Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City (Part 3)

Day 5

When I got back from Hue, it was nearing dinner time. Outside, on Bui Vien Street, fighting against the pollution that endlessly wafts up my nostrils, were the smells of Vietnamese cooking. The sidewalks were filled with small food stands and waitresses trying to usher customers into their restaurants. The usual parade of foreign, horror house freaks was getting into full gear. It was a Friday night, and the moon, visible while walking down the street, was full and lustrous behind a veil of yellow-gray smog.

Glass display case of wonders

I returned to eat at a com binh dan joint that catered mostly to locals, although, being in the heart of the backpacker district, you could expect to see some foreigners there, too. The people there have been nice to me before, and their food is excellent, with a selection that's better than similar places nearby.

I ordered rice with rau muong toi (water spinach sauteed with garlic), a shrimp dish that was spicier than I realized but delicious nonetheless (I'm not sure what the dish was called; I merely pointed and said, "tom kia"), ca kho to (braised claypot fish -- basa, in this case, which had a perfect firmness -- in a peppery, caramelized sauce), and a soup of dark greens with mudcrab meat. The entire meal, with iced tea, cost 24,000 dong ($1.37).

Spicy shrimp and ca kho to (claypot basa fish)

I was more than satisfied with my meal, and it felt nice being back in warm, dry Saigon, in a restaurant where no one stared at me and where my Vietnamese was accepted as neither strange nor funny. I've noticed many times that people outside of Saigon complain about Saigonese people -- they're too modern, too loose, and are only after money (the list goes on and on at times) -- but to me, Saigon is the most comfortable, most culturally familiar (not because it's all that Western, but because I lived here for three years), and most open city in Vietnam. In most cases, the people here are welcoming and friendly. Also, I've noticed that the Saigonese generally don't complain about people in other parts of Vietnam, except for Hanoian people. If they do complain, it's usually to the effect that non-Saigonese are behind the times and too conservative.

Making sinh to dau (strawberry shake)

The family that made my sinh to dau was very nice. I sat down and we talked about nothing in particular for about ten minutes. My fruit shake cost all of 10,000 dong (57 cents).

Lots of real Dalat strawberries in there...and a lot of sugar, too.

The restaurant where I had dinner, Quan Com Thanh Hai, is located at 168 Bui Vien Street. Their phone number is 836-5212.

I had sinh to at a sidewalk stand in front of a CD/DVD/VCD/MP3 store called Yen Thanh, located at 190 Bui Vien Street.

Day 6

Today I head to Vung Tau for a couple of days. The hydrofoil that will take me there leaves at 10:30 a.m., so I wanted to wake up early, grab a quick breakfast and coffee, and wander the streets a little before checking out of my hotel and getting a taxi to the Saigon River. I didn't have to go far to find my morning's sustenance.

This guy sets up shop at the bottom of my hotel's stairs

My breakfast today was a no-brainer. At 6:30, as soon as I headed downstairs to the hotel lobby, I could smell suon nuong (bbq pork) cooking outside. There's a guy who sets up his food stand there every morning and keeps it going until late at night. I'd walked past him several times before only to be turned off by the high volume of customers. Today, however, probably due to the fact that he'd just opened, his stand was less crowded than usual so I thought I'd take advantage of the lull and grab a quick bite.

Watching the food get cooked and served. This man's wife squatted at the curb grilling pork over a flame.

The pork that his wife barbecues on the street comes fresh every morning from the market; that's what he told me, and I have no reason not to believe him. The Vietnamese place a primacy on fresh food, and people wouldn't eat here if the ingredients he used weren't as fresh as he claimed. I opted out of the steamed egg-and-pork cake that suon nuong usually comes with, and was happy to chow down on nothing but meat and rice and a negligible amount of vegetables.

My breakfast of broken rice, bbq pork (com suon). With iced tea the damage amounted to 15,000 dong (86 cents).

Doesn't that look sublime? I got my food no more than a minute after ordering it. The man took some time in the middle of his busy morning to speak to me a bit, which was nice. He seemed to like the fact that I'd chosen his stand over the many restaurants surrounding us. A little tip: if you try to speak Vietnamese to local people, even if you only know a few words and phrases, more often than not you'll get better service.

You can find this food stand at the foot of the Viet Nghi Hotel, at 198 Bui Vien Street.

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