Even though I have another five months left, I feel like my weekends here are numbered and so I have to make my best of them. I have a list of day trips I want to do. Perfume Pagoda was one. I was thinking of doing Tam Coc and Hoa Lu yesterday with a little travellers' cafe. In the meantime my new friend Hung invited me for a tour of the Red River countryside on the back of his black Vespa. I couldn't resist.
He picked me up yesterday morning at 8:30 for a bun rieu breakfast in the Old Quarter. Breakfast here are generally savoury so it's not unusual to eat something like crab noodle soup in the morning. That wasn't enough so we also ordered some kind of herbal omelette and a sweet bean thing in syrup to follow up. (Gradually I'm becoming more street vendor literate. They usually only sell one or two things which they advertise with Vietnamese only signs. If I don't know the dish I'm too timid to dive in and order. I usually like to know what I'm eating and how to eat it. But after six weeks now I'm building up a repertoire of street foods names.)
Back to the Vespa. We crossed the muddy Red River - it looks as wide as the Mississippi. Looking north we could see the famous Long Bien bridge built by Eiffel (of Tower fame) in the 1890s. There are only chopped up segments of the original left because of heavy bombing during the war; the bombed bits have been filled in. Apparently the Americans would bomb it in the morning and the Vietnamese would be rebuild it by the evening. Apocryphal? I dunno.
It was heavy traffic on a Saturday morning because all the migrant countryfolk were returning to their villages for the weekend (whatever they get of it). It's a fascinating mix of traffic: trucks, cars, motos, bikes, homemade tractors, horse pulled carts, and water buffalo. There was also a big green moving bale of hay. It was weaving in and out of traffic. The hay was so big you could hardly see the wheels of the motobike or the driver. It looked like some Jim Henson creation bobbing around the highway.
Our first destination was Chua Dau (Dau Pagoda). This is a very significant pagoda complex tucked away in a humble village. It is not as spectacular as some of the complexes around but happens to be the first Buddhist site in Viet Nam and dates from the 2nd Century. Little remains of the original buildings because it it is built of wood, but it has an ancient feel nonetheless. It is currently under renovation. Before entering Hung and I were invited for herbal tea with some of the pagoda caretakers who were sitting in one of the collonaded areas. They don't see many foreign tourists, mostly just Vietnamese, and so were fascinated by the guest from Ga Na Da.
Our second stop was Chua But Thap. This pagoda is merely 800 years old, but most of what you see is 17th or 18th Century. Although not as important as Chua Dau it is much more spectacular: beautiful rooflines, courtyards, relief carvings, and statuary. In the middle is a building with a huge Reincarnation Wheel (more like a pillar) which pilgrims gather around once a year to rotate.
Before visiting a temple complex dedicated to the kings of the Ly Empire, we stopped off at a village known for its wood block prints depicting Red River village life (boy with flute on water buffalo, domestic scenes and fanciful animals scenes like the mice wedding procession, and a classroom of toads). At the Museum of Ethnology last month I had read about a famous master artisan who is largely responsible for keeping the tradition alive. I asked Hung if the man is still alive. He nodded and pointed to the old man from who I was buying five prints (40 cents each). I was in the master's living room.
On another note, today I finally had bun cha. This is one of the classic dishes of Hanoi (up there with cha ca, bun rieu, bun thang, and of course pho bo). Bun cha is only eaten at lunch and you can usually tell who has had it because they reek of garlic. The place I ate was thankfully light on the garlic. This is a hard dish to describe. You eat it out of two bowls. One has diluted fish sauce, the other has a broth with little minced pork patties. It is served with a big plate of vermicelli and a massive heap of herbs. It's a mix and match meal, nothing like the premixed Southern style bun dishes we get in Saigon-style restaurants in North America. Each mouthful is a different combination of all the elements. I've got to start taking aerial photographs of my meals before I eat them, but I would look (even more) like a ridiculous tay ba lo if I did.