Blessed to be a witness

Saturday, July 9th

You can never go back

Hue was a breath of fresh air ten years ago. The week-long motorcycle journey from Hanoi had been long and stressful - the country had only been open for three years to tourism, and in some of the towns and villages of North Vietnam, which even today are not favoured on the tourism route, it felt like we were the only white faces the residents had seen since the Russian 'military advisers' departed.

All of which made for a fascinating, but rather fraught and frustrating experience, whether from kids throwing stones at us as we rode past, shouting 'Roosky, Roosky', being charged $10 for a small bowl of noodles, or towns wherein there was simply nowhere for a foreigner to stay - a nasty prospect as the sun went down, since one of our Minsks' headlights didn't work, and riding at night on rural Vietnamese roads is suicidal at the best of times, National Highway 1 thronged after dark by thundering trucks and buses, buffaloes, pedestrians, pushbikes, and motos riding without lights in the belief it saves petrol - on one memorable occasion forcing us to wave Bangkok-faked student ID cards at the reception clerk of the Party-only hotel, claiming we were members of the International Young Communist League, a body that we made up on the spot, but one which served to convince the manager to give us a shockingly cheap room for the night in a five-star hotel.

However, south of the Demilitarized Zone that marked the pre-war line between the Communist north and the US-backed capitalist south, things relaxed a lot. Used to westerners, people in this part of Vietnam were slightly less bemused by our strange requests, and Hue is the first major conurbation in the south, so it was a little oasis of comfort.

Our guidebook mentioned a bizarre-sounding restaurant to the north of the wide, slow-flowing Perfume River, run by a deaf-mute. We decided to check it out, and one evening arrived on our Minsks at Restaurant Lac Thanh. Mr Lac greeted us in sign language, and we stayed for a meal. The more we stayed, the more we realised that the place was more than just a restaurant - it was a charming little community. Vietnamese society is rather unforgiving of the physically different - children are not discouraged from pointing at laughing at anyone who in their eyes looks odd. Mr Lac, being different himself, was more tolerant of those 'unfortunates' and gathered them around him, and his staff included a midget, other deaf staff, and his wife, a fading beauty queen.

The lack of retail diversification in Vietnam I mentioned earlier might be symptomatic of, or caused by, a propensity to steal good ideas. Thus "Sock Street" in Hanoi might have been originally one sock shop, before the retail vultures saw a successful idea and set up a new sock shop next door, pilfering the idea, and thus an entire street of sock shops would grow. And so on. Thus the novel concept of a backpacker café run by a deaf-mute caught on, and in 1995, the place next door to Lac Thanh was called Lac Thinh, and was also run by a deaf-mute (yet another ageing beauty queen: a former Miss Vietnam, apparently).

We gained Mr Lac's respect when we overheard two travellers debating as to which was the original, and told them - which action caused a street brawl between the opposing deaf-mutes, with us involved on the periphery - and since Mr Lac was a Minsk owner too, he took us under his wing. We spent several days with him, riding around Hue, him helping us to fix our bikes when they went wrong, and communicating with him rather better in improvised sign language than we were able to with hearing, speaking people in a combination of pidgin English and Vietnamese. He was so enjoying our company that, when we said we were riding to the town of Hoi An, he indicated he'd like to come with us, and he nearly did until his wife put her foot down and commanded he get back to running his restaurant.

I was pleased to learn, this time around, as we avoided the difficult north by flying direct from Hanoi to Hue, that Mr Lac's restaurant was still going. Thus, quite excitedly, I cajoled M and our three friends to go to his restaurant.

The first thing that greeted us was a third restaurant, this one called Lac Thuanh, on the other side, making the original Mr Lac's place the filling in a deaf-mute sandwich. But as we came to the original, there he was, not having aged a day, standing on the pavement, beckoning us in. I didn't expect him to remember me - tens of thousands of backpackers had passed through his doors over the past decade, and I was just one more.

But what was sad was the deterioration of the place. Still listed in the guidebook, it no longer bustled. We were the only diners. There was no sign of Mrs Lac. The walls, in my memory dark wood, were painted an unfortunate hospital green, and decorated in the misguided "backpacker graffiti" style favoured by a lot of places, making the restaurant resemble a public toilet. The midget waiter was still there, but as we ordered he (or she - I could never tell) started the hard-sell on various coins and bracelets, and as we waited for our food on the balcony overlooking what used to be a quiet alleyway, but was now a teeming throng of thousands of motos, a series of hawkers and touts came upstairs, presumably with the permission of Mr Lac, and got in our faces, failing to sell us a thing. The food was good and the beer cold, but there was a desolation about it that saddened me.

To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.