Lunch today was Pepsi. Not for Susan of course. For Susan Feniger, lunch was a delicious treat consisting of thousands of tiny fresh river snails chopped up and mixed with garlic, parsley, and bunches of other herbs on a sesame rice paper cake, folded, crunched up, and all dipped in some kind of dried shrimp and fish sauce. We ate (I drank) lunch by a very peaceful river, under a gorgeous bamboo-roofed open sided restaurant. You could actually look down and see the eel lazing around under the water on the rocks just below you. But no matter how many things you add to it or dip it in, the concoction in front of me is still snails. Ick. Let’s add that to the list of things I don’t eat, shall we?
We’re in Hoi An, a charming little tourist town where many Vietnamese and some Caucasians come on vacation. And you can see why; small “walk only” brick streets lined with lovely shops; on the sidewalks women and children, sitting under umbrellas to shield them from the sun, sell little clay whistles in the shape of all sorts of animals. (You can hear the hollow bottle-like whistles wherever you go on the streets.) On the larger corners wait rows of the single-seat, three-wheeled bicycle taxis, their drivers napping in them while waiting for a fare.
Tailor shop after tailor shop lines the main drag in Hoi An. They’re all in rich dark wood with high ceilings, large fans whirling, filled with tropical ferns, sewing machines, and mannequins showing off their handiwork; silk saris in every rich color, sparkling gowns, tuxes, dress shirts, leather jackets. They make it all, and quickly. Go in for a fitting in the morning and by nightfall they’ll have it finished. Gorgeous fabrics create multi-colored shelves from floor to ceiling, and women with names like “Flower” wait to help you choose material, standing by with their little powder blue measure tapes. That last part fills me with trepidation.
Before we came to Vietnam, Susan had already decided to get some chef’s jackets and pants made here at Yali (one of the better known shops in Hoi An), and because everything Susan does sounds like so much fun, I thought I’d bring a suit to get copied too. So of course now I can hear her over there in one of the many rows of fabric shelves, chatting it up with two or three Vietnamese women, all laughing at how droll she is, while I’m here sweating in the horrible heat as Flower struggles to fit the blue measure tape around the circumference of one of my massive thighs.
The people here are generally tiny and slender, so nothing screams “American” more than our bigness. As a matter of fact, when I got up after drinking that Pepsi at lunch, the tiny red plastic chair (plenty big enough for the Vietnamese) came with me, wrapped around my hips. That was nice. So now that Flower has pulled out the dreaded blue measure tape I’m having a bit of a conniption…inwardly, of course. But if Susan Feniger can laugh and gaily chat away while undressing in front of a perfect stranger, showing all of her fat parts, then so can I. I’ve undressed in front of a cute masseuse in Spain. I can do this.
Only a tiny little whimper escapes my lips as Flower surrounds my right thigh with the tape. I look down at the horrible little blue numbers and …wonder of wonders…it’s in meters! I can’t understand any of it! Ahhhh. Now I can live on in happy ignorance and, other than Flower, no one has to know…except all of the other people working in the shop. I’m sure as soon as we leave they’ll all get an earful. I imagine them giggling about the “fat American.” As a matter of fact, Flower is probably talking to them right now in front of me, all about my big thighs. I would never know as my trusty interpreter, Captain, sits at the front door of the shop with the security guard, speaking of “man” things. After all, he is not “goomahn.”
After the horror of the Hoi An tailor, I need a distraction and Captain, true to his word, has rented motorbikes for us. Since cars aren’t allowed in much of Hoi An, we now get to experience being real Vietnamese and drive our little motor bikes all over the city, through the markets, out to the beach, past the never-ending rice fields, green rice swaying in the wind, grazing long-horned buffalo (Susan keeps calling them Water Buffalo, and maybe they are); it’s all quite beautiful.
But first things first: over to the Banh Mi street stand, which Captain assures us is absolutely the best Banh Mi in the city, owned by Phuong Trang. Phuong and her sisters and niece are all working the stand and are delighted when Susan wants to get back there and see what’s going on. And I’m determined (after our river snail lunch) to finally eat something. Banh Mi is a sandwich of crusty French baguette, buttered and toasted on the wood burning grill, filled with (what else?) ham, pork liver pate, braised pork butt, chili sauce, cucumber, Thai basil, chives, sliced tomatoes, and the juice of the pork, all topped with a scrambled egg. It actually is quite delicious! We sit with Phuong and laugh together about – I truly have no idea what – while I furtively look around once again for the all–elusive napkin.
After the Banh Mi we motor over to a family owned rice paper factory. What they refer to as rice “paper” is actually a thin round rice cake made of rice milk over an open fire. There are about five fire pits going, each at which a man sits wearing a face mask and nong la (triangle hat), cooking the rice paper. First they spread the liquid mixture thinly over a stretched fabric to cook, then peel it up with a stick and either dry it in the sun on large screens in batches of twenty at a time, or send it to another fire where women sit with flat sticks that look like the ones you get to mix paint. These women continually turn the rice paper over the fire while flattening it with the sticks. It makes a delicious flat sesame rice cracker and is a staple all over the country; you see them in stacks in the markets or you can buy the uncooked rice flour with which to make the paper.
When we get back to the hotel it’s over to the gazebo for a quick Café Suh Da and my moment of heaven. There is a big television there and I get immediately immersed in the hugely popular Chinese series from the eighties called “Journey to the West,” which features the adventures of a Buddhist monk and his trials traveling to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures for enlightenment. On the way the Monkey King, the Sand Priest, a white horse, and a pig accompany him and help fight off demons and monsters. Humans play all of these characters and I get an immense kick out of the flashy costumes and terrible make-up. (Planet of the Apes, anyone?) But “Journey to the West” may be my newest passion, after Ba Ba Ba and Cafe Suh Da. I’m deeply engrossed in the story (even though I have no idea what they’re saying) when I’m interrupted by Captain – running over to help a bunch of men roll a giant tree stump onto a hand-drawn cart. He immediately takes control, barking orders (Captain just has that way about him, and they all listen), after which he returns, flexing his muscles and posing for us. Captain has us in stitches reduced to tears through much of this trip.
On the way to our room, walking up three flights of stairs in ninety-five degree (I’m guessing) heat, Susan and I are amazed at how this city has so many modern developments yet the hotel can’t seem to provide an elevator or air conditioning in the hallways. Of course nothing says “modern day” faster than hearing yet another person say: “Are you Susan Feniger? You were SO great on Top Chef!”
For our last night in Vietnam Captain Cook surprises us with a special poolside dinner at his hotel. We don’t have the heart to say anything about how the heat is nearly unbearable outside, so we graciously sit. He has gone out of his way to provide us with the things he has noticed we’ve liked best on our trip. There are vegetables, rice, and a whole fish (with head, eyes and all) for me, and everything else under the sun for Susan. I just sweat and dig into the cold container of Ba Ba Ba at my side while Susan tries not to throw up at all the rats scuttling in and out of the plants along side of us. A bunch of toasts later, followed by clinking cans and “Yo!” (“cheers” in Vietnamese), and I don’t really care about the furry creatures sharing our meal. Susan, on the other hand, eats with her feet crossed under her on her chair. I’m guessing she has her own list of “unacceptables.”