By Laksiri Fernando –
I had a terrible time during the first week of my stay in Hanoi. The year and month were 1987 and February. This was my first visit to Hanoi or Vietnam and had some official business to perform. My brief was to meet with the Ministry of Education and select and agree upon where our scholarship program could be implemented. This could have simply been done through sitting in a ministry room and going through the relevant papers, but my host thought otherwise.
I was taken to almost every higher education institution called ‘universities’ and even had to speak to some potential recipients of scholarships, of course through an interpreter. There were around 34 institutions in the Hanoi province if I remember correct. Therefore, my days were hectic and gruelling. Hanoi is a nice old city, and Hanoi meaning ‘the city of lakes.’
I was staying at Danchu Hotel and danchu means democracy, I was meant to believe. But everything was quite nicely regimented of course for my own sake. The days of February were quite cool or rather cold and in the hotel, there was no proper heating. It is a hotel obviously built during the French colonial times, but neglected thereafter particularly during the war times and only now there were new improvements after the economic reform programs two three years back.
I had to wake up early morning and get ready by 8.00 after having breakfast. Then I was taken out. Every morning I was given an itinerary for the day and I didn’t have any say on the matter. If we were in the city area, I was brought back to the hotel sharp at 12.00. Then I was asked to take lunch and have a rest and get ready sharp at 1 O’clock. When we go out in the afternoon, sometimes it was late in the evening when we came back. Dinner was taken out.
I was not sure whether this strict regimentation was followed to impress upon me or that is the way the government bureaucrats operated under still an ‘orthodox’ communist regime. When I arrived in Hanoi, the first thing they did was to take my passport on the pretext of some official reporting, but that was never returned to me until my day of departure. I was little annoyed about the matter but for the sake of politeness or tact decided not to make an issue of it.
My main host was Dong Ho and he was the Second Secretary to the Ministry of Education. Then there were two interpreters, a young man and a young woman, and they both were extremely nice in their own ways but awfully obedient to Mr. Ho. I cannot remember their names off hand. Dong became exceptionally friendly with me eventually and one reason for this change perhaps was my patience and the other being my nationality.
I understand that the Ministry has had a bitter experience previously dealing with NUFFIC, an organization based in the Netherlands, a person like me visiting but indulging in some espionage work or propaganda against Vietnam using the information he gathered during his visit. That is what they told me. This could be one reason why they were quite careful about my visit as well.
One unusual day, I was brought back to the hotel quite early, perhaps around five O’clock in the evening. The two interpreters were rather excited. Dong asked me whether I eat some meat and I couldn’t gather what it was but nevertheless said “yes, yes.” I remember that the woman interpreter had an amusing smile in her face, but I couldn’t understand what it was.
I could have a decent rest that day and a second shower. I only had to get ready by 7 O’clock. What a luxury, I thought.
I was in a fancy shirt and a mild pullover. I knew that we were going out for dinner. Dong wore a tunic. The young woman interpreter was in a colourful gown and a shawl and the young man, the other interpreter finally was not there. I think we travelled for about twenty minutes from my hotel. My notes say it was Tay Ho area or district in Hanoi.
It was a square like place and in the middle, there was a small park with colourful lanterns and some people were selling flowers, sweetmeats, pots, decorations, paintings and curious. The place reminded me of what Thomas More described as a market place in his ‘socialist’ Utopia. This was just after or the last days of their national Lunar New Year. Most colourful were the mandarin plants in pots with full of fruit. They were excelled in hybrid plants. On all four sides, there were small restaurants built with timber and wood. I was taken to one of them and at the entrance there were three other officers from the Ministry who joined us. It appeared that they were subordinates of Dong from their behaviour until all loosened up after some drinks.
The restaurant was a small dark place of two stories completely built in timber. ‘Duck, dock, dock,’ we climbed the narrow stairs. There was a long wooden table waiting for us with two benches on both sides. There was no head table. I was asked to sit in the middle of one side and Dong was in the middle of the other side. On my right-hand side, was this nice little girl, interpreting whatever I had to say or what the others would say. Only Dong could speak little English but he was better in French.
We were first served with rice wine and inside one bottle was a cobra. The waiter first came to me and showed both bottles for me to indicate my preference. I of course selected the cobra wine. There were pleasing smiles around the table and I think now I became one of them. Then came different salads and Nam or spring rolls and most intriguing was a salad of some bird eggs. Even the interpreter was not able to explain clearly what the bird was. But as far as I could understand it was a kind of a hawk or eagle.
I was relieved that those were not owl eggs. Otherwise, because of my ‘love for owls’ I would not have touched them.
Then came the meat. Salads were served again and again with bread. Everything was served on the table and we had to use our chop sticks to serve them to our own plate. Meat was served on Fondue style. There were two burning pots of oil and we had to put meat into the boiling oil, stir them a bit, and then take them and eat with salad and bread or alone. When I took my first piece of meat, somebody asked me how it was? My answer of course was,
It was in fact delicious compared to many meats that we eat and it was extremely tender.
We had many conversations relevant and irrelevant, and all the officers were interested in knowing how I became an ‘international functionary’ in Geneva, just being like one of them from a place like Sri Lanka. Perhaps they were exaggerating my position and the organization that I worked for without much exposure to the outside world at that time. My answer to the question however was, “education.” Then they were interested in knowing my educational background.
They were also interested in knowing how Geneva looked like compared to Hanoi. I said there is a big lake compared to many small lakes in Hanoi. None of them had travelled outside Vietnam that time and Dong told me that their First Secretary had been to Paris the previous year. What I gathered was their eagerness to travel outside and see the world. That was quite natural and human.
Another question that I was asked was about the ministry vehicle that we were using. I said it was ‘quite hardy,’ ‘quite strong.’ I was told that it was the second-best car in the Ministry, after the Minister’s vehicle, and it was to me a ‘ramshackle.’ During our travel to various places, we had several flat tyres and few technical breakdowns. But the driver was very quick in fixing them. Hanoi of that time was a city of bicycles. At a junction, they come from all sides in hundreds, but disperse quite peacefully without accidents.
This was in early 1987. Since then Vietnam has progressed in many leaps and bounds still preserving some of their socialist principles. The scholarship program that the World University Service (WUS) was offering was quite inexpensive. One recipient was getting only $ 15 per month. Therefore, we could offer a lot. That amount was nearly a professor’s salary at that time. I was told that the highest salary that a university professor would get at that time was equivalent to $ 20 and some juniors were getting around $ 10.
I only came to know what meat I was eating only when I was coming out of the restaurant. We were about to get into the car. I looked back at the restaurant and there was this name board saying, “Dog Meat Restaurant” in English.
Could I have eaten if I knew if it was ‘dog meat’? The answer still is ‘yes’ perhaps with a hesitation. There are several countries that eat dog meat: the Philippines, Korea, certain parts of China, Hon Kong and even Mexico. I also came to know, coming back to Geneva, that people in Appenzell, a canton in Switzerland also eat dog meat.
But I have not seen a ‘Dog Meat Restaurant’ in Switzerland!