I rarely venture out of Hanoi by two or four-wheeled vehicles these days. In fact the platitude I generally adhere to is "the only way out of Vietnam's capital is by air". The chaotic traffic snarls created by the increasing number of cars combined with the associated rise in fatalities means going for a drive in or out of Hanoi is far from a pleasant experience. Multiply the grief by a hundred on holiday occasions.
Which is not that far over the only rarely mighty Red River, now barely navigable. Bring on the rainy season to get that river gushing again, I say. It's in a sad and sorry state.
Now let me state this up front: I don't do fishing! Reasons? First, as a boy I fell out of a dinghy into the freezing waters of the Buffalo River in NE Victoria while on a fishing trip with my Dad and great uncle. Second, a boy I went to secondary school with had a glass eye, his original one having been caught looking the wrong way by the hook of a surf rod (same boy could burp in song; whole songs!). Third, touching bait makes one's fingers pong and the fiddly business of putting worms on hooks is tedious and just plain silly. Basically I don't get it.
So I put a book under the motorbike seat. The others could cast their lines and watch and....think, or whatever one does when fishing. I would appreciate their efforts but I would read.
The fish farm is on a plot of land situated around two large brown ponds, dotted around which are a dozen or so bamboo huts on stilts overhanging the water. In our hut, the boys threw a line in, clearly not expecting much to happen. Well, nobody had hold of the rod. It was wedged fast and a deck of cards was being shuffled. We settled into a day of old fashioned entertainment, rural and non-technological, nostalgic even. At least for me.
Until the hut's phone started ringing.
To inquire if we were ready to eat. I said yes and, of course, my Vietnamese mates, like all of their countrymen and women, are always ready to eat. It's the national sport.
Moreso than fishing, obviously! I don't remember anyone even glancing at the line, checking to see if it was taut or slack or if the bait had been sucked off the hook. It was becoming patently clear that this trip was not about fishing at all.
It was about eating. Celebration eating, on the rattan mat.
There was the fish ca qua (snakehead fish, scourge of many a waterway, feared in many countries, called "Fishzilla" by NatGeo back in '07) an ugly neanderthal of a fish that's been around for 50 million years. This swimmer, known for thrusting forward to strike and ingest its prey whole and for being able to 'walk' using it's fins and tail for half a km across land, should have been cast in the Jurassic Park trilogy.
But in my mouth it's a pleasant eating fish, especially dipped in dill-heavy nuoc cham.
The other star of the celebration menu was the not-so-delicately-presented ga dap dot set (chicken cooked in a mud casing), which had a subtle but intriguing flavour through the flesh that I couldn't identify, perhaps as a result of the unique cooking process.
The vegetable accompaniments are typical of the party menu in Vietnam: deep fried corn kernels in batter, chips fried in butter, green veg in the form of susu xao (sauteed choko leaves) and rau lang xao (sauteed sweet potato leaves).
To round out proceedings in the fishing hut, the mini-gas burner was placed at the centre of the mat to simmer a hot pot of beef in vinegar broth (lau bo nhung dam). As I've said before, these hot pots are more a socio-cultural experience than a culinary one.
An experience I embraced with spirit on Liberation Day weekend at the fish farm, where the fishing rod remained idle but the cards got played until their spots almost wore off.
Beef Hot Pot, Whole Chicken Baked in Mud, Whole Snakehead Fish, various veg dishes, quite a few beers and soft drinks - 990,000VND (USD$52.20, AUD$57.50)
Khu Du Lich Sinh Thai Thanh Long
To 5 Thuong Thanh
Long Bien District