Womanly vices, best Banh Mi in Hoi An

25 Mar

The old woman watering her kitchen garden smiles through blackened teeth. I know about that. In India you see similar, though there it’s not black but blood-red. That’s from pan, the areca nut paste served on betel leaves by a myriad street stalls in bespoke cocktails for hours of chewing and spitting till every roadside in Hindustan is flecked scarlet. But India or Vietnam, garish red or inky black, the cause is the same. It’s not that Indian men eschew pan, or Vietnamese men the equally addictive – because also based on betel and areca – trau cau. It’s that they have alternatives not open to women. Maggie Mays aside, disreputable exceptions that prove the rule, Viet ladies smoke not and neither do they drink. Not in public anyway. Which leaves trau cau, and guess what? In the sticks and shires of slow change/slow burn rural and small town Vietnam, coal black tootsies are still the last word in she-allure.


The rat sniffs the ground not two metres from my feet, bold as brass. Or more to the point, bold as its cousins on the streets of Sheffield or London and for the same reason. Here in Hoi An it’s not just farangs who waste food. Economic liberalisation created winners and losers, with the former every bit as wasteful as you and me. Maybe more so, leaving rich pickings for an animal whose intelligence and resourcefulness deserve more respect – and less discarded grub – than we give them.

I’m at my favourite Banh Mi stand, on the corner of Tran Phu and Ngyen Hue. The woman will cheat me but I don’t mind. I’ve set a limit to her larceny. On my first visit she tried to extract thirty thou from the bunch of notes in my hand. It should be ten but I let her take twenty. For one thing I don’t mind a small ‘tourist tax’ – though we do neither ourselves nor local economy any favours by paying the first silly price asked – and for another she does the best Banh Mi in town.

Let me tell you about Banh Mi, one of my favourites of the diverse and irresistable snacks served on roadsides that for quality of street food rival those of India and Thailand. Banh Mi’s a French baguette, lightly toasted in makeshift oven driven nowadays by calor gas, then filleted and stuffed with goodies: meats, egg, fresh coriander and other salad things plus drizzlings of soy and chillhi sauces. Hits the spot every time. As for Roland Rat, he’ll be getting precious little of this particular instantiation when every last crumb is delivered with laser accuracy to the mouth and tum of yours truly.


Meanwhile I’m not immune to the impact of far off events, whether Brussels or death of Barry Hines. On the latter I’ve little to say. I thought him overrated: one brilliant book followed by a few competent but unremarkable ones. I twice heard him speak and found his views politically philistine, reveling in the crude workerism of (some of) the first generation middle class when lionised as bold new literary talents. In any case he was squeezed between an Angry Young Man school – begun with brilliance by the likes of Barstow and Sillito but near its sell-by date when Kestrel for a Knave was published – and the arrival of imaginative new fusions showcased so memorably by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Black Stuff.

On Brussels I’ve also little to say. Most who read this blog already know my views on both the drivers of ISIS and the topsy-turvy moral world in which western deaths to one kind of terror fill our newspapers for days on end, while those to state terror from the skies go barely reported. The other thing I’m aware of is a lot of shallow nonsense, in social and mainstream media both, on the US elections and why right thinking progressives – this from the once radical Rolling Stone – should back Hillary Clinton. I was almost relived when Geoff sent a link to a chilling John Pilger piece of two days ago. Do please read. Pilger’s spent the past half century as one of the very few journalists actually and consistently doing his job: telling truths the world’s most powerful players did not want told. Here he’s at it again … 


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