“Do I think America belongs in Vietnam? I don’t know, I know I belong in Vietnam, I’ll tell ya that”
One of the great quotes from Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Full Metal Jacket was used to suggest the potential lunacy of a soldier during the siege of Hue’ city in what the Vietnamese refer to as “The American War.” I have begun with this quote to illustrate my own opinion before, and most certainly after my recent visit to Vietnam. Vietnam is not the jungle den of iniquity carefully constructed in post-war Hollywood, but perhaps the most compelling argument for the resiliency of the human spirit even in the aftermath of human aggression that I have had the privilege to witness in my travels. Beginning here with a quote from a dramatized time that most of the west still equates to Vietnam seems appropriate as it is strewn with misconceptions. The Vietnam that I experienced has taken enormous pride in letting go of any conceptualized victimization and as a nation Vietnam has moved forward to adjust and excel at its most natural talents which stand in stark contrast to the prejudices, anger, and futility of war.
Vietnam is a crown jewel in an emerging culinary obsessed planet and currently the world’s largest producer of black pepper, and the 2nd largest producer of coffee. Saigon (as all but the government officials and travel documents still call it) is ramping up to a level of commerce that our great American cities experienced in the 1950s with enormous outside and internal investment spurring growth. Women are integral parts of Vietnam’s commercial expansion and by in large I have never witnessed a society so beautifully and dutifully matriarchal. This new Vietnam is not espoused to forgetting its past any more than it is about ignoring the future. From the well-preserved palaces and museums the Vietnamese display the atrocities of their past with humility and at the same time absolutely no sense of entitlement. It is here to view, to remember, and to move forward. Now, let’s grab that first morning bowl of Pho and leave the politics to the politicians and the history to the guys with lots of letters behind their names. I write what I see, what I eat, and how the hell I feel when I am done is what hits the screen.
For now, this is about what the hell happened to me on an 11 day journey from Saigon down the Mekong looking for my own Colonel Kurtz whilst singing happy birthday and finally coming upon the Vietnamese H. Bogart along the Khmer-laden north shore of Phu Quoc island. I did not eat dog, I did not get propped by a whore, and I did not get malaria. I did get a blood-bruising massage, eat the simplest and most fantastic fruit this side of Gilligan’s island, and meet 6 Polish travelers who wanted to go toe to toe with my assumed American imperialism one night only to discover in the end that my wife and I were the ones looking for real immersion as they poured us another Polish vodka at dinner. Are you ready, cue The Doors, roll one if you have it and be prepared to be “Nammed”
It was 08:30 and wandering up the final flight of hotel stairs to floor 11 after the elevator terminated at 10 to the smiling face of the breakfast room door girl (all hotels in Nam have a breakfast room door person to collect the daily breakfast coupon, cute) I was immediately shocked by the number of what appeared to be locals and traveling Vietnamese finishing breakfast and sipping tea and iced Coffee (cà phê sữa đá). This was definitely not Hong Kong anymore, where the day begins much later and solitude is easy to find in the morning. I was very nearly delirious after our whirlwind trip from HK through HCM (Ho Chi Minh city) customs and cast suddenly into the muggy night air of Nam and now quite sleep deprived as our hotel room was on the 2nd floor street-side in bustling downtown Saigon. I was now staring around a large room with floor to ceiling windows of equatorial sun blasting onto the only open tables as the chatter of Vietnamese, clanking of dishes, and smells of beef stock pushed me into a non-drug induced state of disorientation.
I am a world traveler, I just came from HK, why was this suddenly so disconcerting to my equilibrium? Dehydration comes easy to me sadly. I like diuretics (coffee, beer, and tea), I don’t love to drink water, and I am a bit of a fat boy at the moment carrying 225 pounds of Monsanto corn-fed girth on my 6’5″ frame. I was definitely not a lithe and nimble little Vietnamese dude, and when my head is on a swivel and I am dehydrated I basically feel like a fumbling, bumbling, semi-nauseous, American bull in a china closet. I stumbled over to the buffet dishes and found some silly looking excuses for eggs, bacon, and all things western in breakfast. I then scanned the open plates to find dumplings and many things dim-sum-ish, no thanks, I just came from HK. Then, just as I was about to lay a thumbs down on this farce a dream-girl caught my eye. There she was, the Phở lady. I was now fucking officially in Nam baby! A woman who appeared to be the breakfast manager of the restaurant came to me and said, “you want soup.” Yes,”well I make for you..please sit”. I grabbed a bag’o Lipton tea (they love that stuff there man) and plopped into my seat with my white porcelain (plastic on this occasion) soup spoon and chop sticks. Juliet had a plate of bacon and she seemed really happy (it was not till the end of the trip that I understood why).
In a moment a bowl of hot and beautiful soupy goodness appeared in front of me. To my surprise it was Phở Gà (chicken soup) and not Phở bò (beef soup). I could suddenly hear the loud warnings of my friend ER imploring me to avoid chicken at all costs in Vietnam. I could hear her pleas as the first spoonful of delicately perfumed, pure free-range chicken stock hit my lips. I could hear her cries of fear and I ignored them! I am here to eat, to be fully in-country and if I was already chicken challenged first thing on the first morning, I knew I would be fighting an uphill battle for all 11 days. Stomach be damned (and truly it is a damned stomach) I was slurping. I loaded in some extra red chilies, a ton of herbs and some soft lettuce, all of which may or may not have been washed well, and devoured the perfectly al dente and ribbed for my pleasure rice noodles in a cacophony of nasty little eating sounds with large beads of sweat forming waves on my forehead and the previous moment’s nausea and disorientation running right back down the stairs whilst I felt like I had just taken my first hit of travelers’ crank. GOOOOOD MOOOORNIN VIETNAAAAAAAMMM!!!!
From breakfast we met Dien (our guide) and our driver whose name I could not pronounce or remember so we will call him Smoke Skinny or Smokey for short. We suddenly set off into the streets of Saigon. Now, people all the time are doing shows, writing books, and basically sounding off about the harrowing nature of traffic in Saigon. This is all just propaganda. The speed limit in Nam on city streets is 40 kph and they stick to this like Charlie Sheen to a stripper. The first 10 minutes I was in the car with Smokey I wanted to pull out his throat and take the wheel. Then, he made a sharp left turn from the far right lane into oncoming scooter traffic without checking his mirror and I realized I was in the presence of divinity. At 40 max, these kinds of moves are legit and feasible. In Vietnam the ubiquitous scooter is referred to simply as a “Honda” while not all scooters are Honda brand, just like all tissues are not Kleenex brand the term Honda is a catch-all for scooters. If you do “Honda” repair, but do not have your own shop, you set a HONDA sign on the street corner with a bench, some parts, and a few plastic bottles of petrol and people will pull over or walk their scooter over for assistance. Instantaneous entrepreneurship is not just the realm of prostitutes and drug dealers in Nam.
Hondas and pedestrians be damned you would think, but speed limit is not the only quirk of driving in this snail’s pace place. If you are involved in an accident there is no fault, both parties are cited no matter what, and so for all but the most severe accidents the two combatants generally exchange un-pleasantries and drive away. In the event someone should die in a multi-vehicle crash the other parties involved will all receive the death penalty for their associated guilt (an ex-pat living in Saigon shared this with me and I did not confirm this because if true I would kind of hate the place a bit and I do not want to hate any place that serves such “killer” food). Now, so in a place where hit and run is obviously the status quo the only means to control this kind of potential genocide is to keep speed limits down and rigorously enforce seat belt and helmet laws. If you are an adult and caught without a helmet on a scooter you could lose your license and/or have your Honda impounded. Of course cargo, including children, are not required to wear helmets. In cars which there are precious few due to 100% import tax one faces the same punishments for not wearing seat belts as Honda drivers face for not wearing helmets. In the USA most of us wear our seat belts and manage easily. In Vietnam drivers feel encumbered and you always know you are 250 meters or less from your destination as drivers rip off their seat belts anticipating arrival and are usually reaching for the cigarettes before the vehicle comes to a complete stop. Check out my quick HONDA Video for traffic insight into Saigon.
Cigarettes are less than $1 a pack for the local skunk shreds they call tobacco and while smoking was not quite on the level I expected, it was still so prevalent among men that I could count the years they had been smoking by the number of wrinkle rings in their smile lines (see Bogey above). Smokey was always drawing on one of these nasty little sticks whenever we were to meet him at the car (a very nice Toyota van) or moments after we left the car. Dien on the other hand was as pure as an angel and I could tell that he did not get into such disgusting human iniquities as smoking, drinking, or gluttony. Dien led us through the halls of the creepy former home of the South Vietnam President and we saw all of this old American radio equipment, telephones, and lavish meeting places. Gaggles of people moved through here along with us with many female tour guides in traditional garb leading the groups.Vietnamese women are some of the most beautiful on this planet both in looks and demeanor and these traditional dresses (áo dài) are the world’s sexiest business suits. Basically if you have the body to wear one of these you are going to be successful in your endeavors. My wife would not let me buy her one, but I am still thinking to have one made for her and shipped to us. I have very little to offer on tourist sites in Saigon because let’s face it, palaces built during the 20th century really aren’t that interesting and war relics just remind me of shitty things like war. I did however have to venture through the War Remnants museum on our last day in Vietnam before heading home and I promise you it was the most somber experience I have ever had in a museum. Basically it was 1001 reasons why no one should “love the smell of napalm in the morning” and any tongue-in-cheek reference to Agent Orange for cocktails or snow cones should be summarily abolished. The capacity of humans to destroy each other and the planet is more disgusting than my puny words can describe. Yes, the war raised my curiosity to visit and now it has left me with a hole in my soul only partially man-holed by the iron will of these stalwart people of Vietnam. Now, who’s hungry?
I came to Vietnam to see what has become of this nation sure, but more importantly I believed I came to eat and eat well.Vietnam reminds me of Italy and especially in the far south where bad meals are hard to find. I managed to find a shitty meal at a bar in Can Tho later down the road, but I was under the influence of a brutal attack by a massage therapist and my judgement was clouded (and bruised). I still want to fight that bitch for what she did to me. These people take food way more seriously than work and when you combine the food with the quality and passion for excellent coffee, this is what culinary travel is all about. Our very good friends at Huynh restaurant in Houston have brought this Vietnamese national passion for food and coffee with them to Houston and eating their phenomenal food on a weekly basis for 6+ months really prepared us for our trip to Nam.
After a hard morning of slow driving, veering into oncoming traffic and seeing some weirdly preserved palaces as well as the really lovely Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon, Juliet and I were starving. Dien took us to Nhà Hàng Ngon restaurant. This place in a restored French plantation house is a most charming setting for a food joint in Saigon. Now,I typically dislike popular restaurants out of spite, but our experience here was sublime. We were seated atop a small gazebo with our table set for 2 in place under the shade. We begged Dien to join us and he would not, nor would he suggest what he loved to eat. My guess is that this place was bit too sterile for him and I also surmised by trip’s end that his religion in some way prevented him from dining with us.
Nevertheless our biggest let down of the trip with Trails of Indochina (very few as they were excellent) was that they could not grasp that our need for a guide was about living and exploring the local food on a “local” level. Dien is a lifelong native of Vietnam and I bet we could have really enjoyed some amazing shit at his house or hos grandma’s. As it was, we enjoyed some really well made and perfectly fresh lunch at Nhà hàng Ngon. The array of colors alone on the many prep stations was worth the price of admission.
In essence, this restaurant created a range of regional standards from all over the country at individual tables lined up throughout the indoor/outdoor restaurant and places all the options on one easy to read menu. Was this built with the traveler in mind, sure. Was it excellent despite this, yes! Of course I will be back to Saigon to work the soup ladies and banana grillers along the street. I will eat everything my heart desires but on this trip after one day I could feel there was something different brewing inside me and even though later this same day we ate an entirely local joint with HoVong Diep the outstanding owner of another tour company (Ami Tourist) and this Hue’ based cuisine was outrageously good; this trip was turning out to be more about my heart, my soul, and my future, rather than my stomach.
….to be continued