Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Culinary Tour Of Vietnam (Day 6-10)


This was really our first official day and Thuan and the driver showed up a little past 8am, not in a Soviet car as we'd expected, but a Toyota sedan with airconditioning. We confirmed later that we are still getting it at the cheaper rate.
Today we set off for the Huong Pagoda, 60km west of Hanoi. The day was gloomy which dampened photo prospects, but we shortly came across Dan Hua village where the locals were only too pleased to have us film their Tet dragon dance. Then there was another village where a large bamboo swing had been erected which kids and teenagers, often two at a time, pushed to the limit over the limit, we noticed on the way back, because one support was broken and they were swinging on only one bamboo pole. En route we learn the 50% of the Iraqi airforce is down and that the land war is to start any day.

We arrived at the last village and hired a sampan ($20 or 120,000 dong - I only had 24,500 on me so I had to borrow 100,000 from Thuan). We were then rowed up this rivulet called Suoi Ten, the Yen Stream, through some of the most amazing mountain country. The plain itself was dead flat (and floods by a meter once a year) with rice or some crop grown on every square inch. The water is crystal clear, about two feet deep. The mountains seemed to be layered, one behind the other, like some larger-than-life cut-outs, or a Chinese painting. The overcast day suggested that in sunlight or sunset they'd be even more spectacular. We had two rowers with us, the girl at the back wearing a pink koala sweater with the Australian flag on it!

When we got to the landing point it was an incredible walk up this rock-paved path to a new pagoda, not yet completed. We were a little confused about this but we presumed that this was actually the Huong Pagoda though there was another 3km up a paved but still hefty walk alongside which various pagodas and shrines were set up. At the end, we are told, is a cave with an altar in it. It's supposed to be interesting, but the climb, and the time it would have taken, would have been too much. We lasted about 1km. Even so, in about one month's time, 250,000 people will turn up here for the pilgrimage. We note a curious absence of birds during this walk.

Remnants of the old pagoda are scattered about, testament to the French bombing in 1953 (because the Buddhists were aiding and abetting the Viet Minh). Thuan took us to the guest rooms where, he said, for a small donation, we'd get a cup of tea and a piece of cake. Instead, we actually sat down with the Monk Superior who began to have all this food laid out for us - bananas, sugared coconut slices, a durian confection, ginger slices, Banh Trung (sticky rice), and this amazing black tarry stuff wrapped in brown dry banana leaves called Bangh Gai. It had peanuts in it and rice flour, but Thuan didn't clearly explain the rest of the process - aparently they burn some special leaves, pound up something else .... until it becomes this gooey black block. There was also tea and 333 beer. The Monk Superior was very interesting. His stutter was obvious, even in Vietnamese, but he's clearly a powerful figure who apparently spends a lot of time travelling around various pagodas in Vietnam. His business card lists him as in charge of the Huong Pagoda and on various Buddhist committees. Thuan later told me he's secretary in the Vietnam Buddhist Committee and is.very important. We tried to find out about a monk's life, but Thuan's translation produced bizarre results: "How old is this pagoda?" - "About twelve compounds in all". The monk asked about Australia, wanting to know if kangaroos were rare, and about the treatment of our minority groups (aborigines). David is embarrassed by being unable to return the Monk's generosity, and angry with Thuan for not alerting us to come prepared. David tells the Monk that we will send him gifts from Hanoi. (David: visitors should always carry some gifts with them everywhere throughout Tet for such unexpected situations).

Back to the sampan and another leisurely row back to our car (tips of $1 each for our two rowers). At the village we were invited in for tea, where David and I translated a letter from French to English, then Thuan from English into Vietnamese. The drive back was fairly uneventful since dusk was falling, although the driver hurtled along the roads coming close to hitting people. There's no way I could drive or ride on these chaotic roads. Back at the Army Guest House, I caught up with Tru to arrange for him and Mai to be there at 8am. I also tried to change US$100 but Tru lent me 200,000 until we could see Mai tomorrow. We ate our first meal in the guest house this time round - beef and fried noodles with Heineken which ended up costing more than the food, about US$6 all up.


Opera House sign: "In the New Year, try to overcome
new obstacles and achieve new victories".
This morning started as usual with fireworks. David was playing around with his walkman and discovered a station playing continuous Beatles' music. Later in the day it was Russian folksongs. In the foyer we finally caught up with Minka who seemed very nice and we continued our conversation outside Evan's office with Mai and Tru.

When Thuan showed up on his bicycle (part of the deal of reducing our car costs), we set off for our day's excursions. First the Quan Su Pagoda, an imposing structure, quiet and exceptionally beautiful. Actually pagodas seem to the only place where beggars really congregate, so we had to run the gauntlet. Some guy hits the kids with a stick to chase them away. Later in Ho Chi Minh City, they were everywhere, especially the markets.

Then off to the Ho Chi Minh Museum (closed Monday and Friday) which was being built during our last trip. It is an impressive lotus-shaped building made of marble from Marble Mountain. Inside, escorted by a very cute guide and lots of kids, we are led through the most amazing set of exhibits - very symbolic, artistic and high-tech. An awesome achievement dedicated to Ho's life. It is the supreme accomplishment of the Arts in Vietnam. Unfortunately, photo's are not allowed. We continued on to the One Pillar Pagoda, and then were given, effectively, a private viewing of Ho's crypt, complete with silent soldiers on guard.

Market Street next for some filming, then to lunch (seeing our first major accident on the way - a head-on crash between a sedan and a scooter). Lunch was another sidewalk place, and another bowl of Pho Bo. (Bo also means boyfriend, as well as a Chinese straw basket for holding sticky rice - it's all in the inflections). This time we had a Chinese beer called Zhu Jian. Mai presented a sweet made of bean and sugar which wasn't bad at all. Next stop was the railway station where at first Thuan couldn't get us in. Finally we got access through another gate, and some great shots with a shunting steam train. Everybody was totally friendly and co-operative, and we even got invited to a Tet party on a train wagon complete with miniature orange tree and streamers. They couldn't speak English, but we had a wonderful time. By wishing people "Chuc Mung Nam Moi", we make instant friends. They even fuelled us up with Vietnamese vodka out of a large plastic bottle - actually it tasted like sake. We each were given a red carnation. Thuan joined us and things were going well until, I think, the station mistress came along. There was a long discussion in Vietnamese on the platform, but Thuan said there was no real problem.

From there it was off to buy some flags - David bought a large colored Buddhist flag ("flown for God" at Tet festivities), while I bought a small one as a gift and a replacement Vietnamese flag - larger than last year's. Then we finally bought some postcards (from someone who actually spoke passable English). Our cyclos then took us back to the guest house.

Mai invited us to his house for Tet dinner, and he and Tru picked us up later in their cyclos. We finally met Kiet (Nguyen Anh Kiet) en route. Mai's house which he apparently owns (built in 1982) was down this rabbit warren of narrow pathways, and, when we got there, the family dragged tables and chairs outside to sit in the courtyard. As we arrived, Mai's wife and daughter slowly bled and killed a chicken for dinner, while the men drank Wan Li and 333. We take sparklers, balloons, and t-shirts for Mai and Tru, as well as some beer. (As we bought the beer at the Guest House reception, Bill Crawford was passing by and said "typical Australian crew"). Kiet is an amazing man who speaks French, Russian, German and English, and who was exiled in 1960 to work on rural communes near the Chinese border because of his class background - his family were landlords - and because of his language skills: if you can talk to a foreigner, you're probably a spy. Apparently it was actually illegal to talk to foreigners until 1984 or 85. Kiet clearly had a bright future wiped out by his exile and he despairs a little for life ahead. We tried to be positive by saying the country is improving. His presence made the evening because of his language skills.

We found out that during the American War, while Kiet was in exile, Mai (Dong Xuan Mai) and his wife were teachers in Hoa Binh Province while Tru was a truck driver in Laos.

The music for the night was very strange with Tony Miles' very ocker songs, and moving into Boney M, Lambada and Jingle Bells. The food was also strange. Apart from the chook, who reappeared boiled, there was deep fried chicken, slices of pork sausage, cooked bamboo roots, fried noodles, sticky rice, sweet grapefruit (which you dipped into a salt and chili mix), miniature apples and sarsparilla (which looks a bit like a kiwi fruit but has a lychee type taste). Apart from the beer, drinks included Russian brandy and Vietnamese Apricot vodka. Mai's wife was a delightful lady, still very beautiful physically and emotionally for her age, and she and Mai clearly had a strong affectionate relationship. Their daughters were also delightful company.

About 9.30pm we headed off to Kiet's home, David cyclodriving Mai, much to the amusement of passing Vietnamese. (It is a blessing to have visitors at your house during Tet). After tea, sunflower and sugared lotus seeds, we finally went back to the Army Guest House. We changed some more dollars, then calculated that we'd now become dong millionaires - 1.8 million to be precise. David has a vivid dream this night - of seven identical young sisters with short blond hair and blue eyes, and of saving a young giraffe in an African ranch. Strange stuff.


There's a fine misty rain today. Apparently it's a fairly typical Hanoi February day. Kiet is out with the cyclos today so I pass him my jeans to be repaired at Evan's office. While we're outside, there's a crazy girl on the roof spouting nonsense in Vietnamese and fragments of English singing "Guantanemera?, flashing her behind and making masturbatory motions. The car arrives and we're off to the Dong Ky fireworks festival.
We have to park the car and walk in - there are too many visitors to allow cars up the road. We see these huge crackers (some 3 metres long) being lifted on shoulder carriages to be taken to the pagoda. Because of the crowd, it takes them several hours to get there, where more delays are brought about by the blessings, then they are hoisted up this pyramid of poles and exploded. By this time we estimate the crowd at well over 100,000, and it's nigh impossible to move. On the dike, you just about get pushed over the edge by the human wave.

Thuan explains that it is a good idea to keep your mouth open during the explosion to relieve the concussion - he said it's a lesson they learnt from B52 bombings. And sure enough - the explosions are massive, creating huge volumes of smoke and shredded paper. The downside is that every year someone is injured and often killed. This year two children died while we were there, apparently hit by some object hurled by the explosion - one boy literally had his brains blown out. Shortly after that we decide to leave. David is surrounded by children and Thuan teaches them to shout "David!" and "Bill!".

Back at the Army Guest House, we meet a CBC radio correspondent who's just arrived in Hanoi from Ho Chi Minh City. He's doing a series of stories on the current economic and political state of Vietnam. In the dining room, we next meet members of the BBC documentary team that has Mai Huong. We spoke to Hugh Maynard, whom David can't exactly place, but is aware that he is well known. Maynard told us that he has been to Cuc Phuong (one of the places we've cancelled) and basically said it was pretty boring except for the hordes of leeches. We also watch a looney video sing-along in the dining room bikini-clad girls cavorting in the surf to the tune of "Let It Be"! For dinner, we decided to go to the Piano Bar. Tru was outside and we said we would like to go with him and Mai, so he went off on a pushbike to find him. Meanwhile, three Americans came out, one of them Bill Crawford. As they were climbing into cyclos, we overheard them asking to go to a restaurant that was open, so we both yelled out in unison "The Piano Bar!", so they said "OK". Meanwhile, Kiet showed up and joined us in Evan's ?office?. He told us that he lives on a pension of 30,000d a month, and cyclos primarily to learn from people. He asked us about boat people in Australia and whether they were rich. David said some were. We then got on to talking about Australian life, about how in some senses, a shopping centre would look like the Ho Chi Minh Museum to Vietnamese. Tru eventually returned with Mai, and we suspect he went all the way to Mai's place to get him.

Off to the Piano Bar where we catch up with the three Americans, so we shared a table. David had his usual Pho Bo, I ordered beef with mixed spices and we both ordered spring rolls. The discussion was very interesting - Bill Crawford is a photographer producing a book on Hanoi architecture and the vanishing style of the old city. (He was to be the photographer on "The Last Great Railway Journey" which turned into the Greg Grainger trip last year and brought us to Vietnam for the first time). Nevada Weir is also a photographer who's looking at Vietnamese life and has done work on minorities (her book is to be published by Abbeville Publishing in New York in early 1992), while Shelly is a friend of Nevada's, a doctor here for a holiday. We talked about our experiences, Nevada intrigued by the Kiet story, and the subject turned to Cambodia (Bill was there in 1987, Nevada never but now interested). Later, David said that it was interesting that these people had been to this country at least five times for professional reasons, yet we were able to impress them with what we'd done - the railway yards, dinner with our cyclo drivers, beer-in-the-ice not ice-in-the-beer) and, you know, he was right.

Nevada's experience: "just outside the city, the accomodation is better and cheaper - but further out it is worse and more expensive". Bill's comment on ice in Vietnam: "there is State Ice and Private Ice - the difference is in the bubble configuration".


A 6am start for Dien Bien Phu. We wait in darkness at the gates. At 6.20 the Cherokee Jeep arrives. After leaving Hanoi, we climbed into mountains and clouds past terraced hillsides. We stopped at a spectacularly scenic spot with craggy peaks, somewhere between Hoa Binh and Man Duc. Here breakfast was provided by Thuan - homemade sticky rice, slices of orange and bitter tea. Thuan made 40 of these square sticky rice cakes for his famnily the day we arrived in Hanoi; they will last for 10 days without spoiling. David and I both have colds and it's no fun sniffing and snorting in this climate. We push onward through more cloud which suddenly parts in this little valley to reveal fields of opium poppies grown here by one of Vietnam's 65 minorities - the Meo - of which there are 300 in this village. Thuan says that it is illegal to make opium, but the government permits its growth, maybe because they can't stop it. We suspect it's sent into Laos, then Thailand, or China in exchange for consumer items.
Further on, we drive down this narrow road in a steep valley with a river running through it. A number of suspension bridges. We stop at one for a lunch of more of Thuan's sticky rice. The tribespeople here are Black Tais. The further west we go, the more rugged and dry the country gets, although rice in terraces and, surprisingly, sugar cane is grown here. We are in slash 'n' burn agriculture territory and it shows - apart from the signs of fire, the air is full of blue smoke haze. We arrive in Son La about 3.30pm where we will stay overnight. There are smaller minority groups here called the Dao. After settling into the guest house (a three year old building that probably showed signs of wear from day one - a fishing lake in front, mountains behind), we took the car out to find what we think are Dao women with these brightly colored head wrappings.

Instead we ended up in a Black Tai village, where we met a man on a bicycle who wanted us to meet his friend, the local poet - which turned out to be an amazing experience. First, he and his wife offered us some rice wine, then his wife got dressed in traditional clothes and his daughter-in-law showed David how to do up the Tai headdress (he's bought one as a souvenir before leaving the guest house). Then we took part in the drinking of the real mountain rice wine, which is brewed over months in a clay pot with various unmentionables (we suspect roots), not to mention maggots (or at least their casings - we's been forewarned of this by reading Barry Petersen's book). The poet's name is Nolo Van Can - he's published one book - and his friend is Vu Viet Quynh. We went outside to watch his family and friends perform a traditional dance which actually was a shambles, but fun anyway. His wife demonstrated weaving for us as well. The friend then asked us to visit his place. He produced a bottle of potent brew made from roots, herbs, leaves, bark and more rice wine - close to a brandy, pointing out that this was medicinal. In fact, his daughter studies traditional medicine in Hanoi.

You quickly learn here to eat and drink EVERYTHING gratefully. We left, after teaching the kids to say "OK, bye-bye", for dinner back at the guest house with Thuan and our driver Houng. We got Thuan talking about his war experiences. He operated in Son La province and was wounded three times by American bombing. The last - his arm which carries a dreadful scar - put him out of the army in 1970. He worked with an anti-aircraft battery. After that, he was posted to Budapest to study, then became Mme Binh's press officer in,1973 in Quang Tri province. Appparently life was very tough then. After the war, I think he said 1979, he went to study English in Wellington, NZ. While leaving dinner, we meet these two french guys, Loic-Rene and Gildas Vilbert. Their father was (the translation is difficult) the Information or Logistics Officer with De Castries at Dien Bien Phu and they are making a pilgrimage (he died in 1957 in France after spending 6 months in a Viet Minh camp). All this adds up to a simply amazing day.


Up at 5.30am for breakfast at 6, departure at 6.30. Of course, it doesn't quite work that way. We get away about 7am after a bowl of chicken noodle soup with bits of liver in it. The drive involved yet more mountain climbing, some major hair-pin bends and some extremely narrow roads. We pass trucks coming the other way but fortunately in stretches wide enough to let them by. All passersby are curious about the car and its inhabitants.
The deep valleys are stunning examples of how dedicated this culture is to squeezing out as much agriculture as possible. The flat areas are filled in with rice terraces, the lower slopes have vegetables and sugar cane, while bananas are grown higher up. They literally grow stuff over mountainsides here, and they burn everything precisely and with apparent relish - there were fires everywhere and in such straight lines. At one stage we got a stunning view of the mountains we'd crossed previously - a top of the world feeling.

In parts the road was poor because of repair work being done, but it wasn't as bad as anticipated (David: wait for Laos!) so we arrived about 1pm at Dien Bien Phu. As there was no-one around at the guest house, we did a quick sortie out to Hill Al (Elaine 2) to check out the tank, the underground bunkers - one had a rusting safe in it and the memorial. After settling into our rooms (not much better than some of the Cambodian accomodation - power off, or fluctuating, a large tub of cold water and a pan to flush the loo), we had lunch of sticky rice (plain) and chicken, with some Wan Li beer. Service was awful, but we are sleeping between two of De Castries' French mistresses: "Elaine" and "Dominique".

Our first stop was the museum, an antiquated place built in 1984. Outside was some rubble of the war - bits of planes, cars, a tank, guns. But we've got our doubts about the authenticity of it - one gun was made in 1974, and another in 1982. Inside, there was no simple plan or three dimensional layout of the battle as you'd expect. However the photos and pieces of equipment were interesting. Then we took a guard with us to the centre of a great field of sugar cane and De Castries' bunker which was locked. He let us in, we pottered around, checked out a couple more tanks and artillery pieces, then drove down to the airstrip (which was made of metal - Thuan tried to tell us that it was done by the French, then repaired after 1954. That's highly unlikely as far as we could tell. Then to the cemetary in the shadow of Hill A1. All but four of the headstones were unmarked.

Back at the guest house, we ran into the two French guys, whose first remark was "such exquisite rooms". We had a great chat and David showed them a video of the stuff we'd done today. We decided we'd have dinner together, but when we got to the dining room, we'd been placed at opposite ends of the place - with exactly the same meals - cold. Even the chicken soup was cold. Anyway, a new beer (hurrah!) - Saigon, which I'd bought as gifts last year but not drunk. More bitter tea, then early-to bed. Dien Bien Phu is only for the dedicated - unless you want to see some spectacular scenery and minorities.

I have decided that we don't have colds. We have 'Dien Bien Flu'. We successfully avoided the "dangers" of DBP: the hot dry Laos wind, yellow flies and fleas.

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