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.

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