In Marseilles, I met an illegal immigrant from Nghe An. He said his boss and housemates in Paris were all from the same province. Long known for its poverty, Nghe An leads Vietnam in the ratio of people working overseas, with most never returning. In fact, so many have become illegal in South Korea, Vietnam is blocking 11 Nghe An districts from sending people there.
Last week, I was in Nghe An for a three-day wedding. The one-hour-forty-five-minute flight from Saigon landed me at an airport, Vinh International, with no other planes. Across its empty tarmac, we walked to the new, airy terminal. Outside, there was a large, colorful mural of Ho Chi Minh being applauded by citizens and soldiers, and presented with flowers by two children. Flying over Uncle Ho's head, a plane dropped nothing.
Nghe An is Ho's home province, so in Vinh (pop. 500,000), his 39-foot-tall granite statue lords over Vietnam's largest square. As I shall explain, much space was available.
On the way to the wedding, I passed Truong Bon, where on October 31st, 1967, American bombs hit a road repair crew. All 13 victims were under 20, with 11 of them female. Perhaps it's because most were only teenage girls, they're honored with a huge monument that attracts a thousand visitors daily.
I walked into a spartan roadside store to find some skinny old guy behind a lonely glass cabinet.
"Yes, uncle, I just came up from Saigon. Have you been?"
"More than twenty years ago," he grinned, showing only a few teeth.
"Where were you in Saigon, uncle?"
That's over 200 miles north of Saigon, I thought, but close enough. Similarly, many southern Vietnamese routinely refer to all of northern Vietnam as "Hanoi." Many would even say, "Will you come to Hanoi or Vietnam?"
The wedding was in Quy Hop, an idyllic city of 119,000 that's ringed by mountains, with a serene lake downtown. Its chief economic activities are stone quarrying, tin mining and logging, resulting in fantastic wealth for some. I walked pass quite a few ridiculously fine houses, including a marble mansion boasting a huge roofed gate that's made from a single block of stone. I also talked to a man whose daughter, working in Saigon, could only afford to visit him once every few years. "We're still very poor," the sun-baked man sighed. Among crotch-high sugar canes, his wife poked around with a hoe.
Unlike much of Vietnam, the water buffalo is still widely used as a draft animal in Nghe An. In tiny, remote Van Loi, however, school kids now wear jeans, with nice backpacks, something I never saw while visiting similar villages in 1995.
At the first banquet, a 57-pound goat was slaughtered, and that's enough food for seven tables. Every bit of the goat used for a variety of dishes, including blood pudding. A local specialty is "hill chicken" ["g '"i"], but this mountaineering fowl was so tough, I couldn't develop a taste for it. For breakfast, locals prefer eel congee or eel soup, eaten with bread. Both are sophisticatedly seasoned and quite hearty. They drink a bright green "stabbed tea" ["tr ' m"], that's made from freshly crushed leaves of exactly the right age. If too old, the tea darkens, and if too young, it's bitter. Stabbed tea originated with the Tai, one of 36 ethnic minorities in Nghe An.