Grand tours: Cross my palm with gold in Vietnam

Writers and their adventures in literature: Maria Coffey finds some culinary surprises in the street markets of Vietnam

Maria Coffey writes fantasy fiction for children and spent her own childhood dreaming up places as far removed as possible from her home town of Wolverhampton. While studying geography at university she spent her summers travelling in Europe, Israel, Morocco and Russia. She went on to teach English in Peru, before moving to Canada and becoming a novelist. Teaming up with her Canadian photographer husband, she has also written several travel books recounting her experiences in Tibet, the Solomon Islands and Vietnam, where this extract from 'Three Moons in Vietnam' is set.

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Binh took us along an alleyway to a gold shop, where we could change dollars. Despite this being a black-market transaction, no subterfuge was involved. Under a counter by the doorway were gold nuggets, a jumble of rings, and tangles of chains and bracelets. Beyond the counter was a table stacked high with bundles of dong, like building bricks. The woman counting this money came over to serve us. Critically, she examined my wedding ring

"Xau!" she said, fingering the pale, 14-carat gold. "Bad!"

"The rate for dollar is good today," Binh advised us. "And the price for gold is cheap too."

Most Vietnamese people, he explained, preferred to save in gold, and it was estimated that the equivalent of $3bn worth of it was hidden away.

"When Vietnamese travel they wear many gold ring, when they need the money they sell the ring," said Binh.

"Let's change all our money into gold," Dag suggested, "then it'll be much easier to carry around."

I demurred, unable to quite bring myself to believe in gold as real money. Dag insisted on at least buying a ring, and the woman's son made one for him from two old gold bands. It was crude, fast work. Ten minutes later Dag sported on his wedding finger a wide band of deep yellow, 24-carat gold, the equivalent of $150.

That night we ate at one of the many street stalls along the harbour. It was set up against a wall which had a sign painted on it in large letters. When I asked Binh to translate the sign, he gave me an embarrassed smile.

"It tell the men not to urinate here. This big problem in Vietnam."

A woman was hunkered by a charcoal grill, turning pieces of meat with chop sticks. I bent down to see what she had on offer. Dimly lit by an oil lamp were slices of what looked like pork. There were also several tiny carcasses, ripped open along the belly, and spread-eagled on the grill.

"What are those?" I asked Binh.

"Rats," he said. "You want one?"

Needless to say, I didn't. Dag, of course, did.

"You've got to try all these delicacies," he chided me.

I watched him removing slivers of flesh with his teeth and spitting out tiny bones. In the gutter, a live rat nosed about among the rubbish ...

At 5am, we were woken by the noise from the waterfront: piped music, the revving of boat and scooter engines, the calls of street sellers, the tattoo made by pho delivery boys knocking sticks together. We headed straight for the market, which was only a short walk away. Narrow passageways ran between lines of stalls offering produce that was a testimony to the fertility of the great delta surrounding us. There was a herb section where large, flat baskets were arranged with fragrant, leafy plants, and a flower section where women bought offerings for the temple. In the fruit section, vendors were busily peeling and sectioning pineapples and green papayas, and arranging piles of rambutan, mango, lychees, bread fruit, avocados, guavas, passion fruit, bush limes and custard apples. Next to the dried beans and rice were stalls of fresh noodles and bean curd. A line of pho stalls stood side by side, accompanied by glass cases full of freshly baked baguettes. And there were eggs: quail eggs, chicken eggs, duck eggs and preserved eggs. Around them, baskets were crammed with tiny, fluffy chicks and ducklings. By now we were reeling with smells and sights, but more was to come. The indoor market was a large shed with a corrugated-iron roof, where fresh fish and meat were for sale. The fish wriggled and flopped in shallow metal trays. White geese with yellow beaks sat tethered next to black geese with red beaks. There were songbirds for sale, alive and fluttering inside bamboo cages, or dead and arranged in bunches of five. In the meat section, clouds of flies rose up as customers browsed through the lumps of flesh. I saw something that looked suspiciously like a skinned terrier. For a while I watched a man who was hunkered by a pile of pigs' ears, painstakingly shaving each one and rinsing it in a large bowl of water. He looked up, and graciously presented me with a bald, wet ear.

'Three Moons in Vietnam' by Maria Coffey (Abacus, rrp £7.99). 'Independent on Sunday' readers can buy the book for £6.99 (including p&p in the UK). Call 01832 737525 and quote 'Vietnam Offer'.

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