“Over there kung fu. No good.” Our driver points over to a table full of tattooed gangsters. One of them punches the cement wall as his comrades burst out in laughter.
“Over there prostitute. Bad.” He nods to another table. Three ladies swallowing their soup ravaging the four of us with seductive leers. Their trailer trash clothes tell tales of deplorable sins.
“There homo.” He points to two men sitting together. Their hands fondle each other in the Nether regions.
“And over there. How…er?” He points to a man whose face is draped with inches of foundation.
“Sheman.” We all mutter. As he struts about, his arse swings across the room wider than J-Los, his breasts or whatever it is that lies in that general area bursting out of his/her top. As the night went on we were realising our last stop in Vietnam had landed us in a carousel of frivolous gangsters, 2 minute prostitutes, ‘homos’ overdosing on PDAs, and C-grade she-males.
We had been traveling around Vietnam for about a fortnight now and Chau Doc was to be our last stop as we headed across the border for Cambodia. Lots of tourists stop here as its the closest town to the two most convenient Vietnam-Cambodia border crossings, Tinh Bien and Vinh Xoung. Besides, Chau Doc is home to an eclectic assortment of tourist attractions. Once the sight of a Khmer Rouge massacre, Chau Doc now has a bone pagoda that is a spitting image of its more famous cousin Choeung Ek, while the glorious Sam Mountain which is perched right over Cambodia allows travelers to indulge in panoramic views of a land filled with mines and tuk-tuk drivers.
But it was late at night and we had been strolling about its somber streets in search for a good time. Feral dogs and homeless men were following our shadows (now and then) biting at and furrowing through the garbage that lied scattered on the streets.
A driver who later told us his name (Truong) came up to us on his shaw, his face scarred with flesh wounds and said, “You want restaurant?” in that abrasive Vietnamese twang.
“Is there pho?” Lachlan questioned him. Ever since we had had our first encounters with these 50 cent bowls of traditional Vietnamese soup we had fallen in love with them.
“Yes. Yes. Restaurant pho,” he nodded indicating to his carriage.
As Lachlan and I climbed into the two-seat carriage Nic stood there stranded. There were three of us but it was clear that these vehicles had been designed with two passengers in mind. But nothing is ever impossible in Vietnam. Photo opportunities are abound even on the streets where drivers stretch their 50cc vehicles to the limit piling ludicrous amounts of balloons vegetables noodles passengers whatever on them. It was with this capricious imagination that our crisis was solved. As Lachlan and I sat in the carriage, Truong pointed to the five inch metal beam that connected the seat of the driver to the carriage. This was to be the third seat. The one that Nic would have to lose his testicles to in order to reach the restaurant the same time as Lachlan and I would.
In about ten minutes, we arrived at this cute local restaurant having twisted through the streets of Chau Doc that were still littered with construction debris. Vietnam is fast becoming overrun with this sort of commercial stain as the nation tries to catch up with other faster developing countries in the region. But with rushed construction sites such as Chau Doc popping up all over the Vietnamese landscape the suburban squalor is nothing compared to China or Thailand.
At the restaurant there were five tables in total fitted out with stools custom designed for toddlers. There were whores gangsters she-males and ‘homos’ for all to delight in. But no pho. Instead as soon as we came we were dished up this home-made and home-bottled liquor of which we still have no idea what it contains. It was clear but with a delicate tinge of gold and it tasted as though some sugar had been nestled into a bottle of gin.
The Vietnamese are a people whose livers are as capable as their national soccer team. Truth be told the sun sets on the faces of almost all Vietnamese men and women as soon as their taste buds touch some beer. Despite this tragic genetic fallout, there are some who can down their alcohol without having to blush. And Truong was one of them.
We were onto our fourth bottle of this feral concoction when a woman called out to the four of us. On her table there were no prostitutes no gangsters no she-males and no ‘homos’. She was clean. She was more than that. She was gorgeous and her face was glowing with a radiant smile. She was to be our Khe Sanh. Until we realised she was stoned.
“Weed,” Truong whispered to us. With Vietnam going through its own 70s phase this revelation came as stale news. Almost all street drivers turn into the shadiest of drug dealers once the sun sets. “You want marijuana” is even thrown around as a regular greeting in this region while across the border Cambodia is notorious for its penchant for “happy” whatevers.
Regardless we ended up sitting with Khe Sanh. Soon she was feeding us this South-East Asian desert these sour mangoes dipped in fish sauce and chilli until for some reason the owner of the restaurant came out with a broom and bellowed out “Dee dee” pointing to the door. She was fuming. And so in a room full of restless and volatile characters, we, the tame tourists, were the first to be thrown out.
Despite the forced departure there were no hard feelings. This was the sort of scene that would characterize Vietnam for me. A simple restaurant dominated with outrageous characters. Besides what Vietnam and the South-East Asian region is famous for (its cheap alcohol and its cheap cuisine) local treasures such as this is what gives Vietnam its brilliant flavour. Its people. Its housing of a social menagerie the rest of the world covets.