The green of the rice paddies of Vietnam has often been written about. When you are there at the right time of year, it is stunning, stretching for miles and miles into the March mist. The road from Hanoi to Hai Phong was lined with rice fields, filled with workers and the occasional water buffalo. “How picturesque,” I thought with my head in tourist mode. Then I thought again, more accurately and sympathetically, “what a hard life they lead.”
I was in Vietnam with a trade delegation. We drove from Hanoi to Hai Phong for a series of meetings. Whilst I had been to Vietnam five or six times before, time constraints and work commitments meant that I had never had the opportunity to venture out of either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. So the trip to Hai Phong, which took a couple of hours, showed me more of the life of rural Vietnamese. Not unlike venturing into Laos or northeast Thailand, it was however much more heavily populated, and more industrial. The modes of transport were similar though.
On the way, we had stopped for a ceremony where a New Zealand businessman was signing an agreement with local authorities to establish a business venture. There was an appropriate ceremony, photographs were taken under a pair of elephant tusks, and the authorities served their local champagne. As you can see by the label – “Product of the Vietnam Nitrogen Fertiliser Company” – I fear a grape never went near it.
We then drove on to Hai Phong for further meetings. Hai Phong is an industrial port town, but anyway we had no time for sight-seeing. Ha Long Bay, now a huge tourist attraction in north Vietnam, was only a short distance away. But we were there on business. And in 1994, trade missions were still not that common in Vietnam. Our time was fairly strictly controlled, and our movements were no doubt monitored.
Between meetings at large plastic covered tables sitting at plastic covered chairs sipping Vietnamese tea (a safer option than the water, but an acquired taste, and acquire it I did) and visits to factories (where we donned protective outfits and boots -straining at the seams to deal with the size of the average Kiwi businessman and one tall woman), we walked the streets of Hai Phong. A friendly city, children played in the streets, and laughed when we joined with them, attempting ping pong or kicking soccer, balls as we passed. Young women, upright and graceful, slim and elegant in their ao dais, cycled by, their pet doggies (or dinner?) sitting happily in the baskets in front. I bought a meat cleaver in the market. They packaged it carefully, by placing it in a thin plastic bag. It was only US$1. That seemed to be the price of everything at the time. Can of coke? US$1. Heineken beer? US$1. Meat cleaver? US$1. I don’t want to know what else would have cost us US$1.
We attended an official dinner which involved a series of courses of some unknown foods (don’t ask don’t tell is my recommended policy at any official Asian dinner), speeches from the local Party officials, and the compulsory drinking competition between the leaders of the local and visiting delegations. The Vietnamese had brought with them a ring-in drinker, but had underestimated the capacity of Dave from Hamilton, who was at least twice the size of their guy. The slight Vietnamese ring-in never had a chance. I just hope he didn’t get in trouble with the Party as a result. He was going to feel bad enough the next day as it was.
One day we ate a magnificent lunch in a simple, open-air shop house restaurant just down the road from our hotel. All kinds of seafood –crab, prawns, fish – steamed, grilled, simple and fresh – and delicious dunking sauces. A meal fit for kings in a humble shophouse. Later that night, before retiring, we returned to the restaurant for a drink or two. After a while, we noticed we were not alone. Wildlife was gathering in the shadows, their eyes glowing and noses twitching, as they scuttled around the edges of the room, looking for their own dinner. I sat with my feet carefully raised off the floor, much to the amusement of the male delegation.
We didn’t eat there the next day.