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A good dinner, it has been said, contains within its sequence a celebration of life on earth. You start with the primeval soup, evolve through fish, fowl and flesh, before reaching the climax, which I presume must mean pudding with custard, the very acme of human sophistication.
What then, I wondered, staring at the dishes before me, does this meal add up to? There was a bowl of blood, pig’s apparently, and next to it a brace of chicken’s feet lying on – I peered closer – its head, with beak intact. In the centre was a plate of land crabs and beside them dishes of meat, salads and roots. And my prospective host was leaning forward grinning and offering me a small porcelain cup brimming with a cloudy liquid.
“Rice wine,” said Cuong, my Vietnamese translator. “A special type.”
An alarm bell sounded. I raised a querying eyebrow. Cuong thought carefully before speaking.
“Part of a goat is soaked in this wine.”
He glanced at my daughter, Maddy (nine), to make sure she wasn’t listening, then whispered, “Penis.”
I could see Maddy grinning. “You want me to drink goat willy wine?”
He smiled. “Actually, you cannot refuse. The wine is already poured. It would be …”
He raised his hands, unable to express the awful social implications. The towering edifice of human cultural evolution would topple.
I took the cup. “Please thank the gentleman for the kind offer of brunch, but tell him I have eaten.”
This was true and seemed to be an acceptable excuse. Now for the goat wine toast. We all chanted together.
“Mot, hai, ba, YO!” (Vietnamese for “1, 2, 3, dial emergency services”.)
Actually, it wasn’t too bad, tasting just like any other rice wine. Mine Host, who had clearly been making significant attacks on the special reserve goat wine, was beaming with pleasure. Why did he drink that stuff?
“Very good for health!” He made a universal gesture for male potency. His wife giggled. Actually I don’t believe it was his wife because when I took out the camera she gave a nervous giggle and ran away.
You have to admire the Vietnamese ability to turn unappetising parts of animals into delicacies. They leave a clean plate. Your grandparents would approve. No faddiness. No waste. A quarter of an hour later we were on our bikes again: myself, my 16-year-old son Niall, Maddy and Cuong.
We were on a cycling trip that would encompass homestays and national parks, taking us from the Mai Chau valley some 100 miles south-west of Hanoi and close to the Laotian border, south-east towards the coast and the city of Ninh Binh. If you imagine the shape of Vietnam as rather like a giant upright prawn, we were going to do a neat cross-section just at the base of the head. No day would involve much more than 20 miles – about the limit for our nine-year-old – and there was always a support vehicle to pick up stragglers. The route would, we hoped, give us a complete range of Vietnamese experiences, from tribal homestays and untouched jungle hills to fast-developing towns. The goat penis wine experience was an unexpected addition.
Mai Chau was definitely at the less developed end of the Vietnamese spectrum. All around us the rice fields were being harvested by ladies in conical straw hats. Others were wafting nets to catch crickets or filling baskets with bundles of water hyacinth. In places, songbirds in bamboo cages had been hung in the shade of trees to ward off wild, food-stealing birds. The valley floor was almost completely devoted to rice, and generations of careful landscaping have left it almost flat. At the sides, perhaps a kilometre apart, the tangled secondary forest rose sharply to serrated peaks. There, at the junction of the horizontal and vertical worlds, people had built their houses on stilts. Curls of smoke rose from among them, where rice husks were being burned. Niall and Maddy were questioning Cuong about Vietnamese food. I think they were awestruck by the omnivorousness all around them. In fact Maddy had touched nothing but plain rice and white bread since our arrival in Hanoi two days earlier. I had sworn not to interfere, painful as I found it to see all those opportunities for new tastes pass her by. We all have our limits, I reflected, and mine was raw blood soup.
“Do you eat absolutely anything?” she asked. Cuong considered.
“I think we do.”
“Do you eat dog?”
“It has more protein than other meat.”
Niall noticed a rather perky sandy-haired dog in the lane ahead. “Lunch?”
“No. We only eat a special type of dog. This one is a pet.”
“Do you eat cats?” asked Maddy.
“How do you cook a cat?” Maddy seemed genuinely curious.
“There are seven ways.” Cuong listed them. They seemed surprisingly banal: boiled, barbecued and so on, finishing with, “and sometimes we make porridge with them.”
We rattled across a rusty suspension bridge and through a village. Every house seemed to lie at the centre of a perfect storm of picturesque food production. There were fish ponds and ducks. There were neat vegetable gardens filled with beans and cabbages. There were orchards of longans, rambutans and persimmon. Even the scrubbier patches were stocked with areca palms, which provide betel nut as well as support for prickly dragonfruit stems. Under the houses were recently harvested crops – rice, peanuts, taro roots and bamboo – plus all the paraphernalia of further operations: fish traps, coops and cages. What was significantly absent was any plastic litter or mess.
I dropped back to check on Maddy, who had fallen behind. She was singing to herself, “You’ll never get this in Norwich, pussy cooked in porridge.”
A little further down the road we came to a small wayside market where a lively trade in pigs was going on, each animal bound tightly inside a home-made basket. Cuong bought bananas, mandarin oranges and dragonfruit, all of which Maddy refused. I did not say anything. I would not nag her to eat. I tucked into a sweet yellow persimmon, and remembered, with a shudder, how she had once ordered a plate of plain spaghetti in a top seafood restaurant. The waitress, a little surprised but determinedly solicitous, had added: “Any side orders with that?”
Maddy, with cheerful insouciance, had delivered her chilling coup de grâce: “Yes, please. Cheddar cheese.”
A few miles on, we left the bicycles in a hut and walked uphill to Pung, a tiny hamlet of wooden houses on stilts. Climbing the steps to one of them, we entered a traditional house of the White Thai tribe, a people who had come from Thailand several centuries ago and whose way of life seems largely unchanged. The floor was bamboo slats, worn to a glossy smoothness by years of bare feet. There was little in the way of furniture, just a huge low bed, a couple of benches and an altar for the ancestors. On the ceiling was a hand-painted tribute to Ho Chi Minh and in every window hung a chirruping bird cage. We had stayed in a similar house the previous night – the whole valley has embraced the homestay idea, giving the farmers a valuable side income. Success, however, has made some homestays more like guesthouses.
This one was certainly authentic. Green tea was brought and served in small bowls, then a toast of rice wine. Maddy declined both. Niall agreed to try the wine. “As long as it’s not the wild willy variety.”
Lunch came on a large tray: bowls of noodles cooked with carp from the pond, tofu, slivers of bamboo and other strange leaves and roots. It was a magnificent feast in a country whose cuisine is one of the high points of human culture, even if, as Maddy pointed out, they have mysteriously failed to develop custard. She pretended to eat a few strands of fake spaghetti, or noodles as they are sometimes known.
How long, I wondered, before she cracked? How long before I cracked? A demon inside me was screeching: Come on, try something new!
Afterwards we walked to a small dam and swam, then took a long looping walk through the forest back to the bikes. I asked why there were no wild animals.
“People are hunting,” said Cuong.
Not so long ago this would have been primary rainforest thick with animal life: tigers, gibbons, deer and hundreds of bird species. Vietnam is often cited as a biodiversity hotspot, but little survives in these areas.
And it is not just settled areas that are affected. On our third day, after some gorgeous mountain scenery, we had reached Vietnam’s largest and oldest nature reserve: Cuc Phuong national park, a 50,000-acre area of forest slung over a stunning landscape of jagged mountains. According to the park website it is home to 97 species of mammal and more than 300 species of bird, but after a six-mile trek and a 20-mile bike ride, we had spotted precisely one stick insect and heard exactly one gun shot.
At Park HQ, where we stayed, a German television crew who were just finishing a 10-day stint in the park confirmed that wildlife was extremely elusive, “because locals hunt wild meat for food and medicines”. Cuc Phuong, it seemed, was not so much a national park as a clean plate.
The cost of this is very clear at a small centre in the park where primates rescued from hunters are prepared for release. Cage after cage of small furry creatures represent the last few examples of species endemic to Vietnam, most of them langurs, a long-tailed leaf-eating monkey. This is a country where tigers and elephants have been more or less wiped out and superstitious crazes for rare animal meats have sent dozens of species spiralling towards extinction, including five of the 11 species of langur. Not so long ago, this voracious appetite was driven by the need to survive, but now it has devolved into an industry that feeds the fads of the nouveau riche. In the evening at the park, in the little visitor restaurant, we heard from the German film-makers about another park where wildlife did seem to exist. Cuong confirmed that Van Long Park was within striking distance, close to Ninh Binh. We altered our route.
Next day we rode into a landscape that is becoming more common in Asia: a strange melange of the traditional and natural with the newly industrialised, newly touristified. There would be achingly beautiful wetlands dotted with water buffalo and backed by jagged peaks, then a cement factory. There were sleepy, algae-encrusted Catholic churches and ancient temple gateways, then new concrete pagodas with huge coach parks. We passed fishermen in traditional hats setting bamboo fish traps and fishermen using truck batteries and electrodes. All around, limestone outcrops rose in jagged profusion, like pods of humpback whales.
We stopped at a restaurant. “Do you like goat?” asked Cuong, “It is the local speciality.” Bowls of vegetables, fish, tofu, eggs and meat were brought out. Maddy picked at a little plain rice. Plates of baby pineapple, melon, guava and dragonfruit were delivered.
Cuong tried his best. “Dragonfruit is a very mild taste, Maddy, really delicious and good for the health.”
She refused. Perhaps, in a country where everyone would eat almost anything, Maddy was making a stand. She just could not stomach omnivoraciousness.
At Van Long we transferred to bamboo sampans and were paddled into a small set of these hump-backed outcrops surrounded by wetlands. Immediately we began to spot egrets and kingfishers. A hawk hunted overhead. Our guides were scanning the outcrops for Delacour’s langur, one of the most endangered of Vietnam’s many rare mammals. We passed through a long cave, stopping to notice a burrow used by a rare species of fox.
The guides were determined to protect their langurs. “Without them tourists would not come.”
The langur has been declared extinct once, but a handful of individuals were rediscovered in 1993. Now Van Long has more than 50 of them, the last viable population on earth. The key to this localised success seems to be community involvement: boat guides get a good income (tourism is increasing rapidly) and have a vested interest in sustainability. Initial success, however, does not guarantee the future, particularly with neighbouring limestone hills being crunched for cement. In Van Long it feels that every tourist is vital: without them conservationists would have little leverage in the development race.
We drifted out from the cave and into a world where, hopefully, no ugly cement works will ever be seen. Our guides scanned the hills. Time passed and we sat quietly, but the langurs were not to be found.
I asked why the langur had been so heavily hunted, to the point where it is likely to be the first primate extinction of the 21st century.
“People use it for medicine.”
Were there still people who would come in and kill? The guide nodded. “But we watch this place. They cannot get in without us knowing.”
Maddy leaned over and whispered. “How many ways to cook a langur?”
I frowned. “Would you eat one?”
“Would you eat a dragonfruit?”
“Maybe.” She looked at me craftily. “I will eat dragonfruit, but only if we see a langur.”
There seemed little chance of that.
The first boat in our group had entered the cave for the return trip when the woman paddling the second boat called out. There, on the top of the crags, silhouetted against the late sun, was a family group of langurs. More arrived, moving with total grace and vitality in their mountain fastness. There was, I estimated, around half the world’s remaining population on display. For several minutes we all watched them leaping around, and it felt good to be with local people who were as pleased as us. Our cross-section of modern Vietnam had, I felt, ended on a suitable high note.
Eventually we left the langurs and passed back through the cave, in time to see the magical sight of thousands of egrets flying over to their roost. We sat by our bikes and watched them settle as the light faded.
That evening, Maddy ate one large slice of dragonfruit and admitted to quite liking it. It was her sole concession to the omnivores.