Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A long time ago

Black Chicken market original

I'm not the greatest blogger I know. I realise I haven't touched this blog in almost 2 months. Doubtless everyone who has ever read it has dropped off by now. But anyway I am going to add something now about the trip we took to Sapa with Connor and Bin. It is actually about a food we ate there. Black chicken.

There seems something sinister about eating a black chicken. Something sacrosanct like peeing in a church, hotwiring a hearse or defacing a picture of a Cardinal. It seems like the sort of thing you would do in a devil worshipping ceremony. Put on some red robes, funk your hair up and eat a black chicken, maybe afterwards put a curse on your kid brother so he has a hiccupping fit during band practice or breaks his retainer eating a taco.

I’d heard about black chicken from a source, and that’s always the way with these sorts of things. Someone whispers something in your ear, you find a note taped to the bottom of your chair, instructions are lipsticked on your mirror when you come out of the shower, or thrust into your hand in the midst of a prison riot. I was told that it was medicinal in nature, a local delicacy in Sapa and worth a million sins. Though perhaps my mind conjured up that last part after I suffered a blow from a dinner tray during the riot.

Where we went to eat I couldn’t order it off the menu. I get confused about that. If it’s on the menu and I order it off the menu, does that mean if it’s not on the menu I order it on the menu and it’s off the menu. It’s something that needs the UN’s attention (oh yes in these times more than ever, my inner worrywart is saying). At any rate I ask the waitress to get me one from the market just outside and after agreeing to pay for the whole thing myself, someone is dispatched to carry out the deed.

This is the first time I’ve engaged in anything so blatantly corrupt and I’m a little bit nervous. I make the mistake of blindly selecting some preparation off of the menu and I get the yips when it comes out hissing and spitting on a steel plate. I’m sure the lights dimmed slightly when they brought it over but it might have been a power dip. It’s hard to pinpoint satanic intervention mixed up with genuine electrical inconvenience when I’m so far from home.

Black Chicken with lemongrass

The chicken is black. I mean it really is black, the skin, the bones, the feet and the eyes too. The meat though, senor, she is not (my inner Mexican comments). Her taste is sweet and woody, gamey rough with a lemony tang from the preperation of lime leaves she has been smothered in. My skin prickles a little, but I feel no turning from the light in my soul and I admit a little bit of disappointment about selling my eternal salvation so cheaply. It tastes a little like eating one of the Marlboro Man’s calves, the Marlboro chicken, or a sandwich smoked under the bonnet of a truck.

Google eyes

I actually expect a bit of damnation to oocur later on that night. It wouldn’t be the first time on the road that I’ve been struck down and the market the chicken came from looked to be the same one Ebola grew up in. Nothing happens however and I get to cross the threshold of churches again with nothing more than the usual burning sensation. Live another day I say.

Easy riders

I should mention that the trip in the post below between Dalat and Hoi An was taken on the backs, almost literally, of two motorbike guides out of Dalat. They go by the names of Paul and Joseph, a remnant of a catholic education, and collectively they belong to a part of the Easyriders, a group who nowadays have a substantial reputation for taking tourists on rides through the country.

They’ve both been at this for over twelve years and are both members of the original twelve strong crew who started the Easyriders in Dalat. Paul is in fact one of the riders we went with five years ago on a trip from Dalat to Nha Trang. That trip was particularly memorable, so it was never in doubt that we would go back again. When we found out that we had some time off in early July we decided to ride around the Central Highlands, and we knew we would have to search them out again.

Paul is getting on now. He has the look of a man who has spent a long time outside. His eyes have a smoky tinge around the rims of the irises that reflect time spent searching the road and the horizon. An artillery officer for the South Army in the war and born in Dalat, he has spent a lot of time in the hills where we travelled. His reflections on the scenes before us swept in and out of the present to encapsulate a time stretching back into a distant turbulent personal history (including time spent in a re-education camp) and beyond to the roots of Vietnam’s existence. Joseph’s own reflections were often less dramatic - he told us he was lucky enough to be slightly younger and so was a student in the war years - a dry wit slept at the corners of his mouth and could be roused at his leisure to have us grinning about something or other he had just thought of.

Perhaps it was dangerous leaving at the beginning of the wet season. This was the reason that we decided to avoid the landslide prone Northern Highlands and go through the middle of the country, avoiding the coast. We asked around a bit about routes and roads to take, and gained some insight into what people we talked to had done or heard of. However, on reflection it would be difficult to choose a dull section in the landscape. Mostly the roads were perfect. The main highway that heads to Saigon via this inland route is virtually brand new, mostly built by the minority tribes. It has in parts taken over the old route of the southern inland highway, which was built by the French before the war, then partly left to decay, and finally effectively destroyed by the bombing.

Now the road is almost gleaming in that way that fresh tarmac does. It has taken over large parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail and, as such, inspires much of the type of thinking that I have reflected on in the posting below. The hill-tribes, minorities and farming communities that it passes through, between the big cities of Da Nang, Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot, are remote and captivating. At times we were spellbound by the forlorn existence of some of these people, at others my breath was taken away by their sophistication, such as the time I wandered into a Rong communal house in a small dirt and pigs village. In the musty dim blindness of the sudden relative darkness I was stunned to hear the question “Would I be able to help you at all?” peep out of a corner in pitch-perfect English.

Some things that we saw couldn’t be given an adequate description so I hope some time to show some photos of things. If you are planning on making a trip through the area don’t be put off by the uncertain nature of motorcycle travel or the unfamiliarity of the country. Take the advice of using these guides out of Dalat and you will be in very good hands. Beware though of others using the Easyrider name to get your business and visit the Peace II Hotel to find the original group. Their collective experience, honesty and reliability are worth every effort to locate them.