Back in Vietnam: Second Time’s the Charm

Pumpkin communique on the Mekong.

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.

The Reunification Palace in Saigon. I accidentally fell asleep in it.
The Reunification Palace in Saigon. I accidentally fell asleep in it.

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.

Duck hot pot shop in Can Tho.
Duck hot pot shop in Can Tho.

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.

Alley in Can Tho.
Alley in Can Tho.

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.

Can Tho grill master. He was awfully cute.

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.

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