Halfway up the mountain to the holy bronze pagoda at Yen Tu (Quang Ninh Province), there are half a dozen green corrugated tin eat-houses. When pilgrims do the early morning climb, these primitive sheds double as overnight dormitories. Nestled on the side of the hill between the two stages of cable car that save worshippers what is a strenuous four hour climb, I get the sense that these places offered more of a respite from the delirium of two hours of uphill agony rather than any great or exotic culinary experience.
Today, the luxury afforded by the cable car is that folks can cart a picnic lunch and a half up the mountain themselves. The Vietnamese are remarkable in their pack-horse mentality. 'Packing light' is not a concept in this country. This can be witnessed most emphatically at airports and bus stations where individuals struggle onto conveyances with two rice-cookers and ten kilos of lychees - in addition to their bags. Here, five hundred metres above sea-level, it can also be observed, albeit on a smaller scale. Thermos flasks, plastic bags filled with Heinneken cans, packages of sticky-rice, whole cooked chickens, store-bought cakes and potato crisps and thousands of mandarins and dragon fruit are lugged mountainside. Hunched over little old grannies in bare feet carry some of the load, well-to-do Hanoian matriarchs under umbrellas in high-heeled trainers manage their share, strong lithe boys hold mobile phones in one hand, the heaviest plastic bag of supplies in the other.
Mats are spread in the courtyards of the various pagodas on the ascent to the top where trays of offerings are prepared. The food is also quickly gobbled down and thus, the load is lightened for the remaining and most daunting section of the climb.
Of course, if carrying the kilos of picnic stuff is too much like hard work, rocking up to one of the eating houses is the other option. Here, Bambi is waiting for another hunk of his neck to be hacked off for someone's lunch.