Yut and I took the overnight train from Bangkok to Khon Kaen (NE Thailand). The plan was to spend a few days there before traveling up to Laos. My bunk partner happened to be a guy from Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. So, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions: "What kinda food ya eat up there?" "Laos Food" he replied. "Yeah, but what's it influenced by, China, Thai, Burma? It came from somewhere right?" A bit bewildered, he answers sternly "Laos people". Who said there are no dumb questions? I ask him if he'd like to watch a movie and have a beer. He smiles and says "sure, but where?" I pull from my bag my I-Book and a library of DVDs. He opts for School’s Out. We laugh so loud we're soon joined by a group of curious Thais -- it was a regular slumber party.
The next day, I decided I'd try something new, educate myself. The two things I know about Laos: it's popular amongst the backpackers and you pronounce it with the "s". After having a delightful sampling of Isan food at the Khon Kaen morning market, I hunker down in an air-conditioned library.
The people of Laos once settled in Yuennan region of southern China. In the 13th century, the Mongolians pushed them south. While the Thais settled around the Menam Valley, the Laotians located along the Mekong Valley and formed the principalities of Luang Prabang, Vietiane, Xieng Khouang, and Champassak. In the 14th century, a fella named Fa Ngoum, the prince of Luang Prabang, united the states calling them the Kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao or “the Kingdom of a Million Elephants and a White Parasol”. He also established Buddhism as the predominant religion. While the15th century appeared to be pretty turbulent (I think Fa Fgoum was a little over-zealous), the 16th and 17th century went fairly well. Under the rule of King Soulingna Vongsa, also a Russian R & B singer, Laos saw its greatest period of growth, prosperity and good music. Historians refer to it as the "golden age". In the 18th and 19th century, Siam, Burma and Vietnam got a little itchy and began fighting with Laos over, I imagine, territory. During this time, only Luang Prabang maintained its independence. Toward the end of the 19th century, while Great Britian was busy trying to teach the Burmese how to pronounce "lager", the French occupied Vietnam, Cambodia and, not to leave anybody out, Laos. Using the argument that Vietnam had historic rights over Laos, they took over Luang Prabang and turned the others into Colonial status.
In the 1940's, the Japanese occupied Laos for a short time and when they left, the French attempted to return. But this time, there were other formidable forces around and an internal battle between the Pathet Lao movement, led by Prince Souphanouvong, with the support of Communist Vietnam and the Crown Prince Savang with the backing of Thailand. These conflicts culminated in 1965 with an international war and the US supporting the Monarchy of Prince Savang. The war was devastating to Laos, with most bombs being dropped in the history of warfare.
As the end of the Vietnam war came and the establishment of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, the monarchy was dissolved .With the collapse of the social bloc, Laos has been economically liberated. In 1900's, it opened its doors to outsiders and has become a hotspot for adventurous tourists, especially backpackers. It's still a struggling country, heavily influenced by Vietnam and economically dependent on Thailand.
The crossing of the border and into the capital of Vietiane was quick and easy. We found a hotel and began to walk into town. It's always difficult to travel with someone else, you want to go, they want to stop, you like it spicy, they like want bland; sure, there's some advantages: cheaper cab fares – okay, just one. Yut and I walk and bicker. I'm just upset that I'm stuck in a hotel outside of town. We come upon a Laotian lady making a green papaya salad. Now that's not so unusual, but she's putting rice noodles, tomatoes and Ba La (fermented fish) in it. "Yut, you want some salad?" "No, I'm not hungry." "Can we stop while I try some?" "Sure." I'm an upbeat talkative guy, most say I have a big mouth, so I like it when people are as fun and outgoing as me.
This lady rocks! I take some pictures, mess around with her mise en place and she seems excited I know what Ba La is. She finishes up making an order for a camera shy woman and starts on mine. "Spicy?", she asks. "Damn right", I reply,"just like that lady’s". Yut cautions me pointing to the tiny red jewels she begins mashing in her mortar and pestle. "Well, maybe just a little spicy." In goes cloves of raw garlic, shredded green papaya, Ba La and tiny multi-colored tomatoes still on their vines. She squeezes some lime, squirts some fish sauce and continues pounding away, while smiling and asking me if I'd like some sticky rice. Next, she adds the toasted peanuts, rice noodles and a few secrets that went by too fast for me to catch. She sits down with us and a guy, I think is her husband, and demonstrates how to eat it, grabbing the sticky rice with her hand and dipping into the spicy juices, then placing a mound of salad on top. She grins as she shoves it into her mouth and repeats the process. "Hey -- what the hell you doin’?" I say, laughingly, and she makes the next bite for me. It's so good: the sweetness from the tomato, the harshness of the raw garlic, the salty skank of the fermented fish and the chilies – oh, they're spicy. I eat too much, too fast and my mouth becomes so hot, it’s quivering, I get up and hop around and waving my hand in front of my face. "Sticky rice please!" I shout. They all get kick out of my misery. I leave with water dripping from my eyes and promise to come back the next day.
First up was the morning market, Talat Sao. It's more clothes, electronics and jewelry, so we head over a few blocks to the more "local" market, Talat Khua Din. It's as grungy and smelly as I've ever seen. The stench is so bad, the fish have trouble hangin’ around. A long patchwork of old tarps are strung together to shelter the weary workers from the jarring heat. A lady selling onions decides it's not worth the effort has fallen asleep. It's like being in a basement, the tarps are so low. Going to the market just after you've eaten isn't a good idea anyhow, a satiated appetite quells the temptation. So happily, we agree to do a little sightseeing, instead. We rent a few bicycles and head up the main drag, passing Patuxai, the Victory Monument built to commemorate those that died in the pre-revolutionary wars. It looks like the Arc De Triomphe in Paris. We continue on to the emblematic Stupa of Pha That Luang, the most celebrated national monument in Laos. Built in 1566, it is a symbol of Laos’ sovereignty and Buddhism. Worshippers stick balls of rice near its entrance in a show of respect to the spirit of King Setthathirat.
I get bored quite quickly with things that don't move or make noises, so I sneak away to the neighborhood behind the gigantic walls of the cloister. There, I find my classroom -- a mom fluffing some sticky rice with shavings of coconut and wrapping it in banana leaf pouches and a man grilling a variety of flattened meat and innards wedged between skewers of bamboo and serving it to a family, who's already nibbling on Larb Dip, a freshly minced salad of raw fish, lemongrass, lime and chilies. There's also boiled bamboo shoots, tossed with toasted ground rice and chili powder. A few fellas push carts of iced tea and soy milk, while some kids sneak up behind me trying to place a small stick in my spokes. I'm tempted by the Khao Jii Pa-the, the Laos version of a Vietnamese sandwich, but with lots more meat, paté and terrine. Some boys find a grassy patch in a abandoned parking lot and play soccer, but the more interesting game is found across the street behind an old temple; it's like volleyball played with an airy bamboo ball, using anything but your hands. I felt bad for the monks as they quietly swept the steps of the temple -- surrounded by people eating and playing and not permitted to do either.
Somehow, Yut tracks me down and we head back downtown for the Boardwalk along Thanon Fa Ngum. It's the perfect place to watch the sun fall over the Mekong River, where a few women are casting their nets in the hue-waning sun. I chase the tiny frogs as they scamper through the silky mud. "Run and hide" I tell them, there are intruders in this peaceful land.
You know how your mind conjures up inflated images of people when you’re really excited about meeting them? I used to get that way about chefs. I remember going to Bouley for the first time, walking down that intrepid alley and into the bustling kitchen with great hopes of working alongside a true genius. It was an amazing place, 25 headstrong cooks, extremely serious and insanely dedicated. Every day I'd ask if I was hired and for the opportunity to speak with Bouley. "Just come back tomorrow" I was told. I did so for three weeks and one day I just started getting a check. ‘Til this day, my only interaction with Bouley was "Kim, two crab to the pass". Charlie the sous corrected him, "chef, it's Tim"; "yeah right, Kim let's go".
About 10 months ago I read a chapter about Bangkok in a Jeffrey Stiengarten book. He was shown around Thailand by Bob Halliday, the food critic for the Bangkok Post. I started to get those images of Bob taking me to little hidden food stalls and underground markets. So, I e-mailed him. Everyday I checked, for five months, but no answer. I'd long since given up hope, when in Vietnam I was on a phone interview with some restaurateurs back in NYC and Bob's name came up. I got a new address and this one worked. I came back to Bangkok, in part, to hook up with Bob.
I woke up on the early side and ran down the street of Phra Athit to the pay phone. It was already getting hot and the booth was sweltering. "Hi Bob, it's Tim." "Oh yes, so you’re from NYC. I was there a year ago." Trying to name drop, I ask "did you eat at Vong or 66?" "No I didn't. I've found Thai food outside of Thailand lacks its true flavors". “Well, I think we'd all agree on that, but you can't think of it as Thai food, it's an interpretation and sometimes it's better." "Better? How could it be better than an authentic dish that has been passed down through many generations?" "Better technique, better fish and meat and in the right hands a deeper understanding of evoking flavors". Now, this conversation happened awhile ago, so it's been through the wash a few times -- Bob, I'm trying to get your part right. Bob sighs, better technique, deeper understanding, these are words of war. He explains to me that Thai food is about balance: the harmony of harsh and pungent ingredients with a myriad of spices. The "Rot Chart", meaning the proper or appropriate taste, comes from a great understanding of these ingredients and the methods used to bring them to life. It's a high wire act; the bitter, sour, hot, salty and sweet are all interwoven into an exquisitely complex cuisine. I can't lose that quickly, so I change up my approach: "every cuisine is fusion it's all evolved from the melding of new ingredients and influences from other countries". Bob counters with "that's cultural evolution not some chef's arbitrary decision. I've lived here for 35 years and have developed a palate for the way dishes and ingredients should taste, I don't enjoy them any other way". We pick a time and place to meet and agree to disagree.
Bob is an amazing man, as gentle and sweet as the evening breeze and as knowledgeable and astute as anyone I've ever met. It's such a pleasure to be in his company. He was born and raised in NY and reminds me of a guy you'd find on a park bench on the Upper West Side -- well read, a bit upper class, hyper-intelligent, but with the spirit of someone down in the Village. He's retired from being the food critic and now writes reviews of classical music and movies; his CD and DVD collection is immense: from classical to esoteric, experimental stuff like John Cage, a guy who once recorded a piano piece of him sitting at the piano but not playing it. This is a good example of why food can't be art. If it was, you could have a chef's table where nobody got to eat. Surfing through his DVD collection, I find a rare copy of 19 plays by Samuel Becket performed by cinema directors and famous actors. We watch a few plays and it sails over my head like Concord jet. I grew up in this sort of environment, my mother a classical violinist and my Dad scientist/psychologist, culture and brains were all around the house, I just preferred to play outside.
Our first meal was at Chote Chitr, a little restaurant on the edge of Ko Ratanakosin. Its little streets, canals and food shops are so charming, you forget you’re in noisy Bangkok. Like all the places you go with Bob, he's greeted like an old friend. Fluent in Thai, he orders about seven dishes; a few highlights were Shrimp Mee Krob, sweet, sour and spicy goodness, a grilled eggplant salad with lemongrass, lime and mint, its smoky tones harmonizing with the lively flavors of red shallots and dried shrimp. And, a salad of banana flower and shrimp, where the dense texture of the banana leaves made the shrimp even more voluptuous, both delicately tossed with rich chili paste, fermented shrimp, lime and palm sugar. Bob runs next door to the Mango Sticky Rice and Sweet Shop that is supposedly the best in the city and brings back dessert. It's just the beginning of Mango season and the luscious sweet flesh is wonderful on its own, but when you take a bite with the chewy sticky rice scented with pandanus and the sweetened fresh coconut cream, you just about wet yourself. I dry off while Bob tells me that a great source for recipes is funeral books. This is a way the cuisine gets passed down through generations and, though rarely are their measurements, there are often times explicit directions. We are joined by Mrs. Krachoichuli Kimangsawat, the chef and owner, who brings her own family’s books -- such a warm and gracious lady. I'm so overwhelmed by the moment that I blurt out "hey, can I work here?" She looks over to her two employees, as if to say she's got it covered, and Bob explains in Thai what I meant. She smiles and says okay. I start the next day.
The walk from Phra Athit is not too far, just through Sanam Luang park, past the Grand Palace and down a couple side streets and I'm there. Mrs. Kimangsawat (Tiem) has two helpers, Ele the sous chef and a steward/busser. Together, they are a formidable crew that moves like the wind when it gets busy. Mario may have done all the cooking at Po, but he didn’t wait tables, mix drinks and serve as the cashier too. It's a railroad layout: an open air dining room in the front, a small narrow hallway in the middle that houses the garde manger, dishwashing and waiter stations, all the refrigeration and a restroom. In the back is a small room with a few fans hung from the partially open ceiling where the fans point up. There are two burners set against the wall and mise en place wrapped around its perimeter, set on crates, old tables and a cupboard. This is Tiem’s sanctuary -- all 15 square feet of it. I try to get busy by washing a few things in the sink and I'm politely asked to stop. I try to infiltrate the peeling of the lemongrass, but that task only lasts a few seconds. As I'm learning, most of these restaurants do a minimal amount of prep prior to service. The curry pastes, nam priks, chili pastes and basically all the cool stuff is made by Tiem at her house. Here's a lady who begins her day at 6:00 AM by going to several markets, then she drives with her two fox terriers to the restaurant, which is open from 11:00 AM to10:00 PM, and she finishes around 11:00 PM and then drives home. That's a long day for anybody and she does it six days a week. On the seventh day, she prepares food for the monks at her temple.
At noon, the tables begin to fill up and the balancing act kicks in. Tiem is out greeting the guests, as Ele makes some iced artichoke leaf tea. She hands me a glass, it's got a musty smell to it. The first order looks to be a banana flower salad; Ele quickly peels back the outer leaves and finely shaves the center with a sharp wood-handled cleaver. Tiem hands her some steamed shrimp and she mixes it together with chili paste, lime juice, simple syrup, freshly made coarse chili powder and coconut milk. I'm so psyched, because yesterday, I couldn't quite decipher what the cooling element to the dressing was and, now I know -- coconut. A few more dishes are called out and Ele grabs an array of bags from the fridge and washes, preps and arranges plates of mise en place to hand to Tiem. It's awesome -- I get to stand between them and watch every dish. I hold up my notepad showing Tiem and she nods her acceptance to my note taking. As she finishes each dish, she has me sample it. They're all amazing: soups with spiced ground pork and a bitter deep foresty flavor, Nam Priks with sour mango, a salt lick shrimp paste (gapi) and gooseberry sized eggplant served with a platter of market vegetables and a fried salted fish. Over and over, Tiem nails the dish spot-on with a minimal amount of tasting. Her motions are fluid like a great dancer -- never pressing, but always engaged. The wok affords you exceptional speed, but you have to be up to the task because things cook in a matter of seconds. Her Thai Noodles (pad thai) are made in under a minute. She browns the garlic and then adds preserved turnips and dried shrimp. With the flick of a spoon, the sugar and vinegar are deposited, then the noodles, as they soak up the liquid immediately. She cracks an egg to the side and whisks it with a fork. It balloons up in the hot fat and she quickly incorporates it into the noodles. In go the peanuts, tofu, sprouts and green onions. She rolls them a few times and it's done. Great cooking is a simple equation: perfect technique and a superb palate, Tiem says it's easy. Her humble Thai facade doesn't fool me -- a palate like that isn't just natural, it comes with time. A flood of people walk in and the place gets a little crazy. Orders are being shouted out by Ele and Tiem simultaneously. I'm not sure how they hear each other. Vegetable peelings are flying, some dried fish is pounded in the mortar and pestle, a whole fish sizzles in the wok as Tiem’s hands are now moving at blinding karate-like speed. She yells at the steward for a wok, there are only three and two are in the sink. I start to help and Ele pushes me gently away. I press my ass up against the bathroom door and just watch in amazement. A big "I fuckin’ love the kitchen" grin comes over my face as I realize that kitchen mayhem is not cultural, it's professional. A few customers peek their heads back in the kitchen; at first I thought they were looking for their food, but actually one needed to use the restroom. I try to move and fall in a gutter -- I knew flip-flops were a bad choice. The other guy starts taking pictures; he's doing an article for a Thai magazine. Like a media savvy chef, Tiem is uninterested and keeps her game face on. She barks out a few orders and her displeasure with one of the trays of mise en place. It's quickly replaced.
Each day after lunch, I sat and ate a sampling of dishes. Tiem would join me to talk, but never eat. Like a true cook ,she took her meal later in the day, squatting on the kitchen floor with the others. She spoke English well, so we were able to talk about food, life, and the absurdities of our business. Like most of my trip, after awhile, I became more interested in her story than the food. Her food, however divine, is only a small part of this amazing lady, who has inherited this 100 year old restaurant from her grandparents whose pictures grace the walls. Her grandfather became well known for his medicinal herb mixtures and potions, while grandmother and mother taught her how to cook. We talked about how modern Bangkok has become and that her daughter is growing up in a world of opportunities that are quite different from the past. "Who's going to run the restaurant after you?" I ask. She shakes her head and laughs. Her daughter doesn't like to cook and Tiem's fine with that. I ask her if she likes other cuisines and she explains that her father was a diplomat and traveled quite a bit. She loves Italian food and cooks it occasionally. I feel like bringing her to NYC to eat at Lupa (my favorite) with me, but if anyone is indispensable, it's her. I asked her what happens when she's sick. "We close" she says with a smile, then tells me that it happened back in October. The customers were so distraught that they called her at home, wishing her a speedy recovery, but mostly wanting to know when she was going to re-open.
On my final day after I've sucked down all the artichoke tea from the pot, I ask her about Bob. “Bob’s like family” she says “and he's been coming here for many, many years.” "What do you think of mixing two styles of food together, say Thai and Italian?", "Oh, I Iike Italian, and experimentation is a good thing." Sorry Bob, the seed has been planted.
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.
After four days of stagier at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, I filled my day pack with the bare essentials and headed off for a little excursion to Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. Virtually everyone tells you that no trip to Vietnam is complete without seeing this natural wonder. The mini bus rolled around the corner just as I was finishing up my morning bowl of Lake Snail Soup, consisting of thin rice noodles with a tangy tomato-tinged broth and snails the size of golf balls. You grab a handful of amaranth, saw leaf and rice paddy herbs and toss them into the steaming broth; as they wilt, their aroma intensifies then dissipates into the savory abyssr.
As I board the bus, an American couple chidingly asks me about my meal and whether it was worth keeping the bus waiting. "Snails, and absolutely" I said. "For breakfast!" they exclaimed. "Sure, why not”, I replied. We discussed the wisdom of eating snails instead of pancakes or a bowl of fruit and shared snail stories. When I was about four, my playmate and I used to trample around our backyard in LA. She had an oral fixation and put everything in her mouth, from rocks to lighter fluid and, of course, the snails that slimed their way up and down the backyard wall. I never took part in that snack, but I remember the rather odd sensation of stepping on them with my bare feet -- crunchy, sticky and ultimately unpleasant.
About an hour out of Hanoi, we pull up to an ugly white-walled warehouse and the driver announces that we'll be here for 45 minutes. We all look at each other with pure puzzlement. Nobody seemed to need the rest stop, especially given that we had just boarded the bus. Turns out it's a factory where they weave fabrics that, I guess, needs a little business.. We gather outside the entrance in defiance and watch as bus after bus enters the parking lot. At one point, there are about 15 buses -- that's about 200 disillusioned tourists, all tired of being prodded, begged and hassled into buying, bartering or refusing goods or services.
A few hours later and two listenings of the White Stripes Elephant CD, we arrive at the port. There are just a few docks with hundreds of boats about five or six deep packed up against them. It reminded me of a cluttered parking lot of a large outdoor concert. We climb over several boats before reaching ours. It's a tired old wooden-hulled vessel with three floors and a yellow dragon mounted proudly at its bow. We slowly ease out into the bay, while I take a quick spin around my new home. It's funny how you can take a two and a half day cruise with all meals and lodging included for a mere $25 and still be judgmental about your abode. The bottom floor has small, but rather cute cabins. Above that is the dining room and kitchen. The communal lunch is actually pretty good and it gives us all an opportunity to share our travel stories. There are twelve of us, but couples only get one tale between them – they are all hideous, self-serving and pretty much similar to what you’re reading right now. We quietly indulge each other until it's our turn. After lunch we head up to the deck on the top level; it's like a back yard with lounge chairs, card tables and potted plants. It's just lacking the outdoor grill and volleyball net.
I begin to get a little excited as the guide tells us about the legends of Ha Long Bay. The heavens sent mother dragon down to earth to protect the Vietnamese from Chinese aggressors. With all of her dragonly wisdom she gave birth to thousands of limestone children, which created a maze of Islands and inlets making it difficult for the Chinese to pass through. "Was there a male dragon too?" a Brazilian man asks. "No, the mother dragon did it on her own with a swish of her mighty tail” is the response.
Just as we’re settling in to our stretched-out towels and ice cold beers, an excruciatingly loud grinding noise comes from the engine room. The immediate reaction from the international brigade was laughter, as the crew grabbed long bamboo poles and started stabbing at the water. Behind the boat was a large oblong-shaped trail of muddy water -- we had hit land, right smack in the middle of the bay. I nabbed a pole out of curiosity and reached down to see to see how deep it was – maybe, about 15 feet. Other boats cruised by as the driver, tour guide and chef stood on the highest deck and screamed for help waving shirts and banging on pans. The American couple and one very drunk and thoroughly amusing gay guy began singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song, as the Germans, Swedes and Aussies joined in. It's comforting to know the whole world is corny and just out for a good time. The singing evolved into a very loud poker game in five different languages. Chants of "Give us your beer" to passers-by were shouted across the bay, as the consumption of the only beverage on board made it scarce supply. All-in-all, we were there for four hours -- the tour of the caves and numerous other activities all lost on a sand bar. The only people at all concerned were our Vietnamese hosts.
When the tide had risen high enough for another boat to rescue us, we were once again on the move. As we approached the sheer grey cliffs of the islands, the sun began to fall, the orange hue filtering between the soft darkened peaks. We passed sedately through hundreds of islets and sea coves resting quietly in the blue-green sea. The small group separates, perhaps wanting to enjoy the moment alone, as we pass a few fisherman paddling by in long canoes. From around the next island, a large Chinese style boat appears. Its expansive sails flutter gently in the wind, as it moves slowly against the backdrop of the now ink black limestone rocks. I get restless around tranquility. I'm more at ease on a busy intersection on 6th Avenue. I do some deep breathing I learned in one of my two yoga classes I took in Brooklyn and try to settle into something Zen. One-by-one, the stars trickle out, filling the sky with a brilliant sheet. After awhile, I go find the Americans and we talk about how our misfortune allowed us to be the only boat to witness the sunset. Why is it I find more pleasure in this realization than in the natural beauty of the world? That's okay -- it was a bit like staring at a sensual woman you knew you could not touch. As we neared Cat Ba Island, the slumber party resumed. It was silly, but so is our obsession with beauty.