'Just get me to the river'
The Weekend Australian 15 January 2011

In search of a cooling boat ride in Hoi An by Kerrin O'Sullivan

I blame the mapmaker. And the guidebook editor. The temple is on the opposite corner and the intersecting street has a different name. Someone has messed up. Either that or the street has been renamed and the temple has moved since the map was drawn.

We are in Vietnam, in lovely Hoi An, south of Danang, and the family is aimlessly trailing me as I swivel the map this way and that in the 40C heat, trying to find our way to the Thu Bon River. To buy time to decipher where we are, I suggest we take refuge in the shady grounds of the Tran Family Chapel, adjacent to which I am pirouetting with the map aloft, trying to ascertain true north.

A guide appears and cajoles us to join the chapel tour. Behind her my family members are vigorously shaking their heads, silently mouthing, "No, mum!"

It seems churlish to say no. How does one explain that we're only here because the garden looks like paradise after the blistering heat of the pavement? Anyway, it's a good family thing to do. It might be educational. Or spiritual. Or cool.

We squash together, bodies radiating in the dark airlessness on chapel benches so low our knees brush our chins. "Where are we?" whispers my son. "Is this their sauna?"

"Don't be irreverent," says one daughter.

"It is strangely hot though," comments her sister.

"They've turned on the heaters," volunteers my husband.

"Beautiful old beams," I offer, looking at the rafters.

Over the next 40 minutes we gain a comprehensive understanding of the 200 years of Tran ancestry, a thorough explanation of the significance of the elements of metal, water, wood, fire and earth, an appreciation of a turtle's role in ensuring a long life, sufficient information on Chinese architecture to write a short doctoral thesis, and a smattering of yin and yang.

When we discreetly exit, no one is happy. I've been in trouble already this holiday for suggesting each person carry their own things rather than tossing them in my bag, as they'd prefer. I've boomeranged cameras, windcheaters and half-full drink bottles straight back to their respective owners. In trouble also for apparently being too slow in snapping the award-winning photo I've asked them to pose for.

Now I'm in trouble for inadvertently putting the Tran Family Chapel on the itinerary.

"I'm running on empty," declares my son.

"I've got a waterfall running down my back," complains my husband, his face chilli-red.

"I'm starving," chorus the girls.

I decide we need to regroup; morale is low and the troops look on the verge of rebellion. What we need is a reunifying trip on the water - a boat trip - which is why we were searching for the river in the first place. Before we needed to reunify. My guidebook claims there are hire-boats at the market dock. And there, nestled in the crease on the map, is the dock. If I believe it.

I spin the map around. The temple remains on the wrong corner and the street sign still bears a different name. A boy selling postcards materialises.

"You buy?" he says displaying a packet of cards, fan-like. I resolve that if he can get us to the river, I will buy the lot. We track our nimble guide as he weaves through the bustling cobbled streets of the Old Town, past shuttered timber houses with terracotta-tiled rooves, shoe-makers, tailors and stores bursting with colourful lanterns.

There, sure enough, is the river. And yes, boats too. Who needs a map?

Our guide beams and holds out his postcards. My husband nicknames him GPS.

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan