Today has been about war and food. Two of my favourite subjects.
After a pretty bad nights sleep (jet lag/ two glasses of wine and a vodka/dodgy food = bad combination) I woke and went down to breakfast. Not being a great lover of the first meal of the day being that bread gives me problems, and I don't drink milk so cereal is out, the Vietnamese breakfast suits me just fine, a bowl of Pho and a plate of fruit. Perfect. My foot is very sore from yesterday's exertions- I hadn't realised how much extra effort it takes when one is injured to haul oneself around, and so I also have sore arms and am generally exhausted. But I don't care, because I'm in Vietnam, so I really have no cause to complain!
Vung met me in reception and we got in our car to the airport. On the way Vung explains some of the issues that Vietnam is facing as a country- and although all issues are relative, they are not dissimilar to those back home. The population here is now close to 87million, and there is a lack of jobs country-wide. A lot of the people from the countryside are moving to the cities, Hanoi, Ho Chi Ming etc as they think they will find jobs (the old "streets are paved with gold" theory) but as they are generally uneducated, they then struggle to get employment, leaving them in a tenuous situation. Away from home and their families but without the means to sustain themselves, they fall by the wayside- this accounts for many an explanation of why Vietnamese women fall into the oldest profession in the world.
Looking out of the window of my car, I noticed that there must be one company here that makes a great living- whoever manufactures the little blue plastic chairs that I see everywhere! Every shop has them, every cafe, restaurant and bar, they are everywhere. Standing less than a foot off the ground, they aren't exactly comfortable, especially for me right now, but they seem to be the furniture of choice- that or the locals squat, not sit on the kerb, just squat, as if taking a quick pee, for hours at a time- their knee joints must be so strong. Or buggered. And it seems to me that everyone has a mobile phone- even the street dwellers- Vung told me that it's incredibly cheap to have a phone, about 30 pence per month including 1000 free minutes- they lock on to Chinese networks and so get great deals.
Another sight that I was getting used to was that of the older men squatting on the sides of the road next to the women on the eponymous blue plastic chairs, with meter long metal pipes, which they light the end of and then pull on in the same way one would use a"bong". I'm told that these used to be used for marijuana and opium, but since independence that has been banned and now they are only used for tobacco. Apparently.
We arrive at Hanoi airport and board our flight to Dien Bien Phu. Vung shows me the weather forecast, 30 degrees, perfect- Hanoi, although not cold, wasn't exactly sunny either, so I was looking forward to some sun.
After a bumpy ride on a propeller plane, we landed in Dien Bien Phu and checked into our hotel 20 minutes later- no-one even looked at my passport. And I took a bottle of water through "security". Rebel.
After checking into our VERY basic hotel, which had more than a whiff of communist hangover to it, we sat down in the hotel restaurant for lunch. Although I was disappointed to be sat inside on this beautiful day, the food was perfect. Water spinach and pak choi with garlic, chicken with lemongrass ad spring onions and light, perfectly cooked spring rolls.
We left the hotel and drove to the Revolutionary Museum- a whole museum dedicated to the revolutionary war that resulted in Vietnam's Independence from France in 1954 and began the long, devastating war with the US.
Except it wasn't a museum. No, that was being built next door, so the memorabilia and photographs were being housed in a government warehouse next door. This place made the Revolutionary museum in Cuba (see previous blog) look like the Natural fricking History museum. To describe it as primitive would be kind- photo's were stuck to the walls with sellotape, the only vaguely interactive part was a 20 minute video, played on a flat screen TV whilst lights on a map below lit up to demonstrate which parts of Dien Bien Phu belonged to which side during the final days of the siege and re-occupation by the Vietnamese.
The plastic models of the war generals were not only poor likenesses to the people they were supposed to represent, but could do with a good dust down at least. However, Vung was obviously passionate about how Vietnam had come to belong to the Vietnamese again, and so he walked me through the war memorabilia and the plastic models peppering his conversation with proud statements about Vietnamese soldiers' bravery and the long lasting effects that the war had on this beautiful area of Vietnam.
It was during this walk that Vung told me about the Vietnam-US war that followed the independence, and the dumping of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese countryside which is how the US Air force flushed out the Vietcong- the results of which are still being suffered by the Vietnamese people- with tens of thousands of babies being born deformed and handicapped as a result.
Now was probably not the time to mention my paternal Grandfather, my Papa, and the fact that he was in the American Air force during the Vietnam War. I struggled with this conversation- it was nothing new, I have seen the movies, the same as anyone else, I have studied this period of history at school. But it's a bit different when you have someone standing in front of you telling you about the families that he knows that are still coping with the aftermath of that dubious war, and one of your family members was on the other side.
We left the museum in a sombre mood and drove the few hundred yards (Vung and Kin didn't want me walking any more than I really had to) to the war cemetery. The cemetery, in the centre of Dien Bien Phu has 644 graves in it- only a few of which have names on them- which tend to be of the "war heroes"- the guys who threw themselves onto enemy fire to save their comrades and the like. It was beautiful, it was serene, it was humbling. Until some dick with a shit car stereo decided to play the Vietnamese equivalent of Celine Dion (as if the real thing wasn't horrendous enough) at a million decibels from the car park. Vung, who cant be older than about 30 himself just shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something about "young people".
I'm not sure if you can see properly in the picture above, but it's supposed to be a statue of two Vietnamese soldiers, supporting each other in the battle for the freedom of the Vietnamese people. Unfortunately, it just looks like a soldier doing another soldier up the arse.
It was 5.30, so we had missed the entrance to the infamous A1 battlefield (which is why I will be getting up at 6am tomorrow), so Vung took me to my favourite part of my trip so far- the local market. About twice the size of Borough Market, (and that was just the food bit, this market had everything- from nuts and bolts to full dinner sets) there were vibrant displays of fresh fruit and vegetables- many of which I had to have identified- some that were so native to the area that it isn't possible to buy them outside of Vietnam. The colours were fantastic- my pictures don't even start to them justice.
I was shown was dried squid, dried beef and a huge selection of meats available for sale. Noodles, 20 types of rice- sticky, purple, red and more. We caused quite a stir walking through- I was the only white westerner that I had seen all day- and this was a locals market- I asked Vung why no one was trying to sell me anything and he replied "they don't want to- it's for locals, not tourists"- how bloody refreshing! The women were coming up to me and touching my hair and stroking my arm- it was odd- apparently they were all looking because I was "beautiful"- so Vung says. But as most of them were staring openly at my leg/foot cast, I would imagine that it was more that they thought I was the bionic woman. Vung spent a lot of time explaining to a group of spice sellers how I had broken my foot, I know this because afterwards, whilst pointing at my leg and laughing in my face, one of them mimicked someone falling down the stairs. Beautiful, my ass.
We saw many mountain tribes women who had come down to the market to stock up- a real sight to see- they grow their hair long and wear it curled up on their head like a snake- and then they put their moped helmets on top of that- essentially only protecting their hair.
A quick turnaround at the hotel and out for dinner. Now Dien Bien Phu does NOT cater for tourists. Good, I thought, lets go out for a traditional Vietnamese meal. Except there aren't any "restaurants" as you and I would know them, so Vung nervously took me to a "local restaurant"... which was actually a womans' filthy garage where she was serving up bowls of fried rice, pigs intestines, beef, fried eggs and...whats that? Pigs intestines. Oh.
This "restaurant" was dirty. And I'm not talking tables that needed a wipe. there were piles of used tissues under each table which diners had thrown down during their meal, there was meat (?) sat in pots with flies covering them like a blanket, the walls and floors were covered in dust, cobwebs and splashes of food from meals gone by and although I avoided looking until AFTER I had eaten, I did see that the dishes were being washed in dirty water straight from a water butt. Even Vung looked uncomfortable and insisted on cleaning my cutlery for me, wiping down my table and facing me AWAY from the food preparation area. He ordered me fried rice. Vegetable fried rice. And then announced halfway through that the little pieces of meat that I had managed mainly to avoid, but had missed a few and not been too worried about it as they were small and kind of tasty, were actually pigs intestines.
I said yes very quickly when offered some rice wine to wash it all down with and found myself cheers-ing and doing "down the hatch" with 4 shots of rice wine- which is a very deceptive name, because what it really tastes like is cheap whisky. Check out the blue plastic chairs in the picture below too- they are EVERYWHERE!
A lovely moment, just after the pigs intestine revelation, came when two local kids came up to touch my leg cast and wanted to play with my camera- they couldn't believe that they could take a picture of themselves and then look at it straight away afterwards- and it wasn't a mobile phone, which of course, they are used to. Have a look at the result below. Beautiful.
So, appetite strangely sated after just half a bowl of "special" fried rice, Vung and I paid for our meal- £3 for two, including the wine and a coke and 2 bottles of water and left to meet Kin, our driver to go back to the hotel.
And here I am, drinking a beer that I bought for 15 pence at the hotel bar (they only sell beer, water or Coke), and signing off from day 3 of my Vietnam adventure. Apologies for the length of this entry- there was a lot to fit in!