Exotic Cities, Part Twenty: Vinh, Vietnam
December 24, 2009
Our world tour of exotic cities is almost at an end. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s been great fun and extremely enlightening. Don’t complain that you’re maxed out on all your credit cards after all this globetrotting. You’ve still got that Christmas bonus to spend, don’t you? And we’ve got one more place left to visit: Vinh, Vietnam.
Vinh is an enchantress among cities, but without the Circean evil that turns men into swine (as in Ottawa, for example). Vinh is eager for tourism after being overlooked for so many years. They want to catch up. And seven out of ten travelers agree: a vacation in Vinh is more delightful than a root canal.
Vinh is located on Vietnam’s “Gold Coast,” so named because of the anthills containing gold. In fact, Vinh is the Anthill Capital of the World. It is home to the Asian tiger ant (Solenopsis mendacis), the same variety that attacked Joan Collins in Empire of the Ants. Early Spanish explorers noticed the grains of gold in the anthills and took them as a sign that they were close to the Golden Grail, also known as El Dorado. But they got lost in the Forest of Blinh and were eaten by the monster Smatma. After this disaster, King Charles II forbade all further exploration in the area, so the French were able to move in uncontested.
There are no good travel deals to Vinh, unfortunately, because there isn’t a whole lot of tourism yet. (The round trip from Toronto cost me about $3,700, and Air Canada’s nuts were stale.) But once you get there, you can load up on counterfeit designer goods that you can resell back home.
The best hotel in town is the Ramada Vinh, which is surprisingly affordable for all its luxury, with an average room rate of about $150 per night. In the lobby, gilded domes frescoed with sweeping clouds and hanging gardens frame chandeliers of 24-karat gold and crystal. The marble floors are polished to mirror perfection. A broad arch opens to a garden with a pool. Goldfish cruise lazily in a rock-rimmed pond. In the suites, painted cherubs smile down on a massive raised bed, and a 60-channel projection TV screen drops from the ceiling. The bathrooms of Italian marble and French onyx are stocked with Egyptian-cotton towels, robes, and slippers. Press a button, and the red satin drapes part, giving a view of the rolling hills and a new housing development. A masseuse is available 24 hours a day, and she will massage you with her well-oiled naked body.
General Manager Freddie Ho greeted me personally. He said he was my biggest fan in all of Vietnam, although my books are officially banned. I said I was surprised to find such opulence in a Communist country. “This is the new Vietnam,” he explained. “It’s Communist in theory, but it’s becoming more capitalist in practice. Just get the tourists in and get them to spend their money. And Ramada wants a piece of the action.”
Freddie was too busy to show me around town, so he put me in the able hands of his good friend Dan Van Nguyen. Dan was evasive about his occupation, saying only that he was well-connected and did things for people. “Sort of a fixer,” he said. “I help people with their problems and needs.” He offered to fix me up with hookers, but I declined.
The first thing every visitor wants to see is the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh, which is in the village of Kim Lien, about 14 kms northwest of Vinh. There you will find multicolored dancing fountains surrounding Ho’s statue. He is holding two children by the hand, and a cocker spaniel sits beside his feet. The gift shop sells every sort of Ho souvenir, and all the employees are amputees, so if you’re a liberal, you just load up with all you can carry.
On the outskirts of the Forest of Blinh, where nobody goes for obvious reasons, you will find the villages of the Dogon people. The Dogon are ethnically unrelated to the Vietnamese, and nobody knows their true origins. They are a pacifist people who have an ingenious method of preventing fighting. All their dwellings have such low roofs that you can’t stand up straight. The idea is that if somebody gets mad at somebody else and tries to stand up, he can’t, so there’s no way they can fight without looking stupid. Predictably, all the Dogon have a stooped posture. They worship the ant, and they leave scraps of food at a giant anthill for “protection.” They also practice a dance on hot coals as a puberty rite. Boys and girls must dance on the hot coals to become adults. It’s part of a religious belief system, so you can’t criticize it.
Quyet Mountain is on the outskirts of Vinh. It’s the home base of the Vinh Paragliding Club. Paragliders launch themselves from the summit and glide over the Lam River, which skirts the city. The Lam has a lot of crocodiles, and the paragliders compete to see who can traverse the river the most times without falling in. You should check out some of this action on YouTube.
There is a muscular exuberance in the Lam’s rapids, danger in its floods. But on most days the river welcomes the adventurer with lyric grace — except in typhoons, when everything up to the size of a water buffalo is swept away and killed.
Go east to the coast about 10 kms and enjoy the pristine white beach at Cua Lo. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart were seen there recently, and according to observers, they were getting pretty romantic. It’s easy to understand why. Cua Lo is a romantic dream, with its blue water, palm trees, and strolling troubadours singing Vietnamese love songs and playing the mandolin, while flocks of pink flamingoes circle overhead in search of fiddler crabs, their favorite food.
Speaking of food, try the seafood at Em Ghet Anh, a popular seaside restaurant. Their specialty is boiled moray eel served on a bed of seaweed.
Downtown Vinh is an artful example of East German social realist architecture, with its gray, cube-shaped public buildings flanking its wide streets. Luxury Soviet-made limos blend in with smoky little Trabants and a few odd rickshaws. Smartly dressed traffic cops keep everything moving efficiently as they blow their whistles and bark repeatedly “Mu cac tao!…Mu cac tao!…”
At the top of Quang Trung Street you will find Vinh’s most famous landmark, “Uncle Vinnie” — a 60-foot-high neon ant. He’s the city’s unofficial mascot. (What else would you expect in the Anthill Capital of the World?) The Vinh High School athletic teams are called the Tiger Ants and they wear a logo like Uncle Vinnie. The cheerleaders do this cute little “Ant Dance,” and if you’re sitting in the right place, you can see the cracks of their asses.
While on that subject, there is a strip club on Le Mao Street called Thang Nguc Lon, which is always busy, although it is pretty tame by Western standards. They feature a lot of B-list American strippers who have gotten too old or too fat to work in good clubs in the U.S. SaRenna Lee headlined there for a month, and the audience loved her. They thought she had the biggest tits in the world. But what do the Vietnamese know about big tits? Their women are all flat-chested.
That could change, however. Two enterprising brothers, Sy Ba Tran and Van Quyen Tran, have gone into business as breast implant specialists. The former auto mechanics don’t have medical degrees, and even in Vietnam they wouldn’t normally be allowed to do any sort of medical work, but Dan Van Nguyen said this was something he was able to “fix.” The brothers only accept out-of-town patients, by the way, so nobody in Vinh ever gets to see the results of their handiwork.
The Buddhist monastery is a minor attraction. The monks are renowned for their extremely long toenails, which are supposed to demonstrate inner peace. You can make a donation and light a candle and sit with them while they chant, but these guys never bathe, and all that incense isn’t enough to conceal the fact, so pretty soon you want to get up and leave. However, the Jonas Brothers spent a whole day in there and said it was the most spiritually uplifting experience of their lives.
Vinh is the home of the Vietnam Museum of Human Rights, but blacks and Jews are not allowed in. The museum has a big display devoted to Jane Fonda. What Jane Fonda has to do with human rights is beyond me, but the Vietnamese love her and worked her in somehow.
The best attraction if you’re looking for something really edgy is the Vinh Arena, which stages matches of an extremely violent form of martial arts cage fighting. The contestants wear spikes and fight with sticks. Dan Van Nguyen told me there’s always blood, and they average three or four deaths a year. He also said that World Wrestling Entertainment had been to Vinh to check it out and were interested in doing some kind of business deal, and he was trying to help them with that.
For shopping, you have a lot of street vendors and little shops selling counterfeit goods, which I referred to earlier. Dan said the authorities don’t mind because the designers and brands are exploiters of Third World labor, so it’s okay to rip them off. The People’s Committee that administers Vinh calls this “social justice.” And they collect big licensing fees from the vendors, so it’s a lot of revenue.
If you want more sophisticated shopping, you want to go to the Roman Mall, which is designed to look like ancient Rome. There is a daily royal procession led by a centurion. Moving sidewalks from the street whisk shoppers into the mall. But to get out, they must pass through a door that will not open unless they are laden with a certain minimum weight of merchandise. (So put a brick in your counterfeit Gucci bag before you go in! Oh, and another thing: don’t use your credit cards, or you will get a rude surprise in a month or so. Use the local currency.)
The Ramada Vinh has a very nice French restaurant. Head Chef Thi Hai Dinh serves up an elegant kea parrot Michels. Here’s the recipe:
Season one large kea parrot with salt, pepper, garlic, and sage. Place in casserole with three ounces of palm oil, two cups of chopped kale, and two cups of chopped rhubarb. Put in oven at 350 degrees and baste frequently. After 20 minutes, transfer to stove top, add six ounces of malt vinegar, cover pot, and simmer for 10 minutes. Then add one cup of water, once ounce of anchovy paste, and a cup of finely chopped pickled beets. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 more minutes. Serve with rice. (Heston Blumenthal does this with gold leaf on top, but I think that spoils it.)
Dan and I had a late evening drink with Freddie Ho, and we talked about the “new” Vietnam. Freddie said the Vietnamese people were no longer anti-American. In fact, hundreds of them sent cards of condolence to Jennifer Aniston after the death of her dog, Norman.
Freddie surprised me by producing two of my books, Junior Brain Tumors In Action and Malignant Humors, which he asked me to inscribe personally. (You can try searching for these books, as well as my others, at www.abebooks.com, but I have no control over prices on the collector’s market.)
I asked Freddie and Dan if Vinh had a “sister city,” and they said no. I offered to find one if Dan could fix it with the People’s Committee. “Easy as one, two, three!” said Dan with a big smile. So I found a suitable city the next day.
I’m happy to report that Vinh’s sister city is Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. Mayor John Ruttan liked the idea because Nanaimo didn’t have a sister city and deserved one. And although he knew nothing about Vinh, he said, “We’re ‘Left Coast,’ as they say, and I guess the Veet-namese are, too, seeing as how they’re Communists, ha, ha! And if there are any more of those boat people who want to come over, tell ’em we have a real nice harbour where they can tie their yachts.” The Mayor and his wife will be visiting Vinh sometime in 2010 (and this is a heads-up to Air Canada to make sure their nuts are fresh this time!). Mrs. Ruttan is keen to pick up a few Gucci knock-offs.
Recommended vaccinations: retroperitoneal fibrosis, Camurah-Engelmann Disease, parrot fever.
Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: email@example.com