Friday, April 06, 2007

Saigon Saigon

A postcard from behind the nước mắm line.

Negotiations are lasting longer than expected. Supplies of underwear and socks were depleted by Day 5 and no nice cotton Marks and Sparks rip-offs have been located in Ben Thanh Market, although Lacoste/Crocodile (even pirates get confused) polos are on offer for S$5.

Written sporadically, spasmodically, between nego sessions, for the perseverance of sanity, for those who've requested specific (*koff*) info and for the kind folk who've called/gchatted/smsed/skyped to check in on me:
Uncle Ho in front of People's Committee Building
Be gone ye olden days of rough-and-ready chumminess between intrepid backpackers that yuppie clods wouldn't see a thrice-used underwear of. The solitude of travelling for work means: a room of one's own and a clean double bed (no bed bugs, no strangers' feet in your face!), laundry and ironing (not hung between 2 saplings in a park!), chauffeurs on demand (no long sweaty treks with a heavy pack or hand-signal haggling with moto drivers) and meals on corporate accounts (therefore, not eaten balancing on a rickety wooden stool by a drain that hasn't drained anything for the last decade). Between squashed dorms and crazy moto-rides and negative-calorific-content pho, despite eating constantly, it'd been usual to lose 5 - 10kg somewhere in Lê Lợi's many municipals. However, met(!) at Tan Son Nhat International Airport by a ruddy portly man with no semblance of a neck, I knew times, they were a-changing.

Dinner at An Vien
Sure enough, every meal was a painful surfeit of lampreys stress-suppressing, gout-goading, kidney-killing, liver-liquidating overindulgence. There was bánh lá chả tôm (boiled rice paste with ground prawns and shrimps paste), bánh bèo (tiny rice pancakes with ground shrimps), bún chả giò (vermicelli in rolls), bánh ướt cuốn chay (mixed vegetable rolled in steamed rice-paper), mái chèo ngư ông (fish paste on sticks of lemongrass), cơm âm phủ (salady stuff), canh chua cá hú (sourish sort of fish soup), gà nướng lá chanh (grilled chicken with lemon leaf. Yummy. What bird flu?), gà nướng lá chanh và xôi phòng (grilled chicken with lemon leaf and steamed sticky rice. One up on yumminess!), tau muống xào tỏi (waterlily leaves sauteed with garlic), cá mú hấp (steamed garoupa), cơm sen (lotus seed rice)...and all sorts of fresh seafood that Vietnam (thank you, long coastline) is so famous for (although HCMC prices approximate Singapore's) and then classic Chinese fare from Crystal Jade and Li Bai.

There was also alcohol in abundance. Note: never try to outdrink a Vietnamese businessman.

Somewhere amongst the silk hangings, intricate embroidery, Chinese white-and-blue porcelain, oil paintings of local domestic still life, imperial cuisine of Hue, light food of the staid controlling North and fiery food of the restive South, there were: loud brash Fear Factor double-entendre drinking tales each more loud and brash than the last, loud brash back-slapping gregarious men encouraging a single shifty-eyed hand-wringing limp-wristed man to get married, competing alternative Viet histories, Agent Orange conspiracy theories, debating the intricacies of commie-capitalist hierarchies, the Ministry of Culture having to approve billboards and neon signs, and American colonialists expats recounting linguistic war stories:
"Oh, all my locals can speak English..." (leaning forward to emphasise the existence of a punchline) "some speak it badly, some can't be understood at all!"
Well, let them try speaking Vietnamese, which sounds like French spoken like Cantonese and Cantonese spoken like French. Proper pronunciation ensures that neither Phuc (a very harrassed lawyer) or Dung (a very harrassed tailoring shop) sounds offensive to your sharp-eared conservative nan.

Nights out with the old boys:
"That is 23/9 park. All the lovers go here. It is dark and sometimes you can only see 2 hands per couple."

"This is Catwalk - No. 1 in Ho Chi Minh. They have more than 300 girls. You choose the ones you want then you tell the mama-san. You see the tall fair ones with sharp features? Those are from Hanoi. Very good. In the old days, only S$10 for one night."
"Eh, I think some of your girls are not actually female."
"Oh. Err, you're right. Haha..."

"This is Club Royale - No. 2 in Ho Chi Minh. They have only 250 girls. On Friday nights, when they are in town, you can find [name of CEO of listed company 1] and [name of CEO of listed company 2] in these 2 seats here."
The refurbished car lift was lined with sofas and neon lights and operated by a girl in a nurse's uniform lined with tin-foil.

And also:
"That is the riverside. Also a very good place for couples."

"This is Seventeen Saloon. The bands are Filipino. All the Singaporean expats and their longhaired Vietnamese dictionaries come here. All the same gang. All cowboys. Nobody tells the wives."

Over at Liberty Dance and Maxim, there were live bands, and girls in glittering evening gowns (ballroom-dancing apparently being part of the school curriculum) who'd teach you to dance salsa and tango and the waltz even if you moseyed in with a dirty white T and high-waist Giordano jeans.

And my hosts, being good hosts, attempted to make some concession to my being at least half a century younger than anyone else:
"We'll bring you to a heavy metals disco. Youngsters like it."
It behoved me to inform them that heavy metals were things you found in fish from the Saigon River and discos died sometime the 1980s or early 1990s.
"They are now called 'clubs'."
"Clubs? Clubs? What clubs? Clubs are for gambling and girls!"
Sure enough, when we reached the site where the heavy metals disco once flashed its heavy metals disco lights, there stood in its place a glass-and-stainless steel office block.

Later: dreams of streams of lotus seed tea, a multitude of people in conical hats and ao dais or pyjamas, faceless and silent, cycling and moto-ing through wide Franco-Viet boulevards of tall tamarind trees - their bases (the trees, that is) painted white to avoid things going bump in the dark.

Mornings: great vestiges of the colonial past from Pat' a Chou - baguette sandwiches, quiches, caneles, and 8 shots of espresso from each of Paris Cafe (where playboys and models are said to cruise at night) and Cafe Terrace (where Enrique Iglesias asks people to save his soul before breakfast) and Highland Coffee barely restored any semblance of humanity. Edit: one negotiating party, despite having imbibed several glasses of thick teeth-melting cà phê, has just fallen asleep right in front of me - lolling, wattle-wobbling and snoring.

Afternoons: a nod to the maintenance (like the peacekeeping of UN peacekeepers) of the health that was being savaged by vein-popping day-long negotiations, we drank our body weight in fresh fruit juice daily and nibbled hedgerows of unidentifiable herbs.

Washing up pails
One evening, however, after the Other Side was beaten into temporal whimpering submission, I begged off the dreariness of yet another celadon-on-starched linen meal and bolted for the streets. However, having been sternly (and repeatedly) warned not to put our negotiations at risk by imbibing ice-filled drinks or partaking of street food in its balmy plastic-stooled native habitat, I had to compromise with Quán Ăn Ngon - street food in a villa with open kitchen stations. Quán Ăn Ngon, as the trustworthily opinioned and flamboyantly un-PC companion said, is "like Pamela Anderson's bra: big and packed." Not being well-versed with the qualities of Pancho and Lefty, thought the food decent and the atmosphere, not too silicon-y.
Quán Ăn Ngon
A post-prandial flounce down Nam Ky Khoi Nghia and up the sort of grotty stairwell lit by a single naked bulb you'd expect to be pushed up against the flaking wall of and mugged by some disgruntled mắm ruốc (or mắm tôm if they were northerners) was La Fenêtre Soleil - chandeliers dangling from a high ceiling, weathered french windows, bare brick walls, cushy flowery sofas and Norah Jones asking you to go away with her.

Bò Tùng Xẻo
Another night, I escaped to Bò Tùng Xẻo, home of well-marinated strips beef grilled on a tabletop charcoal brazier. Home also of stewed snake with lemongrass, fried cricket, grilled field rat, steamed goat penis with Chinese medicinal herbs, turtle steamed with banana, sea leech, pig stomach salad, sour eel soup and goats' nipples. More fear factor than just strange foods, bò tùng xẻo used to be the term for a form of torture: stripping human flesh to the sound of a beating drum.

Bababa Beer and Nuts
Where the medievals doubted the portability of the water, they drank beer instead. It was only wise to follow such tried-and-tested historical precedent with the native 333 bia. Dun say I ne'er take all possible precautions, hor.

Somewhere amongst the hip interior deco of Gaya, the posh coffee stops, the brightly-coloured vintage Vespas and the katoeys (is there an equivalent word in Vietnamese yet?) literally pursuing their ang moh prey on Honda Oms, we forgot this wasn't Bangkok.

Listless futility. The world and its tasteless preferences.

Re-reading Charles Baudelaire as a Christian, I am sorry that he lived and died without hope: the unrelenting, cutting, crushing hopelessness that is impossible to drug, displace, drown out completely:
"Get Drunk!", Charles Baudelaire
It is essential to be drunk all the time.
That's all: there's no other problem.
If you do not want to feel the appalling weight of Time
which breaks your shoulders and bends you to the ground,
get drunk, and drunk again.
What with?
Wine, poetry, or virtue, please yourself.
But get drunk.
And if now and then,
on the steps of a palace,
on the green grass of a ditch,
in the glum loneliness of your room,
you come to,
your drunken state abated or dissolved,
ask the wind,
ask the wave,
the star,
the bird,
the clock,
ask all that runs away,
all that groans,
all that wheels,
all that sings,
all that speaks,
what time it is;
and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, will tell you:
"It is time to get drunk!"
If you do not want to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk, always get drunk!
With wine, with poetry or with virtue.
As you please.
Praying for opportunities to tell these modern Baudelaires (with no pretensions to poetry) how wonderfully suffused with meaning and colour and sights and sounds life is, because of the confident relationship we can have with the Creator, Sustainer and Controller of Lives and Time.

Right then. Will gird the loins to go carousing for the gospel (and also because, despite all that eating, the Vietnam Effect is kicking in and the pants are falling off).


TIB Restaurant
187 Hai Ba Trung
Tel: 829 7242
Hue cuisine.

An Vien
178A Hai Ba Trung
Tel: 824 3877
Villa nicely done-up.

Temple Club
29 Ton That Thiep
Tel: 829 9244
Buddha-club-meets-old-Shanghai. Spoofy or trendy.

Quán Ăn Ngon
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia
Tel: 825 7179
Street food stations in a villa compound. Eat your heart out, Food Republic.

Pho 24

Rife like McD's in other cities. A bowl of pho, a plate of cha gio and a glass of tea sets you back S$5.

La Fenêtre Soleil
135 Le Thanh Ton
Tel: 822 5209
Grungy grandmotherly sofas and daybeds.

Bò Tùng Xẻo
31 Ly Tu Trong Street
Barbecue your own beef on a tabletop charcoal brazier.

Paris Deli
65 Le Loi
Tel: 821 6127

Cafe Terrace
65 Le Loi

Pat'à Chou
65 Hai Ba Trung
Tel: 824 5873

Foreigners are apparently not allowed to own detailed maps of any part of Vietnam. So, of course, all the information is on Google Earth. This works for locating major streets.

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At April 06, 2007 1:16 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

hang in there dearie!


At April 09, 2007 8:56 am , Blogger Kiet Nguyen said...

You really have a beautiful life and buzi too.
I Saw so beautifull picture from your blog!
It's lovely.
If you have the master pictures, be kind send me.
Share with a friend you can
I'm a Vietnames and a Engineer, and also graphic design!
send me at:
Thanks in advance!
Kiet Nguyen


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