Thursday, January 27, 2011

One Vietnam: Café Saigon

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The inescapable thing about Ho Chi Minh is the motorbikes. Every light change unleashes a flood – a deluge – of humming bikes, flowing three or four to a lane. Riders clutch bags, bunches of vegetables and small children as their mounts tilt and buck. Crossing streets in Ho Chi Minh (which is still often referred to as “Saigon”) requires a little bit of courage and a large amount of faith, but the effort is paid off by the magical feeling of deadly metal machines speeding inches from your body and the conviction that you could sit down and host a picnic in the middle of the highway without getting nicked by the skillful drivers. I saw people drop things from bikes, I saw them leaning at impossible angles, but I knew I’d never see one fall.

And technically I didn’t. But my bus out of Ho Chi Minh slowed at a bottleneck caused by a twisted, ruined bike lying meters from a white-sheet-covered lump. Bright red blood was seeping out from under the sheet as gawkers on the street and in passing vehicles stared.

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But in my personal experience, bikes will, with a minimum of fuss, swarm around pedestrians like ants skirting a puddle. What makes these scenes more striking is the sheer dominance of motorbikes as the preferred mode of transport; Manila’s traffic may have been just as chaotic, but its mix of jeepneys, motorbikes, tricycles, pedicabs, buses and private vehicles gave it a fitfully competitive atmosphere. In Ho Chi Minh, the bikes at times almost seemed to be running on rails and according to timetables.

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I didn’t get to witness this spectacle immediately because I arrived from Manila some few minutes after midnight, when the streets were quieter. As usual I had nothing booked in advance, my only guide being the words “Pham Ngu Lao (budget hostels)” scribbled on the back of an ATM receipt. Pham Ngu Lao was the section of town where one could, or so I had read, find cheap accommodation. I didn’t know where it was and I wasn’t even very confident about its pronunciation.

This did not go over well with the Chinese-Filipino student with whom I shared a cab. (He had approached me with the ride-sharing suggestion at the currency-exchange desk of the airport. I suppose I was the least-threatening traveler on his flight.) We made small talk during the ride and he (rather nervously, I thought) pointed out the hammer-and-sickle insignia that adorned walls and signs along the sidewalks. Maybe he thought I was a little bit cracked to be wandering communist Vietnam’s largest city after midnight without any kind of plans, but – in Pham Ngu Lao, at least – this seemed to be rather the norm.

I dropped into bed, exhausted, as soon as I found a hotel with somewhat reasonable rates. In mid-morning I got up, left my hotel, and started eating. I haven’t stopped yet.

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My first meal in Vietnam was, probably, the best pho bo I’ve ever eaten. Now, this was in a highly-touristed area and I make no claims as to its legitimacy as Vietnamese cuisine, but from that point on I craved the beef noodle soup at least a little every day. In form it was similar to pho I’ve had in the US and the Philippines – broth with rice noodles, onions, cilantro, bean sprouts, lime and cuts of beef – the main difference being that the broth was much richer than I’d tasted before. I had to force myself to eat other things. Luckily, nearly everything I’ve eaten in Vietnam has been either delicious or really delicious. The highlights from Ho Chi Minh were crispy fried Vietnamese noodles and ostrich steak. And oh, the coffee…

I’d never before liked Vietnamese coffee, which in its typical form in the US and the Philippines is a sickly orange mix of condensed milk and a bit of coffee, sweetened to candy-like proportions. Well, in Vietnam I’ve had coffee every day, and usually two or three times. The coffee is usually served sweet, but I hesitate to just call it “sweet coffee” because that implies (to my mind) an entirely different taste. Suffice it to say that I’ve never had coffee like it before, and that has been my loss. It’s thick and strong, cheap (a small glass in a little local cafe is generally about .50USD) and especially good iced.

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I did things other than eating in Ho Chi Minh, though they were rather minor in comparison. I visited the War Remnants Museum, which is essentially an account of the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Its displays are suitably graphic – photographs of dead soldiers and dying non-combatants, preserved fetuses deformed by chemical attacks, recovered guns and burst shells. Many of the war’s iconic photographs are on display, including perhaps the two most well-known of all: Phan Thị Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm attack, and the execution of Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem.

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I also had some happy reminders of the Philippines. Four times in Ho Chi Minh I was stopped by people commenting on my curly hair, and – I thought this was so strange – three of those times the commentators were Filipino. Each time we had a lively conversation about Philippine dialects and food – “And menudo? Caldereta? Tortang talong, you know that?” – and I duly expressed my admiration for their country and how much I missed it already.

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Although my time in Ho Chi Minh was interesting, I was really looking forward to some time away from big cities. After all, since I finished my Peace Corps service in November I had been through Manila, Osaka, Tokyo, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong – all middling-to-huge metropolises. My first choice was Quy Nhon, a midsized and supposedly laid-back beach community about a third of the way up Vietnam’s coast, but a long and confusing discussion with my hotel’s booking desk revealed that all the trains were full and the buses were too. (I’m not exactly sure that this was, in fact, the conclusion, but after running around in some half-English circles, we definitely weren’t getting anywhere.) The conversation turned inevitably towards another beach community, one not as far as Quy Nhon and much more popular. I reluctantly bought the ticket for a sleeper bus, telling myself that no matter how tourist-infested the place was, I would at least have a pretty beach at my disposal. And my fate was set: I was going to Nha Trang.

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