51 not out
06.03.2010 - 10.03.2010 20 °C
John:....blog number 51 and still going strong! I only scored above 50 twice when I played cricket. 51 not out is a good score for me!
At the end of my previous blog we were about to go across the road from our hotel and spend an hour with the orphaned youngsters at BLOOM (Because Love Overcomes Our Misfortunes) restaurant as they got together for their English lesson. We said we would be happy to talk about our travels and our home, answering any questions they might have. After a short discussion about our RTW trip and their obvious interest in NZ their eyes really lit up at pictures of our family and friends. We carry a small album of pictures with us including a photo of my brother Pete in his best chef's outfit complete with grand head-chef's hat and it was this picture that really lit them up. These kids (late teens), with help from the charity, had pulled themselves up out of the most awful circumstances by their bootstraps through this humble little cafe restaurant. Cooking and waitering were the vehicles for that progress and Pete in his best, gleaming white chef's outfit represented the pinnacle of everything they aspired to. No self pity or misery on show. It was a simple but very moving and humbling few moments and one of a number of experiences in similar projects as we continued our journey into the south of Vietnam.
We enjoyed Hue very much but after 5 days were ready to continue our journey south. A short train ride of just over 2 hours took us to the city of Danang; Vietnam's third largest after Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
The train ride took us along part of the coastline, up on the cliffs, a good 5 iron strike higher than the sea and then down to sea level where the flimsy flood defences looked fragile enough to dissolve in the next rain shower. As always on the trains we got some good insights into Vietnamese life; who looks after the children and how, who reads, who chats and, on this train, who laughs at the Vietnamese stand-up comedians on the DVD shown on the TV set in the carraige. Unlike the tourist trains we have been on so far this was a regular train. Last modified sometime in the late 70s, I would guess, many of the reclining seats were faulty, set by broken mechanisms and gravity to permanent recline. A mixture of Vietnamese families and tourists from all over the place filled our carriage completely. The meal trolley came along soon after the train grudgingly left Hue, selling boxed hot meals of fish and rice with vegetables. Another trolley followed dispensing a rather green looking liquid from two large aluminium buckets. I thing it was a vegetable soup.
On the flat we journeyed over rivers and rice fields by the score and to starboard the high central hills oscillated towards and away from us, ocassionally driving us into tunnels before stepping back into the haze. We arrived in Danang pretty much on time and took the short taxi ride to the hotel, just a couple of blocks from the Han river. An occasional concrete gun emplacement the only visible reminder of the battles fought here so recently.
We only stayed for one night in Danang and, as it turned out, could have stayed a little longer or skipped it altogether. Staying a little longer would have given us an opportunity to see more of the city that has almost completely shrugged its shoulders at tourism. The brief glimpse we saw was of a prosperous, busy place. I had a chance to walk through the city before we left for Hoi An. My fruitless search for a replacement lens for my (non-digital) Nikon took me past the market, past the road full of motorcycle parts and sales shops and on past the collection of stalls selling black rubber; shoes, cam belts, fan belts, bicycle tyres, plugs - you name it. If it was made of black rubber you could buy it here!
We could have missed Danang out altogether. If we had we would have missed out on one of the best breakfasts we have had in a long time. A charity called 'Bread of Life' has set up a training/fundraising restaurant cafe for its staff of deaf people. We have seen a lot of this type of initiative in Vietnam and there is more to tell of this from Hoi An. Suffice to say that the restaurant was very good and I was in awe of people for whom learning to speak their own language was hard enough. To also learn sign language AND, in some cases, a few words of English showed an extraordinary will to succeed and make a contribution. The French influence shows in Vietnam through a number of things, amongst them very good bread and coffee. Both were in abundance here.
The reason we may have missed Danang is because although the train doesn't go there it was only a 40 minute drive to our next destination, Hoi An. A private car cost us just 17 dollars so we took that, driving along the coast, past Marble Mountain to our right and along China Beach, place of huge hotel developments, carving up the beach between names like Hyatt and Crowne. Where the hotels aren't visible from the road, the high walls and security staff that seal them off from the local villages certainly are. China Beach was once a huge American base for soldiers on their R&R leave and the enormous concrete airbase still stands as testament to this previous life.
Another town, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hoi An Old Town is as pretty a picture as it is possible to paint.
It is so high on the tourist hit list that the town must have the highest tourist:local people ratio in the country. The reason for its popularity is because of the well preserved nature of the old centre of the town. Because of its popularity the usual tourist services are developed, at once preserving and protecting the town but changing its reason for being. As long as you're not too sniffy about a town being 'touristy', and in the case of Hoi An I'm not, this is a beautiful spot. Sitting on the Bon River, just 4 km from the sea this little town has, probably, the best food in the region. If you want a shirt, suit, pair of shoes, bag or anything else making for that matter you can get it done well in around 48 hours. Full of galleries, workshops, silk shops, shoe shops and restaurants, at night the town is lit up with lanterns, the river decorated with large colourful illuminated images of a tiger, a dragon and a fish.
One of our favourite shops is Reaching Out is a fair trade place with on site workshops dedicated to training and employing disabled people, or, 'people with different abilities' as they say in the workshop. The craftspeople here work a fixed 8 hour day and are paid around 35% more than the regular rate here. This higher wage is reflected in the price of the goods on sale. Even at that the products in the shop represent excellent value for money. Many of the products are actually made on-site and it is a real pleasure to see how much enjoyment there is in the workshop as you walk around. There is no question of 'charity' here. The quilts, plates, jewellery, clothes, bags etc are at least as good as others in the town and the designs are often drawn from minority groups including the H'mong people we met in Sapa. Disabled people working at home have their work collected and sold in the Reaching Out store. On the wall of the store are pictures of the staff, each quoted about what it is like to work there. For me the best quote was from a young man with a huge smile saying "working here is better than feeding water buffalo". What a great statement and one that should be an answer for anybody who is happy in their work!
We have done a lot here. On Wednesday I took a full day cookery lesson at the Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School just outside the town. We began in a village devoted almost entirely to the organic growing of fresh herbs and vegetables. No machinery in evidence and the only fertilizer used is river weed grown and harvested locally. In meticulously tidy rows asian basil, saw toothed corriander, lemon mint, scallions (spring onion) and a host of other herbs whilst hanging from frames many other crops including bitter melon, squash (various) and beans. Our chef/teacher, Phi (fee), showed us each ingrediant we would need for our meal and showed us the characteristics to look for when choosing herbs for cooking.
From there our little group of 7 moved onto the market to buy chillie, Vietnamese 5 spice (lighter than its Chinese equivalent), limes, ginger and tumeric roots, chicken, shrimp and fish.
Carrying our goodies we made our way to the Red Bridge. Beautifully situated on the river's edge and with a bespoke teaching area out doors, Phi set to; teaching us how to make rice noodles, flavour shrimp, cook in banana leaves, make a beautiful chicken salad and, most interesting of all make the Vietnamese national dish pho (fer), a soup with noodles, beef, vegetables and a hatful of flavours. Locally this is often the breakfast of choice for the discerning Vietnamese and pho cafes are set up early in the morning on pavements to catch people on their way to work. No pho ever tasted as good as this! It was really good to make everything from scratch. Whilst it may turn out that life is too short to make our own rice noodles when we get back to NZ I would like to think that it will be a good thing to do. If nothing else it gives time to think about where things actually come from. Our own noodles were much lighter and less salty than ones I have shop-bought before.
Much of the cooking was done over a charcoal grill (bar-b) and the aromatic smells of the herbs and spices as they cooked combined with the slight smoke from the grill wasn't too disimilar to the fragrance of the smoke from the incense sticks carrying messages to the Gods and ancestors in the temples.
This was a great thing to do. For just 40 dollars, a full day of hands on cookery class in a cuisine that is really good to eat, including a first class meal four course meal cooked by your own fair hands....and they provide the ingredient lists and recipes plus you get to keep your apron! If you're coming to Hoi An I can't recomend this enough. Our menu was:
5 season chicken and banana flower salad
Chillie shrimp cooked in banana leaves
Clay pot baked fish in tumeric
....with cold beer to drink by the river side; perfect. We returned to Hoi An on a little motor boat. The boat was steered by a wheel that looked as if it had come off a child's go-cart and the engine speed controlled by a length of string with cruise control being a wooden peg jammed into a hole. I 'took the helm' for some of the short trip back as we chugged up river to the boat terminal and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Last night, against all the odds, Jackie found a DVD of The Quiet American with Michael Caine. Filmed, in part, in Hoi An and in Ha Noi, watching the film again was different. This time knowing more about recent Vietnamese history and seeing the towns and countryside gave us new insights. I really enjoyed the film first time around. This time it had a little more depth to it for me.
The physiological processing of sugar for some of us is a challenge. The propensity for Vietnamese people to add sugar to almost everything is considerable. When ordering coffee, tea, fruit juice etc if you don't want sugar you have to be fairly explicit. The same trend to over sweetness is present in a lot of contemporary Vietnamese music. I mentioned, in a previouis blog, how delicate and beautiful the traditional music can be in the hands of talented musicians (it can also be pretty strident and bordering on unlistenable to these ears at times). I spent a little time in a music shop this morning and was struck by how much 'musical syrup' is added, by way of strings etc, to sweeten the otherwise difficult music. Finally settling on some music featuring the monochord, a single stringed instrument whose note varies by adjusting the tension of the string, this had the delicacy and grace that I was looking for. This music is as 'unfamiliar' as anything I have encountered so far. Much of the African music we encountered has travelled via slavery into the blues and jazz and therefore into the western world. A lot of the music we heard in South America was a blend of Spanish and African music and has also entered the western musical lexicon. The music in Vietnam uses completely different scales, notes, instruments and voices and although dealing with the same issues in life does so with a different vocabulary altogether......
Anyway what I bought sounded great in the shop in Hoi An. Whether or not it transfers well to New Zealand is another matter!
I have become giddy with shopping in Hoi An. Having bought a couple of jackets and some trousers, Jackie with some tops and trousers plus Christmas presents various, our heads are spinning with deposits paid, fittings, balances to pay and such like, our dizziness is exacerbated by the excessive number of zeros in every transaction. I wish I had done my 19 000 times table at school! Instead we round everything up to 20 000 Vietnamese Dong to the Dollar US, aware that we are a bit wide of the mark but not completely off the target.
Today we walked around the town having bought a ticket giving us access to some of its historic buildings. An old house combining Japanese and Chinese building styles coping with the river's annual flood, two meeting houses, each with a temple, ornate and colourful carvings.....
.... and historical artifacts from Hoi An's colourful past as a major sea port were amongst the highlights of the walk. If you get sick of the retail onslaught that is Hoi An, a step through a gateway into one of the meeting places or temples is like climbing off the treadmill for a while: immediate peace and quiet until you feel strong enough to resume the courteous but firm "No. Thankyou." to the moto taxis, cyclo taxis, tailors and touts along the way.
Anyway time to post this blog from the delightful town of Hoi An. On Saturday we resume our journey south. Tomorrow needs a trip to the post office....we may be some time. Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends