I have now left Hoi-An and have headed further south across Vietnam, finally reaching the spectacular Nui Chua National Park, an area of dry tropical woodlands and Arizona-type rocks which is home to around 1,500 species of plants, 160 species of birds and 60 species of mammals (including a few poisonous but shy snakes). At the coast, hundreds of fishing boats arrive at night, turning the sea into a reverse sky filled with neon constellations, fishing for anchovies – Vietnamese fish sauce comes from this area. It’s unlike the usual supermarket variety, its taste being closer to Marmite.
The weather has slowly shifted through my trip from damp and cool to temperate to scorching. A country of extremes in terms of poverty and wealth (from legless beggars to millionaires), ugliness and beauty. The curse of the plastic water bottle has reached here, as has the dumping of non-biodegradable rubbish, but there are scenes of astonishing grace, from the mountains of skybound moss-topped rock thrust upwards in otherwise Holland-flat landscapes to the riotous and profligate use of colour in urban areas.
I got away from the obvious tourist spots and visited a local funfair where neighbourhood crowds attended the worst Karaoke session I’ve ever heard, and the children were dressed for snow in 22 degrees (wool hats, scarves, padded jackets, mini-suits). Lethargic, bored military guards watched the revellers as if knowing there could never be trouble here. Locals neither seemed to fear nor respect them, but generally treated them as a ghostly invisible presence, as they did the few tourists here; perhaps this dearth of westerners was due to the local fast food joint I saw, which had picture food of what appeared to be baked cats on it – everyone’s happy to talk about dog-meat, but not felines. I can’t think what else they were; too big to be rats, too small to be dogs.
Generally, Vietnamese food in situ has been an eye-opener, especially for vegetarians, with a spectacular array of spiced, fragrant, lemony and cinammon-y plants that would lift any dish (try Vietnamese omelettes stuffed with herbs) and I would recommend a restaurant called the Red Bridge near Da Nang which grows all its own produce.
As always, wet liberal that I am, the gentility of eastern peoples shames me into modifying my behaviour. After seeing a drunk western man beating up his Asian girlfriend in the street the other night, we saw him off (it wasn’t difficult – men who bully women are usually afraid of other men) and I felt like apologising to the girl for the whole of western society.
And as always, I’m now craving a decent cup of tea – something it’s impossible to obtain almost anywhere else in the world from America (appalling) to Thailand (almost passable). Why is it that the UK, India and weirdly, Belgium are the only countries in my experience that make tea properly? The books I’ve read on Vietnam both present-day and historical make me want to explore the country further, especially around the Mekong delta, but that will have to wait for another trip. The photos show an entry to the local paper lantern festival, and Hoi-An’s non-medieval side at night, across the river from its UNESCO site.