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Lively Nightlife in the Streets of Saigon

March 15th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

For the first 2 hours of our presence in Vietnam, I had concerns that I wasn’t going like it.  The airport was a bit drab and dirty1, and even though the high schooler in me enjoyed a cheap laugh at the big sign plastering the wall beyond the immigrations counter, a sign which proudly proclaimed in bright bold letters “Get more Vietnamese Dong with Your Visa”2 I felt a little blah about entering what I presumed to be the imminent chaos of a hot, crowded, and polluted city.

Having assiduously avoided the hectic streets of Denpasar for most of our stay in Bali, I was essentially out of practice with the whole thing, or perhaps feeling greatly diminished patience for the genre of environments after getting so very cozy with the calmer rural life and/or the Australian suburbs and/or New Zealand’s outdoor wonderland.  Sure Singapore was crowded and bustling as well, but that was beyond reproach clean and orderly.

The city vibe I got from the cab ride was right in line with what I expected of the metropolis, so no luck with expectation-defying pleasant surprises there.  Fair enough, I would endure the big city for three or so days before heading north, and I would just have to suck it up and not fantasize too much about the neighboring rice terraces we’d left behind days ago.

Fortunately, that was about as much time as my malaise had to fester about the bustling city, for once we made it to our hotel (led by an eagerly helpful bellman from the cab to halfway down a side street which admits no cars) my concerns were quickly laid to rest.  The Beautiful Saigon III is the hotel Tracy booked us online before we arrived3, and ah, what a find.  Four star accommodations for about $40US a night, a small and tidy hotel with only 15 rooms on six floors and super friendly staff.  And sharply dressed, too!  Women in uniform, snazzy red satin dresses with the slit that comes up way up past the waste, but with flowing satin pants that come right on down from there to keep it classy.  Yeah, you know the look.

A few pieces of fruit from the complimentary basket in our room, a nap on the plush, king-sized bed, and the realization that our tucked-away hotel location makes a peaceful oasis from the hectic swirl all around had me clear that we were going to be just fine.

Welcome to Street Food Heaven

We took it easy in our post-nap forage for food that night, and picked one among the many touristy restaurants tucked into our little urban enclave.  A noodle dish with shrimps was tasty enough for sure, but the real magic of Saigon didn’t begin reveal itself until my next meal quest, when I took to the real streets for breakfast at 6:30am the next morning.

Like I said back in Bali, the real challenge of eating in other countries is often just a matter of training your eye to recognize the opportunities all around you.  The plexiglass box with a few little shelves upon a wheeled cart is a visual signal that will get you far in Vietnam.  Food cart.  I found one with a few baguettes in view on the shelf, and wandered over.  With a little sign language and a few words in English, the woman working the cart cracked open a baguette, spatula’d in some mayonnaise, laid in some slices of cheese, cuts of pork, tomatoes and cucumbers, and laid on 4 distinct kinds of sauce.  Not knowing what anything costs I handed her a 50,000 Dong note4, and she made me 35,000 in change, meaning my sandwich cost about 75-cents US.

And the taste?  Holy moly that’s good.  The French influence from the imperialist days is still well in tact, at least as far as the bread is concerned: the baguette was pure perfection.  It had the sort of soft crackle about it, that unfakeable tell of freshness in the highest.  The meat was cooked and spiced to perfection, and the produce was fresh, cool and crisp.  And the medley of four sauces?  It’s clear that there’s a reason for every one, for the combination is just so good in the way you just wouldn’t suspect a mere sandwich to be.

An 8-inch baguette that tastes this good for under a buck?  If anyone cracks the code of exporting Vietnamese sandwich food cart technology in a cost effective way, Subway is screwed.

But wait, there’s more.  All along the streets, amid the undifferentiated bustle of motorbikes coming and going, there are numerous restaurants comprised of a slightly fancier cart setup surrounded by few little tables, and just making eye contact with the women presiding over the operation is enough to fetch you an invitation to sit on down.  And by “little tables” and “sit on down” I do mean just that.  Street culture in Vietnam has no need for the pretense of “adult sized” tables which we are used to.

No, the tables you’ll find at street food joints are low to the ground, perhaps raising 18 inches off and with small plastic chairs that would barely qualify as footstools in a western country.  Think the kids table at Thanksgiving, but smaller.  And believe me, with my 6’5″ frame I have NO reservations about hunching over to enjoy a meal in this setup, not for variations of the stuffed baguette with fresh scrambled eggs, permutations on the theme of rice noodles, meat and veggies, and, my favorite staple of Vietnamese cuisine, pho.

You wanna know simple joys?  Sit down on a 6-inch stool in a dank alleyway and be served a big bowl of pho, accompanied by some of the most flavorful and fresh pho mix-ins (Thai basil, cilantro, onions, lemon wedges, alfalfa sprouts, and chopped chillies that are hot as hell) you’ve ever had.  While you eat this hot, brothy bowl of noodles and meat adorned with whatever compliment of vegetables and herbs suit your fancy, look across the alley at the woman pouring thick black liquid through a crude cloth filter, and know that she’s brewing up Vietnamese coffee, some of the most flavorful, caffeine-buzz inducing coffee you’ve ever tasted.  Order and sip that in this dank alley, and watch hoards of motorbikes zoom past 20 feet from your perch.

Then.  Then you will know simple joys, in this case a small sampling of the simple joys of Vietnam street life.

The experience will set you back about three bucks.

The nighttime is even better: more food carts of the portable and semi-portable variety, thumpin’ tunes from the clubs around, and sidewalks that swell to 10 or 15 feet deep in front of regular establishments, to accommodate little table seating for the masses assembled to enjoy food and 25-cent beers.  It’s the best street life I’ve encountered yet, and I thought of several guy friends back home with whom I’d love to hang out with in this environment for a mandate5.

Go check out Tracy’s blog for visuals of the Saigon street life.

Realizations through Remembrance

One of our main to-dos here in Saigon6 was to visit the War Remnants Museum.  Formerly known as the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” (and formerly formerly known as the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”), the museum gave what seemed to be a fair telling of the story from the non-US perspective.  Put another way, it wasn’t an over-the-top blame fest of the US.

Oh don’t get me wrong, in it were some legitimate gripes about our presence from ’61 to ’73.  In cultural references then (and perhaps a smidge now), what we call the “Vietnam war” is referred to as the “War of US Aggression”.  Numerous walls document news pieces of people and governments from around the world decrying the US involvement.  I recall reading a quote from Ho Chi Minh himself to the sensible effect of “In the future we’d prefer the US to let us, as a nation, work out our own internal conflicts, thankyouverymuch.”

Also poignant was a little education on Agent Orange, one of several chemicals sprayed by the US military all over the Vietnamese countryside which still continues to have lingering effects on the agriculture and livability vis-a-vis horrific deformations, cancer,  etc.  The widespread use of it to gain some sort of upper hand in the conflict just seems like a major middle finger to the slice of humanity who lives here.  All’s fair in love and war, I guess, but, I mean, Jesus.

Most moving  for me was seeing a tidy collection of honorary medals which belonged to a decorated US soldier who served in the war.  They were sent by the soldier back to Vietnam along with an inscription: “TO THE PEOPLE OF A UNITED VIETNAM.  I AM SORRY.  I WAS WRONG.”

My mom has a simple position on the abortion debate, and it goes roughly “How could you do that to a sweet, innocent baby?  No, no, you just don’t do that to a baby.  To a loving and cute baby?  No, you don’t do that.”  It is an argument which vastly oversimplifies and ignores any sort of surrounding context, but has a certain elegance.  As I took in the exhibits (and whilst in the thick of so far loving everything about this country and the people I’ve interacted with), her words on the matter popped into my head.  I found myself musing in earnest, complete with her sweet, old lady Midwest accent,  “How could you wage war against these people? Oh, they’re a lovely people and a lovely culture.  No, no, you just won’t wage war against the Vietnamese.  No, you just don’t do that.”

Some days it bums me out that we don’t live in a world where reasoning from such fundamental elements isn’t sufficient to settle the decision making processes.  I would love the deliciousness of a country’s cuisine and coffee to be a strong enough case to not wage war, but I grant that as a species we’re not there yet.

As we left and walked the bustling streets back to our neighborhood, a realization popped into my head, one that might seem trivial at first glance but was (for me) a profound realization.  “Hey Tracy, you know what’s awesome?”  “Um, no, what?”

“Peace,” I replied.  “Peace is FUCKING AWESOME.

“I mean, when there’s peace you can really do some shit.  You can enjoy time at a food cart, and leisurely read a book, and build civilization.  Man, peace is so great.”

I think thus far I’ve lived something north of 99% of my waking moments taking peace for granted.

Notes:

  1. Not that the utterly world class airport that is Singapore’s is an easy act to follow.
  2. I’m totally serious about this.  Though to be clear, it’s not the suggestion that it might appear to be, that the global credit card company is somehow advocating the opportunity for elevated consumerism of male prostitution and/or whatnot in the southeast Asian country through use of its financial instruments.  Nope, “Dong” is the unit of currency in this fine nation, rendering this otherwise striking fodder for juvenile comedy a strictly above-the-board financial proposition.  Ahem.
  3. This new strategy represents an early-stage foray of our new “We’re Getting too Old For this Shit” program, here specifically regarding the ritual of wandering aimlessly with full baggage looking for accommodations.
  4. I got a lotta Dong with my Visa, if you know what I mean.  And since you’re the type to read these footnotes, the answer is yes, yes you do.
  5. Yes, the plane ticket price will override any savings realized from consuming cheap beer, I know.  It’s still a way cool experience.
  6. Or, as it’s officially known, Ho Chi Minh City.  Did I mention that yet?  After the north won the war, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.  But it turns out an edict from on high to map makers and signage crews doesn’t necessarily get through to the whole populace’s parlance, not even after 37 years and counting.
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