“Hey, lady, do you want to buy some wine?”
A female voice with a Vietnamese accent called out to me, and I glanced over the side of our boat to see a small woman in a bright orange shirt holding a bottle of wine. She was standing up in one of the many small “grocery store” boats that we had seen sailing around Halong Bay all day. These boats were filled with different types of food, drink and household supplies to sell to the tourist boats and locals who lived on boats in the Bay.
It was day three of our ten-day culinary tour of Vietnam, and we had spent the previous two days attending a cooking school in Hanoi and sampling amazing street food. This morning we left Hanoi for the 2 hour drive to Halong Bay, passing rice fields filled with water buffalo along the way (yes, just like the movies!). After boarding our boat, complete with private sleeping rooms and a crew of five, we spent the day sailing amongst the amazing rock formations and stopping at several places to swim and kayak.
Now as the sun was setting, my husband and I were relaxing on the deck before dinner, and enjoying a plate of fresh fruit appetizers and two chilled glasses of white wine that the staff had served.
“Hey, lady, you like wine?” the voice came again from the water, and I looked over the rail to see that she was now waving the bottle of wine in the air.
“Just ignore her, and she’ll go away,” said my husband, reaching for a big piece of dragon fruit.
“I don’t want to be rude,” I said.
“You’re not being rude. It’s just her job to be a high-pressure sales person. Ignore her.”
Just then one of the boat stewards approached to check on us. Seeing the woman in the grocery boat, he yelled something at her in Vietnamese, and she slowly picked up her boat oars and paddled away.
“You wouldn’t want to buy that wine anyway,” my husband continued. “Can you imagine how bad it must taste being stocked on that open boat with the sun beating down on it all day in this 95 degree weather with 90 percent humidity.”
I had to agree with him. It wasn’t the first time we had seen wine stored in such a hot location in Vietnam. We had passed several tiny grocery stores and liquor shops in Hanoi with wine bottles displayed in glass windows in the bright sun with no air-conditioning. Most of the wine was inexpensive imports from France or local Vietnamese wine – much of it made with hybrid grapes, and often blended with fruit. The locals primarily drank beer, to which they frequently added ice.
Here on the boat, however, the staff were preparing a big dinner for us, and had served us a glass of cold sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley. It was delicious with the fruit plate, especially after a long day in the sun and heat. We were feeling very spoiled, because the tour company we booked with promised to go whether or not they achieved the limit of 16 people. When no one else signed up, except for my husband, daughter, and a good friend, they honored the contract, and we were given a private ten-day culinary tour of Vietnam, complete with guide. This included all transportation, including this boat, which normally slept 20 people. So now we felt very pampered with a boat crew of five waiting on the four of us!
“Hey, lady, you want some wine?”
The voice floated out over the water again, and I looked around to see that the tiny wine sales woman had paddled around to the opposite side of our boat. She stood up again in her little dinghy with a big smile on her face, waving the bottle of wine at me.
“On no, not again,” moaned my husband.
“Come on, you have to give her credit,” I said. “Where else in the world would you have a wine sales experience like this?”
I held out my arms out and gestured at the amazing scene that spread out around us; the sun had set and the sky was ablaze in colors of soft pink, lavender and orange. The tall rock formations rose around us, with their mysterious nooks and hollows, and the sea looked like molten silver.
Glancing down I saw with amazement that the tiny woman had inched her boat up to the back of ours, and was looking up at me with a big smile. She had short black hair, lovely tanned skin, and very white teeth.
“How much?” I asked.
“No,” groaned my husband. “You’re not going to buy that wine from her, are you?”
“Ten dollars,” she said. “Good price for very excellent wine.” She held out the bottle and I could see that it was the local Vang Dankia red wine that we had seen in many shops for around five dollars. I had tasted it in a restaurant, and it was quaffable, but given the fact that it had spent some time rocking on a boat in the hot sun, I doubted it was drinkable.
“Five dollars,” I countered.
“No, no,” she said, smiling and shaking her head. “I have to bring to you in my boat, so more expensive. Eight dollars.”
“Six,” I said.
“Seven,” she smiled.
“Ok, sold,” I said. “Mike can you give me some money? I left my purse in the cabin.”
Grumbling under his breath, he pulled the wallet from his pocket and gave me some money. “You know it is going to taste awful,” he said.
“Yes, probably,” I agreed. “But that is not the point. I am so impressed that she is selling wine out here in the middle of HalongBay in a Vietnamese grocery boat, that I cannot help but support her.”
I leaned over the side of the boat to give the money to the “best wine sales person in the world,” and she gently handed me the bottle of wine with a huge white grin on her face. I thanked her and wished her a good evening, then watched as she slowly paddled away in her little wooden grocery dinghy.
Later, as the four of us settled down to an eight course dinner of amazing seafood and fresh vegetables, the waiter asked me if I wanted him to open the wine. I nodded yes, and as he poured it into a glass, I was surprised to see it was still a dark red, rather than the orange-brown color I was expecting. On the nose, however, the wine was oxidized and a bit “cooked”, with stewed berries and an earthy note. According to the label, which was written in both Vietnamese and English, it was a blend of the Cardinal grape and mulberry fruit. Under different storing conditions, it could have been quite interesting.
We all tried it for fun, and agreed that it was worthwhile to purchase the wine just for the experience and to support my new favorite wine sales person. Then my daughter, friend and I all reached for the chilled white Loire, while my husband and our guide asked for a beer.