Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Vietnam Adventure

This time we are off to Vietnam
Jeremy Dale travelled to Vietnam with The Imaginative Traveller on their Vietnam Adventure trip. Here are his impressions on the Southern Mekong Delta region of this young and vibrant country.

Dawn in the Mekong Delta is heralded by the crowing of hundreds of cockerels followed by every dog in the delta providing a chorus of howling - might as well get up and go out. If you do, you will have a fantastic view of everyday life beside the slow, mud-brown Mekong. Girls in conical hats carrying baskets strung on poles across their shoulders make their way to market which is just starting to come to life - around 100 stalls spread out along the banks and small boats jostling for prime positions along the banks, all of them piled high with just about anything and everything you could ever need – fruit, vegetables, chickens, blankets, crockery, cosmetics, sunblock, toy windmills . . . . I was beckoned into a cafĂ© by the owner who invited me to sit at a table with himself and his two sons. I asked for a ca fe sua – coffee with milk - which came in a glass with a centimetre of condensed milk at the bottom. The chainsmoking owner chatted to me in Vietnamese – he could have been highlighting places to visit or giving me his ancestoral history for all I knew but nods and smiles are all that were needed.

Later that day we moved northwards to Saigon – here for authentic street life visit the pho stalls in Phm Hong Tai Street. Pho (pronounced “fur”) is traditional noodle soup usually eaten for breakfast but is popular at any time of the day. Stalls line the pavements and customers perch on plastic stools at low tables. Each stall serves one kind of pho – there's pho bo (beef), pho tom (shrimp) pho ga (chicken – but possibly railway station if you're slightly off with the pronunciation). If you're vegetarian you'll need pho chay.

The pho stall I chose was at the corner of a road which became a giant market at night and even at 10 pm the tables were full of people slurping their noodles! Space was found right in the middle of a group of friends who seemed delighted at my arrival. After a brief game of charades with the waitress I was unsure of exactly what I had ordered but sat down to wait. The boss came over and began chatting in Vietnamese asking where I was from, whether I was married and how I liked Vietnam. Her son provided the translation – he lived in Sydney and had a broad Aussie accent. Halfway through this conversation an enormous cockroach ran under the table and up the wall. Without pausing for breath, the boss removed her wooden sandal and swatted the monstrous insect off the wall and into the gutter. Some time later I saw it zigzagging across a table nearby with its antennae knocked askew. I reckon it was about the size of a hamster.

When a vast bowl of pho arrived I followed the example of those around me and started drinking it from the bowl using my chopsticks to shovel in bits of vegetable. Immediately my spectacles misted over and the chilli went to work on my sinuses. Picking up a large clump of noodles I carefully guided them towards my mouth but at the last minute they slithered off and landed back in the bowl with a splash that covered me in vegetable stock and cause a small child opposite to get the hiccups from laughing so hard. With my dignity in tatters I took refuge in my bowl once again draining the remaining stock and encountering one last rogue chilli in the final mouthful I crunched my way through it, sweat running off me in rivers. Panting gently from the heat I spotted someone drinking what looked like chocolate milkshake but it turned out to be iced coffee made with condensed milk. It tasted as strong as whisky and had an effect more akin to amphetamine. Delicious but after the chilli I’d had more than enough stimulation for one day. I said goodbye to my new friends and with my heart pounding from the quadruple espresso, hair damp with sweat and shirt spattered in broth I wandered back to the hotel bearing the unmistakable signs of a full-on encounter with pho.

Jeremy Dale

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