Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City (Part 7)

Day 13

I've said these words six different times in my life: "Today is my last day in Vietnam." ("Last," of course, referring to a particular journey there, and not my life's journey, which will surely see me back in Vietnam some day.) This time, like at other times, I'm torn over how this makes me feel. I'm happy to have come here, seen all the changes that have taken place, eaten a TON of amazing food, and now I'm ready for the peace and relaxation that awaits me in Hawaii. People in Hawaii complain a lot about traffic (it's one of the few justifiable complaints there), but you won't hear my voice among them. Not after Vietnam, anyway. The traffic in Saigon, and the air pollution that's largely a result of it, gives me the distinct impression that for many years to come life there will be marked to a large degree by people's inability to get from one place to another safely and quickly. The noise, too, is going to drive half the country insane...if it's not insane already.

This may be a predictable thing for me to say, but the one thing that hasn't changed, and actually seems to be improving, is the food landscape all over the country. Vietnamese cuisine is less well-known than the cuisines of many of its neighbors (and former colonizers), but I'm confident that this will change. I don't see how it can't, in fact. Vietnamese cuisine could easily hold its own in a free-for-all cage match with virtually any other world cuisine you pit it against. What I regret most about my food discoveries here is that they'll never find their way over to the U.S. I'll always have to return here to find banh can, bun hen, cha gio ganh hao, and all the rest. But maybe that's not so bad. For one thing, the recipes would probably get corrupted if they were brought to foreign shores, and for another thing this only gives me more of an impetus to return to Vietnam.

But enough of my rambling. Let me get to my final "Vietnam Tastes Good" post...which won't seem particularly Vietnamese, I'm pretty sure.

Rather than set out to find some breakfast food on the sidewalk, I needed to see a friend to hand back a key to his apartment that I never ended up using, so for the sake of convenience we decided to meet at his favorite cafe downtown: Centro. It wasn't the most symbolically satisfying end to my stay in Vietnam, but it was good to see him a final time, and I'm not about to complain about the food. The fact was, it was pretty good.

Bye-bye, Centro

I smacked down 59,000 dong ($3.38) for an impressive "fruit crepe with sweet sauce" and another 33,000 dong ($1.89) for an iced coffee that appeared on my bill as a "coffee shakatto." Apparently, there was some shaking involved in the preparation of my drink, and that cost me probably close to a dollar. The crepe was good -- full of sweet, fresh strawberries and crisp, tart apple slices, with a puddle of sauce that appeared to be a combination of cream and sweetened condensed milk. It was tasty. The sugar and caffeine was exactly what I needed (though the sweet sauce was a little cloying, I have to say). But the fact remains that Cafe Lam, on Bui Vien Street, has better fruit crepes AND better coffee (no fancy names needed, baby), and for only about a quarter of the price. Of course, there's no wifi at Lam's, nor any air conditioning, and it's much noisier there, and the bathroom's a scarier option, and you're sitting on the edge of the street where garbage is thrown and the random rat scurries to and fro. (And I'm not slamming the rat. That's just part of the local scenery here, and if the locals can handle it then I'll do my best to as well.) In any case, the extra $4 I paid to have breakfast at Centro is sometimes totally worth it -- oftentimes it is, in fact, especially if you intend to hang out with friends and/or get work done -- I was just hoping to get a final Vietnamese meal in before checking out of my hotel and heading to the airport.

Fruit crepe with sweet sauce and a "shakkato" coffee

My friend and his girlfriend both ordered what looked, and sounded, as they were eating, like an amazing breakfast: two fried eggs in a homemade tomato sauce with cheese and onions scattered on top, and a piece of fresh baked French bread on the side. The price? 75,000 dong ($4.29). My friend claimed that this was the shiznit, and my eyes gave me no reason to disagree.

Fried eggs with tomato sauce and cheese, with a baguette on the side

I didn't have time to grab lunch in town, but while waiting to board at the airport I decided to shell out $6 for seafood fried rice stuffed in a coconut. It was either that, or a greasy pork chop on rice. It was disappointing, but this is better and more interesting airport fare than you'll find in the U.S. Which isn't saying much, of course.

Seafood fried rice in a young coconut

My flight got delayed, so I left the waiting area and found this gem of a spot in a lounge upstairs. It was unfortunate that I came across an Illy Cafe, but there was free wifi here and the waitresses were about as nice and efficient as anywhere I've come across in Vietnam.

Saigon International Airport lounge. Thank god they finally finished the international wing. It's like the Ritz compared to its previous manifestation.

I was more than happy to get an iced Americano and a chocolate pastry while using up the last of my computer battery. I think the coffee and pastry cost something like $6.

One last iced Vietnamese coffee...and a chocolate pastry for good measure.

An hour later my flight began to board...and I was off to Hawaii by way of Taiwan (and an overnight layover there).

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