Water and Beer

Two more things from Hanoi area, a great local beer and a gorgeous river tour/sales extravaganza. Let me start with the beer, or maybe I should finish with the beer. Last night I walked by a corner restaurant with about 50 people hanging out the garage doors and opened windows drinking beer. The beer which is a local brew is called Bia Hoi. It sells for next to nothing and most certainly will be imported to the States with a Stella Artois inspired marketing blitz raising the price up 20 fold. For now it’s good and cheap, and it goes well with grilled buffalo and garlic. This was a great night for me as I was able to hang out with most of the restaurant staff as they roamed in and out of the painting. The guy with the red shirt on the middle left of the picture wanted to make sure he was in it, and then his girlfriend/coworker felt left out, so I added her yellow shirt towards the middle. The couple on the left hand side were from the UK, Simon and Gail on a year long trip round the world. There are moments I wish I was traveling for that long and then their are moments like today as we traveled up to Ninh Binh to take a tour of the Tam Coc portion of the Ngo Dong river. Few sites I have seen are as epic as this river, which is surrounded by rice paddies, small villages and massive rock outcroppings. But alas the world beating views are tempered by placards, billboards, a severely devastated environment and roadway leading up to the site and an endless selling of wares up and down the river. The people who row the boats work very hard, I don’t know how many times they do this trip a day, but I was told 10. The rowers (two per boat) each take 2-4 people per trip. The river is packed with boats, like a water ride at Disneyland. Half of the boats are support sales that come up along side and offer to photograph you, or offer items. At the turn around point, a truly beautiful village that opens up out of a cave (again the reference to Disneyland is hard to ignore), sit another 20 or so boats ready to make a one on one plea for money and or tips. The plea does include a fair degree of guilt as each of us is asked to look at the rowers who have worked hard (and without a doubt they do!) and then we are presented with a photobook of their families to drive home the point. What I found most compelling was this. As we were being rowed there was a long setup for the sales pitch. Initial basic conversation lead to small comments about the difficulty of the task. These were interspersed with moments of very upbeat dialogue between the two local rowers, and then generally congenial silence. Which left room for the following flotilla to make their moves. Each cycle brought an increasingly desperate plea. At the start I engaged with the conversation, but felt myself brushing off interaction as the sell became harder. By the end I was being offered brightly colored textiles depicting my journey even as I painted an identical scene to what would have been a lovely table cloth or scarf. I’m not sure what to make of this. On one hand yes I would like to support the local economy, but on the other I have to assume that (based on the logic and the familiar interactions of our guide and the rowing community) that some of the money I paid for the trip was transferred back to the rowers and their town. I finished the tour without purchasing a single item so I won’t be bringing back the brightly colored napkin set (or strangely from an earlier sales stop/bathroom break from the bus ride, I won’t be bringing back the 3 foot long wooden replicas of the Pinta, Nina, or Santa Maria whose contributions to Vietnamese culture I wasn’t previously aware of). If you come to Vietnam, I would recommend the river tour; although I would not recommend staying overnight in the town of Ninh Binh if you are considering that option. Beautiful and exhausting and a good primer for another beer. That is a good way to end this post, but possibly trite. Again a better summary would be that there are sites and people here that open my mind up like few things have, and every moment is shared with a very visible pollution , environmental constriction, and need for everyday survival. As a tourist I support both the economy and the the mindset that this is the profitable way to go about things. If there is a deep question here for me it’s this. Can I as an outsider come in to appreciate a culture and admittedly benefit from a favorably exchange and simultaneously wish for a pre-tourist economy. I don’t think I like the answer to this. But I will keep pondering.

2 responses to “Water and Beer

  1. Mark,

    Absolutely fantastic. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I dare say that you would not experience the guilty hustling in Japan. Love your description of sketching at the restaurant.

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