There’s a lane that’s a shortcut from the less salubrious part of town, where we’re staying, through to the walking town and there’s an alleyway that reaches the lane from just by our hotel. This alley is perhaps six feet wide, but you’re still going to have to dodge motorcycles coming both ways.
The thing is, they will not slow down. Not for nothing except the most inevitable collision, and then only at the smallest conceivable distance from crash. If there’s even the smallest possibility that they may be able to swerve out of danger, that’s the route they choose so long as they don’t have to slow down.
Brakes are used as a last resort, and then only after every other option has been considered, after every other possible course of action, turning left, right, up and down has been tried, only then, as a last resort they might try braking. Might.
At first you assume that this lane is an exclusively Vietnamese street but there are hotels and cafes as well as private houses and shops.
Shops are basically somebody’s front room piled with stuff. Toothpaste, shampoo, cabbages and carrots, light bulbs, cigarettes, Honda’s and incense. There may well be a bed in the room too but that’s probably not for sale.
Down this street there’s a restaurant called Cafe 41, run by a very sweet and friendly couple and because it’s off the main drag, its quite a bit cheaper to eat than five minute down the street. They also sell Freshbeer out of a keg and it’s 3000 dongs for a glass. Eleven pence! Eleven! And it’s buy two, get one free!
Ok it’s only a small glass the size of a coke can, and it’s not very strong, but it’s eleven pence!
The local bottled beer is Larue or Saigon or Tiger and you’re hard pressed to find it for 20000, about 64p. You can get it in cans for about 9000 from a supermarket, which I do sometimes, when we sit in the room watching terrible films in glorious aircon cool.
The Freshbeer has a hand pump like a bike pump which pressurises the keg and sends the beer up through a tap after passing through a container of ice. Lovely. And it’s 11p!
There are two beautiful caged songbirds in the cafe. They don’t look happy. Another example of casually careless Buddhist cruelty, though I have no doubt they don’t see it that way, I can’t imagine the cafe owners being cruel in any way, they’re just too nice.
They put on their only English CD when there are westerners in. Enya. That’s ok, but there’s a Christmas song on it, and there’s a big beardy red hatted Father Christmas on the door of the hotel opposite, and Christmas decorations, and a big Happy New Year sign. And we’re sat dribbling into our clothes in a very unfestive way.
The two year old daughter of the Cafe owners, she’s speaking English and said ‘baby’ when Nel showed her mother a picture of her grandson. Bright kid.
The alarmingly clammy and veiny fresh spring rolls they eat in Vietnam.
Down by the river there’s a strange game played every evening. It looks to our eyes like half mysterious eastern ritual, half bingo, and it’s played by two teams who pay a small fee to join in.
Each player is given a small paddle with a character painted on it.
The game starts when a couple sing a strange incantation that sounds like a string of naya ping woo oi dang dang sounds, chanted rhythmically, followed by a undulating noise that could be Jimmy Savile sobbing in repentance from beyond the grave.
There’s some more of the singing – this is accompanied by a plinking guitar or a fiddle – we’ve seen both on different nights, and an assistant takes a painted tile from a bag and struts around parading it in front of the players repeating the name of the character on it. If it matches a paddle, the person with that paddle is given a flag, yellow or red, depending on which team they’re on and the paddle is taken and hung on a string. If nobody has a matching paddle, then the tile is hung up on the string.
And then it starts again, the singing, the tile parade, the flag giving, and it’s all done with an almost ceremonial seriousness.
When all the tiles have gone from the bag the game ends and the winning team are the holders of the most flags, red or yellow. They all get a prize, which was a CD and a thing in a plastic bag, we couldn’t make out what it was. We couldn’t make out what the bloody hell was going on for half an hour.
The first time we saw this game, we watched to its conclusion. The winning team were extraordinarily pleased, one lady – a grown up, by the way, with a child, was so happy she was actually jumping up and down in excitement. Perhaps she really liked the plastic bag present, I don’t know but it seemed like a bit of an over the top reaction. Her child didn’t seem nearly so excited.
Down by the riverside we were almost hit by a Barnes Wallace bouncing bomb motorcycle helmet.
We were strolling, calmly, relaxed, when a motorcyclist lost his hat somehow. Whether he was wearing it or not I don’t know, but it came bouncing and banging across the road, mounted the pavement, and, if it hadn’t been for the fact that Nel reacted characteristically lightening fast, and skipped deftly over it, she may well have got a bruised leg!
It hit the wall beside us and I picked it up and gave it to the motorcyclist who’d unleashed it, who had stopped to collect his errant helmet. He apologised but I was laughing, it was just one of those things that wouldn’t happen back home.
Down by the river, this man has added a special child seat, he actually turned up with three children on his bike
Last night we had an early one. We’d spent two or three nights drinking too much with Angie and Ian, and they’d left for Phenom Penh.
On the way out of the hotel for dinner we encountered the night porter, the man we’d woken three or four nights running, the man who, when he saw us going out tonight, tutted and pointed at his wrist shaking his head. I blamed it on Nel, I told him she drinks too much, miming slurping from a bottle and making glug glug noises.
He giggled and shook his head and pointed at me. He was only pretending to be annoyed, I mean, it’s his job, and it’s not our fault Vietnam goes bye byes at ten o’clock every evening is it? He had to point out our height difference as well, holding one hand low and one hand high. And that’s rich coming from a tiny race like Vietnamese.
Actually I was looking through some pictures and the in one of Nel with the Vietnamese girls by the bridge, she’s actually the smallest out the lot of them. I’m sure she won’t mind me pointing that out.
So we’ve booked our bus from Hoi An to Huê tomorrow at eight. Hopefully we’ll have time for breakfast before we go but it’s only about four hours. Nothing but a short hop really.
Huê was close to the North/South border and was the site of a big battle during the Tet Offensive. Five thousand civilians were killed by Vietcong forces there, civil servants, suspected sympathisers and those with a ‘bad attitude’ towards the northern army. It had been intended that the dissidents were to be sent for ‘reeducation’ but when the Americans came to seize Hue back they got desperate and slaughtered them instead. So I read on Wikipedia, so it might be wrong.
As it panned out, we postponed our bus to Hue til the afternoon because our visa extension hadn’t come back from the police.
Last night, our last in Hoi An, we finally found a restaurant that had been recommended to us a couple of times.
There was quite a thunderstorm going on when we left and rain was raining down but that was ok, it was quite refreshing. The Vietnamese don’t like it very much though. The streets quickly get very much less busy and shops start to close down. Motorcyclists procure cheap plastic macs from street vendors that are suddenly selling rain gear.
There were distant lightening flashes and the white people strolling through the weather quite unconcerned.
The Bale Well is an open air restaurant down an alley with a canvas roof awning.
We were directed to a stainless steel table, bought a drink and then, without asking for anything, plates of salad, vegetables, spring rolls, rice paper and pork on skewers was bought to us. We sat looking at all this, bemused, until a lady who works there came to show up how it’s done.
She took the rice paper and, with chopsticks put salad, veg, meat and a spring roll into it and then rolled the whole thing up, dipped it in sauce and thrust it into Nel’s face. Then she did the same for me. Thereafter, every time one of the staff saw us making a meal of it, so to speak, they’d come and quickly assemble this veggie, meaty, rice papery saucy morsel and more or less shove it in your face.
When we’d had enough and were full, they’d carry on shoving food in our faces no matter what we said Mr protested. ‘One more’, they’d say.
Then there was fruit.
It may well be true that the Vietnamese diet is very healthy, but some of them seem to eat too much healthy food and develop an unhealthy paunch, and one of these tubby women kept coming over to tell Nel she’s beautiful. The Vietnamese are very taken with her. Maybe it’s because she’s got so blond in the sun but she keeps being told she’s beautiful. Weirdos.
And then, when we left, I was rubbing my stomach, saying I was full, and a bloke started patting my belly and saying ‘happy Buddha’ and laughing. Well thanks a lot!
Roll you own dinner