If your idea of adventure travel is to walk the path less obvious, to open your mind to new experiences and to witness a place unlike any other, then Vietnam is going to be the destination for you. Bay’s Nick Smith packs his cameras and notebook and heads East.
It was an overcast evening at Ninh Van Bay and through the haze I could just pick out a faint line of buildings that make up the small town of Nha Trang. There were a few old traditional fishing boats moored up for the day and, apart from the fact that the scene before me had a reassuringly oriental atmosphere to it, there wasn’t very much to remark on in my Moleskine notebook. What was left of the day’s decent light had made its excuses and departed, and so I packed away my cameras and turned my attention to the cup of coffee that had materialised beside me, thanked the waiter and contemplated the Vietnamese speciality that is kopi luwak. You’ll have heard of it, of course. It’s the world’s most expensive coffee. At Harrods, half a pound of beans will set you back £500 – so I suppose in a way they’re magic beans. In the town over the water, the waiter told me, they’re a few dollars a bag and so I made a mental note to buy as many as I could carry and flog them when I got home for a handsome profit.
My visit to Vietnam had not started in such a contemplative frame of mind. From the minute I arrived at Ho Chi Minh City, that was once called Saigon, I’d felt as though I’d taken my life in my hands. Whenever I arrive anywhere, the first thing I do is to have a wander around to get my bearings. But in Vietnam’s capital it was soon clear that it was next to impossible to cross the road because of all the mopeds. Every time I tried, I teetered on the brink of downfall. They were everywhere. Thousands of them, all making that whining moped noise – no wonder the Italians named their Vespa after the wasp – puffing out that whiff of gasoline in black clouds, their riders threading in and out crowded streets with hardly a thought for their safety. It was mayhem, and if Saigon isn’t called the ‘City of a Million Mopeds’ then it should be. But the most frightening thing of all was that it wasn’t unusual to see as many as five passengers crammed onto them. Sometimes when you travel abroad you really must look carefully to find what’s ‘foreign’ about a place. In Vietnam it’s obvious: everything’s foreign.
I’d been here before of course, on my way to Cambodia and Laos when I did a circular tour of Indochina way back when such adventures were unfeasibly exotic. I’d also been to Vietnam on another separate occasion to write a piece for a newspaper about what life is like in Saigon generations after the Vietnam War that had occupied the opposing forces of north and south Vietnam for two decades, along the way dragging in the superpowers of Russia, China and the United States. I’d been to the battlefields, the memorials, the mausoleums and the museums and as unfeeling as it may sound, as a traveller I’ve got Vietnam War fatigue, and think I can allow myself to wear the badge that says, ‘been there, done that.’ You can see why Vietnam isn’t everyone’s first choice for a chilled luxury escape from the modern world. After all, for many just the name brings to mind the ravages of recent history and the tense political ambience of books such as Graham Greene’s ‘A Quiet American.’ But maybe these days it’s regained its more peaceful character, while the country’s chequered Cold War history sleeps peacefully in the background, only occasionally reminding you of its presence in the big cities of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. These days, you can explore the soaring volcanic mountains, the impossibly picturesque rice paddies and the timeless rural landscapes without the burden of guilt. Maybe even have a cup of kopi luwak or two on the beach.
These were my thoughts as I headed north to Ninh Van Bay where I was going to drop anchor for a day or two, take a few photos and make a start on a book I was supposed to be writing. As I waited to check in at a pleasant little beachfront resort, a man in chef’s uniform came up to me and asked if I would be interested in joining his cookery class the following day. Since I’ve often thought that one of the best things about Vietnam is its food, and further since the notion seemed to knock spots off thinking up an interesting first sentence, I replied in the affirmative and made arrangements to see him the following day in the dining area next to his kitchen. Although Vietnamese fare might seem on the surface at least to bear a resemblance to other oriental cuisine, it’s quite different from, say, Thai or Chinese food and is worth getting to know. With their fresh, crisp vegetables and green herbs, subtle spices and seafood, dishes such as Gỏi cuốn, canh chua ca and hai san kho are on the menu everywhere. But it wasn’t until I learned to make Gỏi cuốn, which is a prawn-stuffed rice paper spring roll, that I began to appreciate what makes Vietnamese food so special. Perhaps one of the best things about my cooking class was that there were assistants to help with all the chopping, cutting and dicing (otherwise I’d still be there now), while the ingredients (hand-picked from a local kitchen garden) arrive beautifully prepared at your workstation in white porcelain ramekins ready for action. From the moment you start to blend the peanut sauce that goes with the prawn and tofu hand rolls, you’re transported into the world of Vietnamese street cooking.
And it’s well worth joining in, because unless you live near to some of London’s oriental food markets, you won’t find all the authentic ingredi-ents you’ll need back home. What’s best though, is that you get to eat what you cook. And while I’m prepared to admit that my efforts didn’t look quite as exquisite as those made by my instructor, I felt a real sense of achievement in the dishes I prepared. I enjoyed the experience so much that over the next few days I went to more classes, during which I learned how to prepare authentic clay-pot simmered seafood as well as hot and sour fish soup. Wash them down with fresh mango juice or an ice-cold bottle of Vietnam ‘333’ beer, and the effect is magical.
But you can’t spend your life cooking Vietnamese food, and so remembering my plan to make a mint off my kopi luwak import business, I hopped on a moped and drove to Nha Trang, where the real fear is not so much on the streets as above them. The locals call it ‘black noodles’: the rats’ nests of telephone and power cables, air con-ditioning units and loudspeakers that play a lethal game of cat’s cradle, slung from telegraph pole to telegraph pole. No-one it seems has ever thought to throw away the old wiring, while successive generations of black plastic-covered cabling just add to the chaos. After bartering with the coffee salesman who made huge dents in my margins by extorting from me vast quantities of American dollars for my kopi luwak beans, I remounted the moped and after a few false starts found the Po Nagar temple complex that is Vietnam’s answer (in miniature) to Cambodia’s more famous Angkor Wat. This was where I hired a rickshaw and explored the temples that for centuries have served the spiritual requirements of Hindus, Muslims and followers of a myriad of local eastern religions. One of the more secular highlights of Nha Trang is a walk around the street market, a chance to stock up on chopsticks, conical hats and coffee. A man shouted to me in English that I must try his kopi luwak. I agreed on condition that he told me the story of how it was made.
Sure, he told me: “the beans come out of the back end of a cat.” To be more precise, kopi luwak is a blend from beans that have been eaten by and passed through the digestive system of a civet (an umbrella term used to describe any number of small nocturnal mammals found in this part of the world.). It seems that civets are naturals at selecting the best coffee cherries, while enzymes in their gut soften the bean and allow the release of the coffee’s uniquely sophisticated flavour, described by aficionados as dark, chocolaty and with a hint of hazelnut. The same experts consider it the finest coffee in the world, and so it’s not surprising that no matter how hard our civet friends try, they simply can’t satisfy the market demand, which accounts in part for how places like Harrods can get away with charging the earth for the stuff. “That’s the grossest thing I’ve ever heard,” said my friend Louise back in London. On my return she’d point blank refused to buy any beans from me, explaining her position while tucking into a fillet steak that was leaking blood everywhere. “Just gross,” she repeated, nonchalantly hacking at the muscles of a dead mammal. “Well, there’s always the synthetic option” I ventured. “This chappie in the market at Nha Trang told me that they’ve invented a chemical process that can simulate the inner workings of the civet’s intestines.”
Having completed my whistle-stop tour of the temples of Po Nagar, I returned my moped and picked up a car in which I drove north through the rice paddies and increasingly dramatic volcanic landscape up to Hanoi that was to be my final port of call, on this tour at least. Perhaps not quite final because this was where I’d booked myself on a cruise around Hạ Long Bay, arguably the most interesting and unquestionably the most popular tourism magnetism in Vietnam. And it’s easy to see why, because its attraction comes in the beauty of thousands of unearthly limestone islands.
So wondrous to behold are these island that the bay, or ‘descending dragon’ as it is otherwise known, has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
The most effective way to photograph it is to get yourself a berth on a hopelessly tacky tourist ‘junk’ (a type of oriental sailing ship with battened sails) and hope that you can somehow survive the whooping enthusi-asm of the inevitable American tourists that you will find your-self at sea with. As travel experiences go, this has got to be up there with the very worst I’ve ever known, and yet, the land-scape (that most travel writers describe as ‘lunar’ but looks in fact nothing like the surface of the Moon) is possibly one of the most extraordinary things you’ll ever see so long as you live (as are the Sung Got caves, which defy most rational attempts at belief). As an aside, while checking the spelling for the place names in this article I was surprised to come across several online travel blogs asking the same regurgitated question: ‘is Hạ Long Bay worth it?’ To which I can only say, as indeed did the trumpeter Louis Armstrong upon being asked what jazz is: “if you have to ask, you’ll never know.” After a few days circulating the bay, I wasn’t sorry to feel solid ground beneath my feet once more and to get away from the claustrophobia of a ship’s cabin, which after a tour the temples of Hanoi morphed into an aeroplane cabin steering me home once more.