We choose Vinh, “there’s nothing there” kind of city, to break our journey to Hanoi. Since we’re tired of haggling for bus tickets, we’ve become fond of fixed-priced “hard seats” on the trains. These are very merry and incredibly cheap. Numb buttocks aside, the only downside are the barred windows that separate us from glorious mountain views.
The sights in Vinh include crumbling remains of a citadel, a Ho Chi Minh statue and the nearby town of his birth. Few foreign tourists stop here: we meet only two representatives of the Western culture.
After two days of R&R at a pleasant hotel we make our way to the bus terminal, where we have our first encounter with true Vietnamese piranhas. The Tet is still haunting us, now in the form of buses full of people going back from homes. “Happy new year!” is a magical phrase that makes tickets incredibly expensive. The lady at the counter is mean and does not want to negotiate. We remain unfazed and walk, with backpacks, the two kilometers to the train station. There, it turns out that all the tickets for the day have been sold out. Well, what can you do? We decide to swallow our pride and dish out for the bus. Since we’re already a bit tired, we wait for a city bus. It starts raining. The bus doesn’t come for a long time. Finally, at the bus terminal, the woman, now in bitch mode, has come up with an extra charge for our baggage. For all we care she can go and stuff herself. We’re staying another day and going tomorrow on the train. Yet, after we make the walk again, check in to a hotel near the station and make our way to the ticket office again, all the seats for tomorrow are sold out as well. Luckily, we’re such a nuisance that the lady dealing with us calls her colleague at another counter, who “maybe has something”. After a long wait in an immense queue, we put on smiles again for the final encounter. The woman, when she looks up, makes a face that makes me want to pull her head out through the small opening and twist it. Instead, I keep my smile on and within minutes we receive tickets from a mysterious envelope, for the most expensive sleeping berths on the train. What can I say… Survival of the fittest?
The waiters in Vinh are a completely different breed. Somebody helps us every time and never quotes unreasonable amounts of dong. When we first arrive in the evening, we are really tired and not in the mood for extensive culinary explorations. We find a soup stand close to the hotel and decide on rice soup with a mysterious meat, which we assume could be snake. By imitating snake’s movement with his hand and hissing, Marcin tries to confirm our guess with the lovely stall owner. She nods her head in approval and smiles. We admit a certain extent of excitement with the exotic new delicacy, especially since the “soup with snake” is very tasty. Later, in another place, it will turn out that chao luon is a popular local version of rice soup with eel. Well, I guess Marcin’s hissing was too shy.
The next day, at a Korean barbecue restaurant, when we try to inquire what can be ordered the waiters are having a hard time understanding us. Luckily, the owners’ son comes to rescue. The fellow is studying in Saigon and came back for a few days to his hometown for Tet. He knows a bit of English and after a short consultation brings the electric grill with food and drinks. He proceeds to grill the morsels and shows us how to roll them with kimchi and papaya salad. He does not leave the table until he’s sure we know how to operate all the ingredients properly.
Marcin’s thoughts still revolve around the night stall where next to steaming cauldrons of soup lay rows of goat skulls, which, per clients’ requests, would be cracked and opened, to be served with fresh baguette. Long time ago, in the Greek mountains, we found ourselves in a village having a breakfast from the previous night’s party. The night before, a few sheep had been grilled for a baptism ceremony. In the morning, we joined the family who prepared the party for some grilled goat. One of the “uncles” kept asking for skulls, cracked them with his big hands and ate out the brains. At that time it seemed so exotic and alluring that at the same time Marcin was disgusted and really wanted to try, too. He did not get up his courage to ask. Since that morning he always complained about not trying the baked brain delicacy. This time he vows to try the brain with baguette.
But in the end it doesn’t happen. A terrible craving for Western food overcomes us before we leave Vinh. The closest we can get to the familiar tastes turns out to be the only fast-food joint in the town — KFC. Despite the initial excitement, the meal is more repulsive than soothing. Interestingly enough, Marcin doesn’t complain about not eating the brains. The previous time, in Greece, he was too shy to ask. Now it becomes clear that what bugged him was not the taste of grilled brains but the missed chance. This time we made a choice and the spell is broken.
In the end, we spend whole four days in the “nothing there” city, because we also overnight here on our way back from the north. The piranhas attack again but the waiters save the city’s face once more.