Part 2: Vietnam – On Pho, Xe Mo To and Nguyen
My Vietnam sojourn comprised of two main stops – Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) and Hue – three nights in each place and one night on a train between these cities. Both these cities were part of the erstwhile South Vietnam nation with Saigon as the capital and Hue just a wee bit off the border with North Vietnam. Both cities have a long history of different imperial families and regimes building and destroying them – elevated to the status of capitals by some and destroyed in war by others.
As a Bombayite, there is an immediate familiarity, a sense of comfort, when one lands in Saigon. Saigon shares many things with Bombay – both originated as trading posts with convenient access to waterways allowing international trade. Both evolved as clusters of villages and settlements populated by multiple communities which over time merged into one megacity. Both of them continue their status as the chief financial and trade center of the respective countries. All this lives on today in the cosmopolitan populace which comprises of diverse ethnicities from not just Vietnam but from all over Asia. This translates to a general comfort amongst local people when interacting with foreigners – the readiness to do business, irrespective of colour or creed, and the effort taken to make the customer comfortable so that a good trade can be done.
I reached Saigon on the 9th of November 2015. I had booked an apartment via AirBnB. The apartment owner ran a bookstore in the ground floor called the Kafka Book Store. The room itself was filled with some excellent literary works but in the Vietnamese language. The owner was a young attractive woman quite knowledgeable (she runs a bookstore, duh) and assertive – there was a set of instructions written with a marker pen on a board in the room. One of the instructions said “You have reached the best place in Saigon, the next best places are listed in the map kept on the table”
One of the best ways to explore a city is to walk through the lanes and streets. I did that in Saigon and Hue. Along with city explorations, I also took a trip the DMZ area, the 17th parallel which formed the border between North and South Vietnam. Here are five things which remain in the mind from that week in Vietnam
Pho, Banh Mi and Ca Phe
You can never go hungry while walking the streets in Vietnam. Walk down any street, within a few meters you will stumble upon a metal cart fitted with a stove on which a smartly dressed lady with an apron and gloves is busy stirring a pot of soup. You stop over, point to the sign which says pho, point to your choice of meat – beef, pork, chicken or prawn (or nothing in case you are vegetarian) – and in about 30 seconds, she has assembled the dish with the right amount of sauces in a large bowl for you. Price – 10,000 dong or just half a dollar. The whole city, it would appear, eats on the street.
(Pho, the ubiquitous street food of Vietnam)
Night time, in both the cities, footpaths, abandoned sheds, traffic islands, private roads are occupied with tables, chairs and pretty young waitresses and hostesses wearing form fitting dresses and the city becomes one large open air restaurant. Steaming soup pots and crackling red hot charcoal-filled barbecue stands combine to feed you till dawn.
The other ubiquitous food item is banh mi, a baguette sandwich. The default filling is minced pork and some salad. You can top it up with pork or beef shavings, sausages, cheese and eggs. It comes for 7,000 dong, which is less than 20 rupees.
Then there is ca phe, a Vietnamese word borrowed from the French. It means what it means in French – coffee. Vietnam is one of the largest coffee growing nations and the quality is quite good. But for a newcomer, the thing of interest is the culture of drinking coffee. The concept of a takeaway Styrofoam cup of coffee to be consumed while one is driving or getting on with one’s work is for tourists. In Vietnam, coffee time is break time. On the table, one is served a thick rich concoction dripping through a filter onto a cup. You have three other ingredients – condensed milk, hot water and ice – with which to mix the concoction. I tried all kinds of combinations to explore what it feels like. This whole thing takes time – the first 10-15 minutes you are busy meditating on the drops of coffee liquid falling through. Then you add some hot water to dilute and sip it slowly, meditating on the taste, aroma and the opiates that start running in your blood stream. Then you add some ice cubes and have your tongue go through a metamorphosis from the hot boiling water to the freezing temperature of ice. About half an hour later, you are only half done. Oh well, no hurries, I’m on a holiday.
(Drinking ca phe is a procedure by itself)
Bikers – Locusts on the road
The most favoured mode of transport in Vietnam is the two-wheeler available in a variety of shapes and sizes. All kinds of scooters, mopeds, electric bicycles and motorbikes are available. The result is that the streets are buzzing with bikers all the time. They appear like swarms of locusts moving through leaving everything and everybody flat on the road. Crossing the road for pedestrians becomes quite a stressful task. This is significantly heightened in Saigon where the numbers are simply enormous.
(The zipping bikers of Vietnam)
Riding a bike is also a very convenient way of roaming around the rural countryside. The motorable roads are narrow and a light, flexible motorbike gives you the mobility to go deep into Vietnam.
Nguyen – The Imperial Way
The notion that everyone in Vietnam is called Nguyen is well known. But in reality, it is not so. There are a bunch of names which are used frequently – Thanh, Dai, Lam, Chi and so on. The name Nguyen comes from the Imperial dynasty that ruled from Hue. It is the descendants of the royal family, and they are vast in number, who carry the name even today. More than Saigon, it is in Hue that one comes across many people named such.
The Nguyen dynasty set up shop in Hue in early 19th century. Earlier the imperial capital shuttled between Ha Noi and Da Nang. Once in Hue, the emperors built a city just like the emperors in Peking and named it the Forbidden Purple City. Today, this royal city is in ruins and preservation and restoration work has recently been initiated. Exploring the Forbidden Purple City is quite a task. It covers a huge area and has numerous structures which served as assembly halls, places of worship, living quarters, coronation halls, etc. The artworks contain influences of Chinese and indigenous styles and motifs.
(The Imperial City of Hue – under renovation and care)
The Thien Mu monastery which sits atop a hill overlooking the Perfume river continues to hold influence in most philosophical matters in the country even though the official stance of the Communist Party is to be agnostic towards religion. Thich Quan Duc, the monk who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963, protesting against the persecution of the Buddhist monks by the Roman Catholic South Vietnamese leadership, came from this monastery. The car in which he drove down is still parked here, a monument to the monk.
Hue showcases the class and style of the emperors – in the manners of the people, the local fashion, the craftwork and of course, its ruins. Travel literature on the city says that most of the intellectuals of the country come from here. The city is one of the cleanest cities in the country and every aspect of the streetscape – the sidewalks, the storefronts, the facades – are aesthetically done.
American War – The Lives of Others
A two-hour drive from North of Hue and you can reach the 17th Parallel. In 1954, following the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, the country was split into North (communist) and South (republican). The 17th Parallel served as an UN negotiated border between the two countries. The Ben Hai river runs parallel to this and it was a natural border of sorts.
(The old Hien Luong bridge – once a link between families split in two countries, now a tourist site)
The Hien Luong bridge, a narrow wooden bridge became the only road connection between the two nations. There are two tall check posts on either bank and one can imagine cold, expressionless faces of soldiers scanning the peasants and their families who crossed the bridge for food or supplies. One can take a walk on the bridge and there is a mild tension – of stepping on rotting wood riddled with bullet holes – as one walks across the river.
(The Vinh Moc tunnels – an installation to illustrate how families lived in them)
North west of the bridge is the village of Vinh Moc. As the war raged on and above the ground, the villagers themselves, in order to protect themselves, went underground. The Vietnamese people dug and built their own tunnels and underground caves where they lived for couple of years. There were alcoves cut for families to sleep in, larger cavities for schools, maternity wards and hospitals and long network of passageways that led to water sources, food supplies and the outside air.
A casual tourist can spend half a day here while people who are more involved in history can spend 2-3 days here and explore all the major points, many of which, over the years, have become familiar to us through hundreds of Hollywood war movies.
The Vistas – of rice fields, hill terraces and rivers
(Exploring the country on a bike)
Finally, what about the landscape? The clichéd “scenery” shots of Vietnam – paddy fields, terraces built into mountains, wooden boats floating on placid rivers – are real. Except for Saigon and Ha Noi which are huge cities, most of the other urban cities are relatively small. This means, in 15 minutes, you are out in the countryside. I did not have much time to explore the deep hinterland. I did the next best thing. I took a train – the Reunification Express, a service which runs north south on the only railway track in the country – from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City. It is a 23-hour trip that starts in the morning from Hue and one has the whole day ahead to look out of the window and admire the scenery passing by. The first few hours when the train is heading to Da Nang are some of the best moments I have experienced in trains, probably rivaling the early morning views of the Konkan Railway in Goa or the spiraling heights of the Indian mountain railways in Darjeeling, Kalka and Ooty.
(View of the Central mountains from the train)
One week is too short a time to spend in Vietnam. I hope to go there for a longer stint sometime later. But one week is better than nothing and this country is definitely a must see destination.