I’m learning so much in Vietnam. Evidently cotton DOES only kill Americans. The Vietnamese seem not to be bothered wearing cotton in the heat, and I’ve talked to some Malaysians who also are perfectly comfortable. Susan and I are just sticky all of the time, and of course I’m more vocal about my misery. Yesterday in the van, I took to putting a shirt over my head to block the sun because I just couldn’t take one more minute of it. (And what was the shirt made of? Say it with me now…cotton) Of course that prompted our guide, Captain, to start referring to me as an “Arab Goomahn.”
Captain’s English is excellent, in general, and he’s a real comedian, which comes in handy as a distraction. But his pronunciation can sometimes be unintentionally hilarious. “Goomahn,” we finally figured out, is how he says “woman.” I tripped upon this bit of information when he was describing the difference in dress for the sexes and he said “I am not goomahn, I am man.” Even better was when he described what we would do when we got to the hotel and chicken. That one stumped us. Chicken? I finally realized he was saying “check in.”
With all his wacky behavior; his propensity for singing love songs in answer to questions; proudly flexing his bicep muscles for everyone to see, Captain Cook is the one who has introduced me to my second love in Vietnam (after Ba Ba Ba), Café Suh Da. Coffee, milk, ice. Sounds simple enough and it probably is, but at thirty-nine degrees Celsius (trust me) and what feels like one hundred percent humidity, café suh da has saved my life several times a day here in this country.
It’s served in a short glass of ice cubes with a miniature spoon. The first layer is sweetened condensed milk with a layer of heavy dark-roasted Vietnamese coffee floated as a next layer, creating a two-tone drink. Mix it up with the tiny spoon and you have my latest passion. So at least twice a day, there we’d be in the middle some sidewalk, taking a break from the heat under strung up sheets, with all of the other Vietnamese folk. In our teensy tiny red plastic chairs at our teensy tiny red plastic table, sipping café suh da at that moment was a little bit of daily heaven (which shows you how far Heaven has slid). It was a moment that always provided me with a needed psychological break, which brings me to the market.
The Dong Ba Market in Hue is not that dissimilar than the other markets we’ve visited in each city; boisterous, loud, trafficked by people on foot and motorbikes, full of bright colors, smells (some not so wonderful), and so many things to buy! Captain stops to tell us that the fake money and little cardboard houses are for burning at a funeral so your loved one will always have a roof over their head and riches in the after-life. He shows us beautiful sandalwood fans, huge green and pink dragon fruit, sesame seed rice paper and I think to myself “I’ve done this. I’ve got the Vietnam thing down. I’ve eaten foods I don’t eat; pork, beef, shell fish (albeit unintentionally), the dreaded tapioca; I’ve been overheated, dirty, surrounded by strange sights, sounds and unfamiliar customs; I look at the ceiling and walls of practically every restaurant or hotel and see five inch-long albino lizards scuttling about without batting an eye. I’ve been to markets where they sell exotic foods (live baby eel anyone?); I’ve come a long way, baby. I’ve got this!” And just as I’m patting myself on the back, all sassy and arrogant, I pass a woman plucking live chickens. Yes, you heard me correctly. Live chickens. Holding them upside down by the feet and plucking them.
I want to go home. I want to pet my dogs. I want to speak English. I want to wear cotton. I want to- what is that?? A pig’s heart? Gaaah!
But the town of Hue is very beautiful. Colored lights on columns dot the main thoroughfares and string lights in star patterns span the streets, reminding me of Beverly Hills at Christmas time. Of course I now realize that, far from symbolizing the Baby Jesus, the star is on the Vietnamese flag and represents the communist government.
At dinner on our final night in Hue, we sit outside by the Huong River, the evening a little cooler than any time before. The Trang Tien Bridge in the background, is lit by colors that keep changing, providing us with a light show that could be of any sophisticated bridge in any modern city.
I’ve definitely been wrong about some of my descriptions of Vietnam as a “third world country.” On one hand, you’ve got big city centers with tall business buildings with constant growth and construction happening, on the other hand the construction workers building the tall buildings take their lunch break by napping in a long row on the sidewalk. Just lying there right on the sidewalk. It’s a conundrum. But right now I let it all fall away as we sit by the river in Hue, Ba Ba Ba in hand, the evening peaceful and lantern lit. I breathe it in and think to myself “I could almost be anywhere.” And it truly is lovely. Until the rats show up.
In truth, they were really cute, scurrying everywhere chasing each other. Susan says there were three but as usual she’s just being dramatic. I counted only two, which promoted the next discussion of which would you rather have, rats around your feet or lizards falling into your food? After the rats came around I looked up to see the usual three or four lizards scurrying above us on the ceiling. It didn’t take much imagination to realize that one missed little lizard footing, and…
At any rate, back to our aforementioned question: I choose rats and Susan chooses lizards. Vietnam has such a range of possibilities!