En-route from Da Nang to Hue by train. Typhoon Wute has missed me in Hoi An, but I’m not as lucky in regards to the monsoon rain. Because all riders are eager to get on-board as quickly as possible, there is a great push into a literally steaming cabin. The humidity is oozing from everybody and every surface. Packages find a way to settle in, as Vietnamese people quickly make “home”. Spread over chairs, card games begin, while telephone conversations carry on just as loud as if they were shouting to their neighbor across the street.
Hoi An has been a gentle landing into Vietnam. The small, quaint, Disneyland-like village is safe and easy to maneuver–a hodgepodge of the many cultures that used this port as a trading center. However now the only trading done is between the eager-spending tourist and the Hoi An locals. Most of what is sold here is made elsewhere, except for the handmade straw mats and woodwork made by local craftsmen and women in the adjacent islands. Seeing fewer tourists, they have maintained a traditional lifestyle. Sitting on marshlands, their homes flood every year forcing them to move their precious items, such as their altar, (and TV!) to a straw-made second level. Beautiful, friendly and dignified, Vietnamese villagers lives revolve around their ancestors’ altar. Just as in some cultures a hearth is where the family’s heart is; here is where every important decision, every event, happens.
Hoi An and most centers on the well ironed tourist route, are predominantly designed to keep tourist comfortable and spending. It seemed obvious that I had clearly overstayed my welcome when even the luminous paper lanterns that adorn the walking streets at night, began to feel highly produced for tourists’ sake.
Two days ago, as I was riding my bike around Hoi An, I made a quick choice out of pure hunger. Since then my stomach has been acting out. I don’t believe it’s a bug, since I’m not locked in the bathroom, and I don’t have a fever–just feeling queasy with discomfort.
Let me preface what I’m about to say by saying that so far Vietnamese food has been the best I have had on my entire trip. Their use of spices is subtle, but fragrant, and their banana leaf wraps are both aesthetically pleasing and keeps ingredients moist. I have loved every one of my meals. Also, I have noticed that cleanliness is important here. Streets are mostly litter free, bathrooms well maintained, and guesthouses spotless. And lastly, I’m not an adventurous eater. Like most everything in my life, my relationship with food is a visual one.
For those brave souls who delight and inspire me with their curious palates- good for you! For me, it’s more like this: Even though I recognize street markets as life itself, and that’s a fact over in South East Asia, I make great effort to keep my tunnel vision when visiting them. As I walk past meat vendors perched over their unrefrigerated merchandise, with animal parts that I have no clue what they are or which animal they’ve come from, I make sure to avert my eyes. This effort is for the slight chance that an outline of dog meat will cross my eyes.
As I was saying, I stopped my bike at a local joint on the outskirts of town not frequented by tourists, near one of the river pathways. There were a few local men sitting around, but the locale was otherwise empty. A woman, I suspect the owner, came with a menu but didn’t speak a word of English. My useful Google translate wouldn’t work without Wi-Fi of course, so I chose something I heard was a typical local dish, Cao Lau. She brought me a soup bowl filled with rice noodles, some greens and meat of some kind. She was trying to be kind, so she squeezed the lemon and using the chopsticks, she mixed the plate. My eyes fixated upon her dirty hands and fingernails. Of course, I lost my appetite right then and there, but I couldn’t leave, it would be seen as rude. As I began eating, careful not to touch the meat, I looked to my left as a rat scampered across my path….
That night, I took a cooking class at the Red Bridge Cooking School, a highly recommended activity because you get a chance to see how the main staple ingredients are used in conjunction with each other. Out of the 8 people sitting around the table, I was the only one who hadn’t gotten sick yet. All of them have ended up in the emergency room, or at least with a doctor coming to their room to treat them with antibiotics and so forth. That’s how the power of perception works, since that sealed the deal for me! I’ve had to have some westernized bland, characterless food for these past few days. 😦