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Writing on the Walls

Writing on the Walls

WHILST travelling one tends to visit a lot more cafes and restaurants than one normally would back at home. Most of these end up being quickly forgotten, but there is one tiny restaurant in the ancient Vietnamese capital city of Hue that I clearly remember even after several years.

Writing on the walls
Writing on the walls

Initially the Lac Thien restaurant seemed to be just like any other Vietnamese restaurant sitting in a dilapidated building that should have perhaps been pulled down many years ago. Its only saving grace is that almost every other building in the city being in the same poor state of maintenance. Upon passing through the dingy entrance

I climbed the stairs up to the main restaurant on the second level. Upon entering I immediately noticed the white walls were covered in graffiti – absolutely covered. Each inscription would have been written by each one of the countless people to have eaten here over the years.

I wondered how it had all started.

Some hobby graffitist perhaps with a red marker pen pulling a bit of a practical joke leaving their mark the way graffitists do just like dogs leaving their mark by pissing on a fence post.

The owners would have wanted to get rid of the act of vandalism but never got around to it before someone else decided to add their little claim to fame. From there perhaps whoever owned the restaurant had decided rather than clean up these markings of territory, they would actually encourage it. The rest is history with the graffiti snowballing over the years to what it is now.

My tour leader contibuting to the rabble
My tour leader contributing to the rabble

I sat down at one of the tables with the group I was travelling with at the time to order lunch. The tables and chairs were very high, and after ordering, I had a closer look at all the writing on the walls and ceiling. Most of it had been inscribed with a red permanent marker, but there was also plenty of black writing and a little blue as well.

The inscriptions were mostly people’s names, but there were a few creative comments in the mix as well. How people managed to write on the ceiling beat me. It was a good five metres above the ground and there didn’t seem to be enough loose furniture to be able to build anything high enough to safely reach it. The inscriptions even covered the paintings that hung on the walls. There must have been tens of thousands of inscriptions, added over decades no doubt. Today the walls and ceiling were so cluttered with inscriptions that the inscriptions were intermixed into one massive jumble.

Mr Lac setting up the beer bottles
Mr Lac setting up the beer bottles

My tour leader pointed out his name written particularly boldly straight across one of the paintings. This was a sepia photo of the owner of the restaurant. My tour leader will have over the years taken numerous groups to this restaurant and each time he would work a bit more on his inscription gradually expanding his stake in this place.

Lunch was nothing extraordinary by Vietnamese standards. That being said though all food here in Vietnam was absolutely amazing. All of the restaurants I had eaten at would leave anything you would get in any Australian restaurant for dead. All the food served here in Vietnam was very healthy and very tasty. This restaurant was no exception. The chicken stir fry I had with a lime juice was one of the nicest I have ever tasted.

Success with one very fast karate chop
Success with one very fast karate chop

We were finishing our lunch when Mr Lac, the owner of the restaurant, came out of the kitchen to see us. He was completely deaf and mute, but had successfully built this business from scratch and was apparently doing very well out of it.

We watched as he set up five bottles of beer, and put a crude bottle opener on each bottle. The bottle opener was nothing more than a simple stick with a screw fixed about half way in it. He lined them all up so the ends away from the bottle met at a common point. Then he performed a very fast karate chop instantly opening all the caps off the bottles at once to our raucous cheers.

Me doing my bit
Me doing my bit

He distributed them out to the drinkers in the group. Whilst they were drinking and our tour leader was adding to his piece of artwork over the painting of the king, the rest of us searched around the wall for some white space to add to the clutter of history.

Incidentally the only picture on the wall that doesn’t have any graffiti was an old photo montage of Mr Lac, his wife, and their seven children. This photo sat directly under the big sepia photo of Mr Lac. Obviously there was an unwritten rule here that the family photo is a taboo area, and he is obviously very proud of his family.

I finally found a slither of vertical space next to the sepia photo of Mr Lac where I wrote my name vertically down the wall.

After we had written on the wall, Mr Lac returned and told us the history of his family by drawing pictures on pieces of A3 paper on a large clipboard. The story showed his seven children and six grandchildren on his family tree. It was an amazing emotive story told by someone who was deaf, dumb and almost completely illiterate. In my opinion he had told his story better than most able bodied people would have done.

Mr Lac discussing his family
Mr Lac discussing his family

Despite Mr Lac’s obvious disability, he had successfully built a business that was doing very well. Here in Vietnam it seems nothing stops people from dreaming and achieving their dreams despite being in a country so much more unfortunate than us. Ironically in the West there are so many opportunities, yet those opportunities tend to get stifled by the excessive abundance of welfare programs. Here in Vietnam, people find their own way and overcome their obstacles. It was so refreshing to see that today.

If you are ever in the Lac Thien restaurant in Hue, be on the lookout for the graffiti I left on the far wall next to the painting my tour leader defaced. For the record this remains to this day the only graffiti I have ever left anywhere on the planet, but I was proud to have left my mark along with the countless thousands of others in such an inspiring restaurant.

Story from today:
Forbidden City of the Nguyen Dynasty

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15 October 2009





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