Mai Chau, Vietnam
I arrived in Hanoi at 5:30a, blurry eyed and with bed head after an overnight train from Sapa. Lam, the guide for most of my trip, picked me up at the train station on his motorbike. My loosely fitting helmet bounced around on my head as we weaved in and out of traffic, occasionally driving the wrong way against traffic, and seemingly defying all safety protocols. We stopped at his favorite Banh Mi place to pick up a sandwich to go. Banh Mi is a delicious sandwich on a baguette with cilantro, cucumbers, pickled carrot and liver pate. I did my fair share of adventurous eating in Vietnam, but liver pate at 6am was just too much for me.
Next we arrived at the purportedly best pho place in the Old Quarter. I never thought about eating chicken noodle soup for breakfast, but it hit the spot. Compared to all the sketchy hole in the walls I ate at in Hanoi (all with incredible food), this was a quaint little restaurant. The giant metal pots at the entrance of the restaurants contained the broth, and next to it sat a large vat of noodles. Another table close by had all the fixings: chicken (ga), basil, sprouts, hot sauce. They stuck with the Vietnamese theme of child sized furniture. I pulled up a red plastic stool to one of the many metal community tables, and tried to squeeze my giant body into the tiny space, my knees banging against the top of the table, and enjoyed my delicious breakfast. All for $0.90.
After our breakfast soup, we sat sipping green tea at one of the numerous ‘street cafes’, which was really just a collection of more child sized plastic red stools on a random sidewalk. There’s a lucrative market in Hanoi for tiny red plastics seats. The vendor poured green tea into our dirty looking glasses from a thermos. Food safety and restaurant inspections be damned! We sat with other locals watching traffic, shooting the shit, and learning about each other’s cultures. Politics, gun control, drugs, alcoholic drinks of choice. Lam knows no taboo topics.
That afternoon, we arrived in Mai Chau where I was doing a homestay at Mr Lin’s house. When I booked the homestay, I had naively assumed I would be staying, eating, hanging out with a local family. Instead, there were separate sleeping structures for the tourists, a common bathroom area, and a large covered outdoor space for hanging out and eating meals. My room at Mr Lin’s place was very nice. A one room structure on stilts built out of gorgeous wood. Inside the floors were covered with simple bamboo rugs, and a small mattress on the floor sat underneath a mosquito net. It had several windows that opened to overlook the beautiful countryside.
Lam and I went for a stroll through the beautiful countryside. We enjoyed more small talk and learning about each other’s cultures… taxes, schools, marriage. We walked from village to village passing catfish farms and gorgeous green and golden rice paddies with people, mostly women, working in the fields. Green mountains surrounded us in the distance. Occasionally we would share the path with cows, pigs and chickens. What we didn’t see where other tourists.
That evening we had a home cooked feast. Me, Lam, my driver, Tu, and my host, Mr Lin. The numerous delicious dishes included chicken, pork schnitzel, zucchini, green beans and some kind of egg casserole. And rice wine. We talked throughout the night, sometimes with me just observing them, sometimes with Lam translating between us. I learned all about the etiquette of eating dog. As much as I love dogs and hate the idea of people eating the cute little guys, I was also fascinated with the tradition. Apparently, it’s a little tough and chewy, and cat tastes better. (Did you just vomit a little?) You would never eat your own dog, but you might eat your neighbors. And eating dog at the beginning of the month is unlucky, but it is thought to bring good luck at the end of the month.
I wanted to immerse myself in the experience and act like a local, so I was soon talked into (after much arm twisting) drinking rice wine. We did rice wine shot after rice wine shot. Toasting each time. Jou!! It’s not a vacation until there’s at least one moment where you’re questioning your judgment. My moment in Vietnam was drinking moonshine rice wine out of an old water bottle.
So much rice wine… the smell of it still nauseates me a little.