Burgess and the Red Dragon

In Can Tho, coffee is more expensive with a dose of sad comedy.

By Steve Burgess 18 Feb 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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I’ve been bitching about Vietnamese cuisine, so let me give props to a fine meal I enjoyed at the Mekong restaurant here in Can Tho. Curried snake, with a side of rice. I won’t tell you it tasted like chicken — it was chewier and, considering the bird flu thing, less lethal. The only bite came from the curry.

I dined under the watchful gaze of numerous geckos, prowling the wall for bugs. I don’t think they minded my choice. Do any of us really care about distant relatives?

If evolution truly is a series of random adaptations that occasionally catch on, geckos must have a big future in this increasingly developed world. What other three-inch-long bug catchers are so décor-friendly? No one would sit still for a bunch of wolf spiders perched four feet away from their fried rice. But the geckos are so cute you’ll want clay ones, and they can take on a cockroach no problem.

The Mekong Restaurant is on the Can Tho waterfront, right across from the giant silver Ho Chi Minh statue. But the diner has been here since 1965, back when the statue was just General William Westmoreland’s cold-sweat nightmare. They say this was the last town to fall to the Communists—in effect Can Tho was where the war ended. That might explain the size of the statue.

So far the Mekong is my favourite restaurant in Vietnam. Stuffed shrimp, squid with mushrooms, crab and asparagus soup—this is the place I’ve looking for all month. Off the main dining room there is another small chamber, marked “Conditional Air Room.” Not knowing the conditions, I didn’t risk it.

Snakes and family sedans

This was my first-ever snake meal, but not my first snake. There’s one working the front desk at my hotel. Harmless, but sneaky. He phoned my room shortly after I checked in, worn out from the three-and-a-half hour trip from Saigon. “Excuse me sir,” said the clerk, “but your driver just said that he has to leave. He is visiting his family for Tet and will return in a couple of days.”

Uh, what? My driver was hired only to take me from Saigon to Can Tho. Could he have misunderstood? “I don’t need a driver anymore,” I said. “I’m staying here four days. Is he waiting for me for some reason?”

“Ahh,” said the clerk. “Staying here for four days? What are your plans? Do you want to take a tour? I can take you around the area?”

The light dawned. My little front desk friend was attempting to sideline an imagined rival for my tourist dollar and scoop my business for himself. Not unexpected from a motorcycle tout in front of a Bangkok temple perhaps, but a little surprising from the clerk at my rather fancy hotel.

A similar thing happened at the Hotel Majestic in Saigon after I spoke to a staff member about arranging transport to Can Tho. The bellhop intercepted me to proceed with the arrangements. It took a moment before I realized that he was not talking about the hotel car but was in fact a free agent, offering to take me in the family sedan. Apparently hotel work in Vietnam is just a conduit for other opportunities.

Beer? No, coffee. Or just no coffee

Odd staff events happen all over. One evening in Can Tho I went to a café/bar beside the river, a lovely spot on the promenade where you can watch the boats go by and parents only have to lift their kids over the railing to let them piss into the water. A man in a shirt and tie strolled up to my table. “You want to drink bia, sir?”

“No, not beer,” I replied. “Café da.” (Vietnamese-style black coffee over ice.)

He got a sideways grin. “Oh yes, coffee.” He squeezed my shoulder much too hard. “You wait for me,” he said, and wandered off.

It got dark. About 20 minutes later a waitress came by and I placed the same order. I never saw the guy again. What am I supposed to wait for? If someone proposes marriage, can I say yes?

In addition to the snakes and geckos in this friendly delta city, I think perhaps I have already met a dragon. A lady dragon — do I have that in the right order?

It was on my first night here. I had just finished off a 2000-dong coffee — about 16 cents — and, with wealth yet untapped, decided to check out the next place down the street. It was grander, for sure — the sign read “Chat Noir Cafe.” Wait — no, something else, written in Vietnamese. But there was indeed something French about the place. Another sign, a red one, read “Moulin Rouge Bar.”

A young guy jumped up from a sidewalk chair and swept me inside, up the stairs and through the doors into the bar. No, no, I protested, just coffee for me. No problem — that meant a left turn to the empty cafe with garish red walls and a window overlooking the red neon sign and the street below. I ordered Vietnamese-style iced coffee with milk (café sua) and sat back to wait.

Saying no has a small price

Moments later a young girl stood before me, smiling. “Hello,” I said. “He took my order already.” She didn’t move, still grinning. “Café sua,” I said. “Yup. That was it.”

“What is your name?” asked the girl. “Where are you from? You are very handsome.”

“Well,” I replied, “thanks. Great city you have here. Great country. Great coffee. Café sua. Great.”

“You want beer?” she asked.

I told her I didn’t drink, didn’t want a beer, or wine. “Wine?” she asked. “No,” I said. “Coffee.”

“One beer?” “No beer.” “Play pool?” She was game, all right — a sweetie but heartbreakingly young and, despite the makeup, not very worldly looking.

Suddenly there was a changing of the guard. I was now facing a somewhat older woman, harder-looking, in a red silk dress with undertones of black. Her hair was drawn back in a severe bun. She had the look of someone who would get to the bottom of this mess.

“Where you from?” she asked, regarding me without a smile. “Canada? I knew Canadian guy once. He went away. But he come back for me.”

She pointed upstairs. I pointed at my coffee, recently arrived. This was Vietnamese-style iced coffee with condensed milk — a slow business when done properly. A glass of ice sat waiting as the hot coffee dripped into the cup from a silver container full of grounds. The lady in red leaned over and poured the melted water from the glass of ice so that the coffee, when finally ready, would not be diluted. A spider hung in the open window. It really did, although I probably shouldn’t mention it since it’s a bit much.

The Silk Lady talked about the Tet holiday, boat tours, floating markets. I understood very little of what she said, but I was becoming concerned that I would end up paying for her time. “How old are you?” she asked, and looked suitably shocked at my reply. (I always am.)

“Guess,” she said, pointing at herself. Thirty, I ventured. She shook her head. “Thirty-three?” Oops. “Twenty-six,” she said, adding defensively, “I work hard.”

One year ago, she told me, she bought this place. She pointed upstairs again. “Always working.”

“I think I will see you again,” she announced, and swept out of the room. I paid for my coffee: 12000 dong—about one Canadian dollar. As I expected — I was paying for it.

Steve Burgess will be home soon to write about bad television. Below are his previous reports from Southeast Asia:

Burgess and the Big Night OutWalkabout with Hanoi SteveBurgess in Bangkok

Dispatch from Hong Kong  [Tyee]

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