Getting out of town was a really good idea. Bottom line: Nghia invited us to his house for lunch on Sunday. His house is a really beautiful place. His mom is lovely. His little sister is lovely. His grandparents, ages 94 and 92, are worth a book in themselves. I have a photo of his grandfather. Yes, I asked permission, although it was all in gestures.
Phan Theit is not a “small city,” unless you consider Oakland a small city. It used to be small, about 20 years ago, when Nghia was growing up. Now it’s gateway to a tourist beach resort center (Mui Ne) and there is an industrial zone nearby.
We went by bus. Picture below. Cost, 130.000 dong per person one-way. Yes, what you see is a double-decker sleeping bus with what are sort of like fold-down cushioned beds. Made in Korea, for people 5 foot 5 and under. No bathroom on board, but they give you bottles of water. It was a 5 hour ride, because traffic keeps the speed down around 30 mph. We will not do this again unless there is no alternative. Two rest stops each way. The first rest stop was at a nice open eating place that seated about 300 people at tables. Rest stops on the way back was also big, did not smell good.
In Phan Thiet Nghia helped us get a room for 180,000 dong that had a perfectly clean floor, bed, air conditioning, bathroom with toilet paper. Then his mom picked him up and took him home; he came back a few hours later on his motorbike, wearing shorts and smiling. He took us out to dinner upstairs in a restaurant overlooking the river full of bright red, blue and green fishing boats, showed us how to eat crab (“Breakdown”), wrap rice paper around veggies and some other fresh fish, and eat a rice-corn-fish soup. Nothing we ate was more than a few hours out of the sea. Maybe the best meal we’ve had since we got here.
The next morning he met us again at 7 am and took us to a place to get “local” pho and then to a Truong Nguyen coffee shop (it’s a chain) and had the best coffee ever. Very strong, very smooth, from a little tin drip. Then off we go on a round of amazing experiences.
First, the beach at Mui Ne, where a vast new Miami-Beach type resort climbs the hill over a little harbor where Vietnamese fishermen (and women) clean their nets after a night out on the sea (“Way out, several kilometers” says Nghia) in little hemispheric boats like custard cups – half domes, painted blue, powered by oars. They are people who can’t afford a fishing boat. They fish all night, sleep in the boat, come inshore and then clean the little fish – about 6 inches long, silver – and put them in piles that the women then take to the market.
The water was warm like bathwater, not like ocean water in California.
Second to something called The Wine Castle. I am not kidding. A group of Napa Valley wineries has gotten together to turn Vietnam, a beer country, into a market for wine. They are going to do this by constructing a giant “castle” with four crenellated towers on a hilltop in this resort district and then creating a whole theater of wine culture to educate the local population about not just the taste of wine but how to be a wine drinker and how to live like wine drinkers. Inside the castle is a courtyard with a Cinderella – type gold plated chariot and a bunch of suits of armor. Above it are three floors of Castle Experience. This is a local tourist destination. Young couples were photographing each other. People probably have weddings there. As a piece of marketing this is overwhelming and brilliant and way, way too close to the edge for me.
After all, what do I think about when I sit on the deck in California and look out at the sunset on the Golden Gate bridge and have a glass of wine? Just the wine?
Tickets are 180,000 each, and include a glass of wine.
My first reaction was, “You have got to be kidding.” This is Hearst Castle in Vietnam, only it’s a marketing ploy. I was really going to turn around and go away.
But we bought tickets and went in – down windy stairs into a cool dark room where a large crowd of Vietnamese people were sitting on benches holding wine glasses and swirling them and sniffing. It was an actual class in how to drink wine. Then we watched a movie about the Napa Valley and all the happy beautiful people who go to it and drink wine. Just like me, whenever possible.
However, since I am on a serious not-drinking campaign, both on general principles and because of my afib meds, and am happy with 2 beers per week, I was not about to drink wine at 9 am, even if I could pretend I was in Napa. But Nghia had never tasted wine. He tasted the wine in his glass and nearly spat it out. He said it tasted horrible, but he continued anyway.
Creating a market for something people don’t know they need takes a lot of teaching, starting with basics. You’ve got to teach people to want to be someone else. I guess it’s not that hard. There is by-the-bottle sales room, including some listed for very high prices, in case you wondered if this was cheap wine or good (expensive) wine. You can buy wine glasses, in case you don’t have any. There was also a big room with table settings, showing how you set the table with wine glasses.
I was reminded of the upper floor in the Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City that held the President’s (Diem and Thieu) private quarters, including a dining room. The dining room was set up as if for a French dinner party, with two wineglasses at each plate. No chopsticks.
I googled RD and it has an enormous website at
http://www.rdwinery.com/catalog.pdf It doesn’t say directly that it’s a trade group, but it sure looks like one.
Nghia really had a good time. He took a lot of photos and posted them on Facebook, including one on MY page showing me waving a wine glass and looking plastered. By morning, I had a couple of “likes.”
Then we went to the Cham towers, built in the 9th century by the people who lived here before the Vietnamese. They’re a UNESCO site. Cham people still live in this area. The four towers are unmortared brick, each a site of worship for different dieties. They picked the best site on the whole coast for these towers, looking south along the shore where the river opens out into the ocean. This picture is inside one of the towers, looking straight up. No earthquakes around here, obviously.
Here is the view from the park behind the towers, looking out over Phan Thiet:
By now we were ready to take a break from tourism and Nghia took us home to his house for lunch. He said, “You will be astonished when you see where I live.” He was right.
In his village, which is about 5 K from Phan Thiet, people grow dragon fruit. It grows on chest-high bushes that look like the kinds of succulents people put in pots at home.
His mom is a primary school teacher in their village. His father died last year, of cancer. His mom also farms the dragon bush plots.
To approach his house, you walk along a 2-foot wide raised dike between the dragon bush plots. The house is beautiful, incredibly peaceful, open to the wind in all directions and therefore cool. His grandparents who are 94 (grandfather) and 92 (grandmother) live with them. They look to be in perfect health except for being very, very old. His mother obviously is terribly proud of her son and happy that he is getting intensive English practice (which he is). Nghia’s little sister was shy but very sweet.
When we walked in the house, Nghia’s mother asked me (through Nghia) if I would like a shower. What a great thing to offer someone who is unspeakably sweaty!!! So I went out back and had a shower in a separate room that looked out onto the fields of dragon bushes.
After lunch, which ended with pomelo and salt, we rested; a hammock appeared for Joe and a flat foldout bed for me. I fell asleep, ready to stay there for the next twenty years and get old like the grandparents.
Nghia, his little sister, and his mom on the front veranda
Living room. That’s Nghia’s grandfather on the left. His grandmother sits on the high table to the right, but she’s not in this picture.
Kitchen, looking out into side area with more dragon bushes.
A few of many cisterns. When rains start, they let the water run for a while and then direct it via a long pipe into various cisterns.
Inside front gate
Lots of electronics. That’s my suitcase on the floor. Most diplomas and certificates are all displayed up high along the top of the wall, but this one is on the desk.
Joe in the hammock after lunch. I fell asleep.
Nghia’s mom rode her bike to their dragon fruit plots and came back with some for us to take home.
On the way back to the bus we stopped at the Ho Chi Minh museum which was almost closed; windows shut, no air conditioning. But across the street was the elementary school where Ho Chi Minh taught for a year before getting on a ship and working his way to France. It had small open single story whitewashed buildings, rows of desks like the ones at Ton Duc Thang today, a garden and a well.
The bus going back to the city was faster than coming down. Most people slept, including Joe, but I stayed up and read Madame Binh’s autobiography and watched the TV at the front of the bus, which was playing some obviously famous show with a handsome young couple singing first traditional Vietnamese music and then, after many hours of that, some pop and Hollywood stuff on a high-tech Vegas-type stage.
Great weekend. Memories of Nghia’s home will get me through the next blue period.