A night on the town

from: Bac Ha, Vietnam

I suppose I might have picked that particular 'restaurant' because there were people inside or perhaps because the television was on so there would be something for me to feign interest in if I felt uncomfortable. More likely because it was the only place open in the whole town of Bac Ha. Whatever the reason for going in, doing so would lead me to my strangest night in Vietnam.

Julie and I had been sitting in the hotel bar talking with some of our fellow travelers about the worn subject travelers always talk about - other places better than the place we are now - when the place abruptly shut down and everyone disappeared. Even Julie was too tired to take another turn about town though it was barely past ten on the clock. I decided to go out looking for trouble and no sooner had I rested my rear on the blue plastic stool of that restaurant, it found me.

Two young men invited me over to join them at their table where they were wolfing down watery gruel while watching the fuzzy images of Manchester United, the world's favorite football team, on the television. This was a brave show of hospitality when you consider that they spoke only three words of English between them. For my part I brought the single Vietnamese word I had learned to the table. For the purposes of this encounter, those combined four served admirably well.

male bonding

We rapidly got down to the serious business of getting very drunk, an international language amongst men, and soon the tiny place was echoing with the jovial cries of our limited language. "1 . .2. .3. ." from them, followed by an enthusiastic "Vietnam!!" from me. Down the hatch with shot after shot of the local corn whiskey that doubles as paint thinner and wart remover. Quite soon communication improved, even if our vocabulary did not and the contents of their bowls that had previously looked like pig swill began to look quite savory. I waved over a waitress, pointed at one of the bowls and then back at myself. I'll have what my best friends here are shoveling down their gullets, if you please. Meant as a great show of unity and trust, I aimed to compliment my hosts by ordering what they were having, only my hosts did not have taste buds. Or perhaps they had already been drinking long before I arrived. Either way, what arrived was too bland to be called bad but too full of mysterious lumps and unidentifiable chunks to be called good. I had noticed that some tours in Hanoi touted 'authentic peasant food with the local people on the farm' and I imagined that what I was having was a bona fide authentic Vietnamese experience. I looked around for a way to avoid eating the slop that I had just made lava hot in a misguided attempt to make it interesting. I spied a pool table.

Only yoooouuuu treat me like a foooool. . .

Without communication and more importantly without half the balls, we took turns simply hacking away with the cue stick between further shots washed down with beer the waitress had gone down the street to fetch. This must be a regular activity because the poor table was so covered in duct tape holding the ripped felt together that the ridges made it easy to launch a well placed ball off the table to careen around the bare room. Much fun was had by all, particularly the docile puppy that endured my serenades. Then, as suddenly as it had all begun, our number was diminished by one. Baseball cap guy had reached, nay surpassed his limit, so after much discussion on their part and a great deal of incomprehension on mine, we set off down a long dirt road alternating carrying him and chasing off the dogs who were going ballistic in front of every sleeping house we passed.

Vietnamese proverb say : you can't chase
dogs and carry a drunk at the same time

As soon as we entered a wooden house that must have been home, we dropped the sick one on his bed while the other did the only thing that was proper given the situation - made tea. After all I was a guest in the house and not to offer tea would have been rude. We sat for a while on the blue plastic chairs in the living room of that farmhouse sipping luke warm green tea from thimble sized cups. The walls were packed dirt, a puppy was tied up in one corner and a cage of sleeping chickens near my feet. Upstairs the rest of the family must have been fast asleep at this late hour. We waited for the poor fellow in the bedroom to stop throwing up while I pondered the conundrum - does throwing up on a floor made of dirt make it dirty? Dirty dirt? Dude... Feeling better he stumbled out with his hands folded under his head to signify that it was time to go to sleep. For all of us. In his bed.

I woke up from a pleasant dream, cozy and warm shortly before sunrise, sobered enough to realize that spooning between two strange men in a strange farmhouse a long way from anywhere, is a very strange thing indeed. I left a note they could not read, thanking them for their hospitality and let myself out. It took another farmer with a flashlight to help me find my way back to town.

~ Nigel



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