Dear Readers … Dear Mom … apologies for the disappearance. If you’ve been kind enough to read theresjohnnywanderingsandwine in the past, I’ll hope you will continue to do so in the future. I find myself with time on my hands and a desire to pick it up once more. I’ve got some tales to finish spinning from past adventures and dreams about what could be on the horizon. Feel free to give it a whirl. Thanks.
February 9, 2019
After the War Museum I make a zig zag path back to my hotel. My moment of cultural meltdown arrives when I take advantage of a restroom situated in a public park. At the entrance shoes gather. I take note of two ladies heading into the Women’s side slipping off their shoes before entering. My mind shuffles through various memories of public bathrooms in public parks. Specifically, the floors, specifically the level of cleanliness, specifically the lack thereof. I leave my shoes on. A man enters as I am about to exit. He looks down at my shoes and sneers. Joke’s on him; I peed on the floor. I cross into the Japanese section of Ho Chi Minh City and decide after a week of Vietnamese street food, sit down restaurant sushi sounds perfect for a late lunch. The server speaks Vietnamese and Japanese. My pointing and hand gestures result in a mixed sashimi plate. Sure, that works. Afterwards, I walk back to GK Hotel and prepare for the next adventure.
It’s New York summer hot here in February in Ho Chi Minh City; mid 90s temperatures with ample humidity. The kind of days where you take a shower, head outside and immediately wish you could take another shower. The nights drop off only a little and never the humidity. I’m situated in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s the heart of Ho Chi Minh, recommended for travelers and housing the famous Ben Thanh Market. The narrow, winding alley ways of Hanoi have been replaced by a modern city grid. Food, drink and massage parlors every step you take. There’s an energy to the place. It teems with life. Scooters zip by, bright lights twinkle, barkers hock their wares, and pedestrians dance through the crowded streets. My first taste of Saigon nights. The Market proper is closed, a full exploration will wait until tomorrow. Tonight I am strolling through the Ben Thanh Night Market; a small circus of souvenir stands, shops, and outdoor street dining wrapping around the marketplace walls like a scarf. Even in it’s muted Tet week form one can feel the city’s lust for life. Tran, my tour guide in Ninh Binh, told us in the North people are practical, but in the South, they spend all their money living for the moment and partying all night long. Let’s get me some of that. Before you know it I’m drinking out of a coconut as I walk.
If only I had three stomachs. I don’t care much about the clothes (mostly Western knock offs or traditional Vietnamese silk tunics), the trinkets, toys or souvenirs. But every food cart, restaurant and display slyly beckon me over. The assortment of fruits, nuts and pastries is overwhelming. “What are those fruits?” I wonder. Strange, fresh and inviting. I am particularly intrigued by this colored sticky rice sold at several spots around the market. Past the basics of bargaining to make the sale, none of the vendors speak any English. I am left to my own detective work. I watch after a customer selects their color preference a scoop of what looks like a custard is aggressively spread over the top of the rice. Next it’s handed off to the patron in a styrofoam container with a plastic fork. A small “what do you have to lose?” twinkle in my eye debates asking “can I just get a small taste” of this stranger. Too late, she’s off into the crowd chewing on green rice. I need a team! It’s giving off a desert vibe and so punt for later.
I decide to get my street seafood on, as you do. Ẩm thực Hai Lúa – Food Countryside is my choice for this evening’s dining adventure. Can’t say for sure but fair guess “Food Countryside” is a weak translation for it’s intended meaning. Here in the market is a satellite offering of the restaurant proper, located in District 3. Hai Lúa al fresco sits in the middle of the street along the side of the market. Long, banquet style tables are presided over by servers in buttoned up white shirts, ties and vests. The real attraction are the grills coughing up smoke and tantalizing aromas. A few other cooking stations sit to the side supporting the grill with sauté and boiled offerings. In front of them, a generous selection of live fish and seafood wait nervously. Grilled fresh Vietnamese style seafood is the star of this show. Regardless of my thirst to try strange and exotic food, I can’t bring myself to order turtle. It’s the only truly unique and “foreign” offering. I take my carnivore habits seriously, but tonight I demure from pointing “toss that live turtle the fire, I’m curious if it tastes like chicken”. I settle on grilled oysters, shrimp and red snapper. I sit and inhale enticing scents that drift my way. The streets are full of people. The red snapper arrives with a small bowl of rock salt, pepper and a lime on top. I watch and repeat as I see others. Squeeze the lime into the salt and pepper and then swirl with my chop sticks, adding dollops to my food to season as needed. The shrimp come with a different sauce that tastes similar but has heat to it. On my table I make a study of the condiments; hot sauce, tomato sauce (like ketchup’s wacky cousin), and a lemony fish sauce. I can’t read the labels, so understand my “study” is me tasting tiny amounts of each. The oysters are intimidatingly large. I make my way into the Snapper; fresh almost sweet fish colliding hard with charred grill, lime, salt and pepper flavors. Carefully I navigate the bones. As I munch I take note of how gender segregated the restaurant is. The men are waiters, women do all the grilling and 3 dudes in high chef hats make final preparations to the dishes and handle all the rice. Other female employees come to your table to do any extra prep as needed. In my case, with the shrimp. I try to be friendly as she stares listless into space. I’d say she was ignoring my very existence but ignoring implies it registered. Later I eavesdrop as she visits a table of guys from the Philippines who harass her with “wanna make boom boom” and other such rude overtures. They raucously enjoy their own advances as she dead-eye completes her task. I feel guilty for thinking she was so standoffish. I brave a giant grilled oyster. This is the first time I discover what becomes a Saigon trend; no napkins. When I ask, after some failed pantomime, an English speaking server saunters over to explain I can purchase wet naps at the conclusion of meal. I try to power through the filthy hands feeling I don’t love. Then I buy a wet nap. It underwhelms. My Ho Chi Minh street seafood however, does not.
At the end of my night, I buy some fruit on the way home. Back at GK Hotel I lie on the bed luxuriating in the AC. Throughout my stay in Vietnam there are two English channels always playing Hollywood movies. This is how the average Vietnamese learns about America. Having seen Solo, I opt for Geostorm. I am treated to one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my life. Like truly, epically, all time bad. Simultaneously, I enjoy my fresh fruit desert and eat the best tasting papaya and mango I have ever had. Symmetry. The next night, I buy more fruit.