Hugo Docking

To have delighted in wickedness

(An excerpt from Dustbeard – A radio play I started writing about a lone presenter stuck in an old radio tower on a post-apocalyptic island, with only old archived tapes from the past to keep him company. He uses the tower to broadcast a weekly radio show to the unfortunate inhabitants of the island. This piece is one of the tapes he plays from our world, or as he calls it, “the land before”.)

If the devil is in the detail ladies and gentlemen, then the food here in Southern Vietnam is positively SATANIC. For the equivalent of one of your finest English pounds, you have access to a cornucopia of delicious offerings. I’ve escaped the tantalising chaos of HồChí Mihn city for a brief respite in the smaller city of Cần Thơ , located amongst the sprawling web of distributors at the end of the Mekong Delta. If you are lucky enough to find yourself here, ignore the tourist-trap ‘floating market’ – (which just consists of a couple of boats selling pineapples) and head straight for the bustling night market in the centre. What awaits is a sensory bombardment of LIFE and FOOD. A sizzling plethora of regional delicacies lye ahead, daring you to taste them all. The scents from all the different stalls almost overpower the fumes of the idling motorbikes, queuing in drones for their favourite snacks. Bodies and bikes, primitive gas grills and coal-fire BBQ’s turn the area to a burning, bubbling cauldron of untamed HEAT on this already muggy summer’s evening. Noise and sweat and colour rule divine. I dive straight into the rabid action like a fiend to hell.

The first stall I come to features rack upon rack of multi-coloured meat and other mysterious food-stuff, neatly arranged on long skewers. I point at five. The obliging seller nods and thrusts all five into a billowing grill before presenting them to me with the occult flare of a practised sorceress. I play Russian roulette with these uniform-looking balls and cubes, not knowing what taste explosion will befall me next. The strangely fishy-tasting, pale cream spheres, turn out to be the bullet in the loaded gun. The rest are delicious. I figure four out of five isn’t bad going,and release myself into the baking throng once more.

The next stand features a crooked temptress hunched over a hissing circular slab. She wields a strange device as a cooking utensil,which looks like it would be more at home in the hands of a warmongering general; moving military units around a map in a tent on a war-torn battlefield. She spins thin dough, infused with prawns and spices and vegetables, onto her scolding slab and, using this device, she spawns what looks like savoury crepes with unholy precision. Within no time at all I have one of these beauties nestled in my hands, and it does not disappoint. Crispy, yet moist, and packed full of intense flavours. I close my eyes as I slip into a state of bliss and hear, somewhere far away, the temptress muttering ‘Bánh Xèo’, which I will later find out to be the name of this gorgeous dish.

I leave that burning furnace full of food, spiritually drained and totally awe-struck. No more wasting away in a padded box playing mindless music and empty sound effects with “The Jam Man”. I have found life, here in hell, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

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