet but then, the risky bit, no reviews. Let’s just book it, I begged. We were going to be turfed out of our guest house the next morning and I was desperate for some late night pho and a good night’s sleep. So we did.
We drove out of the centre of Hoi An and eventually reached a small commune, a cluster of pastel coloured houses sitting quietly amongst the rivers and rice paddies of the city’s outskirts. The hotel had given itself the address of No 1 on the only named street, a pointless gesture considering it was the largest building for miles, white-fronted with two balconies for each room. The back of the building looked out over modest concrete homes with corrugated iron roofs and chickens scratching around in the backyard, a view I feared wouldn’t last long.
The taxi driver had left his car sitting in the sun while he lay in the shade drinking coffee so by the time we got out of the car I felt sure I must look grey around the edges, like a joint of pork just starting to cook in the oven. I didn’t really look around at first, it was such a relief to get out of the furnace, but when a porter lifted my bags out of my hands and an excited girl from reception replaced them with a bunch of flowers I stopped and took stock. ‘Damn’, I thought, ‘we’re in the wrong place’.
At this point in my travels I’ve stayed in tons of hotels, hostels, guesthouses, BnB’s, you name it, and am yet to meet a genuinely enthusiastic receptionist. How tedious must it be to welcome travellers every day and never get to leave yourself but this girl, Thu, seemed actually thrilled to have us. She checked us in and everything seemed correct, even the price which I double checked to make sure it was in fact £16 a night.
Up we went, to the best room in the hotel, an immaculate, luxurious suite that is by far the nicest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in. Someone had dropped our bags off, our well-travelled backpacks that arrived in Hoi An just as we did, covered in plastic, wet and muddy after two days on the back of a motorbike and looking at them, and looking at us, and looking at this room, I couldn’t help but feel that something was not quite right.
And yet there we were, giggling like children in their parent’s bedroom because they know they shouldn’t be in there. It felt right that we should both strip off our clothes and put on the his ‘n’ hers silk dressing gowns in the wardrobe. Shaun lay on the bed and tried to find his way around the TV channels and I completely unpacked for the first time in months and filled the huge free-standing bathtub with hot water and bubbles.
While I soaked in the bath, the first bath I’ve had in three or four months, there was a knock on the door. I could hear Shaun trying to wrestle back into the dressing gown he had abandoned to enjoy the luxury of powerful air con on bare skin. He opened the door to find Thu standing there.
“As the first guests to stay at our hotel, the owner would like to invite you and your wife to have dinner with him tonight,” she said. “Oh, that’s nice, yes, we can do that,” I heard Shaun die inside. “This is a very special day,” Thu said, “we are so happy you’re here!” and she totally meant it and now everything made sense. We were the first ever guests to stay at this hotel.
That the owner didn’t speak English made an already awkward dinner unbearable. The manager of the hotel who was also acting as his translator didn’t eat a thing and used the time when the rest of us were chewing to stage an interrogation, only pausing from firing off questions about our personal lives to mention Trip Advisor and how please she’d be if we could give the hotel a positive review.
At first I answered the way she wanted me to. When she asked about work I told her about my work in a museum, a job I haven’t done for over a year, but after a while I started to take a grim pleasure in confounding her expectations. ‘Married? No and no plans to. Children? No, I don’t like them. When are we going home? When the money runs out, I suppose’. She began to look quite horrified, we weren’t exactly the first guests they were hoping for but I’ve given up on telling the story of my life in the way that pleases people.
Despite her disappointment at our unemployed, nomadic existence, the manager was determined to maintain the illusion that we were super important, distinguished guests and somehow brainwashed the rest of her staff to follow suit. What followed was three days of the most intense customer service I have ever experienced. As the only two guests at the hotel, the staff to guest ratio was at an intimidating 15:2, fifteen people trying to fulfil their job role, cooking, cleaning, smiling, holding open doors, providing fresh towels at the pool, clearing away empty coke cans, looking for lost earrings, all performed in a manner that made me wonder if they thought we were mentally ill.
We were patient zero, the first tourists, the ones blazing the trail for the others they desperately hoped would follow. I felt like an experiment, a real life training manual and all eyes were, always, on me.
As more people arrived and the attention was spread more thinly I began to relax. We cycled to the beach, back to the old town and ate at the market. We swam in the mornings and I dried off in the sun listening to American public radio, feeling as close as I can ever get to relaxed but after a few more days I couldn’t do it any more, I was done and we had to leave.
I’ve come to realise that your experience of a place depends more on your frame of mind than the place itself. Under different circumstances I might not have wanted to leave this beautiful hotel (for the price we could have feasibly lived there for a year, like wealthy recluses with a criminal past) but I was too focussed on what was coming next, what adventures we might have, what places we could see and things we could do that would be worth sacrificing the luxury and hospitality of this hotel that was hard for us to leave but too nice to stay.