13 January 2002
“Is there a toilet I can use?” I asked my driver, Minh, when we stopped for (Vietnamese) tea in a café in the tiny town of Tri Ton. The café owner escorted me through the kitchen to a little metal cubicle attached to the back of the building, which is on stilts over a pond or a rice padi or some kind of body of water, anyway.
The door closed perfectly and the interior was perfectly tiled, including the floor. But there was so toilet! There was the little tank of water that you use for washing everything down the toilet when it’s a non-flushing one, but – let me repeat again – there was no toilet of any kind to go with it, not even a squat one. I went into the kitchen and gestured to the women there, none of whom spoke English. They just smiled that smile that shows they know they’re looking at a confounded tourist, and pointed back into the toilet. And that’s when I realised that what I thought was a crack in the tiles between the floor and the wall was actually the toilet! Fortunately, I only wanted to get liquids down there, but goodness knows what happens to ‘solids’. Unless they don’t happen on an exclusively Vietnamese diet? Of course, whatever went through that hole, solid or liquid, just had to drop into that water below, and I’m trying really, really hard not to think about what happens to it after that.
I wonder what the muppet American woman I met earlier would have made of the ‘toilet’. She reckoned she’d been incapacitated by flu in Saigon and is still ill today. This morning she told me about all the medication she’s been taking, and I suggested that she should be drinking lots of fluids too. “Normally I do,” she said, “but I’ve been trying not to drink because of the state of the bathrooms.” Now bearing in mind we’re on a Sinh Café tour so the toilets, while not necessarily five-star, will be far from basic, I reckon she’s being a bit precious.
The tour is a three-day thing, based in the town of Chau Doc. Yesterday we went to Rung Tram forest, a Viet Cong hideout that the Americans bombed into oblivion. Only without much success: the ‘forest’ is more of a swamp, and, of course, the bomb craters simply filled with water, making the VC even harder to get at than they were before!
Today I’ve taken myself ‘off tour’ and found a moto driver to take me to Ba Chuc, where 3,000 or so Vietnamese villagers were massacred by Khmer Rouge interlopers from Cambodia in 1978, and Tuc Dup, another legendary hideout of the VC.
Minh has persuaded me to take the ‘scenic route’. So our first stop this morning was a Khmer market just outside Chau Doc. (The Cambodian border is quite close to here. And, of course, the ‘border’ is a relatively recent artificial addition anyway; once upon a time people were grouped by ethnicity rather than an arbitrary line on a map. ) What a bizarre experience. I’m used to children waving and shouting “Hello!” at me, but at the market I had grown adults just staring at me like I was from another planet. (I did check and as far as I could tell I’m not looking particularly ‘weird’ today – I’m not wearing a sou’wester, say, or got my skirt tucked in my knickers.)
After my encounter with the toilet in Tri Ton we headed for the VC refuge of Tuc Dup. I’ve heard it called a ‘mountain’ but it looks more like a hill to me – it’s only about 300m high, after all. But that didn’t mean the Americans found it an easy nut to crack. They thought they’d have the VC out in no time. 128 days and scores of American, VC and South Vietnamese Army lives later, they finally managed it. Just a month ago, of course, the Americans were trying something similar at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, with Osama bin Laden their target.
I’m writing this while lounging in a hammock in an open-air café across the road from Tuc Dup. Minh is currently snoozing off his lunch. I probably would be too, only I’m pretty sure that’s a rat turd on the floor between my hammock and his, so I’m resolutely on Ratwatch (again). It seems veggie food isn’t a strong point at this café: when Minh found out I’m veggie he got on his bike and went off to the market, bought some food and got some woman to prepare something for me. He returned to the cafe, steering the bike with one hand and holding a plate of my dinner (complete with little dish of soy sauce) in the other!
That rat turd, though, reminded me of something that struck me last night, on our journey to Chau Doc: just how open many of the buildings round here are. Driving through the dark past a load of houses with the lights on highlighted this, as the lights really showed up all the rat-friendly holes. I never thought I would say this, but it’s actually so nice to see a rat first thing in the morning, preferably about 15 feet away, as it means I’ve seen my rat for the day without it running over my foot. OK, so that doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t see at least one more rat during the course of the day, but as I’m sure there’s no chance of me getting through an entire day without seeing one, it makes sense to get it over with sooner rather than later.
Another issue raised by these open buildings: theft. In some cases the cafe owners live about five yards from the cafe, but, apart from putting the tables and chairs to one side when they close for the night, they seem to leave a load of stuff in the café, including TVs and the like. And I’m assuming everything’s still there when they get up in the morning. Would this happen in Bolton, I ask myself. Probably not; the scallies would have had everything on a truck and away before the owner had even got into bed.