Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Culinary Tour Of Vietnam (Day 16-20)


"Does this train stop between Hanoi and Hue?" Bill
"Saigon." Thuan
Our last day in Hanoi was spent going to the Revolutionary Museum crawling with schoolkids, (unusual little display we haven't seen elsewhere - a small glass case with memorabilia of the western anti-war movement: a small metal badge with "War Is Bad For Children And Other Living Things" as well as a broad tie with peace symbols all over), then trying to buy the latest copy of Thailand's Nation to see how the land war is going.

The journos at the guest house say that Hussein is pulling out of Kuwait but that this is not enough for the allies - Bush wants a public back-down. We sent some more cards from the Buu Dien and then to the Department Store to buy some souvenirs - lacquer wood. David buys a rarity at an art shop, a collection of Vietnamese stamps with dinosaurs on it - 2000d, about 33 cents. One last lunch at the guest house with the journos: David of UPI, Nevada, Frank Koller of CBC and Bill Crawford. We hear that from April 1 foreign residents will come under some new high income tax system, there's also a new tax on imported foreign cars. Also US firms have many unofficial representatives in the North on tours, but the Vietnamese do not know if they will return, considering the US economic blockade.

Off to the station to catch the Reunification Express south to Hue.We're in second class, I think - six to a cabin in tiered bunks too close together to sit up in and typically hard. The train has steel shutters instead of glass because children used to throw rocks at the train and break the windows. In our cabin is Thuan, a German guy and his Viet girlfriend and another Viet guy. The countryside south is miles and miles of rice paddies. One of the train employees pointed out that I had the straw mat on my bunk upside down (!) so I fixed it and thanked him. Thuan apparently couldn't arrange to bunk down with us and is in another carriage. But he spent most of his time with us. He reckons the Viet girl is a contract worker in Germany here for Tet holidays with her German boyfriend. David spat the dinner supplied in the dining car out the window into the gathering twilight. Twilight brought Nimh Binh Province which is like Ha Long Bay on land, with great karst hills rising suddenly from the plain. Sleep was punctuated by the cacophony at Vinh - a town destroyed by the Vietnamese to stop the French, and later razed to the ground by US bombing. People swarmed along the darkened train hawking food at the top of the voices. Sleep.


"What this country needs is a damn good bombing"

Coffee lady on train: Manh Tran Thi, 42/273 Huynh Dinh Hai Street, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. She spoke excellent English, better than Thuan. This happens to us every day, somewhere. After daybreak, we crossed the DMZ which after some 20 years still bears the scars of the huge carpet bombing campaign This, despite a concerted effort to fill in the bomb craters. We cross the Ben Hai bridge on the historic 17th parallel. Lambada on the train loudspeaker! (Thuan says that disco music makes you feel good). Lunch on the train in the restaurant car was most interesting, not appetising: some kind of fried cabbage, pork, spinach or celery soup, rice, sauce and Bia Ba Ba. The eggs were fried - orange in color.
Just a short distance from Hue, about 3Okm I guess, the train was stopped by an accident ahead. We're not sure, but we believe it was a derailment. People just got out of the train, bought sugar cane stalks, and idly passed the time sitting on the tracks. One even did his washing and hung it on a nearby tree. We seemed to attract every small foodstuffs business from the surrounding countryside, and various gambling games of dice and cards started up. The train ended up being delayed some eight hours; we never saw the accident and discovered that we were only 7km from Hue. The German guy and Viet girl got off to hitch a ride or catch a bus into Hue shortly after we stopped. Even so, the delay was entertaining; apart from sleep, we went for a walk along the road and met some of the locals. A 4pm quote: "If we're still here tomorrow, we should revise our schedule" - David. We ended up being invited into the next compartment to share tea with a bunch of railway surveyors, which was great fun. One spoke passable English, while another spoke good French. They seemed keen on us going to Dalat. We told them - next time.

Just before the train started moving again, Thuan translated an announcement over the PA system. It seems that everyone was being asked if anyone had seen the two foreigners who wandered off up the road - us. Much laughter ensued. (Train guys: c/- Dao Trong Tien, Phong Duong Sat, Vien T.K.G.T.V.T.,278 Ton Duc Thang Street, Hanoi).

We arrived in the old imperial capital of Hue about 7pm, the full moon reflected in the Perfumed River, disembarked and got Thuan to argue with the cyclo drivers (20,000d for three of us) and proceeded to our hotel the Huong Giang (Perfumed River) 51 Le Loi Street. Passed a bicyclist who told us he was a medical student and spoke exemplary English - yes, the Hanoi women are very "slender". Music en route - Michael Jackson's "Beat It" seems to be a lot of dance places. The hotel was originally built or used as an ARVN officer billet. The main building is quite plush - with a Channel Seven logo on the noticeboard (John D'Arcy from Beyond 2000?), but we are shunted off to the cheaper section (which is fine by us at $20 a night), a three bed dormitory. We ate on the third floor of this hotel on a balcony overlooking the river: spring rolls, grilled chicken, lean pork and rice. The meal was excellent with Hue Beer, then 333 all for only 50,000d. During the meal we ask Thuan a crucial question. We know that every foreigner is given a special nickname by people at the Press Centre. Ours turned out to be Bill: Con De Vietnam (Vietnamese Son-InLaw) relating to the fact that I'm not married and like Vietnamese women, and David: Vui Tinh (Open Man) referring to his welcoming openness about all things Vietnamese. Evan's was very obvious: Dieu Thuoc Lao (Tobacco Man). The other thing about Hue is the incredible silence (except for the colored lighted dance clubs) and the lack of street lighting.


Like so many days in Vietnam - this is a day not to forget. So many wonderful experiences. The day started early (7.30) though David had been up since 5.30 shooting fishermen on the river amid the early morning mist. With the by now totally expected Boney M and Lambada, we had a breakfast of spring rolls and filtered Cafe Au Lait on the open balcony of the hotel then walked to the bridge across the Perfumed River (a euphemism) to the Dong Ba Markets. These were fairly typical markets although I got some good shots of "coolie" hats and hopefully one of a "butcher's" shop. After one of Thuan's ?shit fights" with the locals, we hired a boat to take us to the Huong Pagoda now known as Thien Mu (as in "heaven", as in Tien An Min Square - apparently designed by a Vietnamese architect). The motorised sampan had an amazing leak (OK for 40,000d) and a wierdo. Thuan was polite about him, saying he talked too much, but his eyes suggested more. Thuan said ?alcohol?, I suspected more.
The boat trip was spectacular, from the departure behind the markets where old women squatted down to piss on the riverbank, and others washed vegetables in this "perfumed" river, under three bridges, past sampans inches above submersion because of their loads of sand (the river is so shallow, people dredge by hand), to the climb up the riverside steps to the Pagoda itself. Inside the grounds, we met a monk who spoke English. He joined when he was 13 - he is now 30 - and he was taught by a monk who is now 90 and had been at the pagoda for 50 years. The Pagoda wasn't really open so we missed a clear sight of the array of large bronze Buddhas behind slatted doors.

Suddenly a group of girls arrive, shattering our belief that the most beautiful women in Vietnam come from Hanoi, but we are surprised to discover that they are Hanoi girls, University students wearing beautiful Ao Dais. They were beautiful and, to say the least, distracting. The novices were also interesting with their shaved heads, but with a long strand of hair at the front tucked behind their ears. We also met a surgeon from Danang whose English, again, was pretty good, and David met an overseas Vietnamese who is a linguistics teacher at Tokyo University. We are dying of heat and dehydration. Our wierdo friend tried to chat up a European girl at the Pagoda, and she reported him - he tried to persuade me to let her onto our boat back, but it was clear he was making a pass, so I said "no". Anyway, he was detained and we didn't encounter him again.

We asked to be dropped off by the bridge and we walked back through the old French Quarter which was not only pretty boring, but also hot. The Hue climate is conducive to sweating. One of the best kept French colonial buildings we have seen in Vietnam turned out to be the police headquarters, and naturally, we couldn't shoot it. As we returned to our hotel, we bought some Coke from a hunchbacked Vietnamese dwarf. David and I spent 100,000d each on antiques at the gift shop, mine an incense burner, David's a coal-fired iron 100 years old. Thuan tells us his favourite beer is 333 - ours is "cold".

After a lunch of pork, fried noodles and beer, we hired cyclos to go to the citadel, but within metres of our hotel I spotted a group of young people in a park with rifles. They were doing their obligatory 15 days a year military training. We settled in for some filming, but because a lot of the students had some English, we ended up talking to them. I was surrounded by young girls, one 21 year old, absolutely delightful, doing the talking. I was enchanted. They asked what I was doing, where I was going, if i was married (I said "No, I'm looking for a Vietnamese girl"), how old I was (they didn't believe I was 41). One girl called out "I love you", then bolted with embarassment. The girl I was talking to said I was handsome - these are the moments you live for. I will remember forever squatting down in a park by the Perfumed River, surrounded by beautiful girls.

Rifle kids: Trinh Van Tung, Lop Phap 4 - Khoa Phap, Dai Hoc Su Pham, Hue.

On to the citadel where the Tet Offensive raged some 23 years ago, wreaking no small havoc on this historic place. Though the United Nations is assisting in its repair, there is still a lot of visible damage from bullets and shells. Here I met an American architecture student on a one year study grant of "urbanisation in South East Asia". On our return, we stopped at a "floating restaurant" for a few drinks (we taught them the bucket routine - beer in the ice, not ice in the beer) and spring rolls as we watched the darkness descend upon Hue. Here another wierd conjunction occured - we actually heard ?Lara?s Theme" from Dr Zhivago, and the theme from ?The Good The Bad And The Ugly" sung in Vietnamese. We walked back to the hotel, no street lights, "another adventure" as Thuan would say.

Dinner was again on the balcony of the Huong Giang - and I had the meal of the same name, a kind of fried rice with chicken. Thuan had fried shrimp and David had the same noodle meal from lunch. Plus, we got plastered. A good time. David told me I talk too much when I get drunk. I don't think I talk enough when I'm sober. Oh well. Thuan told us about his family and house in Hanoi where they grow herbs and vegetables. Interesting that the tiny Vietnamese apples grow only in the North. Geckos in the room near the lights - reminds us of Cambodia.


"Thuan, what kind of soup is this?" Bill
"It's a very good soup." Thuan
This is the 15th day of Tet - Ram Thang Gieng - the most important day of the Buddhist year. Danang is the destination today. Thuan has arranged a clapped out car for this leg of the trip, so that we can see the impressive Hai Van Pass where the train goes through tunnels. First, we tie up a few loose ends in Hue. At breakfast we listen to fragments of Radio Australia and Voice of America played loudly for us by the restaurant staff. We also meet two Australians from the Northern Territory. They are tourists, and although not veterans, they've been obsessed with Vietnam for years - a product of their generation, they said. The car took us through a residential quarter, then on to Ho Chi Minh's old school which he attended in 1908 (Giap and Diem also were students here), and back to the citadel for a few more shots.

Thuan thought we should visit at least one of the tombs of Vietnam's emperors, Khai Dinh. He ruled for nine years at the turn of the century and was father to Bao Dai. His mausoleum took 11 years to construct. It's an imposing concrete structure of moulded carvings and statuettes, but the interior is more interesting with paintings and patterns made out of smashed porcelain and glass bottles gathered from all over the empire (I found a few bits of a sake bottle with the word "Tokyo" still visible) intricately assembled into pictures. Then on to Danang, picturesque trip but relatively uneventful. The Hai Van Pass wasn't really all that spectacular, especially if you'd done the Dien Bien Phu road. The views were generally obscured by mist although on a couple of occasions, there were great scenes of sandy beaches. At the top of the pass, there is a complex of forts, beginning with an ancient Cham one, and added on are French and Japanese bunkers. By the roadside we came across some artillery shells, just lying there rusting away. David video?d me bouncing one large shell in my hands! Then as we descended toward Danang, we caught sight of the radar domes on Son Tra which provided the American aircraft with directions en route to bomb our beloved north. Danang is a fairly grubby city with packed streets and lots of beggars; apparently the unemployment rate is fairly high here.

First stop was the hotel, The Sports Hotel, which appears designed to cater for tourists even though it's in a totally nondescript area. When the receptionist found out that we were from Australia, she told us that she had two brothers in Sydney. We had a late lunch of stir fried kidneys and vegetables, squid and pork soup, venison with sesame seeds, spring rolls and rice. But the nice surprise was finding 500ml cans of Sapporo beer for only 5,800d each (A$1). After lunch we set off to the Cham Museum where there are exhibits dating from the 4th to the 14th centuries. It was pretty depressing because much of the statuary was damaged in some way, but I had a good time with a group of students who thought I was Russian and tried to practise on me.

We had a confusing time trying to find the old American CORDS HQ which was supposed to be a War Crimes Museum now. Neither the street nor the museum currently existed, so we were doubtful when a building was pointed out to us. The other location we went for was Cafe Select which still had the grenade screens from when it was an American hangout. The name has changed. Then to the railway station Ga Danang where Thuan informed us that we couldn't get tickets to Nha Trung. Uh oh. While there we met a guy who repaired helicopters for the Americans at the airbase back when. He just approached our car and started talking to us. Last stop was a Cao Dai Temple where we were lucky enough to arrive while a service was in progress. I couldn't really take photos, although David got some video, but the service was very interesting for its ritualistic content - plus the mix of religious flavours: Buddhist style chanting, Christian style hand-across-body gestures, Buddhist flags, etcetera. The front of the service was dominated by a huge sphere with a radiating eye on it. Fascinating.

The food in this place is pretty damn good; dinner tonight was spicy beef in black bean sauce, spring rolls (different from the ones at lunch which were long and cut diagonally) shrimp and vegetable soup with rice. Thuan is strange - he asked us what we wanted to eat, but he had already ordered the food. (Sometimes in the car Thuan will point out something of interest, but the explanation is gibberish. David and I just look at each other).

Later in the evening, David and I went for a walk along a couple of Danang streets, careful to avoid the holes in the pavement through which could be seen evil-looking drains with black water. It was quite fun, although the kids here seem more agressively cheerful. Best line of the night came from three girls in a shop crammed with watches and clocks: "what time is it?" they asked.

Our plan to drive to China Beach, Marble Mountain and Hoi An went astray as our driver had to return to Hue because his company had found higher paying guests! Thuan had some business to do so we ended up basically sitting around until we decided to roam off. Our first stop was a construction site where cement was being shovelled up level by level to a third floor, and where many of the manual workers were women. We met a persistently cheerful cyclist who followed us for a few streets. We couldn't be rude about this, but he was distracting. We walked through the main market building which was typically cramped with stalls along narrow alleyways. Across the road at a stall where David got his memento - an original M16 ammunition knapsack - we met a delightful little schoolgirl whose English was pretty damn good. She told us she was home from school for lunch, how her mother taught her English and so forth. Further down the road we came across a stall selling bogus Coca Cola in a brown bottle much like beer bottles. It was made locally as it bore the word Danang in tiny script. Naturally we were subjected to the usual cries of "Lien Xo", but surprisingly we were picked twice as Australians and once as Americans. Lunch was pork and noodles, beef and noodles, octopus and noodles - and Sapporo.

After lunch Thuan joined us and we went back to the Cao Dai temple. I met an old man there who showed me an English explanation of the church. The huge sphere with the eye on it was the Universal Globe with the Eye of God (Thien Nhan), the symbol of absolute truth, luminosity and everlasting existence. The religion blends elements of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Lao Tsu and Confucianism. Whew. We then entered a printing shop which although very friendly was fairly ordinary, although here was one of the places where the ever-present lottery tickets are printed. We ended up at the Buu Dien down at the waterfront to post some cards. While there, David sat down with a group of teenage girls studying English, who were great fun. He told me he was also told "I love you" by one of the girls. As we walked back to the hotel, I unsuccessfully tried to set up a shot of schoolgirls on bicycles wearing white Ao Dais. Oh well.

Dinner tonight was probably our worst in this hotel (not to say it was bad - just not up to the amazing quality to date): pork and fried noodles, chateaubriand and chips, chicken and fried rice. I tried for frogs legs but none were available. Tonight we decided to drop in on the teacher David met at the Cao Dai temple to give him some English language magazines. (Tran Quoc Cong, 34/7 Hai Phong; wife Huong and daughter Nguyen, 4 on 23 April). We went to the address he gave David, and were invited in, with all the neighbours watching at the door, while we tried to find out where he was. The family spoke only a little French. After leaving a message and setting off back to our hotel we did meet him on the road and he explained that the address he gave David was for his brother's home. He was somewhast agitated to know that we'd been visiting - he was paranoid about being reported to the police for meeting foreigners - the implication being that he was planning to leave the country. He views his situation as stemming from his being a Northern Catholic whose family fled in 1954 when he was not yet one year old, and prior to 1975, he was taught by Americans. He did not end up in a re-education camp but he said that his past stops him getting a good job. As a government English teacher, he earns 40,000d a month (we spent half that on three cans of Heineken to drink with him). Finally we settled into a pokey sidewalk cafe. While there, he viewed with suspicion a man who sat behind us and was startled when a car suddenly pulled up on the other side of the street. His wife, whom we met briefly, works as an administrator in a hospital. He told us four letters held sent to America, and letters and parcels sent to him had gone astray. His favourite book, he said, was Erich Fromm's "Art Of Loving" and he wanted more books but took pains to point out that we should mail such things to a foreign resident here who could pass it on through the internal mail. Also any books we send should have no pictures as there is a greater liklihood of them getting "lost" en route to him.

The suggestion was that Danang, as a Southern city, was considered less politically reliable than Hanoi and more provincial than Ho Chi Minh City - hence his position is riskier living here. We left him about 10pm. I'm still not certain how to treat much of what he told us, but it's one of the more disturbing events of this tour.

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