Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Culinary Tour Of Vietnam (Day 11-15)


"There are only three types of Black Tai women:
the children are angels,
the teenage girls are goddesses
and the women are mothers-of-the-earth."

Our one late day so far, setting off at 9am, after Pho Ga at the hotel (terrible - both food and hotel). The French brothers tell us of a friend, Colonel Alairre, who is the military advisor to a film directed by Pierre Schoendoerfer near Hoa Binh at Xuan Mai. The film shoots until June 15 and is about the seige of Dien Bien Phu. Pierre as a young man was the photographer captured in a photo at the Dien Bien Phu Museum. First step was back to the museum to see if we could obtain a souvenir badge. The captain gave us two - he said they were the last two - combatant commorative badges, in exchange for a roll of film. They would use the film to photograph visitors for display. Before we left, David and I signed the official guest book beneath the statue of Ho at the entrance. In the guest book, we note that four Australians visited in April 1990, a Graham Crewes in September 1990 and a B. Larkin.

The drive back to Son La, even though we'd done it before, was pretty damn good. First, we pulled up by a whole group of people working in the rice paddies and they seemed absolutely thrilled. We got some great shots of some great reactions. The Black Tai children - in their costumes - were adorable. Next we stopped at a Black Tai village where some girls were throwing this toy. It's aimed at bringing boys and girls together and is a kind of build-up to friendship. Some girls were banging a drum, so we got that as well. (David: what Bill leaves out is how unutterably beautiful the Black Tai women and girls were at this stop, and how we'll always remember their curious gazes and shy giggling). What is very strange are the color groupings: you'll go past one native group in red tops, or blue, or green but they don't seem to be categorised by village or family, because with, say, ten girls in red, you'll see one or two in blue. The driver (Tran Minh) Hong (Tran Minh Hong, 10 Le Phung Hieu Street, Hanoi. Ph: 55758) needed to change a tyre, right where this huge road construction was going on, so David and I walked ahead down this road, stopping at one point to warm our hands at a small fire built by some local girls.

We got back to Son La about 2.30pm and went off to check out Son La prison. It's now a museum, but it was originally used by the French to hold political prisoners, including Le Duan and Le Duc Tho. It was built in 1908, and included secret cells underground. It was bombed by the French in 1953 after it was taken back by the Viet Minh, and again by the Americans in 1965, so most of it is rubble. David found it reminiscent of Tuol Sleng with its austerity, metal braces set in concrete and the torture cells. We never knew this, but Thuan tells us that SAMS were installed as far west as Moc Chau, half way to Son La, to defend Hanoi against the American bombers coming in from Thailand. The prison guide who showed us around, a very attractive woman amongst attractive women, took us down to a monument to a hero of the prison, then invited us to her coffee house, where she gave us some home made spirits, and of course, tea. David shot some polaroids - one of herself, son and daughter, with our driver, as three is an unlucky number in a photograph.

Dinner at the guest house was a riot. First we ate everything on the table with great relish, having starved at Dien Bien Phu. Perhaps the best meal we ate in Vietnam. The waitress, Ca Thi Hien, says to Thuan that she wishes she could speak English so that she could speak to David. Later, through Thuan, she asks David about his impressions of Son La. He says "the women are more beautiful than the mountains". David's polaroid camera is a real party-starter - our waitress rushed off to put on a traditional dress. David supplied the headgear she'd forgot.

By the time the evening was over, four or five women had got involved in the pictures amid lots of giggling. Hien thanks me with a handshake and David asks Thuan to translate that he will say goodnight in the Australian way, and hugs her to peals of laughter by her friends. A fun way to end the day. Feature: Hien stood on a stool to get up to our height for the photos.


"Driving to Dien Bien Phu and back is like
spending four days in an earthquake, sitting down,
watching the landscape move around you"
Today, we return to Hanoi, up at 5.30 and it's miserably cold. Breakfast is our usual Pho Bo (though this time it's liver, not beef) at the museum guide's tea house. Her name is Cao Thi Dung (pronounced Cow Tea Zung). David gave her some Channel 7 balloons, and I gave her daughter a government biro. The day's trip turned out to be uneventful, because not only was it cold, it was either rainy, misty or smoky - more fires. Just after Hoa Binh, we detoured to Xuan Mai. The brothers Vilbert had told us of the epic French movie about Dien Bien Phu being planned here. And honestly, it was awesome. The were myriad trench lines scoured into the hills overlooking the mock airstrip, on which there were two vintage prop fighters and two DC3s. We were there without permission, so when a guard showed up, we bluffed that we did have permission and then shot through, so we didn't get to see the mock-up of De Castries' bunker. But we did note that they only had three tanks (which fits) instead of the four at Dien Bien Phu. On the way back we looked over some old French bunkers and as usual got surrounded by hundreds of people. Then it was back to the Army Guest House, via a mind-boggling drive through Hanoi traffic in late afternoon. The four day excursion cost US$616.

At 7pm we decided to go souvenir hunting, first catching up with Tru who delivers the New Year banner David had ordered in Flag Street, then Mai (because Tru went and got him) at the Danchu Hotel, also Bang, Kiet and Viep all five of the cyclos we have known and we talk about our trip to DBP. In a great gesture, Mai bought Evan his waterpipe and tobacco as a present, and also bought us one each. We then bought some Wan Li beer, David bought a silver bracelet for Anna and an anecdotal book about Ho, went back to the guest house for dinner (spring rolls and beef dishes), wrote up some more postcards, and that was it for the day. We have been to Dien Bien Phu. Will we ever meet a Westerner who will be able to say such a thing?


"Every food has a story to tell"
Mr Quang

We pottered around Hanoi today, starting with the Army Museum. It's changed quite a bit since last time, in that the exhibits had been re-arranged, the work on restoring the watch-tower was finished and the Gulf Of Tonkin torpedo tubes were nowhere to be seen. All of this, we were told, was because there was now a civilian in charge. The biggest change, however, was a huge roomsized mock-up of the Dien Bien Phu battle. From there, we cyclo'd clear across town to the Air Force Museum, which was shut, but we were able to look at the exhibits outside, like the Russian MIGs and helicopters. After chasing around, we went to a "newsagent" only to find it closed - they opened it specially for us. After some deliberation, it turned out that we could get Thailand's Nation newspaper for the last three days as well as current editions (from upstairs, down the back) of Time and Newsweek.
We also tried to get some more polaroid film at some new processing places, and were unable to, but we did manage to post off our cards, which turned out to be more expensive than buying them. We decided to skip lunch because we wanted to catch up with Thuan at the History Museum. He was there when we arrived, and while we were in the gift shop, Tru and Mai surprised us with a lunch of sausage, ham and bread rolls. So we asked Tru to go buy a bottle of Wan Li. The History Museum was a little dull, mostly because there were no English signs. But what was strange was this furtive character who told us that he was the Museum Director. He surreptitiously dragged us from exhibit to exhibit telling us what was original, then asked us for money! We then tried to go to the revolutionary Museum, but it was closed, so it was back to the guest house for some Wan Li beer (it is getting cheaper all the time: 3700d to 3500d to 3250d).

As we arrived back, the mad girl from the rooftop was now lying on the road in front of the army base trying to block traffic. Surprisingly, nobody did anything about her, just drove around her, or stood and watched. However, we stood and watched.

Tonight was yet another of those surprises that happen to us. Thuan informed us that we would be having dinner with Mr Quang, the director of the Foreign Press Centre. We knew from last year that it would be fun, but we didn't know how much. We ended up at the same restaurant as last year and we got there early to film in the kitchen which was interesting in itself, because they had a charcoal stove pushed along with an electric fan. Watching the chef chop pork was entertaining because he did it musically. Mr Quang arrived and we moved upstairs, whereupon he opened a bottle of Russian champagne - very sweet, almost a spumante. We then drank Heineken.

First, the meal: eel soup (with corn and mushroom), shredded chicken with pickled or cooked cucumber, bean sprouts and banana bulb (which actually has heat like chili), grilled prawns, baked freshwater fish, spring rolls, steamboat with pig skin, kidney and fried rice noodles, also watermelon and coffee. Quang was simply amazing. Among other things he spoke English. We knew he understood it, but was reluctant to use it because he didn't think that he was good enough. He told us Vietnamese stories about how the prawn came to get its shape, about how Viet men build strength for their wives, about how in Vietnam you eat that part of the fish that is good for that part of the body, how Southern food is different to the North (babana fish is Ca Chuoy in the north, Ca Loc in the south) and so on. He also presented us with these amazing (kitschy) lion statues, but stunning because they are made of coal from Vietnam's biggest mining area.

The big surprise of the evening was the invitation back to his home - just a short walk down the street and up a flight of stairs. For a high-ranking official, the place is austere but still he can afford a full sound system with flashing lights (which he demonstrated by playing UB40!). He also had European calendar girls on the wall along with a picture of Che. More interestingly, he not only had autographed copies of books by Tim Page (a great photographic record called "Ten Years After) and by Neil Sheehan ("A Bright Shining Lie") but he also had the two volume translation of Sheehan's book in Vietnamese.

Drinks started with a "medicine" like we'd had at Son La, and Quang presented us with a carton of leaves, roots, and herbs to make up our own with rice vodka. We then moved on to Johnnie Walker Black Label. Meanwhile the discussion turned to his involvement with the American War, his separation from his family, how he came to marry a girl thirteen years younger (and she's beautiful - we saw the photos), and his battle with his mother-in-law to-be. He told us of meeting Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, and Castro; how his younger brother was wounded nine times, of battles in the tunnels of Cu Chi, of not seeing his sister for over a decade, and of having to leave his southern town in 1954 because of the Geneva Agreement. (His province is Vietnam's southernmost - Minh Hai). Quang told a story of how Jane Fonda forgot the Vietnamese she had tried to memorise. At a gathering, instead of saying "Nothing is more important than independence", she said ?Nothing...". Quang got married, he said, because he played flamenco guitar (taught by the French) and so attracted his wife, a dancer. David said "so that's why you hate the French!" He spent 20 years in the south and 35 years in Hanoi. His wife is a northerner.

He told us of the essential differences between the north and south: the Southerners are more liberal, the Northerners are more principled; the Southerners are more advantaged economically; the North is more industrialised than the South; the Southerners are careless about money, the Northerners are more careful, keeping some money aside; the South has no storms or typhoons; but North and South love guests very much (in the South, he said, people burn furniture to heat food for a guest).

And all this time, hours passing, he just laughed and laughed - a great man. I told him of the privilege of meeting him. I meant it. Fond hugs sealed a perfect night.

When we got back to the guest house, we met a Canadian who told us that there's just been a coup in Thailand and street fighting in Albania.


Today, departure at 8am via Haiphong, to Ha Long Bay. Neither was all that exciting to be honest. The trip from Hanoi was through the flatlands of the Red River Valley which had been turned over to, you guessed it, rice. What was interesting however was how the regular blocks of paddies would be occasionally interspersed with ragged circles, often turned into ponds - bomb craters. French bunkers, old grey concrete, were scattered menancingly through the landscape. Haiphong, though brighter because the sun was out today, didn't have the color of Hanoi. Being a seaport, it's heavily industrialized with plenty of rusting hulks around. However, the central area around the market where we stopped for photos seemed cleaner than Hanoi. The French buildings were in very good repair. At the markets, streetside stalls sold dolls with western faces, and small wind-up M72 and M54 plastic tanks. To get to Ha Long required three ferry crossings, which were quite fun; as usual the people were pretty damn friendly. Apart from there being a lot more old French forts this way, the other obvious difference was the extent of vegetable farming. We stopped for lunch half way where we discovered another Chinese beer - Quan Li, and had a kind of stir-fried lean pork.
The main centre of Ha Long Bay is a grimy place called Hongai, a coal-mining town, with the evidence of coal dust everywhere. Ha Long itself is appalling - the worst of Vietnamese poverty combined with coal dust, alongside one of the great natural wonders of the world. Quang's statues for us were made from coal from this area. Ha Long Bay itself seems pretty spectacular, with huge interestingly shaped rocks jutting out of the sea. We dealt with a local official, Vu Viet Binh, the secretary of the external section of the office of Quang Ninh. He wasn't much use to us getting good views of the Bay, but he did get us out to a decrepit freighter in the harbour from which to take photographs. Tomorrow, we're looking to hire a boat to check out the islands, but funds may restrict our time on the bay - plus we have to get back to Hanoi by 6pm at the latest for Angela's phone call to David.

Our hotel, the Bach Dang, is classy by Viet standards as David says, it's got indirect lighting - except for the bare bulb in the bathroom. The toilet paper is the same green ?crap? we used in Phnom Penh. Thuan informs us that the ground war with Iraq has begun and he gave us a faltering translation of the TV news at dinner, which included mushroom growing, industrial re-organisation, gangsters' weapons confiscated, a murder investigation, and Swedish hospital care for Hanoi children. Thuan also told us that "bandits" attack on the road to Dien Bien Phu early morning or early evening in wet weather. Dinner was OK, stir fried pork, grilled fish, sauteed cabbage and what looked like spinach soup, plus white rice.

Feature: we ran into the French guys again at the Hongai Ferry.


The Ha Long bay excursion was actually a bit of a disappointment. It was not only smoky, but overcast, then rainy. The day started with a Pho (pork I think) and we boarded, considering the bay, a huge boat. The advice about not taking a small boat was wrong as the water was quite still. The Bay was stunning, but would have been so much better if the light was better. Added to this was the fact that we had speecifically stated that our total price was $50 and we only wanted one hour at sea. So half an hour later, having shot everything in sight, we asked them to turn around, but they said it was OK, just a little way to go. Of course, the overall trip turned into two hours. This large boat, normally $50 an hour, reduced for us to $35 an hour, then came to $70. I said, sorry I we only have $50, and that was it, pointing out that I'd told Thuan the night before, plus we'd asked him to turn back after a half-hour. We got it for $50. (David: Bill got it for $50 because he turned into Marble Mountain when the haggling began).
Starting at 11.30am, the drive back was pretty uneventful, except for lunch on the outskirts of Haiphong. The 60 year old owner was a real character, showing us his wounds while serving as a volunteer sapper during the American War. His wife was also a veteran. We ended up sharing his home-made rice wine and taking photos of the family. This was yet another of those unforseen incidents that happened daily and made our odyssey into Vietnam especially memorable - and almost always because of the generosity of the "ordinary" people we meet.

Back at the guest house, reception has turned into a pub full of journalists, (among them David Schweisberg, Beijing bureau chief for UPI) and we had a great yak about experiences, confirming once again that because of past and present experiences, we are "old hands". It appears that, to much envy, we are the only Westerners to have actually got onto the set of the Dien Bien Phu movie. We also said good-bye to Huong our driver, who was great. He's got a good sense of humour and he's been fun to have around. At 6pm David gets his phone call from Angie in Brisbane - an hour long discussion about the new year's ratings. Good news for David. Then immediately a phone call from Anna and a farewell until Ho Chi Minh City. So tonight, on our last night in Hanoi, our cyclo drivers take us off to Cha Ca La Vong. Here we had the standard fish marinated and fried at an upstairs table with shallots, peanuts, noodles, mint and parsley, vinegar dressing and fish sauce. Not to mention Heineken and 333. Then finally, once more past the Lake of the Restored Sword, and a brief stop to take in the atmosphere of this magic city on a late February evening, and back to the guest house for scotch and coke, video replays of the days past, and Madonna.

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