Tom and I celebrated our parting by going to the Cheese Extravaganza at the Metropole Hotel. It's an annual event. Chef Didier imports 120 different cheeses and sets up a spread that only a European Hotel would do -- table after table of artisanal cheeses, house baked breads and fruits. We drank some wine and began with the goats. Among the 30 different choices were Didier’s house-made selections: some dusted with finely ground spices, others with minced herbs. Moving on, I discovered the delicious Garrotxa, a slightly aged goat cheese from the Catalonia Region in Spain. We moved to the cow pasture next. I sampled the Tomme De Savoie from eastern France, the Camemberts from Normandy (made from raw cow’s milk) and a few washed rind cheeses from Burgundy, which oozed their tangy earthy smells all over my plate. I love sheep's milk cheeses -- maybe it's their high fat content or strong character. There was a lovely sour blue cheese from the Pyrenees that I found myself returning to more than I needed to. In the middle of all of this was a young Vietnamese cook serving Raclette. The slicer like apparatus heated and shaved the cheese simultaneously. He laid it over the perfectly boiled golden potatoes, also flown in from France. It was just gooey heaven. We're already full when our waiter comes to take our order. We didn't know it, but the price of the cheese buffet included a three-course dinner with all items whimsically conceived around cheese, of course. Traveling in Asia, your body gets used to living without dairy and mine went lactose comatose.
The next day, I asked Ngyuen, the cyclo driver who worked the beat in front of my guesthouse, to take me around Hanoi and show me a typical Vietnamese Sunday afternoon. He, of course, didn't understand, so we ended up touring to the Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum and the Museum of Ethnology. At the museum, I could tell he really wanted me to go inside; my guess is he was in need of a nap or wanted to save on gas. I obliged and started with the ceramics. The Vietnamese have been making pottery since the14th century during the cultures of Hoa Binh and Bac Son. I move on to some metal workings, which began with copper casting four thousand years ago. After arduously reading the ancient scrolls, I seek out the time and realize it's too soon to leave. I need to seem interested and perhaps even learn something. I watch a video on the ancient mythology of the Red River Delta and then tour a section on the hill tribes of the Hmong, Hoa and Khmer.
I was having history overload, so I sat for bit. While I watched the passersby, I started having flashbacks to people I'd met, many of whom were Hmong. I recalled a conversation I had with the Vietnamese chef at the Metropole about how chilies, lemongrass, noodles, coffee and shrimp paste all integrated into their cuisine from other countries.
I thought back to the old city of Hue, where I shared a few spring rolls made of snake poached in sugar cane juice with an old man wearing a tattered US pilot hat. I had asked him about the war and he smiled and said "which one?” “With America” I replied. He smiled again and told me not to worry. He explained to me that he felt a greater concern for the present, that the capitalism of business has created class-based inequities. And that it has pushed the minority groups of the hill tribes, of which he was from, further away -- tough to say who really won the war. I continue through the museum with a renewed personalized interest.
As I passed through the various exhibits, I kept thinking about the strong character traits of the Vietnamese. From the fight I'd witnessed in the cowboy bar to my lengthy conversations with Mr. Khue, I can't imagine a more proud and determined people. They have a unique ability to absorb foreign elements and adapt them to their own needs. Their hunger for economic strength and absolute love of country is almost unsettling at times. Outside I awake Nyguen and try asking him again to take me to a place he'd go if he was with his family, I think he understood because we end up at a zoo with not a tourist in site. We sit up on a hill eating sweet tapioca pudding with lotus seeds and watch as happy families stroll by.
That night I do what I know best -- shop. CDs are 75 cents and DVDs are $1.25; these are prices you just can't neglect. No, I'm not concerned with wealth of the music and film industries and those hideous commercials with minority laymen telling us not to dupe movies make me sick. Put Ben Affleck in there telling me he's gonna take 8 million instead of 10 and I'll think about it. On the way home, I stop at a street stall for my final dinner. A pint of fresh red beer and a bowl of Bun Cha Cua, a rich broth made from freshly ground crab paste. A little morning glory was the perfect foil to the strong ocean-flavored blue crab and perky broth. The cyclos buzz by, as a brother and sister whack a shuttlecock over their driveway fence -- it's just as it should be.
The next day as I'm checking out, two of the guys who worked at the guesthouse invite me to lunch. On the way, we meet up with one of their friends. Eating with the locals always seems beneficial. They order about seven dishes and, in typical fashion, they come out at seven different times: there's Cha Ca, savory fish cakes with a sweet and spicy sauce, Dua Chua, a salad of bean sprouts and fish sauce, and Canh Kho Hoa, a bitter soup loaded with vegetables. The portions are small and are replaced with grilled river fish in banana leaves, stuffed fried tofu with watercress and shrimp and a terrine of pig’s feet.
We’re chatting away when a man walks by, one side of his face is so grotesque
that I found myself staring, his baseball size eye literally popping out and his
skin a mutilated mess. I turn back to the group and give an empathetic gasp. One
of them grabs my hand and says "it’s okay, it's orange." "Agent Orange?" I ask.
They all nod yes. I don't know, but part of me felt embarrassed and another just
curious. Maybe I'm supposed to feel ashamed, but I didn't. My embarrassment was
because I felt stupid, not because I'm an American. It's hard to truly feel
things if you haven't lived them. Sure, you can have distant compassion, but
what's its relevance if you can't identify with it? One of the guys starts to
talk about his uncle that came from a village just north of Hanoi. He had lost
some of his family and had been poisoned by the deadly Dioxin of Agent Orange.
Its lasting effects still linger. Another guy’s father lost an arm in the "12
days of bombing" of Hanoi. I asked them where and they pointed across the lake.
They told me the bombings hit civilian places, like hospitals, houses and
temples. I know very little about the war and even less about this country, but
I find it unusual how open they are and how unemotional they seem. There's some
silence, then one the guys says "It's all in the past, we look to the future
now". We smile at each other and fight over the bill; they’re more determined. I
grab my bags and we all bump fists -- I taught them that. I hop in a cab and
leave for the airport. On the flight back to Bangkok, I think of Robin Williams
and how many of us know of Vietnam through the movies we've all seen. I just
spent a month there, not really that much time at all. I feel no resolve and I'm
bothered by my lack of knowledge of our history. But that's been my M.O. forever
and you know what, that's okay. Maybe that's the best part of traveling.