Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Culinary Tour Of Vietnam (Day 1-5)

"Perhaps we should consult the official guidebook which, like the Vietnamese economy, is pure fantasy".
David, Danang.


And away we go. Actually our departure went pretty smoothly, and there were no hitches like taking batteries out of cameras or suchlike. The Thai flight was quite fun - a jumbo jet with only 170 passengers, which meant that there were plenty of seats. The steward tells us that the plane is half-empty "because of Saddam Hussein". David and I took window seats each. Both the food and drink were never ending, though I slowed down on drinking because of last night?s farewell with Trevor and Rosanne.
Arrival at Bangkok was pretty straightforward too, basically a walk-through customs and immigration, a taxi to the Indra Hotel, a complimentary cocktail in the bar, then to bed. Points: flying across Australia?s channel country after the effects of the recent floods - green and brown. Miss Thailand and MTV-type program on TV.


We took a tuk-tuk to the Vietnamese Embassy to arrange our visas, then one to the Dear Gift shop near Patpong to fix up our business cards. Chasing receipts is awkward. A copy of the "Vietnam Courier" picked up at the Embassy refers to American power in the Gulf as "old imperialists" and does not condone the invasion of Kuwait by Hussein, but recommends an Arab to Arab solution. Back at the hotel, Beyond 2000 was on the TV with subtitled stock exchange reports. David phoned Brisbane to get the latest ratings. We lunched at the place we ate last year with our friends Dave and Collette. David had chicken in coconut sauce (soup), and I had ground pork, noodles and chili. We then walked around the Baiyoke Centre, through its various clothing stalls; David bought this bright red shirt top for Lynne Metcalfe. (ED: as long as she likes long cotton coats, and red, and cats). The heat, humidity and smell of Bangkok are not as bad as last year, when we came through for Cambodia and Vietnam.
After going back to the Indra Hotel for some planning on what we have to do in Vietnam, and recieving the "introduction letter" from Evan by fax, we got a tuk-tuk back to the Vietnamese Embasssy (the price going up because of peak hour traffic), then on to the Dear Gift shop to pick up our business cards - I think "Dear" will turn out to be appropriate, considering we have to pay Evan for faxing Ken Stier to chase the cards, then paying Ken for his transport, then paying for our own transport, then actually paying for the cards (ED: which we didn't). We are now "Research and Development for Normella Pictures".

Then a long walk through the Silom Centre, a sort of Myers on acid, with lots of vogue items, and we ended up having a Japanese meal at the Narita Restaurant, me eating sashimi and sushi with miso soup and David having beef terriyaki. Terrific fun, particularly since our waitress was both shy and had a sense of humour. Also a terrific view of downtown Bangkok and a terrific price for the meal - $35 for two including the beer, which was the best so far, a couple of large Klosters encrusted with ice.
Finally, a typically exciting, exhausting (a pun on pollution) trip by tuk-tuk back to the Indra. Ken Stier, a journalist friend of Evan's joined us for drinks there, and then on to the International Beer Garden. Ken, an American who's freelancing in Thailand, obviously had some stories to tell but he was reluctant to tell us. Evan had particularly pointed out that Ken had the latest info on Cambodia but he appeared to dodge the topic by saying that he wasn't really up on it. Maybe we were a bit too interrogatory and perhaps that made him nervous. (David: Bill couldn't tell a CIA operative from a withered geranium). A British journo friend, Andrew Drummond, joined us, whose background is more TV, selling a show to Four Corners once on a Thai (?) drug lord. He also makes about two political documentaries annually for the BBC. He was a lot livelier and looser. (David: unlike CIA operatives, who are seedy and secretive).

They took us to this prostitute bar in Soi Cowboy, an alternative red light area to Patpong, David and I only stuck at it a short time, since we'd drunk quite a lot during the day anyway. I was quite drunk. Arrived back at the Indra to discover some possibly disastrous news from the Foreign Press Centre in Hanoi: we are in serious trouble if the $3,000 fee does not cover transport.


I woke up at 7.30 with a booming hangover, and a couple of Panadol didn't help. Off to the airport. The fabled two hour journey actually took less than a half hour, thought the traffic was hectic and the smog layer appalling. I was feeling pretty seedy queueing up for the Hanoi flight. I actually threw up, making a quick dash to a bin. Then we found out that the 11am flight was delayed until 2pm, which actually turned out to be 3pm. We have discussed the economic situation and we are ready for some hard bargaining in Hanoi. We got to Hanoi about 4.30 where we were met by Thuan who is to be our guide - for some reason we didn't get Thang.
The drive into Hanoi was impressive - the usual mayhem of scooters, bikes, trucks all over the road, but there was a blood-red sun lowering on a flat landscape of green rice paddies. As we drew closer to Hanoi itself, there were stalls on the roadside selling fireworks.

At the Military guesthouse we ran into Mai Huong who was as wonderful as ever - she apparently did not appreciate Morley Safer's characterisation of her in his book. She is currently attached to a BBC crew shooting endangered species, those she called "invisible animals" because the "Vietnamese eat everything". She tells us that she would rather be with us than the BBC. No argument. We caught up with our cyclo drivers Mai and Tru who took us to Evan's "office" across the road from the guest house. Much joy and hugs, great excitement. This lovely old lady with traditionally blackened teeth sat us down for some bitter tea and raisins while we passed around Evan's photos to Mai and Tru. A kind of euphoria settles in: we are in Hanoi again, with friends.

Thuan joined us later in our rooms where we passed some letters to be forwarded including one to General Giap! Now this is where things took a turn for the worse, as Thuan informs us that the $3000 fee is just for the interpreter (in excess of $100 a day) and the car was extra. There was no way we could handle this, so we basically had to revise our itinerary drastically. We spend two long hours poring over maps reconstructing our adventure. We'll know tomorrow what the real damage is after we catch up with the Foreign Press Centre Director, Mr Quang.

After we'd thrashed out what we could, the three of us decide that some food and drink is required, so we set off to Cha Ca La Vong, which was closed, so we ended up at the Piano Bar, which was just as time-warped and geographically misplaced as last time, even though the owner Tuyet had shifted location slightly. There were still the two delightful girls on violin and piano playing classical music, and the very sedate atmosphere. The exception was a sticker on the door "Why wait any longer? Send Rambo". Tuyet joined us for a chat and David took a polaroid of us and gave it to him - so he promptly gave us Piano Bar t-shirts. Excellent! We also got to try the Viet beer ?333? for the first time. The locals call it three threes - ba ba. But you have to be careful with your pronunciation, because you can actually call for three ladies or "making a noise". We learn to say "Chuc Mung Nam Moi" for the first time. $13 buys three people a big meal AND beers!

David and I cyclo'd back to our hotel, got outrageously ripped off by our drivers who wanted 80,000 dong (over 10 US dollars). As it was, we still gave them 60,000! David and I then had a strategy meeting, we revised our plans. Then to bed (David: separate rooms).


Valentine's Day and Tet Eve. The day started at Evan's pub with one of our cyclo guys, Mai, having small cups of bitter tea with even more bitter coffee set in bowls of hot water to keep it warm. While there, we saw a guy come out of the Military Guest House, an American photographer Bill Crawford. He asked if we'd been here before. When we said yes, he asked whether we knew Evan Ham. When we said yes to that, he said that Evan owed him money.
The cyclos took us to the Flower Market - a Tet speaciality - apparently the Vietnamese love flowers as a Tet present; also there were small cumquat trees - people bought them whole, riding off on scooters. For the price of a polaroid, we got upstairs onto the roof of a house there, which David used to great effect. We visited 48 Hang Ngang street, the house where Ho Chi Minh wrote the Viet Declaration of Independence it 1946. Unfortunately the museum was closed for Tet.

We set off to Lenin Park where there was a lot of war paraphenalia like SAMS, Russian artillery pieces and a MIG, but the centrepiece was the rubble of a downed B52 ("BTQ" painted on it - David works for BTQ Channel Seven in Brisbane), roughly assembled into the shape of a plane on the grass. We spent some time clambering over this, then at the gates, discussing plans for tomorrow. At the shop in Lenin Park, David gave a lesson to the owner, after wandering into the kitchen to find a bucket: ?put the beer in the ice, not the ice in the beer? (as we have learned not to trust the ice in Hanoi).

Lunchtime and ?Madame Soup?, one of Evan's regulars, wasn't open until after Tet, but at least we caught up with her. So we ended up at one of the typically crowded sidewalk cafes where we ate beef noodle soup, Pho Bo (chicken noodle soup is Pho Ga), and talked in pidgeon French with the guy at the next table. Mai also produced a standard Vietnamese meal - sticky rice. It's a parcel of rice wrapped in a banana leaf which gives it this green tinge; inside is what tastes like a bean paste, then in the centre are meat pieces. Mai absolutely wolfed his, then David's and my leftovers. The entire meal for four people cost A$1.50 (7000d). When we got back from lunch, to find a Tet present waiting for us in our room - it appears to be some biscuits of a sort.

Off to the Foreign Press Centre, and old French colonial building with wooden floors to see Quang and Thuan to further discuss how we can salvage something from the mix-up on prices: after the gift of Jim Beam Bourbon to Quang, and some stiff negotiation, we get their fees down from $3000 to $2300, hotel costs including food to $1000, and the car (maybe all transport) down to $2000, all US currency.

We ask, with some hearty laughter, for Soviet bicycles for the transport element! That's still over budget and it means dropping the Chinese border tour, Tay Ninh, Dalat and most of the road stuff on the Hanoi - Ho Chi Minh City trip, which will now be by train. It's still very tight however, we'll just have to see how it pans out. We had a long, occasionally curious chat about Vietnamese minorities (they discovered the 65th a few years ago in a cave in the Central Highlands), oil exploration and television. We learned during this negotiation that business follows a period of general chat, pleasantries and exchanges of information.

Features: sugared lotus seeds, coconut slivers, and a lot of Heineken. After the meeting we tried to telephone Evan from the Guest House: Robin was home, Evan wasn't, and the line went dead.

We walked to the Lake of the Restored Sword (passing Mai and Tru en route telling them that we weren't invited to the Foreign Press Centre Tet Eve party), found the Buu Dien (Post Office) still open at 7pm, and sent off a fax to Evan to explain our current state of affairs, as well as:


Off around the lake to check out the fireworks building up. Some of those crackers seem to be lethally explosive. Features: David buying and lighting a 500d firecracker, kids everywhere lighting firecrackers off incense sticks. And we got back to the Guest House just in time to miss Evan's phone call by one minute! We'd picked up some cans of Coke along the way (cheaper than from the reception bar in the Guest House) and sat in David's room listening to Madonna and a Tour Of Duty album, drinking Johnnie Walker scotch. We reflect that today we "sold" a bottle of bourbon to Mr Quang for US$700!

About 11pm we went back to the lake where the action was hotting up, to the extent that all hell broke loose as what seemed like hundreds of thousands of firecrackers going off every split second. En route, a point of confusion when we met Mai, Tru, Bang and other cyclo drivers. Departing, we said "see you later", which Mai took literally, and waited or searched for us for two hours. Much laughter the next day when the explanations were made and understood. By the lake, the air filled with thick gunsmoke and people had a hard time dodging crackers, whirlygigs and rockets. The sound on the stroke at midnight was like the world exploded - deafening. Some people were dragging strings of crackers behind them on bikes.

About 1.30am, people started stripping trees for branches to carry around, climbing high into the trees. We met one well-spoken guy who cracked a joke about ecology. He then introduced us to his wife who he said was an English Professor. The whole thing was extremely friendly and wild and loud, we even saw a few accidents where bikes and scooters collided.

Everyone was dressed in their best and the girls looked absolutely delightful. Actually a lot of the young people were quite fashionably dressed. We ended up getting home about 2am, fireworks going off like crazy.


We were woken up before we planned to by fireworks going off next door, and all over the city. Phone call from Evan: "outrageous, Barry Petersen paid $1250 for four weeks last year". We waited for Thuan, but because he didn't show, we left a letter for him at the Foreign Press Centre asking for a 2pm meeting, then headed off through uncharacteristically uncrowded streets to go across Long Bien Bridge over the vast Red River, stopping along the way to watch a hugh string of fireworks being lit. It must have been 10 feet long with huge bungers periodically included, the result being deafening.
The bridge was stunning, not only because it was badly damaged by American bombing so that the spans are uneven and still show signs of damage. It impressed because of the sheer pleasure we had walking across it, being greeted all the way. I even crawled across the railway tracks in the middle to get to the walkway on the other side. We then recrossed the Red River by walking across the more recent, and specifically for wheel traffic, Can Chuong bridge; walking with the express permission of the police guards.

Off to the Quan Thanh Pagoda. We'd been before but because of Tet there were a lot of people there and David got some excellent video, even though he almost suffocated in the incense clouds within. Even I got some great photos when people, like 85 and 83 year old ladies, asked me to take their pictures. However, because they were there for serious business (remembrance of dead husbands) they wouldn't smile - thereby not showing their blackened teeth. We also ran into a tourist Vietnamese, now living in the US but having returned for Tet - he hoped the US embargo would lift so his country could improve.

From there to a flower village in a Hanoi outer suburb, but its most famous landmark is a section of B52 shot down in the Christmas bombing of 1972 partly submerged in a lily pond. We left via the back lanes past a place playing disco music - Boney M. Everywhere we've been people have been extremely friendly, waving and calling hello and saying "Happy New Year". This place was no exception. We had to be back at the Army Guest House by 2pm to await Thuan to resolve Evan's questions regarding the sudden rise in funding. He arrived and we went through the details. The meeting went well, although Thuan said Evan "is no longer subsidised in the new economic reality". He pointed out that the FPC pays new taxes, there is less Soviet money, the Gulf War affects petrol prices, and we deduce that the FPC charges are now very clearly directed toward profit. After the meeting David and I video our economic summit, resolving that we will have a positive attitude, and that the losses are unavoidable. Mai had a message from a Dutch reporter called Minka whom David had met in Phnom Penh - I was sick at the time. She apparently thought we were in a meeting and couldn't be disturbed, so she left a message.

Evan was due to phone at 5pm so, in the meantime, we went off to check out the Two Lady Pagoda, which supposedly has statues of the abovementioned two ladies. Despite several rooms for prayer, we couldn't find them but the statuary and detail was still pretty impressive. It was also the only place so far where I'd seen a young person with blackened teeth - a female Buddhist nun.

Evan phoned almost on the dot at 5pm and we gave him the breakdown of the US$2,300 cost. He still thought that it was outrageous and was going to send off a fax of complaint. We went around to Minka's hotel only to find she left just minutes ago so we left our message. At 6pm our cyclo drivers took us off to a new restaurant in Hang Ga Street (chickens = ga), close to the Piano Bar. We invited Mai and Tru to have a Tet meal with us here at Chau Thanh and unfortunately it had a European type menu. Both David and I started with a modified Vietnamese chicken soup (pho ga), then steak and chips (honest!), then Vietnamese spring rolls. Mai had as part of dinner I think - ox cunt (that's what his writing looked like).

Anyway the restaurant was outrageously expensive in Vietnamese terms - in excess of 110,000 dong (A$20) for four people including Heiniken beer. We took some photos of the restaurant owner and of us with Mai and Tru. Afterwards we went across to Lenin Park where Tet festivities were being held with merry-go-rounds, games of chance and a live band. While there, David (not me, I'm sorry to say) got mobbed by all these young girls who wanted their photo taken with him. (David: Bill will experience the same amazement and delight in Hue). Back to the guest house for a scotch and coke. And another scotch and coke. I should note that Mai took us on a roundabout trip to the restaurant so we could see a bit more of the city. The fireworks, or at least evidence of them in terms of shredded confetti, were very much a feature. By the time we'd gotten to bed however the fireworks had become much more sporadic.

Features: countless people saying "hello", "happy new year", "OK" and "how are you".

No comments: