28th JANUARY 2019
Lunar New Year (Tết) is fast approaching in Vietnam. On the road I’ve seen markets and streets lined colourfully with people selling kumquat trees and peach blossom. Having these trees in your home during Tết is a symbol of good luck and prosperity for the New Year, although their transportation often leads to them being precariously and comically balanced on the rear of motorbikes. A couple of people had advised me against cycling in the run up to Tết as Vietnamese roads get so busy and dangerous during that week. I’m not sure if I’d notice any difference.
When I’m about to check out of my Homestay, Hương asks if I’d like to take part in a Tết tradition. She tells me that one week before New Year it is customary for Vietnamese families to release three goldfish into open fresh water, whether it be lakes, rivers or wetlands. Apparently today is the day that the Kitchen God returns to heaven on a carp to report on the deeds of the household over the past year. It’s traditionally believed that releasing fish will help him on his way. Hương’s family bought their goldfish a few days previously and now I’m ferrying them down to the water on the back of her scooter.
We make a short trip to the wetlands of the nature reserve, park her scooter and walk down to a low concrete jetty. I open the bag and ceremoniously tip the goldfish out for their short drop into the water. The fish swim down towards the lake bed and are soon out of sight. There’s plenty of reeds and water plants further out for them to take refuge in, but I know there’s also plenty of hungry wading birds that will welcome their arrival. I’m not sure if I’ve released the fish or simply sacrificed them. At least they stand a chance in here as the water is clean – the goldfish being released today at West Lake in Hanoi won’t last very long in that polluted water. Once I get past my animal welfare concerns, I start to feel quite priveleged that my host family asked me to release their fish. This is normally a family tradition, so I’m grateful to have been given the honour.
Then, boosted by my eight-pancake breakfast, I rejoin the main road South again for a 77km ride to the city of Thanh Hóa. The road is busy and noisy once more, but that is going to be the case until I can meander off onto quieter routes. My accommodation tonight is in the oddly named Ngoc Ly 8 Hotel, a tall, thin yellow building that’s shaped like an irregular pentagon. There’s an old bloke sitting at a wooden table outside who looks like he could be some sort of retired security guard. He tells me just to leave my bike unlocked on the ground floor alongside a handful of parked scooters. So far I’ve found that most Vietnamese view their local area as completely safe and it’s unthinkable for them that my bike might be stolen. In truth, I would feel a lot happier leaving my bike unlocked here than in the UK, but then I would spend all night worrying about it if I did. The result is that I push the bike in behind a pair of scooters and chain it to some piping just to be sure.
At night I wander out for some food, down a street with a brilliant hanging lantern display, bright and multi-coloured in preparation for the Tết holiday. I stop at a Lau restaurant for a Hot Pot meal, thinking that I’m an expert now after trying it only once before. However, I’m confused at first as my broth doesn’t seem to be reaching boiling point and, therefore, won’t get hot enough to cook my food. It turns out the tiny gas canister on my burner is almost empty. We rectify that, but a series of communication problems mean that I end up with extra tofu and mushrooms that I didn’t really want. This hikes up the price of the meal, but at least now I’m so stuffed that I probably won’t need any food tomorrow.
As predicted, I don’t even consider breakfast the following morning after the excess of my consumption last night. I continue South towards the coast, with the terrain flat as a snooker table and the temperature gradually creeping up by a few degrees. I’ve only cycled 200km so far, but I can already sense that I’m leaving the cool, grey skies of a Hanoi winter behind. A further 94km pass under my wheels today as I reach the town of Diên Hông, the final 20km at a snail’s pace. I check into a hotel just off the main street and ask the receptionist to recommend somewhere for tonight’s dinner.
I follow her instructions, turning left onto the main street, although it’s dark now and looks like nothing is open. The street seems unusually quiet, but I do manage to find a narrow opening that leads from the pavement and straight into someone’s front room. The only sign that I might be able to eat there is a row of three tables in the passageway surrounded by tiny plastic chairs. Imaginatively, I have started to call these places ‘Plastic Chair Cafes’. There are no customers and no signs of life inside, so I’m not altogether hopeful when I venture inside and shout ‘Hello ?’
A woman in her thirties appears and I motion ‘Food ?’ She nods. From then on things become a bit more difficult as she speaks virtually no English and I speak no Vietnamese. I can just about ask for basic rice dishes, noodles or soup, but I fancy something a bit different tonight. In the end she uses her phone to show me pictures of various dishes and I point to one that looks quite appetising, but that I’ve never encountered before. The woman goes off to cook my food, while her ten year old son keeps running up and laughing at the strange Westerner sitting outside his home. I try to say Hello, but he just goes all shy and runs away.
When my food arrives I’m not quite sure what to make of it ! I’m given a bowl of what looks like a light brown curry sauce topped with chillies, peanuts and coriander. It’s the ‘protein’ part of the meal that is a worry. In amongst the sauce there are about twenty small, oval-shaped morsels, mostly an off-white, yellowy colour, but with darker circles in their midst. Jesus, are they eyeballs ? Or could they even be testicles ? They are certainly the correct size and shape ! I prod them around a bit and have a closer look before finally working out what they are. I’m pretty sure they look similar to the fertilised duck egg I tried in Hanoi, only on a smaller scale. They have to be fertilised quail’s eggs. Don’t they ?
I’m still slightly apprehensive before biting into one, and I am somewhat relieved when it tastes of nothing more than egg. It has more substance to it than a normal egg and is disturbingly chewy, but it is, thankfully, just an egg. Despite the knowledge of what I’m eating, they taste really good, especially with the sauce. This is all washed down with a Viet Quat smoothie, which looked like a chocolate smoothie on the menu, but turns out to be blueberry.
Then, unbeknownst to me, it appears that I have ordered a second course. At the start, when my host was showing me food pictures on her phone I must have sounded enthusiastic about this next meal too. Showing such an interest was probably a mistake as this has been lost in translation as me wanting to place an order. It arrives as a more straightforward dish of noodles, salad, sausage, tiny meatballs and what looks like chorizo slices. This is a decent meal too, but it’s almost a little bland after the surprise contents of my first bowl. The two course meal and drink comes to a ridiculously cheap £2.70, which is a small price to pay for the experience I’ve just had. Awkwardly, I had no real idea what I was ordering until it arrived at my table, and somehow even managed to get the smoothie flavour wrong. I’m starting to realise that with my language barrier, I had better get used to this choosing meals by Lucky Dip, because it’s destined to become a theme on this trip.