Saturday, March 10, 2007

24 Hours

Starting at 6 PM Friday, the next 24 hours in Vietnam were a little bit crazy.

6 PM: The group from TVU picks me up at my hotel to go a funky outdoor restaurant alongside one of the many canals here. They are viewing this as the celebratory dinner at the conclusion of our MOU signing ceremony. They were also honoring Caroline from Canada who had been working (volunteering, I believe) in many of the communes (little villages) in Tra Vinh Province for the past six months but would be leaving Tra Vinh is less than a week.

7 PM: We have already finished several of the dishes that have been served, but there are more on the way. We started with crispy fired Giant Gourami of which President Kanh handed me the prized tail fin that is to be eaten for good luck. It was actually pretty good. I also ate a fried Ghost Knife Fish. Soon after that the snails started arriving. I quickly learned that the smaller snails are better than the larger ones. Something came out that looked to me like it was a scallop (yummy!), but alas, it was some other type of mussel that was much chewier and much less tasty than scallops. During the meal, several things came out for rolling your own spring rolls, which was generally all quite good.

8 PM: Most of the food activity was completed but most of the toasting activity was still going strong. They make two types of rice wine in Tra Vinh, and they are hoping this will become their next big export product. If you’ve ever had rice wine, then you know that it isn’t very much wine-like, but it sure does pack a wallop. Luckily they used very small shot glasses and I was able to beg off and still save face after only a couple of them.

9 PM: This restaurant is also a karaoke bar. In Tra Vinh, there are apparently several places like this where you don’t sing in front of all the people at the restaurant; you get a private room instead. So there are seven of us who head off to the karaoke room while a couple of others depart. They had songs in English and others in Vietnamese. Some of the Vietnamese songs were actually sort of interesting. It also was amazing how quickly you could get a clue about the language from reading the words on the screen while they were singing. More fun than I would normally have at a karaoke bar, besides they really liked my songs.

10 PM: It’s back to the hotel to try to get my normal 4 hours of sleep. For some reason, that is all the sleep I’ve been getting over here, on average. However, tonight I get more like five hours. Yahoo.

6 AM: I’ve actually been up for a couple of hours answering emails and wandering around the neighborhood a bit. Then at 6:00 while I’m working on the computer, the power goes off. I don’t think much of it because the lights had flickered quite often in Tra Vinh during my stay there. My laptop still works on the battery, but the Internet connection is also dead with the power outage. So I wait a few minutes, then some more minutes, until finally I go downstairs for breakfast. They inform me that today is the “blackout day.” Apparently this happens from time to time on a Saturday where the power throughout the town is just shut down. Not sure if it is for conservation, equipment maintenance, or just an attempt to get people to slow down in their electrically powered lives, but everybody is expecting the power to be off all day. And they’re cool with that.

8 AM: The driver picks me up at the hotel along with Hoang and Mai and we head to a local eatery for breakfast (remember I had breakfast back at the hotel). I knew they were taking me on a tour today but I didn’t know it was starting with breakfast. Mr. Dung is waiting for us at the eating place. We were served a traditional dish of Tra Vinh noodles, broth, which includes more giant gourami, some snakehead (it’s a fish) and a chunk of the popular pig blood. The fact that I had already eaten a full breakfast came in real handy here.

9 AM: After breakfast we start the tour by going to a large pond that is where the Khmer people hold many of their festivals. Apparently the women dug this pond faster than the men did and that explains why the woman is the head of the household for Khmer people rather than the man. There’s a bit more to the story that that, but there’s the gist of it. Next stop was for gasoline, but I noticed that across the street there is some sort of monument so I wander over and Hoang and Mai follow along. They explain to me that this was the site of a very bloody battle right near the end of the American War in April 1975. Many Tra Vinh residents/soldiers lost their lives that day. At first it looked like a tank still sitting not too far away from the monument, but it is actually made out of cement and no one was quite sure of its intended purpose. Our next stop is at a chemical plant in the small industrial park. This is a joint venture between a Canadian company and local business/government. I saw all kinds of reactors and distillers and other things, which was all kind of eerie walking around this place during the blackout.

10 AM: We visit the first to two pagodas. There are 144 Khmer pagodas in the province. Approximately 30% of the people in the province are Khmer. Many of the monks at these pagodas are very young men who only spend a few weeks there as some sort of family payback to the church. It would be fascinating to learn more, but quite frankly I only got the most basic information. The pagodas are pretty amazing. The first one we visited was originally built in the year 990. It has had a few facelifts over the past thousand years, so it’s not exactly in its original condition. Between pagoda stops, we took a little break for some sugar cane juice. Surprisingly yummy. The second pagoda is well known for the wood carvings that the monks make from tree roots.

11 AM: We meet Mr. Dung and Mr. Khan back at the hotel for a farewell lunch consisting of fish paste cubes, dried cuttlefish, cucumbers, and very spicy dried beef (like jerky) that is made from beef heart. After that it was time to load all my stuff into the university van for the trip back to Saigon. Let’s just say that the trip heading back was not as bad as the trip going to Tra Vinh on Wednesday … probably because we were in a more comfortable vehicle, probably because I was more used to the crazy traffic, and probably because I actually was able to fall asleep for about 90 minutes of the 3.5 hour trip. Next thing I knew I was being dropped at the front door of the Majestic Hotel.

By 4 PM Saturday I was back in the same room as last week at the Majestic. Turns out that this story is only 22 hours long, not 24. Oh well, close enough.

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