A blog of my time spent in Vietnam working for Bao Nhan Dan.

Monday, April 04, 2005

There’s no business, like cho business

Kate, lift your hands from the keyboard and slowly back away from the screen…move along there’s nothing to see here!

Having got back to playing football on Thursday afternoons, I had to leave early to meet up with the gang to have dinner and take part in the Finnegan’s pub quiz – which was well worth it as we won! Having to leave early on the Thursday meant I had missed out on a few drinks with my work colleagues, so on Friday night we headed off to the local Bia Hoi to catch up on things and discuss what scum Chelsea are and other less important world issues.

After sinking a couple of glasses of the local brew, some food was brought to the table. I genuinely wasn’t particularly hungry but thought I’d better have a couple of bits. There were two dishes in front of me supplemented by a huge pile of bitter fresh herbs and a couple of dips, including the notoriously smelly shrimp paste. I started wondering what the dishes were, and was told they were ‘ethnic specialities’, so not much info to go on there. One dish was made up of delicious looking morsels of grilled meat with dried galangal on top, the other had a passing resemblance to roast lamb. So I tucked in enjoying the flavoursome grilled meat and galangal. I even tried some of the fresh galangal root – which was mind blowingly hot – try munching on fresh horseradish to replicate the flavour –so hot that it induced a coughing fit in me!

Anyway after I’d had a nibble or two more of the grilled dish, I moved on to the roast slices, chomping away I thought it was pretty similar in flavour to lamb, if a bit more stringy – goat maybe I was thinking…then having finished my fourth glass of beer, Hoan and Tuan said, oh yes, we forgot to mention it’s dog meat! I can’t say I was overly fazed as the suspicion had been brewing throughout the meal. The tab with our order on it had remained firmly down the other end of the table, and I had had problems placing the flavour of the meat prior to the revelation. Ironically enough, when I recounted the story to my Tinh my work colleague she had said that she didn’t know that dog tasted like lamb as she’d never had lamb. She also said that there were another five ways of eating dog that I’d yet to try…two down, five to go!

Hoan and Tuan were a little disappointed I think, that I didn’t go grey faced or even express distress at the thought of eating dog, however I made it clear that no way I am ever eating cat. Note: Cho is dog meat and Meo is cat, just so you know…

The motorcycle diaries

Well as short couple of entries anyway…firstly we heard an interesting tale last night of Vietnamese ingenuity. Apparently some westerner who had hired a motorcycle decided to pay a visit to the 17 Saloon Bar (a cowboy theme bar, which it has to be said, has a bit of a seedy reputation). As per usual he deposited his bike outside the bar, but on this occasion the staff insisted that it ought to be parked round the side of the building. All was well, and the westerner went home that evening without a hitch. The next day the bike started to sound like it was having a few problems, so he went back to his hire place, only to discover to his horror that the bike’s Honda parts had been exchanged during his time in the Saloon Bar for Chinese parts! The hire place owner went over and sorted the problem out, so all’s well that ends well!

The other motorcycle story I’ve heard recently, smacks of an urban myth, but then again anything’s possible I suppose. Honda is one of the biggest sellers of motorbikes in Vietnam, and they often bring out models with cool names such as the ‘wave’ or ‘dream’ and suchlike. However the story goes that the new edition Honda bike will be called the ‘Smash’! Back to the drawing board for the naming department boys! I remain to be convinced that this story is true, but it’s an entertaining thought…what next the Vauxhall ‘multiple pile-up’?

Phew! (part II)

After Rachel and Andy left we had a few days to catch our breath before Felicity had to head down to Ho Chi Minh City to meet Liz. ‘American Liz’ as she is known (in order to differentiate her from all the other friends we have called Liz), visited us in London for a brief stopover on the way back from Malaysia last year. After a quiet weekend my dad and Ann arrived on the Tuesday.

Open window policy
Finding suitable accommodation for them had proved rather difficult, as Hanoi suffers from a shortage of good quality hotels in their price bracket, which included the ability to open the windows in their rooms. Hanoi’s hotels upper end hotels seem to operate at a minimum 90 per cent capacity, so after their first option the Dan Chu fell through, they were put into the modern looking Zephyr hotel just south of Hoan Kiem lake.

As with all our visitors so far, their first stop was a visit to Bia Minh for an early lunch/wake up stop. Here they had their first bowls of Pho and Nem (spring rolls). A whirlwind tour of Hanoi followed, with visits to West Lake, the Temple of Literature, the Fine Arts Museum, the Old Quarter, mooching around the shops in Nha To, and coffee, coffee and more coffee.

During their stay we managed to visit rather a lot of Vietnamese restaurants, putting paid to the fallacy that Vietnamese food is ‘Chinese food without the spices’. Ann and my dad were bowled over by the excellent fresh spring rolls (shrimp, rice noodles, fresh herbs, wrapped up in rice paper and dipped in fish sauce) in Bar 69, and they enjoyed a tipple in the Red Beer Brewery. Liz and Felicity rejoined us on the Wednesday where we rendezvoused at Highlands Coffee above Hoan Kiem lake. Visits to various pagodas and the military history museum followed.

As a special treat on Friday night we visited Wild Rice. Wild Rice is a modern style Vietnamese restaurant, situated in the French Quarter. The building is a converted French colonial house, with amazingly trendy fixtures and fittings, in various shades of browns and greys. All very tasteful. Tu surpassed himself, providing us with an excellent mixed platter for us to share. Ann and my dad also visited The Maqis bar, but this time our visitors sensibly avoided the deadly Maqis cocktail (see Rachel’s ‘travel sickness’ for more details in Phew I).

Tongue tied
Thankfully for my self esteem, my dad failed miserably in even attempting to speak Vietnamese. He’s always been one who tries to put a few phrases together whenever he visits a foreign country, and I like to think that this goes to prove that Vietnamese is a pretty hard language to get to grips with. This also allows me a get out clause in terms of explaining why my Vietnamese is so utterly poor!

Talkin' all that Jazz
During the ‘quiet weekend’ prior to my dad’s arrival, Mark, Kate and me paid a visit to the newish jazz club which has opened recently near to West Lake. That night we’d been treated to a live band, of which the pianist and drummers where the undoubted stars. The lead singer, despite being quite an entertaining crooner put new meaning into the title of Mac the Knife by butchering the words. The singer’s girlfriend was pretty impressive though, she looked like she’d walked out of a Mod catalogue circa 1967, with matching twin-set, and head scarf – the most uber-trendy person I’ve seen yet in Hanoi. Unfortunately for us, when my dad was around the band were a no-show due to illness – so we were indeed just talkin' all that jazz.

Conspicuous consumption
Whenever we’ve had visitors to Hanoi, they never seem to have enough space for all the interesting gifts they can buy so a visit to suitcase street is always on the cards. My dad was no exception. Just like Andy and Rachel they couldn’t resist buying propaganda posters – in my dad and Ann’s case they went for the horticultural themed posters advocating the need to breed more pigs, increase geese production, eat more coconuts – these will find pride of place in the rural idyll that is Suffolk.

Ha Long, Ha Long must we sing this song
Having ‘done’ Hanoi, my dad wanted to see some of the countryside. Before his visit he’d been advised to pay a visit to Ha Long bay. Ha Long bay is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. For some reason I’ve always been a bit reluctant to pay it a visit, I seem to react against things being over-hyped. It took me over a year to see ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ because of the hype surrounding it. I also avoided seeing Titanic due to the same reasons – I think I was right on that one! I suppose part of my reasoning is that I’m trying to avoid being disappointed.

Anyway back to Ha Long bay - after months of overcast skies and drizzle, punctuated with the odd tropical downpour, we at last saw some sunshine.

Ha Long bay is dotted with hundreds of small limestone atolls and islands. Despite my fears that it would be a tiny part of the whole bay, the place stretches for hundreds of miles. Apparently it would take three days to see all of it!

According to legend, the islands are the remains of huge dragons that came to the rescue of the Vietnamese people in their hour of need, as they were being invaded by their neighbours from the north (who? The Chinese? The Mongols?). The dragons destroyed the invaders fleet and liked the bay so much that they decided to settle there, leaving behind a natural wonder. More grounded in fact, is ‘wood stake cave’, on one of the larger islands. This cave was used by the Vietnamese to manufacture wooden stakes that were driven into the river beds to foil a Mongolian invasion (ah, yes, the Mongols. I think I’m right in saying that the Vietnamese were the only people to successfully defeat the Mongols in open warfare – they tried invading Vietnam three times and were defeated on each occasion. You can add them to the list of the French, Chinese, Japanese and Americans). On the roof of the cave are writings in Vietnamese/Chinese script, unfortunately, our guide was unable to translate the words.

The islands glide in and out of view, the mist adding intriguing optical effects as background upon background seep into view, as though a watercolour is being painted on the pearly light right before your very eyes. It had been blustery and a bit cold when we’d boarded the boat in the morning, but by mid-afternoon, the mist began to clear, and we were greeting by blazing sunshine. All of us snoozed on the top deck of the boat soaking in the sun.

Return to Bobby Chin’s
American Liz had heard of two things before coming to Vietnam; Bobby Chin’s and the handbags from Ipa-nima. While here she got to sample both. Bobby Chin’s is probably one of Hanoi’s most swanky restaurants. Bathed in ultra-subdued lighting, with rose petals in the toilet bowls and diaphanous silks hanging from the ceilings it is a far cry from a Bia Hoi. After our first experience, we had a slight reluctance to return there (the bill totalled a quarter of a months salary!), but as it was Liz’s 30th birthday, who were we to refuse? Mr Bobby was there himself, smoozing with the regulars, and we had a brief chat. I started with a steak salad, followed by a main course of lamb’s leg, with a sack of couscous (cooked in some kind of edible sack similar to haggis I suppose) served on a bed of chickpeas and beans. Felicity had a humongous steak as her main course – which she pronounced as her best ever! Liz had barramundi. All of us were delighted with the food and having Liz with us meant that the menu became a cheap American menu (the most expensive mains were around $15) rather than an ultra expensive Vietnamese one. Bobby had earlier asked our names and although we were absolutely stuffed for dessert, a plate arrived for each of us with our names written in chocolate sauce on it, while Liz got sung Happy Birthday to by the staff! The amusing thing was that Bobby had had a spelling crisis and Felicity’s plate read: ‘Fe…Ph…?’ Liz’s obviously read: Happy 30th Birthday! No spelling errors there! So maybe a return to Bobby’s may happen again…

The Girl from Ipa-Nima
As mentioned before, Liz had two things on her mind when she came to Hanoi. Bobby Chin’s and handbags from Ipa Nima. Apparently these bags are going for $200-$300 a piece in America, but retail for a reasonable $30-$50 here, so Liz was definitely handbagged up by the time she left. Her shopping fever affected Felicity who then proceeded to buy a killer lilac linen bag with ‘Ha Noi’ and a hammer and sickle in cream and purple sequins! (check the picture of Ann modelling it). Felicity can’t wait to get to London to show it off!


Me, Felicity, Ann and my dad at Highlands Coffee overlooking Hoan Kiem lake (photo provided by Liz)


Misty Ha Long bay


Ann looking out onto Ha Long bay (photo by Liz)


Felicity catching some sun on the roof of our boat on Ha Long bay


Liz relaxing on our tour boat on Ha Long bay


More Ha Long bay, as the mist lifts


Ann checking out Felicity's killer bag


My dad checking out the range of flowers on offer in Hanoi, plus woman selling votive offerings. (Liz yet again on photographic duty)


Felicity and me at the Le Thai To statue garden next to Hoan Kiem lake (Liz again, providing the pic)

Jazz night


Sunset over West Lake, taken on the Monday before my dad's arrival, prior to my first visit to the jaaaaaaazzzzzzzz club with Mark and Kate - see talkin all that jazz above

Rachel and Andy relax in Hanoi


Hoan Kiem lake at dusk


Rachel and Andy relax in Puku


A rather pensive Rachel oversees the adding of the fresh dill to our Cha Ca at Cha Ca La Vong (you think she looks worried, you should have seen Andy's face when he got back from the toilets!)


Rachel and Andy relaxing on the cafe overlooking Hoan Kiem lake.