Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Culinary Tour Of Vietnam (Day 21-25)


After rising at 6.15am and with just a coffee for breakfast (story: there's this music playing, very western-oriented. I ask Thuan and he says it's Viet. I ask what the lyrics were about and he says they're in English. David and I look at each other. He asks somebody else and finds out it's Lao), we set off with a new driver and a detbur to the markets to buy David a towel for China Beach. We got the towel, but ended up at a beach at Marble Mountain. I point this out to David. He tells Thuan it's the wrong side of Marble Mountain. Thuan says we should do the Water Mountain Pagoda, and do China Beach later. Both David and I are dumbstruck. For two days, using a map, we have told Thuan the plan is 1: we must do the Pagoda between 11am and 12 noon, 2: this means we go to China Beach first, 3: do Hoi An last. The whole day was about to be screwed up. David said, well, we'll just have to go back to China Beach. There was some debate about not being able to swim there, which was irrelevant to actually being there.
I suggest that with three hours, we could do Hoi An first, then Marble Mountain at l1am, then China Beach. So that's what we do, but David and I are astounded at the difficulties we have with Thuan. As it turns out, luck was with us and the day was actually better for the change of plans. The overcast morning, when we would have been swimming, gave way to a lovely sunny day. Hoi An was interesting. It's said to be the oldest surviving town in South East Asia, but its main period was 16th/17th Century when there was a thriving international trade involving Japanese, Chinese, Indians and Portugese. We examined the town's oldest house and Thuan said it was 101 years old and I thought that's not so special as my house is 85 years old. It turns out that Thuan had mistaken the house number (101) for the age. It is actually 200 years old and had been in the same family for 5 generations. Its internal timbers show Viet, Japanese and Chinese influences. It was built by merchants who must have been wealthy to have afforded the workmanship, including long boards inlaid with mother-of-pearl Chinese poems.

In this area, there are also remnants of the war - shell casings stacked against a shop wall, just rusting, and a stripped tank in the shadow of one of the Marble Mountains. On the way back from Hoi An we stopped at a roadside brickworks and got a great shot of workers unloading the kiln. I spoke to one, Nguyen Hau Chung, who told me that he'd been to Cambodia as a soldier four times. At the base of Water Mountain, we are immediately beseiged by girls selling marble carvings ("you buy from me", "not now, maybe later", "not maybe, certainly"). Up 157 steps we reach the Huyen Khong Grotto dominated by a large Buddha and filled with incense smoke. The various caves here were used to launch mortars and rockets on the American airbase to the North, and the Americans bombed the mountain in 1972. The girls tell us that the bombs created the large holes that now let in the light. After buying a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in marble (David got a statue of Quan Am - the Goddess of Mercy), we ate beef and noodles at the Non Nuoc Hotel right on the beach. Here we met a guy we'd met yesterday, he and his friends had come down on scooters for the day.

Then it was off to China Beach for a swim. It was pretty damn good actually, with coracles and longboats on the shore and warm clean water. David writes a huge "China Beach" in the sand. We met a cyclo driver on the beach with very good English, enough to read the word "Australian" on David's t-shirt. We returned to the Hotel where Thuan and the driver went off to see if we could get rail tickets. Our washing arrives - two days' worth for $2. David and I then decided to demolish the contents of our bar fridge with scotch and Cokes and Sapporo. At 7.30, Thuan hadn't returned and we decided to retire to the restaurant to drink some more. By 8.30 he still hadn't returned so we ordered spring rolls with beef and noodles. We spent a lot of time laughing at the discrepancies between the two guide books David has, while trying to study up Nha Thung - the upshot was me saying "just another fucking Vietnamese town". The moment I said that, the lambada started. We cracked up. Thuan, with the driver in tow finally turned up about 9pm saying there were no train tickets left.

David and I then decided to do our sums and, in the process, play up the poverty angle. David later called it ?economic terrorism" as we sat at the restaurant table with bits of paper, biros and a calculator adding up all the bits and pieces. The outcome seems to be that we get the train or we fly to Ho Chi Minh City - which according to Thuan is actually cheaper than the two legs by train. David later said that he suspected that Thuan and the driver had cooked up a deal to drive to Nha Trang, and they did seem pretty chummy. Anyway, we'll know by 10am tomorrow. A blackout occurred during this discussion and the waitress came out with candles - like it happened all the time - but David and I thought of Phnom Penh.

Features: a new nickname for Thuan (apart from Bluey) Mr Magic. Another Thuan remark: yesterday he said we could possibly go south by bus if not train. We'd thought of that too. Today he said we can't go by bus because it's against Foreign Press Centre policy. Why raise it in the first place?


"Sometimes the only way to stay on the road is to get off it (for repairs)".

We checked out and went across the road for coffee. The place was run by this old guy who was in the underground against the French and Americans for 33 years. He said that his happiest moment was when he heard that Ban Me Thuot had fallen in 1975, because he knew then that Saigon was next. We meet our new driver Nguyen Huu Phuoc (201 Ong Ich Khiem) who we discover is a light hearted guy who drives like a bat out of hell.

The road south to Nha Trung was characterised by its shoulders being used as drying corridors for incense, manioc (used for pig food), manioc flour and harvested rice. We also noted corrugated iron laid out for passing traffic to flatten, or guys with hammers pounding out the corrugations. It was also the first time I'd seen woodburning, steam-driven vehicles - minibuses. Speaking of buses, we passed a still smouldering one, the fire of which was so intense that the middle section had sagged into a heap. Thuan said we couldn't stop because the police were there. Thuan also made a point of saying that's the reason the Foreign Press Centre won't allow its clients to travel on buses. The other feature of the drive were these huge salt pans, which looked a lot like empty rice paddies, even to the point of being ploughed.

But one of the two key events of the day was the side trip to My Lai, along this really bad road. Highway One is also full of bad stretches and being cramped up in this small Peugeot doesn't help, especially as dust filters up through the bodywork. At My Lai, the hamlet has been turned into a memorial and a museum which was closed at the time we were there. We saw where the original houses stood with the names of those killed, and also a ditch where a major massacre took place. In all, some 347 people, mostly women and children, were murdered by the Americans. We also met and talked with a survivor who was 11 at the time. He had hidden in the rice paddies outside the hamlet. Only five people in the hamlet itself that day survived. A short stop for lunch, just before we leave Quang Ngai, opposite a National Liberation Front cemetary.

The other key event was the breakdown of our car. It blew some ball bearing in a wheel which had to come off - we weren't the least bit surprised considering the state of the car and the road. It took three and a half hours to fix on the roadside at night, the entire time of which David and i were surrounded by curious children. Something else I've noticed since getting to Da Nang parents obviously use Westerners as bogeymen to frighten children. Three times so far adults have dragged struggling children towards us, the children getting more panic-stricken the closer they got. Nonetheless the kids spent the time with us saying "Hello", "Goodbye", "Where are you (from)", "What is the time", "What is your name", and doing things like shaking my hand, checking the hair on my arm or just staring.

"Think of Qui Nhon and quinine - don't take it unless you have to."

The delay meant that we didn't arrive in Qui Nhon until after 9pm, ending up in a very seedy hotel, the Viet Cuong (where rumour has it, there resides a female ghost who opens doors at night). David is far from impressed and won't go into the bathroom/toilet, and we mention to Thuan that next time, we upgrade - there must at least be hot water, a clean bathroom and decent mosquito nets. The meal down the street also left a lot to be desired and in fact David didn't eat, preferring to knock off some ice cold beers (bucket at the table by request).


"Where's the local brothel, and do they boil the women first?"
David, Qui Nhon.

Much dithering concerning replacement part for the car got us off later than expected. First visit was the beach with possibility of a swim. That idea was squashed quickly with the view of all the solid sewage coming in on the tide. David calls it "Toilet Beach". The location however was very scenic with fishing boats pulled up for repainting and others being built with hand tools. We also had our morning coffee here using a new idea of David's - to dilute the thick Vietnamese coffee with supplied hot water. Then off on Highway One to Nha Trung on one of the worst roads I've ever travelled on - for 200km. Sights included another burnt out bus, several broken down (a feature of this road and no wonder), an overturned truck in the middle of the road, hundreds of acres of eucalypts in areas presumably defoliated - the untreed areas had that look about them. Lunch was at a great beach resort, Dai Lanh, although we were the only ones there. The resort area is reached by a Japanese style bridge and is shaded by scores of needle pines. We enjoyed a swim here in crystal clear water. A magnificent place to escape - when they get rid of the flies.

It took us about eight hours to cover the 200km. The hotel in Nha Trung is right on the beach front, called the Thong Nhat. For a princely US$17 we've got a great room on the second floor. Dinner in the restaurant was also impressive (apart from the ice-cold 333): David had steak and chips, Phuoc and Thuan shared a kidney and tongue dish and a fish soup (with its own charcoal burner), and I took the plunge and ordered vinegar beef. What arrived was a whole plate of fresh salad (tomatoes, lettuce, mint, parsley and a basil-type leaf) - like a good tourist I'd tried avoiding dishes with fresh salads. Oh well. Also a whole plate of raw beef marinated in vinegar, ginger and apparently pork fat, several sheets of rice paper and a charcoal burner. The idea is to create a kind of spring roll with the meat cooked in the burner, then wrapped in the rice paper with salad, then dunked in fish sauce. I asked Thuan whether the liquid for the steamboat is actually used as a soup. He said no - unlike his fish soup, the remains were not good enough. Shortly, he filled my bowl with rice and spooned the fluid on to it - a soup. During dinner we nicknamed the aging white Peugeot of Phuocls "white lightning" - by his blank reaction, it's possible Thuan stuffed up the translation. David buys a ?Nha Trang, a Good Place for Resort" baseball cap. After dinner, David and I went for a walk along the beach front. Music was playing over the street loudspeaker to a pitch black beach. Several beer garden places were open but the action was slow so David and I returned to the room.


"Roadworks? Sure doesn't"

After a breakfast of Pho Bo we set off for the Cham ruins of Po-Nagar, and thence to the fish markets. I thought it should be the other way around, fish markets usually start early, and a later time for the Cham ruins would have suited me as I would have been photographing into the sun. Sure enough, I couldn't get a decent shot of the ruins, and the fish market had finished by the time we got there. However, from Po-Nagar there was a great view of the giant Buddha of Lang Son, erected by the monks because of the overthrow of Diem - this is where the first monk, who self-immolated in 1963 Saigon, lived. Then it was off to Dalat via Cam Ranh Bay and Phan Rang. Cam Ranh was interesting because of all the recycled war materials, particularly metal stripping. We weren't allowed to enter the military installation - the Soviets are actually in the process of pulling out, but we made do on a nearby part of the bay with cans of San Miguel. From there it was a good run down to Phan Rang where there was yet more dithering finding a place to eat, the Huu Nghi (Friendship) Hotel. Phuoc re-parks the car so that he can see it from where he sits to eat. En route, more Cham, ruins by the road. One of three towers was totally dismantled, the remaining two dilapidated. Phuoc opportunely took the wheel off again while we visited the ruins. As we moved inland toward Dalat, the topography changed and so did the housing styles. The houses here are built with wide timber boards, mostly vertical, sometimes horizontal, and sometimes with very ornate woodwork.

On this leg, Phuoc did the usual trick of taking the wheel off a second time, so we did our usual stunt of walking ahead to surprise the locals. This time we got a little more than we bargained for, by passing a schoolyard packed with kids. Sure enough, scores of them swarmed toward us. We had found a sugar processing plant nearby, where they were making what I took to be fudge, pouring the melted sugar into moulds and letting it set. Thuan reckons it's just the first stage of making low grade sugar. Everyone got a great kick out of us being there - except the police, who detained us for creating a public disturbance. Thuan was not pleased but talked his way out of it at the police station at Xuong Xe. For David and I, it was just another thrilling adventure. As we moved into drier territory, we came to the mountain road, 4000 feet very quickly, which killed three buses (the passengers sitting around while the driver dismantled the engine), but the road had very little traffic. We passed the massive earth dam of Da Nimh which provides water via a huge pipeline down the mountainside to a hydroelectric power station, which we were told was built with Japanese war reparations. At the point where the pipes crossed the road, police were on guard with AK47s.

As the light failed, we came to the Prenn Waterfall, an idyllic spot (pay to enter), but time was pressing. We arrived in Dalat at 7pm - nine and a half hours to travel about 240km. After trying to book in at the historic Palace Hotel, we got a third floor room in the Dalat Hotel (where we paid the top room rate - $18), a place of faded glory and an elevator that didn't work. Dinner was a piss-up downstairs with plenty of 333. I ordered roast deer, David beef with noodles, Thuan and Phuoc a kind of potato and meat bone soup, and pork and beans with white rice. While at dinner we received an invitation to the regular dance in the hotel. From the description given by Thuan, it's actually a call-girl set-up. David decided that it would be fun to film, so he went, but I was more interested in some peace and quiet.

David came back about 11.30pm with tales of interest. The dance in fact featured a live band, the one I'd heard three floors up doing woeful tango and lambada impressions. There were about 100 people there, mostly very capable dancers. Apparently you can pay 10,000d to have a girl dance with you (which is a bit pointless if you don't speak Vietnamese). David and Thuan sat and watched the action until closing (10.30). Then three of the "available" ladies joined them for drinks. David found out that (for Europeans at least) they cost between $40 and $50.


"When Thuan said 'deer' last night,
did he mean 'deer' or 'dear'?
And did we eat expensive dog?"

We woke up before 7am. to the swoop of swifts outside our window, and headed off to breakfast with the team: bread, cheese and coffee with the same amorphous disco music we had at dinner. The aim was to get out of Dalat as quickly as possible to push on to Ho Chi Minh City and the day ended up being one of stark contrasts. First stop was the church next door which we'd mistaken for an historic building, although it was obviously brand new.

We headed off to the markets, the most impressive feature for me being the carvings of sandlewood, not to mention the beggars again. I find the presence of beggars in an avowedly socialist country a disconcerting contradiction. Next was the legendary lake which turned out to be artificial, and quite boring. We did shoot some of the old style Swiss villas that the French had built. But because they are now officials' buildings, and a police officer went past at the same time, Thuan had some more explaining to do. At the Prenn Falls, we stopped to buy some bottled water to the sounds of ?The Magnificent Seven? (the Marlboro Man theme) and ?Bonanza?.

We got our first flat tyre of the day in a place that features minority peoples and their documented shyness was demonstrated very clearly by a group of very wary children. We were further delayed getting the puncture mended, then lost another hour or so at lunch in Bao Loc. Noodles, chicken liver, beans and cucumber, banana fish, rice and of course, cold 333. Many beggars came our way here during lunch, amputees, young children, old women, and a young mother with child. Somewhere in the distance, the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays" was being played. We got our second flat at the halfway point (140km to go) and at that stage I noticed that the tyre was Angkor Wat brand, made in Cambodia. With another stop for "relaxing" (I took a long walk looking for tobacco drying), and yet another to repair a brake drum outside Bien Hoa, the 300km trip took about nine and a half hours.

As we got to Ho Chi Minh City, we got waylaid by the police because Phuoc got stuck in a major intersection. We finally got to the Cuu Long Hotel (the old Majestic) to find out the rooms were $55. So David and I took our leave and walked up to the Saigon Floating Hotel to catch up with Nicola Cooke and check out the discounts for friends of the management. They were virtually full, but Nicola got us in at half price ($75) where David volunteered that we needed some luxury after our many hardships and said he would pay for the three days himself. As we walked out the front door, the doorman said "Good evening, sir. You look very handsome in your hat". It was a far cry from last year's "see you later".

Saigon seems even flashier and faster than last year with new hotels and new neon signs. I don't think Thuan took our staying at the Floating Hotel too well, particularly since we probably won't be having a final dinner with him. David and I had arranged to see Nicola later that evening which didn't eventuate, but we had a couple of 333s in the Lobby bar at about four times the "outside" price. So we went back to our room and watched "Ghost" on TV, seriously raiding the bar fridge at the same time. Now that's an amazing shift in perspective in one days travel.

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