About Benedict Cooper
Benedict Cooper is a UK-based freelance writer with an extensive background in journalism and PR. He has written for the British national newspapers, trade journals, consumer magazines and online. His portfolio includes consumer features on travel, food, music, film and real-life stories, and B2B writing covering retail, property and mobile web technology.
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I’ve seen one or two things in my time, but when that little head poked out of that shell, eyes bulging, lifeless, I couldn’t help but gulp. As the Vietnamese chef kept peeling away at fragments of shell and more of the unborn duck chick was revealed, I thought to myself that only five minutes ago that poor little guy was alive in its shell, getting ready for life on the outside.
And then I started feeling a little sorry for myself when I remembered I’d promised to eat it. The egg, bought about an hour before at a street market in Hanoi, was wobbling as we carried it home and the chick squirmed inside.
And then, mercilessly, it was dropped into a pan of scalding water.
It’s difficult and frankly wrong to judge other cultures for the food they eat, at least that’s what I told myself as, with a heavy dose of mind over matter, I forced myself to put the chick/egg in mouth and chew on the foetus meat, heavily.
I’m not making any statements about animal cruelty here, although perhaps I should. But it was actually rather nice, I have to say.
Food’s one of the first things you notice when you travel; it’s different everywhere and you can’t get away from it. And it’s the building block of hospitality and manners, a bridge between two people. So when duck foetus, or dog meat, chicken feet and pigs tails are served up by a host for whom there’s nothing shocking about them at all, what else can you do?
Something happens to Russian people when they travel along the tracks. With a tendency to being gruff, tough and a little isolationist in their daily lives and when they’re on the streets, especially in Moscow, when they’re on the Trans Siberian, it all melts away. One of the first ways they show this wonderful softer side, is with food and drink.
I was joined in my carriage somewhere down the tracks from Yekaterinburg by a lovely young family; mother, father and nine year old boy. Quickly and a little awkwardly we established there were very few words going to be shared. But none of that mattered when they sat me down on the bottom bunks of the compartment and cracked out lunch.
A big bottle of warm lager, a whole chicken and some soggy warm mashed potato with lots of salt later, we were communicating somehow, I still don’t know how, with quite a lot meaning. Something about sharing the same food had brought us together.
It was a long 55 hour stint and I spent quite a bit of time on my top bunk in a little world of my own, but we still managed to fill many happy hours eating together, sharing sweets, biscuits and nuts, drawing pictures in a sort of trans-language game of Pictionary.
I played a few games of chess with their son, Nikolai, with his father looking over his shoulder all the time, affectionately berating him when he made the odd strategic error. And I don’t know, but maybe it would have been that little bit harder if we hadn’t shared that first meal together.
And when I was the only Westerner on a train of hundreds, travelling south from Beijing through the enchanting Chinese countryside, and the whole carriage seemed star-struck at the sight of a white guy, it was food that kept the game going.
I had stocked up on sweets and biscuits, sunflower seeds and noodles, and I shared everything with the family at my table. The family, by the way, had requested me to join them from the other side of the carriage.
I ate Pelmeni in Moscow, a simple but delicious type of dumpling/ravioli filled with an infinity of wonderful ingredients, as part of a late-night post-party munchies thing in a tiny run-down apartment in a crummy old building on the edge of the city centre.
And perhaps the funniest moment of the night was when one of my drinking buddies, who’d had far too much beer and vodka, cack-handedly dropped a whole bowl of the stuff, mayonnaise and all, down my friend Anice’s jeans.
In Irkutsk I sat on a bar stool and ate chicken wings with a quirky boxing instructor who had a lot to say about politics in Russian sports; the reason, he said, why his best woman boxer had failed to make it into the team for the Olympics. Maybe he’s still there now, chomping on his chicken bones, rueing the bout that could have been.
I wandered in awe through the streets of Beijing, at the whole ducks and dog meat and crickets and bugs on display in the street restaurants, and the millions of people nattering and chattering over their noodles and rice on the doorsteps of the many wonderous hutongs.
The sight of a freshly slaughtered dog, butchered and presented with the severed head (so you know they’re not fobbing you off with another meat) in a street market in Hanoi made me pause in rather unsettling thought. And I couldn’t help noting with a degree of dark humour to myself, that live dogs trotted happily in among the stalls, blissfully unaware of the danger.
I nibbled, I must say deeply uncomfortably, at chickens’ feet on the train to Vietnam. A warm bag of the greasy, fatty, gristly things was the first thing a fellow traveller offered me. Personally that was the worst of the lot, but I swallowed the slimy rubbery stuff down with my best put-on smile, gratitude being a far more convenient social skill than honesty in that particular moment.
And then there was the duck egg. It felt so wrong, and I really had to talk myself into it. But you don’t go away travelling to experience the familiar and the easy. If that’s what you want, there is sadly a MacDonalds in (almost) every city in the world – although not, I’m pleased to say, Hanoi.
It might be sin to eat a half-grown duck foetus. But not as great a sin, I think, as being unadventurous. It’s all just a matter of perspective. In China chickens’ feet are a delicacy, a sign you can afford to live without the rest of the meat. In the West it’s all about convenience: chain restaurants, fast food, ready meals, processed ingredients and artificial flavourings are acceptable. Change your point of view just a little bit and it’s that, not the duck egg snack, that seems the wrong way around.
I traveled from London to Vietnam in the summer of 2012, blogging along the way. I traveled the tracks thanks to Rail Europe and RealRussia and my flights home were provided by Skyscanner. The ‘duck egg’ experience was part of a Vietnamese cooking class I took at the Hanoi Cooking Centre.
You can feel the energy around you change as you approach London. It’s something in the atmosphere; the pressure rises and the speed increases as though you were approaching some great vortex.
Perhaps it’s just nerves. It’s a journey I’ve taken too many times to count but more often than not there’s some big reason to be going back to the city I lived in for four years, the place where my career began.
Usually it’s a bit of work that’s plucked me from the forgiving easiness of Nottingham straight into the epicentre. A busy office, an important meeting, an event or gathering that needs me to hit the ground already in top gear. It’s familiar but so are the jitters.
But even with the most laid back of trips the same atmospheric change occurs. It’s undetectable when you’re always there, but coming in to London it’s potent.
From miles away the gravity begins to suck you and the train in, speeding up the energy around it, scattering away the gentle little thoughts that swirled calmly for the best part of the journey like tiny particles in the cloud around your mind.
As you get closer the carriage fills up. More passengers take their places all around you with determination. From the outer strata more faces join the procession of ambitious chancers and tired commuters, all hoping to take their share of the winnings.
The journey to the main nerve can change the thought process entirely. London never feels quite the same as your imagination tells you it will.
Sometimes it’s easier, lighter, more inviting, as though it was lying in wait just for you, ready to open up and gently tug you by the hand through a wild and breezy dream.
But on another day stepping off the train can thump you quickly into a harsh, hasty reality. All the plans you carefully made seem feeble and small compared to the cruel truth you’ve stepped down on to.
The thoughts that seemed so original and the tactics that were bullet proof quickly unravel. The scale and force of the vortex can make you feel small and inadequate as you enter it, hopelessly unprepared.
London isn’t a city, it’s a mental arena. Your worst vices and most shameful weaknesses battle with your best and strongest qualities. It can sap all the fight from you or lift you onto its shoulders, a deadly champion.
St Pancras stood cool and strong, a serene rock. I cursed my own bad planning and dashed red-faced from platform to platform, as though if I moved stealthily enough I might be able to slope across the grand old station and avoid its disapproving stare.
It had hardly been the smartest preparation for another big slog. I’d only groaned through the front door eight hours ealier, ragged and feeble after a day of travelling, and already the four o’clock alarm was screeching in my ear.
It was pointless setting one, looking back. I had hardly sunk into anything more than a thin stream of unconsciousness during those three or so hours, certainly nothing deep enough to find any peace under.
And the previous night hadn’t really happened either. When I did finally close my bloodshot eyes back in Barcelona it was almost time to get up.
And then all the wine, rich food and coffee from the evening still swilling round my system had left me with a restless spinning feeling and my ears ringing with the terrific pressure in my head. An overdose of potent ingredients and fatigue from a week burning both ends at a conference had finally taken its toll.
This time I was heading to London on the 06.02 train to then rush hurriedly across St Pancras to catch the Eurostar to Paris to make another dash on the RER to Gare de Lyon and find my seat on the TGV to Cannes.
In the end I reached my final train on the other side of Paris without too major a crisis and huffed down into my seat on the train headed for the South coast.
The TGV is the king of trains, a model of comfort and efficiency. Within seconds it was gliding over the ground with breezy speed and we were getting through the coarser side of Paris, the grim industrial concrete on the outskirts.
Despite the rotten build up it was a feeling of instant peace. In no time we were out in the countryside and the cinema screen of a window beside me was glowing and flickering and I had sunk into a wistful daze.
It’s one of the finest rail journeys you can take anywhere in the world. The train cuts a hot straight line right through France, turning east as it hits the bright blue Mediterranean sea.
In the summer months you can actually see the earth dry and turn yellow as the train courses from Northern to Southern Europe and into a different climate.
The TGV whooshes through hundreds of mesmerising miles as you sit there in comfort. Hills and mountains occasionally emerge either side of you, solitary chateaus holding their summits and church spires standing among clusters of ancient houses and streets far too old and wise to be troubled by the bolt of electricity and metal hurrying past.
It’s all so far away and each scene only stays in your eyes for so short a time as to seem imagined, and then it’s gone.
When you do reach the Southern coast the train takes a blissful turn, the tracks bending left and along the frontier, the sea rolling out all the way to your right into hazy nothingness. It’s a surreal way to arrive anywhere; a trip in every sense.
It’s only five hours from Paris to Cannes. Longer than I’d slept in the last two nights. Another big week of late nights and frantic days was about to begin but I felt ok, strangely refreshed.
I might not have managed any dreaming the two nights before, but those five hours gliding through France were so sublime I’m not sure I wasn’t.
BEING A JOURNALIST sometimes just involves waiting in a state of wretched anxiety while something you desperately need to happen doesn’t happen.
It’s not unusual for me to be sitting hunched over my laptop, stomach acid flowing freely, feeling like it’s burning a hole through a vital organ or two, praying that a simple question I asked seven hours ago to an indifferent press officer is being handled. Knowing but denying the truth that it’s sitting feebly in an inbox about as likely to be read as a letter from the bank.
Here I am, in exactly one of those moments. Several hours late for a deadline, cursing myself as I always do for not thinking ahead. Cursing everyone I’ve ever dealt with for somehow being a part of this sadistic conspiracy.
I have a date in half an hour which I’m going to struggle to enjoy because the same damn problem is going to be there during and after, and when I go to bed, and when I open my eyes and a rotten breakfast of fear and impotence greets me in the morning.
I begin to hope there will be some major global-killer of an incident right this minute. An unimaginably big meteor, an alien invasion, an earthquake so devastating that it splits the planet into two, sending what’s left spinning off into space like a crudely beheaded skull.
Or perhaps the internet could somehow unravel. That would be good. True, it would be a nightmare of boggling proportions long term, but it would be worth it to have a good excuse for missing my deadline. And I could enjoy my date.
One evening as I sat outside my hotel, slouching and sweating in the heat, a young Cambodian boy called Thoi who I had given a few dollars to the day before suddenly arrived out of nowhere. Without any hesitation he repeated an offer from yesterday to visit his home and his family. I had awkwardly but politely declined it then, but this time, maybe just out of sheer curiosity, I decided to take him up on it.
As we scrabbled across the dust, dirt and rubbish piles away from the tourist village, I felt more than a little apprehensive. We clambered over a high concrete wall that separates the tourists from reality – him much more nimbly than me as clearly this is a sadly routine slog for him. As soon as we landed in the dirty dust on his side of the wall it was as though we had entered into a refugee town.
The neighbourhood was a shanty nothingness of grit and litter with flimsy wooden huts that stood on groaning stark planks suspended over the lake on stilts. As we trod the gangways of broken, bending and missing planks, me nervously pacing along watching every next step and the lake below, my Western presence was conspicuous to everyone around me in the slums.
Not so much nervous, but weak eyes followed me as I clumsily entered their world. Some of the faces managed tentative smiles, others looks of sheer bemusement.
We arrived at Thoi’s ‘house’, which was not much larger than a garden shed, a dark, dry and smoke-stained hut that housed, as far as I could tell eight people.
His family was nowhere to be seen, which for a dark moment made me entertain a dreadful thought, that there might be another reason we were alone. The rough walls were bare and over in the darkness there was a wooden bed-frame with a thin, mouldy mattress on top.
I sat and talked with my new friend, who has struggled so much already and has many more years of grinding a living ahead. We talked about his family, his mother’s illness and Cambodia’s conflict with Thailand, which is making what seems like an immoral, grasping claim to the Temples of Angkor, trying to cut off Cambodia’s only real life blood and proudest cultural jewel from its people. Cambodia has one main glory and without it the country will die.
When I left I gave him another few dollars, hopefully enough to feed the hunger in them for maybe one day. After a kick about in the dust with a lovely, lively, happy group of boys I headed back over the tall hard wall to the tourist ghetto, emotionally numb.
Earlier that day I had visited the killing fields and S21. The fields themselves are not all that staggering, until you take a moment to imagine the thousands of Cambodians led to their deaths there. The innocents of all ages freighted to the camps to be slaughtered and slung into the hard earth like sacks of refuse along the same bleak roads now used by thousands of western tourists every year to visit the scene
Cambodia, unlike other more ‘civilised’ Western countries with genocide in their pasts, has had to face the trauma, brutality and shame of its recent past head on, in the glare of an invasive and unforgiving world. First the obliteration caused by the US invasion during the Vietnam war, and the evil of the Khmer Rouge that came in the vacuum it caused, have brought the country to its knees with the loss of an entire generation.
The poverty that followed has forced Cambodians to uncover their wounds well before they have healed and their abject desolation has led them to cash in on the tragedy. The morbid curiosity of the West and the dollars it brings are a crude quick-fix consolation prize.
Just like Thoi, Cambodia has a long, painful ordeal ahead, on the grit path away from its current desolation and horrific past. There is a futility among the lives existing in the piercing heat and the rotten dust, that when you try to digest it only leaves sickness and emptiness.
The next day I left Phnom Penh, and Thoi, feeling drained and guilty about my own trip, one that’s been filled with such bloated excess with a backdrop of so much hunger.
Vietnam: The Road to Ha Noi
I was half way to Ha Noi, on the road from the airport, when I realized I was being robbed.
I’d paid $13 dollars online a few days before, back in the safety of my flat in London, so that a taxi driver would be waiting for me at the airport to take me straight into the heart of the capital. This, I quickly worked out, was not him.
All of a sudden it dawned me. I am alone in Vietnam, in a taxi belonging to a nameless local, heading into a totally alien city where nobody knows me and more to the point nobody gives a tiny toss. Stay calm, I thought. Maintain a clear head and this will all turn out alright.
I tried to game out the scenarios, starting with the most extreme paranoia I could muster -a knife being pulled out and this man driving and driving until I helplessly handed over all my worldly possessions and pleaded for mercy – and worked downwards from there.
But as I sat there trying my best to be nervous I realised that I couldn’t concentrate. A noise was distracting me from my worried little thought stream.
In every direction, motors vroomed, bicycles tinkered and cars and buses thundered along, each one driven hell bent for Hanoi, the city just over the horizon but still so far away from my imagination as to be unreal.
The road was wide and straight and flanked with dusty shacks, tatty markets and acres of brilliant green rice fields, the afternoon sun dancing off the flooded patches of earth as we all hurtled past noisily, jostling for position as if the starting pistol had just been fired on some gigantic, gut-wrenching motorized marathon.
Imagine the road around L’Arc de Triomphe, in air so hot it feels like steam, with twice as many drivers with half as much regard for their own safety as Parisians, plus a few dozen brake-shy bus drivers. This is the road into Hanoi; hot and fast.
My god, I thought. I’m actually in Vietnam. The trip had been a long time talked about and too long planned for so that in the end this day had whooshed towards me so fast it wasn’t real.
But this was anything but imagination. This was hard and physical and buzzing all around me.
I decided to let my anxiety about the taxi scam go, or maybe that was decided for me. In the end I stepped out of the car in one piece, albeit £20 pounds lighter. The bastard had done me for the only cash I had on me and left me in a stinking hotel on the wrong side of Hanoi to sweat.
Which I had done for five minutes, an odd mixture of furious at having been picked off like a lame rabbit at the airport and easily dealt with but also dumbfounded at the thunderstorm of sights, sounds and smells I had been hit by just walking between the car and the hotel.
After I had sweated and stewed in these emotions for as long as it took to vigorously suck down a cigarette, I marched down to reception and, surprising even myself, demanded the hotel order me a taxi and take me to my real hotel, and I wasn’t paying a penny for it. Which, also surprisingly, they did.
Once it was over and I was finally under the right roof, the memory of the whole rotten episode left me pretty quickly, but before it did a bizarre and calming thought came to me.
Let him have the £20. I’ve spent that much on one drink before; here it’s a week’s living. I’ve paid my entrance fee to Ha Noi, now I can take the ride.
Contributed by Benedict Cooper, Freelance Journalist and PR