Eating on One Side of My Mouth
There’s plenty to tell, but as happens whenever you fall behind on something, there comes a point where you might as well write off the losses and start fresh. It’s been three entire days since I wrote, and much has happened. It all started with a rumor of good diving off the coast of Hoi An – near the Cham islands. The rumor, I’m sorry to admit, is just that, although it is impossible to fault Ludovico, Ivan, Alex and the rest of the gang there for trying and succeeding at sharing their love of the place with everyone who visits the islands with them. I had it all planned out, of course – a couple of nice dives, then get dropped on the abandoned beach and spend a solitary night there – just me and the native insects. The beach, as it turned out, was sort of a local attempt at club med, with an entire village of local islanders competing to sell a handful of us overpriced Coca Cola. Alas, my night of solitude was not to be. A threatening storm drove even the freighter pilots to skipper their ships into the safety of the bay to await a green flag. There was the possibility that, if I stayed, the boat wouldn’t be allowed to return to get me for a few days. an extended stay would seriously put a dent in my forward plans for this abominably short little holiday. What a huge miscalculation that was in the first place, thinking I would be able to crack a culture as dense and a country so huge and varied in a measly 10 days. After a couple of hours walking the baked, cracked road that circled the island, I made up my mind to get back on the boat and head back to Hoi An for the night. Even that short walk was anything but dull. Ivan, an Italian from Milan whose been living in Vietnam for about 19 years now, guided a few of us over the trails, most of which are still strictly off limits to all but the Vietnamese army. I spotted what I thought was a giant Tamarind husk by the side of the road and went to investigate. I found myself eye to mandibles with one of the most hideous things I’ve ever seen – a 30cm long, deadly poisonous giant Asian Centipede. Fortunately, the bastard was dead already. If hacked in two, the story has it, the two ends of the thing will run in opposite directions, biting and stinging everything that crosses its path. A sting results in a four day fever, partial paralysis and occasionally, death. Ivan was stung once years ago and the native islanders, with whom he was living, treated him with local medicine – which included pitching his affected ankle into a fire a few times to burn out the venom. He credits this treatment for averting the fever, although his foot still swelled to the size of a watermelon for a few months. He showed us the vicious scar and hurled the husk of the creature back into the jungle.
“Every time we come here,” he says, “Someone says they will go out into the jungle.” He laughs. “Go on, I tell them, if you can. I don’t go there unless I must.” Makes excellent sense to me.
It’s unbelievable, the history of this place, considering. As if hideous extremes of weather weren’t enough for these people to pay for their little plot of Eden, they have to contend with monkey tantrums, razor sharp blades of elephant grass, leeches, biting ants and diabolically nasty insects like the giant centipede. Top it off with thirty years of the western world’s military attentions and it’s a wonder anyone lives here at all anymore.
Still, the people smile and cook up some incredible food. It’s been said that, of the world’s culinary nations, only the French and the Vietnamese have elevated cooking to the level of true cuisine – a language of flavors, textures and flashes of color that begs the dilettante and auteur alike to mince words. My experience thus far has backed that up beyond the shadow of a doubt. In the past week, I’ve eaten some of the most varied and memorable dishes of my life, starting with the gorgeous spread provided for us at the Sword Lake restaurant by Lucy’s grandparents and then again at the buffet by her father. From that classical baroque, we moved on to a rambling landscape of street food and haute cuisine – often indistinguishable from one another. A simple beer at a cafe in Hoi An turns into a tapas experience with fresh herbs, greens, and various wonton assemblies flying out faster than the chili peanuts and Jager shots at the dive bar.
Because of one of these fantastic discoveries (fried wonton and pork in a clay pot at the Hai Cafe on 98 Nguyen Thai Hoc street) I ended up meeting the most respectable Mr. Chao, a self-styled “Easy Rider.” Based out of Da Lat, the original Easy Riders copied the style of American vets who returned soon after the end of the war to reclaim the highland roads and beaches with their big bikes.
Now the Vietnamese are in love with the motorbike, it’s true, but the things these bearded weirdos were riding were as different as a Mac truck and a Toyota Pick-up. Who knows what happened to the originals who started it all. Maybe they cut their hair, sold their hogs and headed back stateside after a long tour. Maybe they kept on through Laos and sit – the memory of trouble – in some off-Kao San Road dump, grumbling at American tourists with their water bottles and trying to keep needles out of their arms. I imagine some are still here, though, holed up in a neat little two room house with wooden shutters, a cool tile floor and a spectacular Northern view over the paddies. A Vietnamese kid with blue eyes in college in Saigon, studying to be a doctor, or running a bar in Hanoi somewhere.
The Vietnamese guys who took up the mantle earned themselves a pre-Lonely Planet reputation for being the best way to see the “real” Vietnam (a bold tout considering that’s all that seems to exist here, even despite the best efforts of the Rugby watching, beer drinking, dragonfly tattoo-having set.) The “real” easy riders could be identified by the embroidered patches on their khaki vests. You would arrive at a fair price and off you’d go – up the back roads into the hill country where you could eat some local food, smoke some local grass, get some local mud on your boots or local wind in your hair. It’s a great idea that’s endured although, as I was to discover later, the routes and revelations haven’t evolved with the same rapidity and attention to detail as has the motorbike tech, which has seen the excremental 250cc Minsks replaced by 125cc Hondas that are faster and more reliable.
I’d just hunted down the last bit of pork in my clay pot when Mr. Chao came in to join me – a recommendation from Ivan at Cham Island Divers. He’s tallish for a Vietnamese man, with a long face and a prominent nose that’s must be a bequest of his French grandfather, as he explained later on. His hair is streaked with gray – the only sign of his 55 years – and he has a quiet smile which is hard to distinguish sometimes. It’s as though he could be amused or could be hiding some mild tooth pain. I liked him immediately and barely glanced at the bound trip journals he’d brought along to prove himself with.
The easy rider business model proved such a success that they spawned many imitators, of course. An embroidered patch is easy to fake these days, but 16 years worth of reviews in various European languages is somewhat less so.
I popped a bit of pepper in my mouth and bit down a little too hard on exactly the wrong spot. A seed was immediately impacted into the exposed root of a broken tooth and had me pounding the table, eyes watering. Mr. Chao politely waited, saying nothing, as though this was a common occurrence among his customer base.
“So, where you want to go?” He asked.
“Khe Sanh,” I replied, catching my breath. “Then back to the coast to catch a train. Do you think there’s time?”
“Khe Sanh, I know it. No problem – easy! Three days!”
At 7:30 the next morning, I was checked out of the hotel, waiting on the steps of the lobby in the balmy morning sun for a man on a motorbike. I still can’t even say hello in Vietnamese properly, order a dinner or ask someone’s name. There’s a world of flavor all around and I’m eating with one side of my mouth.
Hoi An is awake around me, although it seems as if the whole world ought to be hung over. Weren’t we all up late together listening to the guys plucking classical guitar to accompany the blasted, operatic voice of their friend? No, I recalled, that would have been just me. I’d wandered into someone’s house after hearing the beautiful music echo through the empty market. It was haunting music that reduced the difference between bicycles and motorbikes, Mai Ga and ramen from a plastic package, rice beer from rice wine. There was a tile floor with a mat laid down on it. Empty and half-empty shot glasses. Upturned bowls that used to contain popcorn. Around the room hung original scrolls, books in stacks and a huge poster of a venerable whitebeard who was most certainly not Uncle Ho. The guys occupying the room were old spirits, bohemian ghosts. They were duende. They sang the songs their grandfathers sang before the wars and after the wars, drunk on rice wine, drunk on whiskey, drunk on memories of pretty women and late nights and easy friends. I listened and drank until it was early, then I left the real Vietnam and stumbled out into the close air of Hoi An, huddled up along the riverbank.
I don’t know who the musicians were – they were too drunk to tell me their names clearly by the time I left, but please, if someone has a Hoi An connection, I would love to know who they were because it’s important to know. Or vice versa…