Riding Vietnam Day 159: Crazy House and Bonefish Gumbo

After yesterday I had no plans on starting my day too early so I slept in till 8:30 am (look at me getting real ambitious). A little more lying around and waving off urges to get any reasonably early start to the day led me to beginning my tour of Dalat at 11 am with Thomas the Dutchman. The two of us walked the narrow winding and sometimes climbing streets that felt more like Europe in some random village town of Italy or perhaps France. The comparison fits most properly with Italy with the number of crazed motorbikes zipping up and down the lone lanes of this surprisingly large city resting atop the cool hills in the midst of the far flung yet near mountains. The tour meant checking out the shopping market, food market, and the nearby lake that forms the physical and spiritual center of the city while just walking around with not necessarily any agenda in place besides getting a taste of what is on offer in Dalat. The shopping market had a disarray of clothes stands that could even get any directionally minded person lost while mingling through the narrow passages formed by the scattered hanging clothes both knock off and secondhand. The food market had much of the same as I have seen before but without the swarm of flies descending upon the wretched and all too real meat. In Asian markets, you can literally watch the life being taken from your eventual meal. Sorry to get graphic but the image is necessary in describing such a place. Penned up chickens getting butchered and de-feathered before being laid out on display. In supermarkets and even butcher shops back home, the adventurous yet likely odd palate cannot find some items only available at a place like this. As we reached one stall, a pile of guts and most certainly deadened eyeballs watched us pass. We bought some mangoes on the cheap since I could never ever buy fruit as fresh and juicy as here. The walk led us back towards the hostel and to my first real authentic Vietnamese banh mi sandwich. Inside a French style baguette, she spread the coconut cream on both insides of the light and fluffy core before lacing it with a variety of meats (not the healthiest variety thanks the apparent cartilage and fat intermingled), tomato and cucumber slices, a carrot and radish slaw, and cilantro. To dress it to my spicy specifications, she waved back and forth like magic dust the imitation siracha chili sauce. Although not part of a training diet, the sandwich was a foodie crazed delight at the first crunchy bite. After booking my canyoning tour for tomorrow morning, I messaged Dave to green light the dinner we planned on doing. We talked about the desire to cook some fresh food ourselves and so now with his hostel having a working kitchen, the plan could finally come into place. Since I really wanted to go see the Crazy House, I let him buy the groceries even though I would have loved to take part in that as well. After instructing him to buy the rainbow in produce, Thomas, Greg (Polish), Raven (Frenchie), and I rode our bikes to the Crazy House which resides within Dalat. If I could somehow in someway describe Crazy House in a quick, highlighted description, I would liken it to a bizarro world experiment in which Gaudi (the famous Spanish architect) and PeeWee Herman decided to design a house together. The house has now been turned into a semi-hotel to defray the costs of such wild brained idea by a rich Vietnamese man’s daughter. The house uses practically every shade of color just before it reaches that tipping point of becoming too much. Even though the property is relatively small, the numerous winding and disjoining narrow footpaths/bridges that lift off into the air to adjacent buildings keep you busy for quite some time. Individual cramped rooms have their own uniqueness and creepiness to them. One room had a wide and demon red-eyed kangaroo looking off in the direction of the bed. One narrow staircase/bridge hovered over one building before climbing up to the utmost summit of the property. From this vantage point, I could see much of Dalat and the surrounding areas. Good God is Dalat is big! Through all the research and my own imagination, I pictured a large scale mountain town. Despite its breadth as a city, I still say it retains its feel as a mountain village especially thanks to the chilly temperatures that offer a much needed relief from what I have grown used to. It is fall/autumn on steroids. You have light breezy summer sunshine in the middle of the day with cool sweater weather in the mornings and evenings. From atop the Crazy House, I loved scanning the horizon outwards to the distant mountain I hope to climb in my time here in Dalat as well as the rolling hills that give this city its character. At times, I think this house would be perfect for a child’s eye (or baked hippie depending how you want to look at it) to explore its limits with its unique, almost dreamlike/spaced as a comet architecture and kaleidoscope colors. However, those weblike flying staircases have low, gapped railings that could swallow any misstep. At times, I had to just stand there absorbing how unreal some of the architecture appeared. It twisted the concept of what is possible thanks to its unconventional ways. Nature played its part with overgrown trees readily hiding random footpaths that would peak out out of nowhere. After exploring the building’s genius, Thomas and I went to Dave’s hostel to see what he had assembled for cooking. He bought the rainbow as requested with cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and carrots as well as purple skinned potatoes. The one outlying mystery ingredient that threw me for a loop was a bag full of whole mackerels. Since I don’t work with fish mostly due to their bony inconvenience, I was about to be tested as a cook to prepare something edible for the five of us and whoever else Dave invited from the hostel to join us. I began sautéing onions and garlic before setting out to prepare the fish. I planned on filleting the small bastards but I was advised by the group consensus to not mess with the bones since there would be too many and my attempts to remove them would only eradicate them further. That ill fated decision to consult the majority spoiled what could have been an otherwise sensational dish. Since we had no oven or large pan to work with for baking or frying the miniature fish, we had no choice but to toss them into the stew. Along with the hostel owner’s advice to use the entirety of the fish (including the intact skin, bone, and head plus those pearly eyes) to flavor the food, the main course of the meal began as damaged goods. With the increasing horror before my eyes that got mushed with each rotation of the spoon, I found myself forced to repair the dish with limited flavoring agents in stock but struck gold by hitting on the sour notes thanks to some Red Cross aid vinegar that melded all the ingredients joining the pot including my safety valve of choice in the form of tomatoes. While I was attempting to resuscitate this meal, my colleagues who tried failingly to pose as cooks in the most amateur way possible by working on starch and salad components of the overall meal. Dave deserves a prime spot in the Worst Cooks on Earth Hall of Fame. Not only did he scorch the potatoes by burning some of them firmly to the pot’s bottom, he turned a salad of carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and avocados into one fit for a giant. My poor rainbow vegetables were cut large enough as dippers rather than something you would scoop up with a fork or spoon. As fish eyes stared back at me from within the pot, I tried my darnedest to resurrect this sad charade from the dead by removing bones bit by bit. When the prep and cooking process came to a closure, I found out we had others joining us to form a sort of family dinner. When people asked me about the food before serving, I kept the answers brief with replies like ‘yep!’, ‘of course’, ‘sure’, etc. to delay the inevitable. Despite working with a crew who had cooking backgrounds that probably didn’t go beyond pasta and the occasional burnt toast, I found a way to make a representative meal. When Dave suggested plate appearance and other methods that were better saved for a cooking channel special, I could not help but laugh aloud at such a farce. Originally he wanted to see about removing all the bones from the pot but I told him it would be like asking to remove the granules of salt from any already salted dish. My stew was surprisingly good but would have had a better chance if everyone wasn’t required to get their hands dirty in search of each sliver of bone. The cooking and meal wasn’t quite what I had expected but I had fun regardless chopping up vegetables and experimenting in a Chopped! kitchen from hell. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves chatting away with bottles of vodka and wine ready to alter everyone’s mind set of what laid across their plates. Tomorrow would begin early with canyoning so time would be wasted to fall into a cool chilly slumber that finally required a blanket beyond a paper thin sheet.

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