It Smells Like Bulls***, But The Taste …

There are perfect moments that occur when I travel. Moments in which the universe exhales, releases its anticipation, and I let go of everything, stop overthinking, and just let myself be in one time and place. My worries and concerns go away and I just exist. I have a little one of these moments every time I step into the Pantheon. I had such a moment when D and I stood at the end of the Appian Way in Brindisi. I spent a day of such moments wandering Ortigia. And I have such moments when scuba diving, when breathing and surviving are one and the same.

And I had such a moment today somewhere on an island in the middle of the Red River when, sitting on the back of an aging Soviet Minsk motorcycle, I reached up a hand to make contact with the leaves of banana trees, hanging low in our path. It couldn’t have been better.

Some people told me I shouldn’t take a motorbike tour of Hanoi – the traffic is too bad and the experience would be too risky, but in the end I wasn’t dissuaded. And this was an outstanding decision. S was my guide, and she drove most of the day. She’s at the very least a capable driver, I don’t have the experience to judge whether she’s a good driver.

I don’t know whether I’m allowed to drive here (some sources suggested it isn’t legal), but S even let me drive briefly on a deserted segment of road. I’m glad I did, and I’m proud to report that the Minsk is no Ducati. It’s a twitchy beast, and not in a good way. So in the end I was happy to cede the controls back to my much more skilled guide.

I started the morning in a Soviet “Jeep” headed to the countryside with a couple visiting from Los Angeles. We drove down narrow roadways lain in orchards, stopping briefly to try a guava fresh from the tree. Guava fresh from a tree is nothing like we get at home. Just trust me on this.

Our destination was Bat Trang village, where white clay has been worked into pottery for 1000 years or so. We toured some of the artisans shops where the work is done.

They use a combination of molds and hand-workmanship to make delicately detailed pieces.

And these pigs.

I joke unfairly here and have to confess: we tried our own hands at the pottery wheel, and I failed. Utterly. In the end one of the workmen made a bowl to which I made a few minor alterations. Oh and I painted it. The finished work had a unique kindergarten quality, but is alas lost to history as I forgot it in the Jeep at the end of the morning

After a delicious lunch, including this amazing banana flower salad, the Californians went their own way and S and I had egg coffee before hopping onto the bike and heading out into the densely packed streets of Hanoi, cars, buses, and plenty of scooters pressing in on us from every side.

The first stop was at a local market, where I had a rice flour pancake stuffed with pork and mushroom. Yes I’m eating a lot, but this afternoon is a food and culture tour. So plenty of food should be had.

We then meandered into the market, pausing momentarily at a stand while S selected an old beat-up water bottle filled with a slightly pink-tinged grey-brown gloop. “Smell this,” she said, “it smells like bullshit. It’s shrimp paste – it’s delicious.” I agree – it smells terrible, and it looks terrible too. We didn’t taste it.

We continued further in, walking through the black market. You can find everything you need to build a 777 here, she says, and I can almost believe her. This is an old-school flea market, with all varieties of industrial flotsam and jetsam available for purchase, and I know my dad would have loved it. He would have picked up the most obscure item on the table, turned it over, and mused for a bit, saying, “I wonder what this was for.”

At the end of the market some of the locals called me over and encouraged me try the grubs they were eating. I couldn’t tell whether they were cooked (I’m making some sort of effort to avoid uncooked food) and so politely declined.

Back onto the bike we drove through town, making our way along alleyways scarcely wider than the handlebars, then followed this curve along the tracks that tomorrow night will take me to the Sapa Valley.

We even rested for a time over some local beer and peanuts. In addition to bottles and cans of beer, many vendors here sell their own, homemade, local beer. It is the ultimate in microbrewery, but probably lacks the quality and is cheaper than the bottled brands (in contrast to the pattern at home).

And then we headed back out into the fray and on to the Long Bien Bridge, designed by Gustave Eiffel, and stepped over the railing and onto the tracks long enough for a few photos.

We cloverleafed back onto the bridge and dropped via a sidewalk into the fields of banana trees below us. Back off of the island, S pointed out the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which I really don’t have much interest in visiting, and as we approached my hotel we made one final stop for food.

A mixture of fried tofu, fried pork, and noodles, we dipped these in a combination of kumquat juice and shrimp paste. You whip the juice into the paste so you don’t have to see the color, I think. And when you eat it you try not to smell it.

But it tastes good.

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