Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Vietnam, day 10: I’ll Eat My Hat! Kaboom.

Con Son, Vietnam
23 May 2017
With a little time to kill before our flight, we returned to Nice Cafe, where we sat upstairs to enjoy the view and chill. Then we packed up our belongings and checked out of the hotel, picking up a packet of hat bang while we still had the chance.

Hat bang is a specialty of the Con Dau Islands. All along the footpaths, you see clusters of almonds laid out in the sun in preparation. These are not normal almonds, but Indian or Malabar almonds, which are thinner than any almond I've seen before.

There was an option to purchase a savoury version of hat bang, or a sweet version, and after a short deliberation we picked the latter as Yannick and I both have quite a large sweet tooth. We snacked on the delicious sugared almonds in the tiny airport as we awaited our flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Throughout our Vietnam trip and beyond, I would sometimes randomly exclaim "hat bang!" because I liked the sound of it.

Our plane was small, and we ascended the stairs behind a cute old man in a beret. The flight was uneventful, and once we landed in HCMC, we called an Uber to take us to the bus station. Our driver took us through some interesting backstreets, where we saw a plethora of fabric stores, a Baskin and Robins, and some guys with large jars of water that held Siamese fighting fish. The Uber driver pulled over at one point to collect his takeaway lunch to eat after he dropped us off.
The bus station was far more confusing than it ought to be, but after some bumbling we ended up with two reasonably priced tickets to Ben Tre. We found the correct bus without much difficulty, and soon were on the road. Along the way we listened to audiobooks and gazed out at the scenery, which became increasingly more swampy as we approached the Mekong Delta.
Upon arrival in Ben Tre, we quickly booked a hotel and caught a taxi directly there. What made that particular hotel stand out was that it was run by a Kiwi guy, and we figured a little reminder of home would be nice. We knew that we had been delivered to the right place when we saw a large sign hanging from the front of the building reading "Go All Blacks!" We met the owner and his advanced age proved to be a significant barrier to his comprehension of Yannick's job description. Although we explained to the best of our ability, it seemed that he thought Yannick was some kind of mix between an IT specialist and someone who personally created 'The Lord of the Rings'. We chatted for a while and found out that he was originally from Kerikeri. He introduced us to his Vietnamese wife and the student who worked for them part-time. They were all so friendly. Although we normally avoid going on predesigned tours, they gave us loads of information on their different tours and we could tell that the places visited would be inaccessible to us if we headed out on our own. We booked the tour for the next morning, and eagerly awaited seeing a coconut factory.

The student was kind enough to write a translation note for me regarding my dietary preferences, which would make eating out much easier. The original note said that I don't eat MSG, which I asked her to remove because MSG is delicious! And it's vegan, so I figured also restricting MSG might mean missing out on the only vegan option at some places. Hilariously, if you type the Vietnamese phrase for "I do not eat meat" into Google Translate, it pops out as "I am not safe", though if you add in the accents it translates correctly.

We couldn't miss out on having a swim in the pool, even though it was much colder than I was anticipating. I greatly enjoyed cruising around on an inflatable. After a nice warm shower, we read on hammocks for the afternoon, and then were shown a large mural map by the student and given directions on how to get to a nearby recommended restaurant. We were provided with an umbrella and a torch, as there weren't many street lights, and off we went for some grub. The directions were straightforward, and much of the walk was along the riverside. Some dogs barked at us, and we saw a dead snake and many fallen coconuts.
Arriving at Garden Restaurant, we were surprised by the size of the establishment, which had several different seating areas and a small bridge over a narrow manmade canal. There were hardly any other patrons, and our waiter was weirdly attentive. He handed us only one menu, which we had to share, and stared at us expectantly. However, he didn't wait at all long and kept interrupting by suggesting dishes for us, not allowing us to ponder the menu in peace.  

I ended up simply following the waiter's advice and ordering a yummy dish with mushrooms, veggies and noodles, as well as a plate of fried tofu. This was far too much food, but the price was surprisingly cheap.

Yannick clutched a freshly macheted coconut as we waited for his hotpot to get to temperature. He made the mistake of nibbling on a birdseye chilli, which was far too spicy on its own. Annoyingly for how soupy the hotpot was, he wasn't given a spoon. After eating our fill, we walked back along the river, this time passing by a very noisy karaoke shack. The participants seemed oddly nonchalant in their singing, yet gestured for us to come join them and I got the feeling that they were having a ball of a time despite their lacklustre performances.