Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Lunch Lady, The Crickets

I wake up famished after a relatively light night of eating and drinking and excited for our planned trip to the bottom of District 1 where we should be able to get our first banh mi of the trip. Being a breakfast dish not too popular at this end of town, it's been difficult to find. We're heading to one that is well regarded and reputed to be run by a family of transvestites, which is the sort of tourist attraction I like to see when I'm on holidays. Monuments be gone.

But things aren't looking good. The six of us are split between two rooms at the hotel and the other room is in a poor condition to say the least. They're 30 minutes late to our planned meeting time due to various digestive issues, putting everyone in a fairly pensive, cautious mood.

That isn't helped when we arrive to the banh mi place and find that it's closed for the day. Back into “where are the locals eating?” mode and we find ourselves at some sort of rice place with fried and braised meats. It's not too great and it causes a fissure in the group, with the sick and cautious almost instantly deciding to head back to the hotel to rest for the day.

Only two of us remain and after a quick stroll I decide to go and check out the Lunch Lady that was made famous by the show No Reservations for her one soup a day menu. We eventually find her down a side street, conducting a soupy opera from behind her cart, thanks to the show, which now serves dozens of tables at a time. It's also the site of one of the largest populations of whiteys in Saigon.

You sit down and if you're a said whitey they'll also hook you up with some spring rolls and fried cakes from neighbouring stores. You can wave them off it you want, but for like 50c there isn't much point. Saturday is usually banh cahn day. Crab broth, crab “udon”, prawns, pork, quail eggs and some sausagey things. The broth is loaded with flavour, complex and rich but not over the top. All of the ingredients perfectly cooked. There might be better soup places in the city, but this is a good stop.

We head back to the hotel to check on the patients and the scene isn't good. Their hotel room is like an opium den that has had all opium removed to make room for dead bodies. The lights are off and the curtains drawn further closed than seemed physically possible; the air con is off and the windows aren't open so the air is hot and stale; they groan at the sight of light when we enter, with different levels of enthusiasm. It's going to be just the two of us for dinner too.

Tired from the day--and on a caffeine/sugar crash after our delicious Vietnamese coffees--we aren't feeling like doing much at all, so we head to a well regarded local BBQ place for dinner called Luong Son Qun. It's kind of a Korean BBQ joint that has most animals on the menu. We grab the beef and ostrich that you cook yourself on the charcoal grill on the table, some crunchy fried crickets (kind of like popcorn with legs; fried scorpion next time) and a couple of other things. With some cold Tiger Crystal beers on the side it's a pretty killer meal. Not cheap by Viet standards but significantly cheaper than the Sydney equivalent.

Back at the hotel everyone is still close to death. I crack some beers that I got from a convenience store because I hadn't seen before. They're pretty horrible. The other one not sick is starting to fade with every new beer I crack. What condition will he be in tomorrow morning? What condition will everyone else be in tomorrow? Saigon, you are a cruel mistress.

Lost in the Flow

We're still buzzing from the night before, where the gates to Saigon food was finally opened to us, and decide to start things off with a quick bowl of pho at a place a couple of doors down from the hotel that always has a pretty steady clientele. The broth is weaker (perhaps because we hit it just after the morning rush) so it's not as good as Pho Hoa from the day before, but it's solid enough and we're relieved that we have a pho option nearby when we feel like kicking off the day.

One of the extremely frustrating things here is that, while food is quite plentiful and there is no shortage of places to eat nearby, we have to play it fairly smart and avoid a lot of them because of their questionable hygiene. And with restaurants here usually only specialising in one dish and people generally eating certain dishes at certain times, you need to time your meals. Everywhere else I've been on holiday it's been easy to find tasty food at all hours. But here it's actually really hard to find a place that satisfies all the criterion of a) clean(ish), b) open, c) selling food that's identifiable and d) serves something you want. In the mood for something good and fried at night? Going to be walking a LONG way. Want to get something quick to takeaway and eat at the hotel room while chilling out? Good luck finding that.

As a result of that and all the walking, I think I'm actually losing weight.

And that's a strange holiday experience. The foreign takeaway places are starting to look tempting to fill in the gaps. It goes against everything I've stood for in trips so far, but maybe I can convince myself it's okay if I head for an Asian outlet like Lotteria.

For lunch we head to a touristy restaurant in the middle of District 1 that has a bunch of stalls, all specialising in a couple of dishes that you would find around Vietnam. You order off a combined menu and they go to the various stalls and get the food.

Banh xeo is a dish I was pretty keen to try over here so that was a must order. It's a crepe stuffed with prawn, chicken and a few other things, named for the sizzling sound of the batter. Super tasty.

Banh beo is another one. Steamed rice flour cakes topped with dried prawns.

You're paying a lot more at this place than on the street, but it's convenient and comfortable so a nice change of pace from sitting on small stools and plastic chairs.

Dinner time sends us towards a pork and vermicelli place at the western end of District 1 that came well recommended. Though we get there and it's closed, so we have to again look for places that seem a) clean(ish), b) have good looking food, and c) look popular with locals. Thankfully we're close to the Tan Dinh market which has some stalls open at night, many selling the typical Saigon dish of broken rice (com tam). We end up and one and order it with a variety of porky goodness. Fermented sausage is a highlight and has me regretting my pork chop. Sugar cane juice (nuoc mia) on the side gives the dish a super tasty sweet/savoury balance and all up it's only $2. We walk around a bit more, thinking we might get more food, but nothing satisfies the requirements.

We eventually end up at Hoa Vien Brauhaus, apparently Vietnam's first craft beer brewery, for a drink and small bite. Their beers are pretty solid imitation of Czech beers and, while not too great, make a nice change to the shitty cheap Viet lagers we've been drinking so far. The food looks overpriced so we don't bother.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Snails, Embryos, Frogs

A new day dawns and the clock strikes AppropriateTimeForPho. We head down to Pasteur street and the well regarded (and moderately touristy) Pho Hoa for a bowl of the good stuff.

I've never been the sort of person to wax lyrical about pho and I'm not going to start here. This bowl of pho did not change my life. It was, however, extremely delicious. It's a fairly clear broth but one packed with beefy goodness. So much flavour that it belies the clarity of the broth. The soup is in balance, the herbs are fresh, the noodles nicely cooked and slippery and it's only $2.50 AUD. That's a lot for a bowl of pho over here, but still dirt cheap where we're from. It hits the spot.

After the pho we start walking around a bit and acclimatising ourselves to the traffic. Much is said about the traffic here and the complete lack of order and obedience to the rules, but it misses the point. There's a graceful flow to the chaos: the bigger the vehicle, the more right of way it has; stay moving straight and at a consistent speed and everything will flow around you; honking can be used to express disappointment but is also used a lot to indicate your presence.

Lunch is spent at the huge (and hugely touristy) Ben Thanh market, which is a somewhat challenging task because much of lunch can be spent a) deciding what looks good and b) avoiding the people trying to force you to eat at their stall. I decide to go with a fairly tried and true method of looking where the local-looking people are eating. This leads to me hammering down a bowl of bun rieu cua (noodles with fermented crab stock) and grilled pork on vermicelli. Having decided that avoiding ice is too difficult in this city, I'm washing it down with a super refreshing lemon drink. Despite it being in the overpriced market, this lunch only costs around $2.

We head to a relatively nearby icecream place called Fanny's which not only comes highly rated on TripAdvisor, but has also been called by one of my friend's "worldly" co-workers as "the best vanilla ice cream in the world". It serves as a reminder to why a) TripAdvisor reviews should be taken with a grain of salt and b) that not all personal recommendations are to be trusted.
It's all fairly light eating up to this point because we've booked in a food tour for the night and want to be sufficiently prepared for that.

After meeting our guide, Vu, at the hotel, we're chucked into a couple of taxis and had pillowcases put over our head driven down to a place called Snail Street in District 3. The name comes from, as far as I can tell, the success of one place (driven largely by youngger students) selling snails (what we call clams, conch, cockles, etc) that was replicated by a number of other restaurants in the same street.

You know you're ready for a good time when you arrive to a place and you're greeted with this:

And it's here that having a local (or at least someone that speaks the language) comes in handy. Unguided we could have missed out on all the good stuff, but in Vu's hands he fills the table with things like BBQd conch meat (the meat is removed, BBQd on charcoal, sliced and put back in the shell), chilli crab claws and, on my request, blood cockles (served only barely cooked, dipped in lime, pepper and salt). One of the highlights had to be scallops stir fried with pork fat. Amazing:

Leaving that place (Quan oc Linh) we walk to the next place down the road and there's more tasty treats to come: juicy, charcoaled BBQd frog, grilled prawn skewers, duck tongues (chewy, pointless, but amazing sauce) and, for the more adventurous in the group, duck embryo egg:

While it may have been challenging on its own, despite all the beers we'd had, here it was done in a sour/sweet tamarind sauce with peanuts and herbs, offsetting an unpleasant taste or smell in the egg. It was something I've wanted to try for a long time and probably something I won't bother trying again as the early and later stages of egg development are far tastier.

We cross the road to district 5 to wrap up the savoury with a crab hotpot, okra with stinky tofu (not as bad as the Chinese one) and oysters. Dessert a quick cab ride away for some lotus seeds and seaweed on ice, and we're all done.

Normally food tours look pretty shitty and pandering to western tastes. But here, we got everything we wanted and more. If I ever return, investing in the services of a fixer could be worthwhile to break down some of the barriers that exist between me and tasty food.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Rebirth: Life (Re) Begins in Saigon

For me, 30 was the year of my existence that was when I realised that it's such an epic pain in the arse to organise things with your best friends. And it's the hump in the road that marks when it will only ever get worse. A pain that becomes chronic.

A few minor potholes along the way: one friend gets married; one has kids; one has the important job; one the needy girlfriend telling him that his vacation time should only be spent on vacations with her.

Se we find ourselves, after a tremendous amount of effort, in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City to be exact. On a holiday to mark (roughly) all of us turning 30. Just “the guys”. Friends since high school. Friends to the point where we can passionately, angrily (are they the same?), argue about which country to visit to mark the occasion of us turning 30, and have it all just run off the ducks back. We yelled and exasperated. And we got it booked. That's how it works. A casual acquaintanceship wouldn't survive that shit.

And again, for the first time since Singapore a couple of years back, I find myself re-familiarising myself with the tiny, shitty laptop that has captured my thoughts and feelings and (probablymoreimportantly) dishes of the other overseas trips I've had.

I went cold on it for a while. After Singapore, everything changed. People stopped caring about new restaurants as much. Fewer people on my Facebook feed seemed to travel overseas and eat. I was the same. Blog posts stopped happening.

Maybe I stopped giving a shit about food. It became more about sustenance than it did exploration. Not to say it stopped. It just slowed.

It's complicated, I guess. I listen to a song from a band/singer called LoneLady. I first listened to this song a lot on the first overseas took I trip, to America. Somehow it was a congruous to New York and what I felt when I walked its streets. Somehow it has become the album I listen to every time I go overseas. It's always loaded onto my music player for the plane. I think it's the urgent energy of the music, speaking to the excitement within.

The “romantic foodie”--you know the types; the ones that think that thinking about food is a higher thought pattern (we just GET IT); a sort of contrived poetry; travel writing for the unadventurous?--would have touched down in Vietnam and headed to the first pho outlet they could find. A restorative pho, perhaps? One that recharges you from the horrors of travelling? From jetlag? They gush over it. It's exhausting.

Yes, pho is medicinal and, yes, pho is often special. But it's too hot for it this evening in Ho Chi Minh City. Not stifling, just warm and slightly humid. And pho is a heavy dish. A breakfast dish. Something light, herbal, cooling is needed. And beer should be there by its side.

We're in District 1, which seems to be fairly close to whatever the fuck is happening in this place. We walk the street our hotel is on—a seemingly major street?--for dinner. So many things look “challenging”; pieces of meat that should be served hot that are sitting at room temperature in open carts, pieces of meat that aren't identifiable, dishes served closed to open power lines.

We spotted a banh cuon (stuffed, steamed rice paper) place on that way that looked popular and then spotted nothing half as promising. So we backtrack.

We go to the wrong place by mistake. We're given the 'western' menu. We'd order from the normal menu but none of us really know any Vietnamese. At all. On message boards people might say “you'll be fine in Saigon if you only speak English,” but that's a far too simplistic statement. Too convenient. Nevertheless, none of us bothered to learn any Vietnamese.

We get some beers without any problems. Well... apart from the problem that there's ice in the glasses, which we don't want to consume, and the beers are warm. Slight physics problem there. Either you drink warm, shitty beer or you potentially shit for days because of the potentially diseased water waiting to spring forth from the ice.

Ice discarded, we try to get some fried tofu and spring rolls to snack on before leaving to get some banh cuon.

It's fucked being a someone curious and discerning eater (I feel like a cunt writing that but I feel that it is important to distance myself from cunt tourists that go to places and order dishes that perpetuate a myth and result in “western menus” being developed and containing utterly predictable garbage) and not being able to get what you want. This is a land where it's, on first glance, impossible to order with clarity and exceedingly difficult to communicate in a way that leads you to the good places that serve the good shit.

There's some sort of problem with the spring rolls order but we can't find any common ground with the waitress to figure out what the problem is. It's all a bit of a shambles. Food arrives but there's confusion and one of the group has already taken offence to the shrimp paste that is apparently pretty ubiquitous on tables. We pay, after more confusion, and head for some banh cuon to either steady the ship or further sour the mood.

Thankfully, the banh cuon place is a breeze. So long as you navigate the narrow staircase. We get three types of banh cuon: stuffed with shrimp, with pork floss (the highlight) and stuffed with mushrooms. With a tasty fishcake on top and another warm Saigon Export (again, ice) on the side, we're feeling better. One goes for a bun bo hue, a sort of pho that is common in the more Northern city of Hue (as is banh cuon, really), and he's happy too because he's had his restorative, medicinal broth to get over the horrors of travelling.

This place isn't going to be the breeze that my other destinations were. But, stocked up with bottles of water and 50c bottles of beer (including the very passable 333) from a nearby convenience store, plugging away on this piece of shit laptop connected to the sluggish hotel wifi, listening to the music I'd loaded those years ago when I last booted this thing up for Singapore, I might finally be rediscovering some of that hunger that was lost. The literal hunger to try new things and to explore a city through its restaurants and street carts.

If I don't catch some horrible disease, this could be alright.