Today’s guest post comes by way of my friend Tania Guenter, who I met years ago when she was living in Tel Aviv. The world-traveling writer, from New Zealand, shares her green and not-so-green experiences with Green Prophet while in Vietnam.
There are standard rules they put in almost every hotel in Vietnam. My favourite is rule number one – ‘Do not bring inflammable, poisonous substances or weapons into this hotel’. I have obeyed this rule so far.
Over the last three days I have learnt a lot about where the food on our supermarket shelves comes from. I’ve seen plantations of peppercorn, coffee, rice paddies, cashew trees, tapioca, Chinese dried mushrooms… and more. Almost every house in the Central Highlands seems to have coffee beans drying in their front yard. Now when I see coffee beans I will think of women in wide-brimmed conical hats scuffing through the beans to turn them over for drying, of dogs sleeping on them, of scrawny hens hopefully pecking their way through them with their chicks…
It was a slow bone-juddering journey to Dalat, as the bus crawled in and out of giant potholes – or ‘elephant holes’ as they call them here. It wasn’t as cool as I expected – in fact the daytime temperature was pretty much like Wellington at its hottest. But as soon as night fell a mountain iciness snuck into the air and it was time to wrap up warm.
On day one I met one of the original ‘Easy Riders’ – no, not Peter Fonda or Jack Nicholson… but an elderly Vietnamese motorcycle tour guide going by the name of Paul. The Easy Riders have been going for more than 30 years and offer tourists a more authentic view of Vietnamese culture, taking you to the places that the tour buses don’t go. The original group was made up of 15 members – now there are 100 and probably 100 more who claim to be.
The original Easy Riders are mostly intellectuals and teachers who fought in the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam war and are unable to get decent jobs as the government won’t allow them to work in salaried jobs… they are pretty fluent in both English and French (thanks to French colonialism and a French education), and a mine of information about Vietnamese culture and history. I booked a day tour with Paul to go around Dalat – and was so impressed I booked a two-day trip with him across some of the Central Highlands to a city called Buon Ma Thuot.
Where dog meat comes from
This was my chance to ask all the stupid questions I’d been wanting answers to. And learning about things I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed – such as the seemingly innocuous man with a cage on the back of his motorbike – who, I learned, is a dogcatcher, who travels from village to village stealing dogs and selling them to dog meat restaurants.
(Apparently there are no dog farms in Vietnam, so if you eat dog meat you are literally eating somebody’s Fido or Spot.)
Many natural locations are commercialised in Vietnam. You have to pay entrance fees to see waterfalls. One of the waterfalls in Dalat has a rollercoaster ride to the bottom of the falls. Paul took me to one that was free. I saw the process of a lot of food production – and saw how silk was produced – from caterpillar, to cocoon, to factory (where the worms are thrown into boiling water and the fluff on the outside of the cocoon is threaded onto a machine and becomes silk thread – the worms are eaten too, so nothing is wasted…and no I haven’t tried one).
I saw how bricks and incense were made… and yes, I have a lot of photos.
The city of flowers
Dalat is known as the city of flowers – I saw large nurseries of gerberas and other flowers. I saw a number of large old French villas as we rode through the surounds – from the time when the French used Dalat as their substitute French Alps.
Apparently Dalat was a quiet mountain village surrounded by jungle until after ’75 when the war ended and Northerners flooded the South. Now it’s quite a big bustling town, with very little jungle. The ethnic minority Highlanders are forbidden to cut down trees and live off the jungle as they used to, and have been forced into farming. We rode through a number of minority villages and stopped and looked around a few – some are very poor and others seem to be doing really well for themselves, same as other Vietnamese. Communist principles are not strongly in evidence anywhere – the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer… sound like a system we know? Government officials drive huge expensive cars and live in big expensive villas.
I have to admit to feeling a bit embarrassed at some of the minority villages we went to. At the first one, we stopped on the main road and some children came out – Paul gave me a bag of candy so I could hand some out to them. An old lady with blackened teeth came out and I went to hand her a lolly and she snatched the whole bag. Then Paul gave her a cigarette. In other villages he gave me candy as a way of luring the children for a photo. At one village he asked a woman if we could come inside her thatched bamboo hut on stilts and she allowed us, but didn’t look very happy.
We stood inside for several minutes as Paul pointed out things about their culture – all very fascinating, but at the same time I felt uncomfortable to be complicit in commercialising this woman’s daily existence – and wondering how many times a week this woman had people traipsing through her home.
Gorillas in the mist and lack of environmental awareness
One of my favourite parts of the trip was a ride to three waterfalls, on a road with jungle on either side. Paul let me get off the bike and walk alone for a bit – and I met up with him a few minutes later. It was quiet, except for the birds singing, with butterflies flying around me.
A few minutes before a long brown snake had slithered across the road in front of the bike… and I was wondering if I’d meet another…. Apparently people didn’t go to this area for many years as it was the place where guerillas went into hiding – lots of caves, big trees and dense jungle to disappear into.
We went through an Agent Orange area, which looked pretty barren compared to the lushness of other parts of the country – which, by the way, is picture postcard scenic – brilliant green rice paddies with craggy hills behind it, coffee plantations, colourful houses – only thing is Vietnamese have no respect for the environment, so there’s the inevitable plastic bags on the side of the road.
Ah yes, and the food! Being with Paul was my ticket into authentic Vietnamese restaurants, costing about half the price I have usually been paying. Last night we went to a small cafe specialising in fresh spring rolls – you grab a bit of rice paper and add whatever ingredients you want, which are laid out on the table, including fresh greens, Vietnamese mint and spicy herbs, then dip in spicy peanut sauce… yum!
So after three days of intensive Vietnam education I’ve returned to the coast – at Nha Trang, a very touristy beach city – there’s even an ‘Oz Cafe’. I will spend the day here tomorrow, then take an overnight sleeper train to Hoi An, which takes 12 hours. Am aware that I still want to go to Laos, so have to start speeding up the Vietnam part of the journey.
So ‘jow’ for now (this means both hello and goodbye in Vietnamese, but according to Paul when I say it it sounds like I’m saying ‘rice porridge’)
Oh yeah, and Merry Christmas, which I see by the computer calendar is coming soon!