A place you might only read about

(No.2, Vol.2 Feb 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)



Four or five hours out of Saigon, to the west, the way the Hiep Thanh company’s minibus goes to Tân Châu, An Giang Province, you come to one of two main channels of the Mekong. You follow the bank, keeping the river on the left, and come to a ferry at Chợ Vàm, or Vam Market. It seems to take about half-an-hour to cross the river, but I have never been able to time it exactly, as once I am on the ferry I go into a state of mind which has to do with only how the ferry goes and what is on the river, like fleets of sand dredges or boats full of compressed rubbish, on their way to or from another country. This Tet (the Vietnamese for Lunar New Year) we got to the ferry well after dark, and photographs I took of the ferry’s landing bridge made it look like the end of a dusty, brown road. The water swished underneath it and beyond was the dark and the lights of the opposite shore that caused a beaded curtain of reflections off small waves. This is the kind of ferry that is boarded and disembarked from the same end, so vehicles have to be backed during embarkation, and the landing bridge is at the front.
Ferries in Asia are famously overloaded, and on the ferry at this place on the Mekong there are usually several four-wheeled vehicles and a great many more passengers and motorbikes than I can imagine going on the life rafts that are visible, so I take several empty plastic drink bottles as floats, which I imagine I would stuff under my shirt. If you had a recognisable float, wouldn’t others want to share, when lurch came to splash? This night it was my 11th crossing (and recrossing) for Tet. Most people remain sitting in the minibus, but I get out for the 'fresh air', which turns out to be a pleasing understatement on the Mekong, at least this far up toward Cambodia: the first breath is like a transfusion, as if a stick of crushed sugar cane were put back through the juicer and it came out whole again. The river may be polluted, but it is not dead, not the stinking dead that has recently stopped the Vietnamese in many places round the country launching the Kitchen God on the traditional goldfish in a stream or pond, at Tết.
Having travelled a long while with the Mekong on the left of the bus, on the other side, after you disembark at Chợ Phú Lâm, or Phu Lam Market, it is on the right, as you continue ever ‘deeper in the Mekong Delta’, to use the come-on of the Victoria Chau Doc Hotel. If it is in the daytime beside the road there are people who remind me of India, for the way they are obviously part of a world that they constitute and can never leave. There is a moustached mystic in a cloak, like a walking statue, and a vendor who can carry a stack of produce a metre high on her head. On the way back, after the Tet holiday, we met a series of motorbike-drawn carts so heavily loaded with sacks that the boss had apparently told the drivers to keep exactly on the centre line, because, if they moved over, the camber would throw the lot on the verge. But on the way to Tết this time it was night and sleepy, and there had been fewer people on the ferry; the ferry had already pulled away from shore at Chợ Vàm when our minibus turned up, and come back in to fetch us. Across the river, and in something less than an hour from Chợ Phú Lâm, we arrive at the town of Tân Châu, literally ‘new settlement’, where Hiep Thanh has its terminus.
I am not promoting Hiep Thanh, but it is a Saigon-Tan Chau specialist line that I have nearly always used. The seats are numbered on a plan and I and my wife always book the three that constitute the row immediately back from the driver, three, four and five. These days there are taxis at Tân Châu, some, at least, run by Hiep Thanh, and government buses, but there are still plenty of pushbike-drawn carts (xe lôi) and Honda ôms, perhaps more than before. Four kilometres beyond the terminal, on the road to Châu Đốc, we come to the houses of my wife’s brothers and sisters and their children. We pass through pillared gates and a grove of yellow-blossoming Tết apricot trees in huge planters. We always sleep in the same room, upstairs at the back. Usually it has not been used for months and needs to be cleared of gecko guano before the mattress is put on the floor and the mosquito net hung. This time a mummy-dry gecko fell out of a plastic picture frame and my wife, whose etiolated portrait was in the frame, nonchalantly picked it up in a paper handkerchief to throw it out the window.
The most savage thing of my early years of Tết (Vietnamese for Lunar New Year) at Tân Châu was the screaming of the pigs slaughtered somewhere nearby at about 4 a.m. They complained like people for quite a while before petering out, on the one hand into a basin of blood and on the other a body to be cut up for the market, each part an entire delicacy, from the flowery ears to the curly tail. Blood-curdling also came later, in the making of the pudding. This year, after some years of no 4 a.m. waking (probably due to a piece of town-planning), the yard of the house next door, outside our window, had become a mixed poultry yard, in which the primary birds were two white geese, who sounded as if they were blowing party hooters that unfurled to a feather. After several mornings of involuntary study of the sounds of the geese, not much later than the old pig-slaughtering hour, it became apparent that they had their own interpretation of ‘Cock a doodle do’, which they seemed to have picked up from a black cock, or rooster, that also occupied the yard, along with a speckled hen, unless the spots were scrap boiled rice thrown so evenly by the master. A ‘Cock a doodle do’ from a cock, which may be supposed to own the intellectual property, is, strangely, a much more difficult, strangled sound than one from a goose.


Lions and the Land Deity circle their reward at the 188 Café.

The poultry had an attentive master, who who was upset when later in the morning I found that babushka oats from Russia and two other less exotic brands had all gone off and I threw some out the window. Throwing stuff out the window is a sport in Vietnam, like riding a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City or snow skiing, but I was relieved that after a few hours the poultry had not developed staggers. In fancying the fowl yard I was not peculiar, as a niece aged 12 elbowed me and pointed out hens sitting high in the trees outside the window. One tree was a mango tree and another a starfruit tree. Starfruit ripened and languished because we did not have a fruit-sized, clasping cage on a pole to grab it. The geese occasionally stretched and flapped their wings, especially when a little breeze came up, and I imagined a row of geese on a mandarin’s windowsill, before bowls of water, flapping wingspans of air in, for air-conditioning.
Higher on the shopping list than a harvesting cage on a pole were a vợt bắt muỗi, not quite literally a 'racquet to kill mosquitoes', because ‘bắt’ is not as strong as 'kill' and is probably a euphemism, and a new mosquito net. You sometimes encounter, in Vietnam, ferocious, huge mosquitoes that could probably be used in hospitals for taking blood samples, under a low-tech program in which the mosquitoes were squashed after biting the patient and the blood looked at under a microscope. Some of these flying syringes were among the kinds of mosquitoes at Tân Châu at Tết. Everyone needs to check before they go, but it is widely said in the Mekong Delta at the moment that there is no malaria. In southern Vietnam, I know of recent cases of dengue fever, however, which I understand is carried by day-biting mosquitoes, whereas malaria is carried by night-biting ones.
The old net was too small this year. My elbow rested against it in the night and I woke with a thick, itchy, red patch on it, where apparently mosquitoes had crowded to gorge, as on a pincushion. There were so many mosquitoes in the room that getting in or out of the net once would let three or four in. The new net, which cost about VND100,000, or $5, at a local market, was almost too big for the room. Its roof was printed with blooms of the poisonous oxalis, in the botanically accurate colours, pink, blue and yellow, half-a-metre across; in spaces there was the hint ‘oxa’. The walls of the net were pink, which my wife’s father used to say was a very good colour for a mosquito net. In discussion of the net, my wife remarked that they were not for sale at the Ben Thanh Market, the central market in Ho Chi Minh City, though I gather since that this is not strictly a fact but just a reaction to a notion that the city is now so developed that there are no mosquitoes, what with the roaring civic puffers of hydrocarbon smoke - like hold-in-the-hand, under-serviced motorbikes - and air-conditioners that transfer environmental problems to the mountainous areas of hydro-electricity dams.
Once you have a decent net that falls liberally to the floor well away from your mattress, or even bed, should you be one of the ‘developing’ people, you need to kill the handful of mosquitoes inside the net, in the dark if you don’t have a little reading light with a switch on the end of a cord that passes under the net. At a shop in Châu Đốc I came across a racquet with a torch shining directly backward out the end of the handle for VND80,000, or $4. While the strokes applied in killing mosquitoes are those used by Roger Federer, whose longevity in the game is due to his playing ‘within himself’, it is advisable not to fall into adjusting the strings, especially while your thumb or a finger of the other hand is still on the button that delivers the charge. I absent-mindedly occasioned myself a jolt up the arm; it is not as if I had not read the warning on the packet, but the racquet is so like a tennis one, and a quite well balanced one at that. I know of no mosquito racquet that has the Federer name on it, and it might also be helpful to have a Rolex watch built in along with the torch. What I like to do is turn the racquet on and look at the specks of defunct mosquitoes that stick to it and light up like stars and galaxies.
The racquet has to be used in the morning as well, around the whole room. You don't have to be able to see the mosquitoes. Just play shots and somehow you get all the mozzies. That is, except for the ones that sit sleepily on the walls, full of blood, and, it seems, alcohol, especially at Tết. Hold the racquet so that it approaches the wall evenly, as with a drop volley close to the net, and listen to the crackle, which is in fact a small thunder-clap, or series of them, and smell the burnt insect and blood, like the smoke from silk, which is the nearest you may ever get these days to the smell of the ‘napalm in the morning, or which may stand in for the perfume of a roaring road at a coffee shop, something so liked these days by those who have become dependent on the brain numbness that follows, that also slows the carrying out of such things as a metro system. Don’t play the shots in the muscular way of Raphael Nadal, however, and collapse a knee or elbow, and impale the racquet on a nail or clothes rack, which will destroy what a salesperson at an Apple shop would call ‘your new toy’. This toy is so powerful it takes the best part of 24 hours to charge, according to the package, and the charge lasts a vastly longer time even than that of a MacBook Air. No wonder some of the ‘landsmen’ among the expats of HCMC ask themselves whether an electric racquet could not be altered at home to make a Taser, or at least a cattle prod or encourager for self-styled ‘English-language students’.
Having bothered to stay alive this much in Tân Châu, and having discarded three brands of morning porridge, what about breakfast? For this we need to start with a consideration of the bathroom - several square metres containing a squat toilet, a broad-gauge cold tap like a fire hydrant, that even has a red handle, and a plastic dish - because if you get the eating bowl, the cooking pot, the spoon or the chopsticks dirty they have to be washed in the bathroom. So it is better to go to one of the two first-class restaurants in this part of the province, one at central Tân Châu, only four kilometres away, and one at Châu Đốc, 13 kilometres away. You may think I have been conservative in going to the same place for Tết for 11 years, but in that time the surroundings also have stayed very much the same. One thing that has changed is transportation, as I have said, which has been elaborated, not denatured.


An old woman on a bicycle-drawn cart at Chau Doc.

On my early stays at Tân Châu I had to take a bicycle-drawn cart to the doctor when I was vomiting like a waterfall off the veranda due to blithely having eaten the village-cooked food. I could not make it to the doctor’s, as I was so ill, but sat on a verge that happened to be behind the hospital, where I was taken in and asked to ‘vomit out the window, not on the floor’. The small, elegant, timber-and-stainless-steel carts are still ubiquitous, and seem to continue to be being made, with an appreciation of their pleasing style. Where you would pay VND 100,000 for a taxi, you should pay nearly as much for a ride on the most environmental cart and less than half as much on the back of a motorbike, a xe ôm, literally, ‘hug wheels’, as, to be safest, you must put your arms around the driver. These days there is also the government bus, which costs VND 7,000 to Châu Đốc. To get into Châu Đốc you first get off the bus at its terminus and on to a ferry that is embarked at one end and disembarked at the other. You are crossing another stream of the Mekong, but it takes only five minutes or so. Turn right when you get off and walk along the riverbank to the Victoria Chau Doc Hotel, part of the mighty Indochinese chain with geographical positions as good as those got by the churches in the West. The ferry costs VND 1,000, or 5c.


A house at Tan Chau, of a common and picturesque wooden kind.

At the Victoria Chau Doc, where this time I was paid, in the form of two room-nights, the thing to order, as far as I am concerned, is the rack of lamb, followed by the dessert with two balls of strawberry yoghurt in a meringue corral in a sea of orange sauce and topped with mint leaves. I don’t think this time the lamb was quite as well aged as in previous years - perhaps someone in the supply chain doesn’t think this matters anymore, though it does, for the real flavour and texture. The frozen-yoghurt dish was as good as or better than, at the first few tries, it had been even during the first decade of the 21st century, but on the final try the meringue was powdery. I know they cook everything themselves, and I have been into the kitchen and looked at the meringue in the oven. These are pioneering young men and women who cook for fastidious French people on return to the old colony, in a very alien place. Considering the context, the kitchen and the restaurant are phenomenal, despite my many criticisms. This deep in the Mekong Delta, to argue about the qualities of the VCCH is like arguing in a distant oasis that the dates are slightly off the gold standard. The breakfast bacon has in recent years been curiously thin and anaemic, and this time the breakfast pancakes were not replenished at anywhere need the speed the clientele required. Failure to replenish buffets is Vietnam’s most widespread and worst service problem; it means the customer cannot actually get the product and the service paid for, and it says, though perhaps accidentally, that the hotel does not care what the customers think of it and it remains a mystery what the hotel thinks of them. The comment book gushes at the VCDH, but I would say the streams of guests, an enormous number filing through to or from Phnom Penh, up the river, must to some extent be expressing an unconscious relief, a teddy-bear sense of coming home, in an ‘adventure destination’, Indochina.
 


People marvel at the Victoria Chau Doc Hotel for its giving the impression of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Plants grow up the legs of the table tennis table, on the backs of deck chairs and in the toilets. This is largely due to the strong environmental influence of a daughter of a landmark general manager, Mr Man. She is a lecturer in environment. As well, there is the lục bình, the water hyacinth, which floats to the right, down the river, and turns round with its sails of leaves in the wind and floats back up again, sometimes going round a certain yellow buoy that features in the all-day-gazing view from the veranda of the VCDH under a fan-wafted ceiling of brown, varnished, woven rattan or leaf. The old brown of the hotel in its rooms is so redolent of more relaxed times that one of my Vietnamese relatives designed his own drink servery in the some style and gave the plan to a carpenter to make for his new Swiss-chalet-style concrete house. Though the house is in an old, mud-brown village, you would not be surprised to see a pair of crossed skis on the pediment, such is the icy, slightly blue tint of the Mont Blanc architecture.


A vendor’s cart in front of a flagging development hoarding facing the river in Tan Chau.

So, here we are back in the village and it is a bit tedious taking the bus 13 kilometres every day, and very soon in the two weeks of Tết it is time to go the other direction to Tân Châu for something to eat. This is not to say all the time was given to eating out. The majority of the sisters-in-law can cook, and in a hygienic manner, and there are the ceremonies of Tết, which include numerous rounds of bowing at ancestral altars, knees on the floor and forehead hitting a pad of the hands clasped on the floor four times each round. The ceremonies contributed to my losing several kilos, a reduction of about 2 per cent. I know we have not come to any of the tourist sights of the region – they will be for a another month – but now we are beyond the territory where you are likely to go anyway; at Tân Châu, my home town in Vietnam, I reckon I must have seen three white men or women in 11 years, though I have come across one, a Frenchman, who seems to live, or spend quite a bit of time, a few kilometres away. There was a time when my presence in the town was a threat to civic peace, as I was welcomed so enthusiastically, or, alternatively, as a bit of sport for yahoos, who these days have chestnut hair.
Now we are approaching the last word in eating on the Tân Châu-Châu Đốc axis, so deep in the Mekong Delta. But first it is worth spending a little time on the riverbank, not forgetting that Tân Châu is on one stream of the Mekong and Châu Đốc on another. For some years there has been a long hoarding along the Tân Châu esplanade advertising a forthcoming development to include a hotel, villas and a coffee shop. It has been going to be suave, according to the pictures on the hoarding. Big, dark cars would have been driven out of swishing garages by chauffeurs while their owners were in dark suits on mobile phones with dark briefcases in the other hand. But by now the pictures, done on some sort of cloth, are drooping like theatre curtains, folding and coming off in places, and the pictures have turned a uniform washed-out blue that most signs seem to over time and in the sun in Vietnam. Before I went west for Tet this time, a relative told me a riverfront hotel had been built. I immediately thought of the hoarding, and thought the development was coming true, however rare it was for a hoarding proposal to be carried through in Vietnam in these times of high bank interest rates. But it turned out what was being referred to was another, new but unlavish, tallish hotel, further along from the hoarding. I was there one evening, and was intrigued, and went in and asked, because the windows, on what looked like all of the many floors, were dark. Weren’t there any guests in the hotel? I asked. The receptionist replied that the hotel provided ‘massage’, on the 6th floor.


High-school girls go to siesta recess in Tan Chau

Civic pride in Tân Châu had reached what it had in the 1950s in some towns in the West, and planters sat on concrete sawn-off tree trunks and a pair of yellow deer stood on an island of lawn, along with a gigantic, stainless-steel, mausoleum-style sign on a stone support so long that it blocked out almost the entire view of the mighty Mekong from a cafe across the road. The sign read nothing more than Thị Xã Tân Châu, the thị xã meaning a town of a higher order. According to civic pride, the recent announcement of the promotion of the former ordinary town is huge progress. It doesn’t matter what we outsiders think of the environment or tourism, which attitude is rather pleasing; there are no ‘traditional’ dances or ‘tourism’ initiatives. In recent years the banks of the river have been falling in, and a road has been put along the bank as a toughener. Some buildings have fallen in the river, and half of some have, and superb cross-sections of buildings remain, with the vestiges of staircases still embossed on and the ordure of life still rubbed on walls that are like the ends of surgical amputations.
The Duy restaurant, not far away, close to the Post Office, is an inexplicable marvel, and in the case of this venue I am not bound to say so. There are very few restaurants in the country that cook so consistently to such a high standard dishes that are appreciated equally by Vietnamese and Westerners. There are faded ads on the walls for such things as livestock feeds and growth ‘programs’ for aquaculture. Some of the locals drink beer, quickly become red-faced, loud and slurring and kick off their shoes and spit on the floor, and cans and serviettes and other debris accumulate like trophies under the table. I don’t know where they get the wine from for the chicken steamed with wine, gà hấp rượu, but the dish is sublime, with the giblets in. Though you need not eat them, the giblets give an additional dimension to the taste of the meat. And this is only my fall-back dish, after I have eaten alarming numbers of plates of prawn fritters, day after day. Now, the prawns, tôm lăn bột, are not fatty, done the Duy way, and the crust of flour, furry, not greasy, makes a good carbohydrate balancer. A dozen or so big prawns come on a bed of lettuce and sliced raw tomato and raw onion, very healthy. I dip the prawns in a sauce called nước xí muội, to which may be added a little extra chilli. This sauce is orange-red, and perhaps made from a fruit of this colour, and has the stringy consistency of saliva, and it so delicious that you don’t want to put yourself off by asking asking every detail of what it is made of. The Duy has a good range of dishes, including a lot of different animals without taking any from the Vietnamese Red Book of endangered species. I have never got a stomach ache from the Duy, even though these days I eat the leaves, as mentioned, and drink Coca-Cola or Pepsi on iceberg chunks. A meal at the Duy is around VND 100,000 to VND 200,000, or $5 to $10.
Over the road from the Duy this time, I got the heart-wrenching sight of high-school girls coming out for the siesta recess on the first day of the return after Tết. They were many and they were all in pure white, exquisitely diaphanous áo dàis (traditional long dresses), often pushing silver-painted bicycles. One had a large, appliqué heart on her hat band. Another showed an expanse of nape as she lifted her hair to fiddle with it. Here was breathtaking sophistication in a mud-coloured town. Geese cricked their necks like minibus-drivers, and dipped in aluminium dishes of water to wash themselves, never getting as white as high school girls, and scenes were palimpsested over with electrical wires, the wires becoming part of photography, through de facto resignation, a postmodern ‘deletion’.
Then there is the noise, even at the Duy, with the road traffic and troupes of wandering lion dancers banging symbols and drums, driving out lazy devils and stupidities of the old year in the recesses of establishments that pay for the service along the roads, or pouncing on a can of beer, a can of soft drink and an orange at the 188 coffee lounge next door to the Duy, the doof-doof music of boys with yellowish-red hair blown as if by a cyclone of the Central Region, and the ship’s-horn blasts from the government buses, which can cause air-drum pain. Deeper in the Mekong Delta, ever deeper, over 11 years, and deeper than ever on return to HCMC to the peace of five-star hotel lounges. The villages of the upper Mekong Delta mostly line roads on banks between paddy ricefields harvested three times a year. Nowadays, road-accident ambulances pass with sirens on on these banks dozens of times day, adding to ever-increasing beeping, roaring, howling cacophony. My wife’s family’s houses are in this situation and are becoming another place in the country made unendurable by various forms of pollution. Home karaoke sets, black and massive, like funeral marble, with two silver-caged ice-cream shapes of microphones, have become as prevalent as the brass sets that are polished every year and go on the ancestral altar. A karoake session was so loud an accepted village simpleton was provoked to make an intelligent protest.n