I love my job at GlobalPost extra this time of year: the time of the year when our restive world begins clamoring for end-of-the-year wrap-ups of really silly things.
Add in an impending Mayan apocalypse, and you’ve basically got my idea of career heaven. If only we could have a towering inferno and a hotly contested presidential election every year. (No, that would be terrible).
It’s 2:15 AM here in Cambodia and I have seen exactly no one running by my window in flames. Zero Mayan death beasts. Satan has not yet stalked by my hotel room, carrying a flaming trident.
Do apocalypses require some time to rev up? Should I go to bed? I’d like to approach the end times with eyes wide-open. Or at least see it coming when I’m vaporized into indistinct oblivion.
I was merely 11 years old during the last apocalypse in 2000, and my primary memories of that earlier end-time involved watching Sponge Bob re-runs and drinking sparkling apple cider until I got tired. This was less than thrilling.
CNN is no use: they’re just talking about some boring errata about Bernie Madoff’s brother. And showing grainy footage of equally boring, non-flaming tourists walking around Chichen Itza, looking all nonchalant. (SOME OF THEM ARE EVEN BACKPACKERS).
They sit in authentic-seeming cafes that are secretly made just for them, wearing technicolored tie-die pants and scribbling seriously away in twee Moleskine notebooks. They congregate in great hordes in backpacker-approved areas, drinking beer out of strange, unwashed receptacles and showing one another their interesting, “ethnic” tattoos.
They carouse until late hours of the evening, and are fond of playing dub-step music right above your head when you’re attempting to drift off to sleep. They will, as a friend recently reported, freak out when they’re overcharged 12 baht for a lousy Khao San road hotel room, and will trek for miles to ensure they get a somewhat-cheaper pad thai lunch—and they will decide that looking at rice paddies for days on end “gets kinda annoying.”
By any measure, they are a pox on humanity.
However. I’m being a hypocrite.
Because by any standard, I too am a backpacker when I travel abroad. I’m in the right age demographic. I’m traveling independently. I’m not exactly over-endowed with money. I even write things.
So why do I hate my fellow backpackers so much? Why can’t we just kumbuya, maybe have some poorly advised sexual relations, go zip-lining together?
Herein lies the contradiction: I’m pretty sure most backpackers hate other backpackers, too. Sure, they might hang out with each other. Make out with each other. Drink curious blue liquids out of buckets together.
But I suspect many of these backpackers are secretly thinking of one another: “If only you weren’t here. Then I’d be having a real adventure.”
This is likely the root of the problem.
BE A TRAVELER, NOT A TOURIST!
Most backpackers adhere to the Anthony Bourdain view of travel, wherein the milling and zombie-like hordes are “tourists” and the clear-eyed and intrepid and attractive are “travelers,” who grab unsuspecting exotic locales by the nuts and seize the day, or something like that—I may have become lost in the metaphor.
Third world countries like Cambodia, where I live, tend to attract more of the Traveler flavor, who started trickling in here after the war ended and have never really let up, eager to tell their friends about the Killing Fields, avaricious tuk-tuk drivers, and that time they did shrooms in Sihanoukville in roughly the above order.
Travelers here in Southeast Asia, like in all locales, really like to feel that they’re the only person ever to gaze upon the curious expanses of the Irrawaddy, the towering pyramid of Koh Ker, or that sparkly and probably mythological white-sand beach that requires a water-buffalo ride and a small-scale vision quest to reach. They are concerned with street cred.
Travelers (capital-T) not so secretly wish that they could be intrepid explorers of a latter era, able to claim they had fair-and-square discovered a place to those mouse-like folks back home—never mind how many natives were actually contentedly living in it at the time. (I submit Angkor Wat as a sterling example of this principle).
Unfortunately, this is all but impossible these days as the world becomes ever flatter and more globalized, forcing Travelers to either take greater and greater risks (hard, expensive) or live in a state of what can only be called denial—denial that they are not the first Westerner to set foot in the Deep Dark Catacombs of Prince Wazoo of Ancient Eastern Laos. If they can convince their friends back home that they are intrepid—well, that’s probably enough.
Showing the folks back home how sexy and adventurous you are is a major priority indeed, and this explains the Moleskine notebooks, which usually harbor profound observations that will make it into a critically-acclaimed book someday. Or at the very least, a Tumblr blog called “Epic Adventures” or “GETTING OFF THE GRID” or “Sexy Girl 24 Globetrotter.” Extra points if these blogs include a photo of you eating a tarantula.
BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THESE SWORN NATURAL ENEMIES MEET?
In some exotic locales, a chance meeting between backpackers becomes something of a Texas standoff, involving two somewhat unwashed people wearing Camelbaks, water sandals, and practical waterproof travelers pants in an earth tone.
There will be a lot of side-eye and glaring and pretending the other doesn’t actually exist, or, preferably, can actually be willed out of existence. They will take photographs at opposite ends of the attraction from one another, and will mutter darkly under their breath if their fellow Westerner accidentally ambles into a shot, entirely ruining its profound authenticity. The two backpackers will be forced to circle one another like jackals around a kill, sizing one another up.
If a conversation does occur, there will often be protracted one-up-mans-ship. This can escalate quickly.
“Oh, you didn’t take a row-boat steered by a triple amputee down the Clackabacky Rapids of Sudden Death? What a shame—that was the highlight of my trip,” says one backpacker, looking intensely bored as he chews on an imported Kudos granola bar.
The rival counters, clutching her bottled water with dogged intensity:
“I rode a mossy log down the Clackabacky Rapids of Sudden Death 20 years ago, when the triple amputee was just a double-amputee. We were nearly eaten by a crocodile. It was way better back then, I’m telling you.”
This conversation may continue for hours, but one thing is clear: these two will continue to not-so-secretly think the other totally sucks. Or at least has a stupid face.
Travelers do occasionally come together in dive bars, where they can continue to one-up each other over beverages and local, somewhat unsuccessful approximations of Western cuisine. Later, they may come to some form of mild understanding over some of the local booze: preferably the hyper authentic variety renowned both for its extreme potency and its ability to induce sudden, horrifying blindness.
DO TOURISTS HATE EACH OTHER?
Not all tourists hate one another—tourists, of course, being what your average Traveler so fervently wishes to avoid with every atom of his or her being.
The average visitor to Disney World or the Louvre or Big Ben may harbor a certain white-hot hatred towards the people in front of them in an ever-expanding line, but they likely do not loathe the others simply for having the audacity to be there.
The average Tourist, for that matter, is not generally under the impression that they are expressing some sort of innate, wild pioneer spirit by taking Billy and Bobby and the ol’ lady to see Mickey Mouse, Niagara Falls, or Rome over the summer holidays.
When Tourists do manage to infiltrate an adventure-travel destination, the Travelers in the vicinity will often react to their presence as if they had suddenly been assaulted by a swarm of camera-toting bees.
The Travelers will often decamp en-masse from a formerly lovely spot when the Hawaiian-shirt attired masses make their appearance, speaking loudly among one another about the evils of tourism, tour guides, and the Industrial Entertainment System, or something like that. I think the argument all comes down to capitalism—those sort of arguments almost always do. Try not to be too offended if this happens to you, Tourist: hey, now you’ve got that beauty spot all to yourself!
If a Traveler happens to stand really really close to your tour group so he or she can listen to your guide’s informative spiel, while still managing to look bored and unconcerned, do not be alarmed. That is just a Travelers special way of expressing how useless tour guides really are!
SO, YOU’RE BASICALLY A HYPOCRITE.
I was drinking the Anthony Bourdain Kool-Aid from the age of 15 on, when I acquired a copy of “A Cook’s Tour” at a London book-sale and was forever turned into the sort of warped person who considers drinking cobra blood and contracting unmentionable parasites an enviable tourism goal.
I can also successfully blame my up-bringing: my grandfather was known for telling stories of drinking still-warm deer blood from the twitching carcass when he went hunting in Korea, ye these many moons ago.
Both my grandparents are in fact fond of telling me exciting adventure travel stories from their years in Asia and Europe, then ending it with a rather depressive—yet–haughty “But of course, I’m certain it’s ruined now” postscript. (Love you guys!)
So you could say that blood-drinking and adventure travel, the somewhat snobby kind, are endeavors I was destined to pursue from an early age—and you should direct all complaints to my relatives.
How do I travel? Usually scornfully, if I’m on a particular banana-pancake-suffused track.
I am not sure scornful travel is particularly pleasant, as one does spend quite a bit of time wishing that men who wear Angkor Beer tank-tops in public, revealing their lobster pink shoulders and hairy nipples, would kindly cut it out. That takes a lot out of you.
Further, this does cut down on my social opportunities, as if I step into a backpacker bar with reasonably priced mixed cocktails and esoteric local beer, there is a very high probability that I will be forced to listen to a man with remarkably poorly-maintained dreadlocks tell me how “Into the Wild,” like, changed his life.
And if that happens to me one more time, so help me Christ, I will move to Iowa and sit in a corn field and never talk to anyone ever again.
That’s a lie. Also that book was OK. I don’t want to know what you thought about it.
Also; I don’t carry a Moleskine notebook, but I do write about travel and in fact even occasionally have a rudimentary, deep thought. You’re reading this, for example.
SO WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT ALL THIS BACKPACKER HATE?
This is an interesting philosophical question. I suppose we could start with an international Anthony Bourdain ban, but I’m pretty sure the damage has already been done. It is too late for that.
I might ask why it really matters, if this is a problem actually in need of fixing. The essence of backpacking is a prickly desire to get away from it all, to bust out of one’s old paradigms—to make discoveries, even if they are not exactly new to science.
Adventure necessitates novelty: many backpackers would rightly wonder they’re even bothering if everyone else has been down the same old beaten track. Basically, backpackers are hipsters wearing about 20 percent less chic clothing.
Furthermore: I have derived some measure of pleasure out of somewhat confrontational one-ups-man-ship discussions at various bars around the world. Inadvertently, we learn from one another. Sometimes we even befriend one another, allowing us to swap travel tips and mildly disapprove of each other with the great equalizer of the Internet.
So I say: backpackers, keep on hating on each other.
Something would be forever lost from the adventure travel world without that small, pedantic spirit of superiority. We might as all just book ourselves on package tours, then.
Want to visit an Internet cafe in downtown Phnom Penh? If the government has its way, that might not be an option for too much longer.
New circular 1815 has been put out by the Cambodian government that states that Internet cafes shouldn’t be allowed to operate within 500 meters of schools or educational institutions. Further, people under 18 won’t be allowed to use Internet cafes either, and no one will be allowed to play “all kinds of games.” Why?
Because Cambodians are apparently engaging in terrorism, economic crimes, and even looking at pornography with the benefit of the Internet. (And here I thought they were all just playing Facebook). You can read the circular in Khmer here.
OK. These directives sound simple enough, if rather insulting—until you take into account just how many schools there really are here in Phnom Penh.
Human rights NGO LICADHO is on the case—and they’ve produced a rather damning map of Cambodian schools, with the requisite 500 meter No Internet Zone drawn around them. As you can see, that leaves essentially no room for Internet cafes to operate, and spells big trouble for the many already extant within the red-zones. Problem.
What would happen if an Internet cafe is caught within the red zone, or if a “crime” is committed on the premises? The circular, according to LICADHO, says the shop would be closed, all the equipment would be confiscated, and owners would face arrest. No big.
Furthermore, average Cambodian Internet users would suddenly find themselves with very limited access to information—likely the intended result of the circular.
“There is nowhere for the Internet cafes to go,” said Urban Voice Cambodia team member Nora Lindström at a mapping meeting last night of the new circular.
“That means only people who have personal computers can access the Internet, while people who are using Internet cafes will not be able to access the internet. This is a issue of freedom of expression, and freedom to access information.”
I’ve got to wonder how exactly this directive might apply to hotels and cafes that provide free computers for customers to use, although they’re not primarily “Internet cafes” as such. I have a rather sneaking suspicion that lucrative businesses that cater primarily to Internet-addicted foreigners would probably be able to get away with an exemption—or at least some healthy bribes.
Sure, it’s unclear exactly how much power a “circular” actually has to effect change here in Cambodia, or if this is likely to ever become law. But the fact it’s floating around at all is a disturbing indication that the Cambodian government is looking into restricting its relatively free Internet, following the deeply dubious lead of China, an influential friend to the Hun Sen regime.
Furthermore, they’re doing it in a way that’s downright condescending. Did they really think the pro-Internet freedom lobby would fail to notice and condemn this immediately?
Finally: even if this measure never becomes law, it’s enough of a Sword of Damocles over the heads of Internet cafe owners. It could easily be used as a rationale for unscrupulous sorts in the government to collect hefty bribes from owners if they want to continue operating. As we well know, that could get ugly.
No one knows exactly where these cafes are in relation to schools, and putting them down on paper could help alert the owners whose businesses are at risk of closure, or at least serious extortion.
Furthermore, this action would indicate to the government that Internet freedom supporters are absolutely paying attention—and a supposedly “sneaky” circular like the Internet Cafe rule is by no means going to go unnoticed.
“We want to crowd-source the location of all the Internet cafes in PP, because whether or not the government decides to implement this decree—which seems unimplementable—it does allow them threaten and intimidate owners of internet cafes to pay bribes to continue operating,” said Nora Lindström.
So if you’ve got any time this week and are an advocate of the free Internet in Cambodia, head to Urban Voice Cambodia and document your friendly neighborhood Internet cafe. You can submit a report here, and it’s a very easy process. Every little bit helps.
The Connecticut shootings are horrifying. But they’ve also got me thinking about demographics and jail-time.
Could it be that one reason we see mostly (but by no means exclusively) privileged white male shooters is because they’re better-shielded from prison at a young age, unlike their poorer/and or minority counterparts?
We’re well aware that young white and Asian males form the majority of school shooters, especially those who have achieved mass media notoriety in recent times. We also know that the majority of these shooters have a history of mental illness of some kind, often undiagnosed, not-noticed, or just plain ignored by the people in their lives: Mother Jones wrap-up of 61 cases of spree shootings in the last 30 years indicates that at least 38 of the perpetrators had some history of mental illness.
What about mentally ill young men of color, or those from poorer families—and why don’t they tend to commit as many of these spree killings?
Jail might be a factor in this.
It’s clear that young men of color are a lot more likely to serve jail-time than their white counterparts. 2010 stats show that 37 percent of male inmates between the age of 18 and 29 are black, and 23 percent are Hispanic. If we look at young men between age 20 and 24, 8 percent of these black youth are incarcerated, as opposed to 1.3 percent of whites. That’s a pretty yawning gap.
So, all this conspires to see considerably more young men of color behind bars at an early age, the same age when a number of these spree killings take place, than their white counterparts.
If these young men of color are suffering from a mental illness, as a worryingly high number of the incarcerated do—well, the odds that they’ll be in the prison system at a very early age just get higher.
Many experts and workers in the field say that the prison and juvenile detention system have been forced to take the place of mental hospitals and community mental health resources in recent years. It’s difficult for many kids to access mental health care before they commit a crime, and when they do, it’s likely they’ll be bounced around the system for years to come.
When young white kids are funneled into the system, some research indicates they tend to be given more lenient sentences. Look at Jared Loughner and the two Columbine shooters, who were all convicted of minor offenses before their fatal spree, and were able to complete diversion programs as penance. None of these young men served any jail-time—and one wonders what the outcome might have been if they were young minorities instead.
Another potential reason why young white men with mental illnesses stay out of prison long enough to commit these crimes?
With the benefit of financial resources, time, at least somewhat-involved families, and decent schools, these troubled young men’s problems can be swept under the table, temporarily alleviated, or flat-out ignored for longer that might be the case for their counterparts—in other words, all solutions that don’t involve being removed from the general population.
Adam Lanza’s mother was able to home-school her son when the school system (as it currently appears) declined to deal with him any longer. Eric Harris was attending sessions with a psychologist right up until he committed his murders, and from most accounts, did a terrifyingly good job of convincing the mental health professional that he was on the up-and-up.
Now, why do middle-aged men—who comprise a good number of the shooters—do it?
The above data is a lot less helpful. But the fact they’re still a lot less likely to be incarcerated than their minority counterparts might be at least one piece of the puzzle.
For such a pork-obsessed country, the Vietnamese do a remarkably good job with vegetarian food. Especially vegetarian food that cleverly simulates meat.
I’ve heard that vegetarian restaurants used to be fairly uncommon in Vietnam, and were often run by nuns as a side-business. However, as the Vietnamese become more health (and obesity) conscious, vegetarian restaurants have begun to crop up, especially in places where young people congregate—like Can Tho, in Vietnam’s South.
Unlike the righteous vegetarian establishments of the West, Vietnamese veggie joints do their damnedest to simulate meat, right down to the appropriate shape and texture. What is surprising is how successful they are. When you walk into these places and peer into the hot case, it seems only natural that you’re looking at fried pork, chicken wings, and roasted duck.
But—surprise—it’s not that at all. It’s largely tofu, TVP, and other vegetarian-friendly proteins molded into familiar shapes. Strangest of all? It tastes great.
How to order at these places? As is the norm when you don’t speak Vietnamese: see something palatable, and point at it. The ladies behind the counter will get the message soon enough. Point at various things and they’ll all come to you in due time, including goi cuon (fresh spring rolls), stir-fried bitter melon, surprisingly delicious simulated BBQ pork, and simple sauteed vegetables.
Our meals came with clear soup for no perceptible reason – but it was good. You can also usually order simple noodle soups at these places, with vegetables substituted for the usual meat. Vegetarian bun bo hue or pho? It’s eminently possible.
Best of all? They’re usually dirt cheap. The frugal eater is well-provided for in Vietnam.
VY DA QUAN, 62 LY TU TRONG, HO CHI MINH CITY The best Vietnamese food is consumed on the street or near it, off tiny tables that appear designed to accommodate intractable five-year-olds not yet allowed to eat with the grownups. There will be little blue plastic chairs to sit in—sometimes red, on rare occasions—and this is simply how it is done. The very tall must adapt to their new-found circumstances.
Saigon has a number of excellent little restaurants of this genre, which cater primarily to locals (and occasionally the Western significant others of locals). The menus are usually translated, often hilariously, into English, and there’s always the infallible technique of “point at something you find tasty and communicate in pantomime until it hits your table.”
A great example of this genre is Vy Da Quan, which spreads brashly out into the street in downtown Saigon, off Ly Tu Trong Street. There’s a thick and glossy menu, and a grill working overtime near the back, serving up pork ribs, frogs, chicken feet and whole fish, among other culinary delights. A more expensive (and also good) restaurant that caters more to a foreigner market next door has full size tables and chairs—you’ll know you’re in the right spot by the kiddie sized tables. Blend in.
Vy Da Quan is perhaps best known for its remarkable pork ribs, which are served in somewhat maddeningly small portions—perhaps best to order 2 or 3 at a go. They are marinated in some unholy fish sauce, chili, and sugar concoction and then are grilled over a hot flame, caramelizing the sugar and intensifying the flavor of chili and pork fat.
They also a superb raw beef salad here (Bo Tai Chanh), a surprisingly refreshing concoction of uncooked beef marinated in lime juice, with onions and a whopping variety of herbs. A superb summer dish, this goes nicely with anything hot or too heavy. Variants on this dish exist across the region, and I’ve encountered it often in Cambodia.
Balancing out the not-so-subtle ribs was a dish of clams cooked in fresh pepper and lime sauce, which was really quite sublime—a subtle, slightly sweet and piquant interpretation of a classic Vietnamese favorite. This can either be under-or-overdone, but in this case, the sauce was eminently drinkable. You might want to order bread to go with, or at least put it on your rice. (More on that later).
Morning glory was excellent, cooked with oyster sauce and with an interesting topping of smashed, deep-fried garlic cloves with the “paper” still attached. This creates a little chew if you don’t feel like removing the paper, and seems to protect the cloves to some extent so they don’t get so hard as to be inedible. Most importantly, the water spinach was perfectly cooked, and wasn’t rendered a chewy and fibrous mess as sometimes occurs. (And who doesn’t like having an invasive species for dinner?)
Even the usually-lackluster (and omnipresent) fried rice gets an upgrade here—the usual combination stuff with fried rice, squid, carrot, peas, and chicken. A dining buddy happens to be deathly allergic to shrimp, so we passed on that. The fried rice was pleasingly a bit crunchy, and we soon deduced that it appears to have either been scraped off the bottom of the pot, or left to sit for just a minute or two in the oil to create such a pleasing texture. Some Middle Eastern cultures place great value on the crunchy rice left at the bottom of the pot: we’re not sure if this was even intentional, but it was awfully good.
We were flagrantly stuffed, but then we purchased spring rolls off the street from a guy, because that’s what one does in Vietnam. These beauties contained Vietnamese sausage, noodles, and fresh vegetables, and were served with a pleasing dipping sauce. I actually managed to finish mine, but it took (somewhat literally) a bit of intestinal fortitude to pull it off. It is worth pointing out that once you have made eye-contact with the spring roll guy, you are going to be buying a spring roll. Don’t fight it. They cost like 50 cents.
Vy Da Quan isn’t technically allowed to spread out on the street as far as it does, but there’s always a bit of mission creep. You might be apologetically shifted if the fuzz do come sniffing around—but you’ll survive. That’s half the fun of eating like you’re Vietnamese: tiny chairs, tiny tables, adaptability—and some of the best, most value-priced cuisine in the world.
Saigon is a food city—among the best in the world. A place of endless configurations and reconfigurations, it’d be almost impossible to sample an iota of the good stuff on offer here.
However, I can at least try (over the next few decades of my anticipated Asia travel—assuming the world fails to end, Saigon does not slide inexorably into the sea, and we’re not all forced to subsist entirely on tofu and insects) to sample as many pork products as this fair city can offer me. I will call it “research.” *
The Vietnamese are extremely fond of com tam, a phrase I will artfully translate as “broken rice with stuff on top of it, usually of a meaty sort.” This is a very simple concept, but as “rice with stuff on it” is a rather yawningly enormous category, com tam stalls also vary to a mind-boggling extent, from sliced elderly sausage on crunchy rice (rare) to delectable local specialties served with love and kindness. (Much more common, this is Vietnam).
As some are awesome, it would befit you to peer into com tam stalls on a regular basis and see if anything fantastic is going on. Then you might discover dishes such as the Platonic Ideal Vietnamese Porkchop, served at Com Tam Ngyuen-Van-Cu, which is located at…167 Ngyuen Van Cu street in Saigon. Vietnamese restaurant names are delightfully uncomplicated.
The restaurant actually features full-sized tables, which is rather shockingly decadent. Your choices consist of: a pork-chop on rice, a pork-chop on rice with a fried egg on top, and a pork-chop on rice accompanied by a delicious clear beef soup. We chose the third option.
Unlike most Vietnamese pork-chops, wispy and rather small things, Com Tam Ngyuen Van Cu appears to source its meat from enormous mutant Southeast Asian pigs, which incidentally taste fantastic.
Marinated in what is doubtless some sort of secret concoction involving chili, sugar, fish sauce, and the tears of unicorns, the pork-chops are then grilled to perfection, allowing the marinade to caramelize slightly, and for the meat to drip with delicious juices.
These juices are soaked up by the delicate broken-rice—and once you’re done with that, you’re left with a hefty pork chop bone to chew upon. No one will judge you here.
This place isn’t open for dinner, but they do stay open for breakfast and lunch. Really best if you can time it for when they’re pulling them fresh off the grill, but you won’t object if they’ve been sitting for a minute or two. I promise.
I discovered aforementioned Platonic Porkchop due to a good friend of mine, who has been coming to Vietnam for upwards of 20 years and has a remarkable ability to sniff out good restaurants. I really enjoy traveling with her because I am relieved of my usual duties of figuring out where the hell to eat, and can instead happily follow along on a culinary adventure without feeling weirdly culpable for anyone’s food-borne unhappiness.
* One of the biggest advantages of being a journalist with a travel focus is that one can justify just about any pleasureable activity as “research,” including certain sexual favors depending on the nature of one’s paying publication.
Indeed, I have justified weird things from renting motorbikes to ride in deathly Vietnamese rush-hour traffic, to watching endless episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, to consuming large plates of dubiouc snails on the basis of “research”—and the most remarkable part is that one’s family and friends who are not journalists rarely question this basic assertion. Any-who, I’d best wrap this piece up, I’m doing some “research” on attractive CNN anchors reporting from the Middle East. Or wherever. I’ve got the sound off.
An extremely worrisome incident that has got me thinking about the rights of dam workers in Southeast Asia. We know in the West that working on dams is not the safest of endeavors—but that’s not exactly a major concern in this region of the world.
I have questions, which I’ll try to get answered over the next couple days:
Were these workers Chinese or Khmer? How much were they getting paid? Will their families receive any compensation? How many incidents like this have happened?
Many of us oppose the dams due to their potential environmental and economic impacts, but we might be discounting the human impact on these workers, too.
Vietnam: my first trip here was perfunctory and cut short due to personal reasons I won’t air in public. This was disappointing: I spent barely a week in Vietnam and got to try almost none of the food, which I’d been dreaming about sampling since I picked up a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s “Cooks Tour” at the tender age of 15.
Bourdain’s rhapsodic noises about the Real Foodiness of Vietnam stuck with me for years, and although we do get pretty good Vietnamese cuisine in Northern California, I knew quite well that it wasn’t the same. Lacking something. Bereft of the really-real essence de Indochine. So on this trip—which I took on a bit of lark, due to the unforeseen expensiveness and crowded-ness of Myanmar right now—I’ve had a delightful time eating everything in sight. I am often unable to identify what I am eating, but this is little barrier. I want to learn to speak Vietnamese someday: true to form, I shall begin with the food words.
Traveling with a friend who’s been in Asia for a very long time and speaks Vietnamese has certainly helped: it’s remarkable how good food tastes when consumed from the dubious pedestal of a two-foot-tall plastic chair, and when you have some vague idea of what you’re eating beforehand, a bit of back-story. There have been many pleasant surprises.
Many Westerners are stymied by Vietnamese food because the restaurants are hard to see: unlike the brick and mortar structures we’re used to in the West, many Vietnamese eateries are temporal, transportable entities. One might think of it as a nation of pop-up-restaurants and food trucks: you are more likely to run across something nice, and have it be gone forever the next time, than you are to be able to count on anything.
This is very Vietnam, and makes every meal-time something of an exhilarating treasure hunt. If you are not the type willing to make every meal a treasure hunt, you may indeed come across some dreadful food. But eating in restaurants, the formal sort with air-conditioning and chairs made for normal size humans…well, that’s not really the point here, most of the time.
Course’, there’s more to Vietnam than eating things—though some may debate the point. I’m quite enjoying the people, who really do remind of the New Yorkers of Southeast Asia. More brusque and direct than Cambodians, but very eager to welcome you to their table or share their meal with you if you strike up a conversation. Commenting on the food of a Vietnamese person will usually result in you being given some of that food (so you may want to tread a bit carefully).
Supposedly the Vietnamese are now among the happiest people in the world. I can believe it: they seem to live pretty eminently civilized lives, centered around food and chatting while sitting in the aforementioned small plastic chairs, arranged in semi-circles right on the street. The USA has lost this communal street culture in most places—New Orleans being a stark exception—and I hope that Vietnam manages not to go the same way.
What else do I like about Saigon? It transmogrifies from hour to hour during the day, to an extent I’ve witnessed nowhere else. It is hard to navigate by landmark in Saigon because things are moved, removed, and changed from one time of day to another: what is a banh mi shop in the morning may turn into a pho bo shop, then summarily vanish and be replaced with someone selling cellphone cards and random toiletries, who may then wander away—to have his or her spot replaced by a lady selling plate after plate of Technicolor-snails to late night drinkers.
This schizophrenia must be terrifying to those who thrive on sameness, but I happen to be the type who isn’t quite comfortable if I’m not bewildered. I am very fond of Saigon. Can Tho was also very nice: a quiet, Mekong-delta small city with good food and a pleasingly relaxed aura.
There’s also a floating market with a small armada of pineapple boats, a Roman themed coffee shop frequented by chirpy students with oddly thought-out haircuts, and a number of somewhat concealed condom shops. And a major research university, choc-a-block with friendly students in sweat pants who really want to have a simple conversation with you about America. One can’t really go wrong.
More to come on Vietnam. So many food photos to pick through.