Tuesday, 23 December 2008

pillion epiphanies

We are safe and sound in Saigon, three days later!

We have had a fantastic trip, and a whole education.

Hardly out of Dalat, we stopped at a wayside temple with an incredible giant dragon of many colours, snaking its way around the shrine gardens, amongst other mythical creatures, reminding me of the fantastical sculptures of Nikki de Ste.Phalle - and there's a name to conjure with!- she who married Jean Tinguely of the crazily complicated installations.

The dragon perhaps blessed us for the remainder of the trip.

We visited a flower farm where today roses grow for the markets of Hanoi and Saigon, and gerberas for export to Europe. Until quite recently flowers as a marketable crop were discouraged by the authorities, as frivolous and decadent capitalist furbelows perhaps. A Dutchman - who else?- persuaded them otherwise. Today its a thriving and growing industry supporting many families. The whole area around Dalat is an Eden that grows every kind of vegetable and greenery in the sunny valleys.

Next stop a silk workshop, where we follow the whole process from cocoons incubating in giant dish- shaped baskets, to the same being dunked in hot water to kill the larvae before they have a chance to break out and damage the silk; the silk is then unravelled in complicated Heath-Robinsonish machines manned (?) by girls, and in great clattering looms is woven in predetermined patterns into the finished product. All this goes on in big corrugated sheds, airy and light, but the noise cannot be much different from the satanic cotton mills of Lancashire. Most of the workers are young girls, who manage a smile for the tourists who roll in on motorbikes. In case you are concerned about the dead larvae, nothing goes to waste here. The drowned creatures are an excellent source of calcium, and prized as delicacies. I defer when offered one, but David, who has already eaten scorpions at the night market in Beijing, savours them.

We visit coffee plantations. Vietnam, to my great surprise is the world's second exporter of coffee after Brazil. We learn to distinguish robusta, mocha and arabica. The most prized coffee is however 'weasel'. Weasels, discriminating creatures that they are, chew and half-digest only the very finest beans, and then excrete them semi-processed as it were. Their droppings are collected by very patient farmers and cleaned, and then marketed at exorbitant prices. Beware counterfeit 'weasel' however, as it abounds.

We visit dark-skinned montagnard tribes in their villages of shacks and long houses on stilts, who have been persuaded down from the higher reaches, for education and medical care, and to work the coffee plantations. It is a Saturday, and most of the menfolk are piteously drunk, while the women work on. Everywhere, and we will see this for three days, coffee beans are drying on giant tarpaulins on every flat expanse of ground.

We learn how to set up a rice wine distillery, and feed the fermented and finished rice to the pigs; and how brothers fought brothers in the war, and uncles fought nephews.

After a copious lunch overlooking a valley once napalmed and bombed to flush out Communists, we ride on, jolting and jolloping through the rain forest, and I struggle with a fatal desire to have a siesta on the back seat - suicide!

On the second day we visit the rebuilt Summer Palace of the last Emperor of Vietnam (1913-1997), a beautiful place on a hill above a lake where once crocodiles roamed and tigers came to drink. Extinct now 34