The best part of the bay was splashing into it. I even jumped off of our boat to swim to a bigger, taller one, asked permission to board, and jumped off of that one, too.
I don’t surf or scuba dive, I just love jumping into and wading through water. It’s one thing about me that has changed little since childhood. Put me on an apartment balcony a dozen or more storeys up and my stomach does somersaults. Put me on a cliff with a deep body of water below, and I’ll sprint half a football field to catch as much hang-time as I can before piercing the placid surface.
That was the best part of Ha Long Bay. Unfortunately, it also allowed Teresa and I to bear witness to the worst part of it: the garbage. It’s not yet at an atrocious level (or at least it wasn’t two years ago). But the rims of certain parts of the bay are peppered with refuse and other debris that need not be there. I don’t understand the culture of littering and I never will. It was the same in the Philippines, and Cambodia, and even in the Amazon Jungle where our driver was throwing empty plastic containers into the natural foliage as he brought us closer and closer to the tropical lowland forest. Disgusting and inexcusable. It’s my only complaint of this otherwise pristine natural wonder on Vietnam’s northeast coast.
After returning to Hanoi from Ha Long, we were in our final stretch of our visit to Vietnam. We linked up with Linh, Phuong, and several of their friends on a few more occasions as well. We actually went to the market with Phuong one morning and bought numerous raw ingredients which she and her husband cooked for a large group of us in the evening. The highlight was frog leg hotpot. Even the skins were deep fried and then placed into the boiling pot of seasoned soup, along with a variety of mushrooms and other vegetables. Linh and his friends had also made this weird purple homemade vodka-like drink that packed a powerful punch. Very interesting stuff, indeed.
I was also invited to try a particular delicacy that was common, especially in the north, apparently. We’d seen it on display in markets since arriving in Hanoi, and of course, we’d heard of it long before ever arriving in Asia. I’m pretty sure everyone in the West has heard of it as well, the thought bringing looks of disgust and feelings of queasiness.
I know, I’m sorry…
But I ate dog.
When I say sorry, I mean sorry I’m bringing this potentially nauseating fact to your attention, not sorry I did it. I think Linh, Phuong, and the rest of their friends might’ve taken it as an insult if I had refused. Probably not, actually, because Teresa, having grown up with pet dogs, refused and it was fine. Not me, though. I was and am of the mind that I have to try it once. The fact that people keep them as pets wasn’t a sufficient reason to stop me. People keep pigs and chickens as pets and entire cultures revere cows as gods. At that point in my life, I’d already eaten chickens, pigs, cows, ducks, lamb, venison, bison, veal, goat, mutton, fish, crustaceans, pigeon, snake, insects, and I could’ve eaten a porcupine if I’d wanted to, as well. I was here to experience what a culture different than my own experiences in their cuisine and I consider little but the cosmos and the power of nature itself to be holy. While I’m currently adhering to a strict vegan diet (and mainly for health reasons, at that) at the time I believed I had no moral authority to pick and choose which animal was “right” to eat, and which wasn’t.
So, I ate dog, prepared in three different ways. Grilled, broiled, and boiled. The last, prepared in a soup, was by far the most bizarre as the paws, nails and all, were completely intact in the soup.
It was…different. Certainly not my favourite, to say the least, and something I won’t be trying again (just as I have no desire to try balut eggs after the few that I’d eaten in Cambodia – not my thing). Apparently, this delicacy is eaten in the last 15 days of a particular calendar cycle that I don’t completely understand. The dogs themselves were positioned on podium-like market stalls rather morbidly, though, with mouths open, teeth bared, and skin charred from barbecuing. I can’t say I regret eating it, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not killing my own appetite writing this. I’ve certainly changed a lot since then.
One of Linh’s friends also owns a restaurant not far from where we were staying which they all took us to on our second last night in Hanoi. They fed us until we were bursting, then they fed us more. The meals didn’t stop coming and I felt like I was going to explode by the end of it. My body couldn’t handle another morsel of food, not to mention the bottles upon bottles of vodka being served. They really love their vodka. If I had known how much of everything was coming out, I would’ve paced myself better. One of the guys even managed to bring Teresa and I a couple of joints to enjoy after dinner, one of which we saved for a park the next day, our last day. It was the only time in Vietnam we came across this, never having bothered to try since leaving Sihanoukville’s peaceful beaches.
On the last full day, we drove around a little bit, relaxing, mostly. Teresa found a shop that specialized in dry fruits. Longans are her favourite, in their natural freshness as well as dried, and are extremely hard to find in this latter form, even in Asia. In case you didn’t know, they are in the same family as lychees but with a thin beige shell and a slightly different taste. We got a nice large container which lasted for the next couple of months, a specialty we haven’t seen since. And of course, we enjoyed a variety of other fresh, delicious cuisine while doing our best to stay dry as a typhoon was working its way to land from the South China Sea. A short stop-in at a local hookah bar was right up our alley, as well.
Vietnam is a contender for the best country I’ve ever visited. Teresa’s knowledge and understanding of the language is a contributing factor to this assessment, but it’s more than that. Diversity within diversity within diversity. That is how I’d sum up Vietnam. The culture is so strong and the people are so proud of who they are, where they are, and where they’ve come from. So many other countries have tried to mess with Vietnam in the past, and Vietnam is still Vietnam. In my opinion, that says a lot about a nation and its people. Being human creations, every culture is worthy of some criticism. But if you’ve read even a little of what I’ve written on the Traveling Space Opera, you know that I reserve a small fraction of my work for such criticism. I love Vietnam. There are some places that I greatly enjoyed visiting, but I know I won’t have the time or the will to make it back in my lifetime. Vietnam is not one of those places. I will be back as soon as I am able to. I don’t think I will ever get enough.
For over three months at this point, Teresa and I only knew each other in our travels. Everyone we’d met thus far was new to us. That was about to change as we embarked on a brand new leg of our half-year Southeast Asian adventure.
Stay tuned for Malaysia!