Vietnam was not exactly a most travelled to destination in the 1990s. Despite its French colonial lure and tree-lined boulevards, the country was still “off the radar” for South Africans, which is exactly why Jannie Herbst decided to go there
A trip to the Tokyo Motor Show in 1999 signalled another opportunity to discover uncharted terrain. As has now become my custom, I was going to add a few more days to this event in Japan and explore somewhere I had never been… and may never visit again. The dice rolled on Vietnam.
I got my visa and bookings ready months ahead of time. I was really excited about this unusual excursion. The flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi on Dragon Air made it sound even more exotic.
My post-departure arrangements with the travel agent made provision for a car to pick me up from the Noi Bai Airport and transfer me to the Green Park Hotel near Hanoi’s old quarter.
The moment we departed from the airport I suffered a culture shock second to none. We passed bicycles carrying cages stuffed with dogs or ducks while others were transporting pigs. Some bikes were stacked with roasted dogs – stiff and shiny – like the roasted and glazed ducks and suckling pigs one would encounter in Hong Kong.
The traffic scared me more than anything, and the closer we got to the city the more chaotic and frantic it became. Looking in any direction at any given time, it was impossible to not see someone on a motorbike. They were everywhere. Looking through the windscreen (front and back) you could see swarms of them approaching. Everywhere you looked there were motorbikes whizzing by. Often there were entire families – with several children – squashed onto one motorbike.
Since I was going to be exploring on foot most of the time, I was horrified at the thought of crossing a street. Those bikes were everywhere!
To put things in perspective, it is worth mentioning that at the time of my visit the population of Hanoi was 6,5 million. Four million of those people were registered owners of scooters or motorbikes, while only 400 000 people owned cars.
The hotel was an unpretentious establishment and not at all what I had become accustomed to over the years. However, the rooftop suite – at a mere R100 a night (and still only R640 a night today) – had everything I needed, including a mini bar and a beautiful fruit bouquet.
I couldn’t wait to go exploring and sample some Vietnamese cuisine. The guy in the lobby managed to signal me to a little eatery down the street that, assuming he understood my English, would be serving no dog, snake, snake hearts or snake wine…
Walking up the steps of the place he indicated, I opened a door that looked just like a normal bedroom door. On the other side, however, awaited about 80 staring faces – visibly surprised at the westerner entering their midst. Some whispered to others, some pointed. Surprisingly, though, I did not feel unwelcome, intimidated or bewildered.
A lady received me at the door and showed me to a table. There were no pictures on the menu and everything was hand-written in Vietnamese.
I took out my notebook and drew a picture of a duck. I explained with my hands that I wanted only a piece of the duck, not the whole duck. I pointed to some of the patrons and ordered the same beer they were drinking.
I enjoyed a few beers while observing my very foreign surroundings. “No doubt this duck was still quaking in a cage in the kitchen a while ago,” I thought to myself. “Oh well, at least it will be fresh.”
After waiting like what seemed forever, my food arrived – a tiny little duckling, dwarfed on the plate by the heap of rice and vegetables. I had to laugh quietly to myself. The waitress obviously interpreted my signal for “a piece” as “baby or small”. I felt quite guilty digging into the little duckling. It was evident that my time here was going to be most interesting.
I was woken at about 05:00 the next morning by one helluva noise. Someone was announcing something over a loudspeaker. I freaked out completely. Could it be a bomb? Could it be an announcement to evacuate the town? I got dressed and hurried down the stairs in a frenzy. The foyer guy, however, managed to explain that it was the government reminding the people to pay their taxes. Really?
My driver from the previous day picked me up a bit later. We ventured into the countryside, with rice fields upon rice fields as far as the eye could see. Small frail female bodies wearing those typical conical shaped hats dotted the fields, working the paddies. Hundreds of people on bicycles were snaking up and down the hills. Water buffalo were assisting their owners in the fields.
The road narrowed as it ventured in and out of one little village after the other. The locals appeared to be most enterprising. People were welding on the sidewalks, making things, selling vegetables. It was busy, untidy and chaotic.
Back at the hotel I was in for a quiet evening.
Early the next morning I was anticipating another tax reminder over the very, very loud loudspeaker. But this time… nothing! I gathered that the locals didn’t have to be reminded about their taxes every day. Perhaps only on certain days of the week.
It was barely light outside. I decided to take a walk around the hotel. I was swarmed by a mass of men on bicycles, scooters and motorbikes – loaded with fresh produce, all heading in one direction. I started off in the same direction – to a market of some sort, I thought.
It was a market like no other that would give any westerner a tastebud shock hard to recover from. Locals sat on the ground while slaughtering pigs, right there and then. In between, vendors were selling funny looking fruits and vegetables. Thankfully I encountered no dogs being slaughtered, cooked or glazed, but nonetheless, I had no desire for breakfast.
Later in the day I ventured to the French quarter – the epitome of French colonial architecture dating from the late 1800s. It was a busy shopping area where there were bookshops and art galleries as well as cafés and hotels. Art pieces at exceptional prices were available throughout, along with beautifully hand-crafted goods, linen and artefacts.
Strolling along, I kept thinking that I had to return one day, just to buy some art pieces. Unfortunately, I’ve never done it.
The one experience that usually goes hand in hand with being a tourist in a foreign country is the constant harassment from hawkers who refuse to take no for an answer. Through the years I have, however, become completely aloof and well-trained at dismissing these “attacks” with the utmost disdain. So, when the first guy approached me, I donned by anti-hawker attitude and shunned him immediately. Then he said: “I only want to practise my English with you, sir.” That kind of caught me by surprise, but I had to keep up the aloof facade.
I was approached by quite a few people who, after the “tourist treatment”, very pitifully said the same thing: “Please, sir, I only want to practise my English with you.”
After a while I started feeling guilty, but I really had no desire to make small talk with hangers-on. An old lady then started following me with the conical hats the women in the rice fields were wearing. Despite wanting to buy one, I did not want to carry it around with me all day. No amount of shunning her worked.
I eventually escaped into a linen shop, hoping to “’lose” the little lady. She remained outside the shop, so I decided to browse around for as long as I could, in the hope that she would leave me alone. Surprisingly, the shop had the most beautiful embroidered tablecloths and I immediately started piling them up as gifts to take home.
The Vietnamese shop owner wanted to assist me, but realising that I spoke only English, she gestured for me to wait as she disappeared into the back of the shop. She returned with her young daughter, who spoke the most beautiful English.
I showed her the little lady outside the shop and asked her to go and tell the lady that I didn’t want to buy anything. She made me write down a phonetical phrase that I had to repeat if anyone harassed me. I asked her what it meant. “No thank you, I already have one,” came the reply.
She introduced herself as Hue – “It means intelligence in Vietnamese,” she said, and then: “It is so nice to practise my English with you sir”.
I felt obliged to “practise a little English” with Hue for some time and supported their shop as best I could. When I walked out, I repeated my newly learned phrase and miraculously, the old lady nodded and took off.
Back at the hotel I unpacked the beautiful gifts and, along with the tablecloths, the shop’s business card fell onto the bed. A brainwave hit me: Hue would surely know where I could experience Vietnamese food at its best. I rang her up and asked if I could take her and her mother to an authentic eatery – somewhere special that would blow a westerner’s blond hair back.
Hue was over the moon at being afforded the opportunity to “practise her English” with me all evening. She also asked if her boyfriend could join us later. He was studying at university and would catch up with us after his classes. We agreed that I would come and pick up her and her mother by taxi at the shop.
When I arrived, Hue was just locking up. I showed her where the taxi was waiting. “No taxi sir,” she replied, and pointed to a motorcycle parked on the sidewalk. Oh hell no, not that! Hue may have been used to ferrying lots of people about on her bike at the same time but this was not for me – definitely not in that hair-raising traffic.
“Let’s rather go in the taxi,” I suggested, somewhat worried. “No, we are going to a Vietnamese restaurant in the Vietnamese way – on the motorbike.” I swallowed, begrudgingly allowed the taxi driver to go and waited for mom to show up.
Hue was already on the bike and beckoned me to get on. Puzzled, I asked about her mother. “No, she is not coming,” was the reply. I hopped onto the motorcycle, trying not to show my fear.
Once on the bike, and joining the sea of motorcycles, it was not as chaotic and frightening as it seemed from the outside looking in. Somehow everyone knows what is expected of them and the orderly chaos – with the wind in one’s hair – produced a weird feeling of freedom. This was crazy, like a river of two-wheelers all flowing in harmony.
All the time Hue was pointing out interesting things – almost as if on a city tour. “There is the Opera House built by the French in 1901. This is the War Museum. That is St Joseph’s Cathedral”… and so on.
We rode on and on, leaving the city and its lights behind us. I was becoming more and more frightened. What if I was being led into a trap? What if this woman had conspired with some terrorist group and I was being driven to my doom, willingly, on the back of a motorbike? I thought about jumping off the bike and running into the jungle, but moments before going into action, I saw lights in the distance.
“We are almost there,” she said. I heard music and could make out the silhouettes of palm trees. Suddenly we entered a clearing where hundreds of bikes were parked. This was obviously a popular spot. It was an open air eatery somewhere close to the Red River, I assumed.
The vibe was amazing. We asked for beers and Hue ordered us the speciality of the house. We spoke English and Hue repeatedly said how great it was to practise her English with me. The boyfriend arrived. He seemed a great fellow – and spoke equally good English.
Before long a steaming bamboo on a plate was put in front of me. The waitress lifted the “lid” that was cut into the bamboo. A long snake lay sizzling in the sauce inside the bamboo.
“No snake, no dog,” I said, probably looking very disappointed.
“It is not snake, sir,” said Hue. “It is eel. This is a real delicacy for us.”
I felt a bit better and after tasting it, started enjoying picking the eel apart with my chop sticks and eating it with rice.
Later, in search of the “gents”, I saw a huge cask swirling and crawling with eels. There was hardly any space for them to move. Then I saw the chef taking one out, stuffing it into the bamboo (alive) and cooking it over an open fire.
Well, I did ask for authentic, I thought to myself.
I was a little light-headed when the time came for the return journey. It felt surreal to be on the back of a bike in the middle of Vietnam, being ferried to my hotel by a young woman, who wanted nothing more than to practise her English with me.
We still use those tablecloths when entertaining at home. I wonder how things have changed in Vietnam and if Hue practises her English more often nowadays, since more and more tourists flock to experience the enchantment that is Vietnam.