What do I and Aishwarya Rai have in common? We are both Indian beauties.
Or so I, and my friend Chandani, are told at Nha Trang.
It was the fourth day of our trip to Vietnam and we just had our first taste of how much the locals love Indians.
The man at the reception of our hotel looks at us and says, “You are from India.” It isn’t a question as much as a statement. We nod. “Indian women are easy to recognise, they’re very beautiful, like Aishwarya Rai.”
I want to protest – isn’t Sushmita Sen prettier? – but I don’t want to burst his Rai-bubble and be stuck waiting for our room. He then asks us a million dollar question. “Why are there no Indians winning the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants anymore?”
Why, indeed? We mumble incoherently, at which with a look of disdain at our inadequate knowledge of India’s pageant industry, he gets down to business.
This is our first visit to Vietnam – a country with gorgeous landscapes, delicious (and meaty) street food, stunning hillsides, spectacular landscapes and a strange love for India. We are instantly recognised everywhere, by our accents or the colour of our skin or ‘our beauty’.
That child marriage documentary
One of the girls at our home stay in Da Lat squeals in delight on hearing we are Indian. “I love Indian men,” she says. “They’re so handsome.” C and I exchange eye rolls.
She then proceeds to talk at length about her favourite Indian movies – at that moment she was obsessed with 3 Idiots and had seen it a 100 time. Before leaving, she makes us promise to get two Indian men along the next time we visit. We reply with that Indian trademark, the head nod.
It is in Da Lat that we learn of another Indian obsession.
On a freezing cold evening, C and I are at the town’s market, trying to warm up while simultaneously doing our’ souvenir shopping’. We stop at a stall that has jars filled with dead snakes – it is a local wine. Ignoring the scaly creatures, we try some of the dehydrated foodstuff on offer – fruit, fruit peels, strips of beef, dried fish. Our shop owner and her husband are very distracted and we have to repeatedly call out to them. They’re watching something on a small TV at the back of the stall. We soon recognise the show, which we learn later is the country’s favourite – Balika Vadhu.
They watch it with the same fervor Indians would an Ekta Kapoor serial. The show comes up again, a few days later. We are in Saigon, talking to a local I met through Instagram. He is Indian but has lived in Veitnam for most of his adult life. I ask him about his favourite Indian film. “There’s this story I like. It talks about child marriage….it highlights the social evil of a young girl who is dragged into child marriage.” We rack our brains wondering what Bollywood movie actually takes on such a deep issue when it hits us, he is talking about the same show. He just thinks it is a documentary! Again, we don’t burst their bubble.
Food and free advice
In Da Lat itself, we chance upon a Vietnamese pizza that looked like a masala dosa stuffed with vegetables and fish sauce.
The next day, we visit the Dalat Train Cafe, an abandoned carriage that doubles up as a restaurant and smirk at the tourists going gaga about the railways. But, since we (C) are obsessed with Bollywood, we recreate the iconic ending of DDLJ without the blood, violence or inherent patriarchy.
In the heritage town of Hoi An, we play a version of tambola, with lots of singing and wooden platters instead of cards.
Our favourite desi experience though has nothing to do with India but with the country that’s become an abode for beef-loving, non-Hindutva, western clothes wearing anti-nationals, Pakistan.
To give ourselves a break from the bread, noodles and grilled meat, we decide to find a place that can serve up simple dal, rice and chai. A quick Google search – there’s WiFi everywhere here – takes us to a tiny lane in Saigon’s backpacker area.
The Taj Mahal restaurant is empty and we settle in and start talking to each other in Hindi (it’s a practice we maintain through the trip). On hearing this, the owner (a Mr Zaman) comes over and starts chatting. It turns out the place may have an Indian monument as its name but it is actually Pakistani. We sample butter chicken, rice, masala papad and chai, while asking the owner questions about what to do and where to go. We are soon joined by waiters, a regular customer, a man who delivers goods to the place till we have our own little desi party.
Two hours later, we realised that though a border may divide us, we share many habits. Chief among them was the penchant to freely dispense advice – they told us where to exchange Indian currency, taught us a few basic Vietnamese words, recommended places to visit and how to get there and generally, did not stop talking.
We walked out of there with one thought: you can find India anywhere, even in a tiny Pakistani-run Indian restaurant that employs Bangladeshis.