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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala

SAIGON, VIETNAM (continued)

June 30, Saturday

My friend, Ngo Duc Vinh, or Andy as he will tell foreigners (for ND, the initials of his family and middle names), is a webmaster based in Saigon. Luckily for me, he works on the websites of both a travel company and a seafood distributor. Andy served as my translator many times. More importantly, he interpreted the Vietnamese business culture for me, gently informing me when I was at risk of insulting someone, advising me when I should or should not ask questions.

Through Andy, I met Mr. Du Chi Dai, head of the seafood division at Marubeni in Saigon. We entered the glossy foyer of a new high-rise office building, made our way past the guards and up the elevators, and admired the view of the central district from Marubeni’s conference room. Mr. Dai generously answered my random questions about the seafood exported from Vietnam. We skipped from the challenges of obtaining HAACP certification to the requirements for joint ventures to the specifications for shrimp. During our conversation, he kept referring to "PDS" shrimp. When I finally asked, Mr.Dai explained this particular combination of specs: "peeled, deveined and stretched."

Stretched? Tiny torture racks flashed through my brain. As it turns out, there are lots of women here whose sole job is to coax shrimp into that really long, straight form that the Japanese like for tempura. After making several nicks across the inner belly curve of each shrimp, a woman will stretch it out straight by its head and tail. Lining up several side by side, she will then gently press them down before packaging. I remembered the last time I ate soba noodles with ebi tempura in San Francisco’s Japantown. It probably took me a quarter of the time to eat my shrimp that it took a woman to shape it so perfectly.

Mr. Dai often travels north to Nha Trang to check on Marubeni's seafood vendors and plants. When he showed me photos of gigantic fresh-water shrimp and spiny lobsters and silvery white cuttlefish, I changed my mind about visiting Nha Trang. Although I'd dismissed this coastal town as a fancy beach resort, his descriptions of the seafood and Andy's advice that I not skip it convinced me to adjust my itinerary. Once again, I was glad that I left plenty of free days in my schedule. It was often these unexpected side trips that were the most rewarding.

Mr. Dai later invited Andy and me to his home to sample fresh squid. Mr. Dai’s house is a very modern affair, with a huge spiral staircase and a shiny, sit-down toilet. He showed me a portrait of himself in tennis whites, back in his slimmer youth. We sat and chatted even more about shrimp specs, much to Andy’s dismay. When conversations became highly technical, I often had to ask Andy to translate the dry details. Food production must have bored him terribly, but he gamely accompanied me on all these sessions.

By the time the squid emerged from his kitchen, I was extremely hungry. The squid were sliced into small rounds, very lightly floured, and then deep-fried. Mr. Dai and Andy showed me how to dip the hot, crispy squid in a swirled sauce of Heinz ketchup and spicy chile sauce. The difference between fresh squid and the frozen, rubbery rings I usually eat is like the difference between fresh snapper and fish sticks. We ate two platefuls. Mr. Dai opened a bottle of champagne to share with us. Although at first I craved a nice, cold beer, the glasses of champagne made for many happy toasts.

Andy also introduced me to the folks at a domestic travel company called Green Tour. They allowed me to join one of their scouting trips to Vinh Long, a town in the heart of the Mekong Delta. Packed into a vacation van was Green Tour's entire office: travel agents, receptionist, photographer, director, owner, the owner's brother, the owner's son, driver, translator--and me. They were going to check out a new fruit festival and see some of the popular stops in the area for so-called eco-tourism. “Green” and “eco” have much different meanings here in Vietnam, referring to the number of trees you will see on your vacation rather than the concept of sustainable, responsible tourism. However, Green Tour's good humor was infectious (drunken singing and disco dancing are encouraged on business trips here) and their generosity endless.

Banana leaves protect rambutans from the heat of the sun.

As the Mekong River approaches the southern tip of Vietnam, it widens into an immense stretch of opaque, red-brown water. The color hints at the rich sediment that makes the Mekong Delta Vietnam’s most important “rice basket.” The river splits and rejoins countless times, creating large, flat islands where rambutan, durian, mango, longan, and jackfruit trees now flourish. Green Tour had rented a bright blue boat to show me the island orchards and the floating wholesale market that gathered early every morning. The farms were all small, the biggest still family-owned.

Some families nestled their day’s pick of rambutans or longans in large baskets, shielding the fruit from the rising sun with banana leaves. Others simply piled the fruit into the their boats and headed off to the widest canals. There, boats sidled past each other with noncommittal glances and flirtatious offers. The farmers announced their price for the market vendors. The vendors pointed about flaws, imagined and real. Boats were turned away in outrage, only to return sheepishly with yet another offer called across the water. After the day’s price was finally settled with a smile and the fruit handed over from boat to boat, vendors pointed their boats to the local markets, where they would repeat this ritual again and again with their customers.

A commercial vessel in the wholesale floating market. Its large eyes protect the boat from any threatening spirits in the water below, while the bamboo pole hung with a single gourd announces that sweet pumpkins are for sale.

A vendor at the fruit market in Vinh Long. At the front, on the lower right, are piled bright pink trai thanh long. The fruit of a succulent vine, “dragonfruit” is surreal in appearance yet has the mildest flavor of any tropical fruit I’ve tasted.

Dragonfruit’s magenta peel sports long, flat, neon-green, tendril-like flaps. Its pearly white flesh is extremely juicy and refreshing, almost like eating water. Despite their number, the tiny, black seeds are soft, tasteless, and completely edible.

This tiny orchard community on the Mekong may be humble in appearance, but the thicket of TV antennas above reveals the wealth within.

Later in the day, we stopped to amble through the fruit festival. But after a quick walk-through, the tour agents declared it a flop. Few locals could afford the entry fee of 8,000 dong (nearly half a day's wages for some) and few people from other provinces would travel to attend. I saw a wildly deformed pineapple, displayed much like a two-headed calf at a county fair. Otherwise, the overpriced fruit vendors and rain-drenched carnival rides were easily skipped.

For me, the highlight of the Vinh Long expedition was without question the spectacular meals at the Nguyen family home, hosted by the parents of one of the travel agents. Mr. Nguyen The Thiet and his wife, Mrs. Ba, definitely knew how to throw a two-day party. They made sure we always had food in our bowl and a glass mug in our hand to toast. For lunch on our first day, we enjoyed a classic dish, pork wrapped in rice paper. The meat is thinly sliced pork and crunchy pig's ears, the first for celebratory fattiness and the second for crunch. Platters were piled high with herbs and vegetables, a sign of the wrapping and dipping that would follow. Many of the greens I'd never seen before, such as a beautiful, elongated, marbled yellow and pink leaf with a quick, dry, tart flavor. Even the rice paper was different. Left out overnight to catch the morning dew, this version was slightly puffy in texture, like a very big and very thin shrimp chip. The whole rice paper round itself was ruffled like a billowing sheet. It's a local specialty, I was told, a fact confirmed when I mentioned the "mist rice paper" in Saigon and received only bewildered looks.

The morning we headed back to Saigon, Mrs. Ba insisted on making coffee for all of us--one glass at a time. Pouring a little of her brew and a little sugar syrup together into an empty, plastic water bottle, she shook each serving for a full minute before pouring it over a mug of ice. An inch of froth topped each mug of strong, sweet, black coffee. Mrs. Ba showed me her freezer full of small, plastic cylinders of ice that she was proud to make herself. After removing the round of ice from its form, she broke it into shards with a few well-placed taps of a metal bar. It took her almost 45 minutes to make coffee for us, but we all agreed that it was worth the wait.

Next: Nha Trang, Vietnam >

June 2001