Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ho Boy, That Was Pho-un

Sorry readers, but the puns just write themselves. Just be glad there isn’t an audio portion to the blog where you have to listen to me (EB) sing the entirety of Miss Saigon, which Josh has had to endure since we touched down in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) two days ago. I mean, when it is swelteringly hot, it is basically impossible not to say the Heat is on in Saigon. And the rest just goes from there. [Photos to come, btw - we're on a slow and time-limited connection in Bangkok]

To round out our visit to Hue, our last morning there began with a visit to our now regular coffee spot on the corner a couple blocks from our hotel where all the tiny plastic stools faced out to the watch the traffic pass through the intersection. Turns out even Vietnamese people like to watch the amazing things that can be crammed onto motorbikes and cyclos. We then headed over to the Forbidden City, which was the home of the Nguyen emperors in the 19th Century. Filled with temples, houses, beautiful ponds and lawns, all built on a symmetrical grid in a very celestially auspicious location, Hue’s Forbidden City was reminiscent of Beijing’s, though in substantially worse shape having been the site of fires, floods and fighting in the Vietnam War. Our guidebook (which Josh graciously endures my constant reading from – always about learning) detailed for us the many Nguyen court rituals and the great importance placed on the (their words) “haughty” but “meritorious” “Mandarins” – those who had ascended the highest ranks in civil or military society. In the future we intend to strive to be described as both haughty and meritorious.

Back to the hotel to check out and then we had a couple hours of wandering ahead of us before we had to leave for our flight. We stopped to check the prices at a motorbike shop – we are really getting into Vietnamese life but I’m not sure Josh is going to be zipping his way to Hackettstown on a Vietnamese two-wheeler anytime soon – and then found our way to lunch at a Hue beer garden. Lunch was great – noodles with pork and beef with veggies – but probably the most fun was enjoying our new favorite local beers (Huda for Josh, Festival for me) and watch the others around us work their way through cases of their own. Josh gleefully observed his first examples of serious Asian flush in the group of men at the table just behind us. It happens here too!

After lunch we decided that it wasn’t fair for me to be the only one who received a beautifying treatment while in Hue, so we selected a “salon” for Josh to get a haircut. Though populated only by women with no sign they had ever cut a man’s hair before, we chose this spot because it was the only shop we saw where there was any activity at all – one woman had her hair plugged into some very elaborate machine that looked sure to electrocute. Though the haircut may have been a bit shorter and rounder than Josh had hoped for, the experience was great. Lots of women buzzing around the place, watching Josh in fascination, clearly talking about us in not so hushed Vietnamese. After the cut, Josh asked for a shampoo, which resulted in a washing/scalp massage/face whacking with hands held together as if praying while making an amazing noise that lasted twice as long as the cut itself. And once he had paid, the gaggle of women could resist no longer, asking in broken English where we were from, how old we were and, when it was revealed that we are married, jubilant cheers and applause. It appeared we were a hit!

Freshly shorn (at least one of us), we headed back to the hotel and then were off to the airport. And before we even knew it, we had arrived in Saigon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we came prepared for our day and a half in the city with about two weeks’ worth of food recommendations, and we were ready to dive in. And dive in we did. The food in Saigon was terrific! If Hue was a bit of a disappointment (OK food, nothing amazing) Saigon really knocked its socks off. This is a city that likes to eat and we are always happy to oblige.

Our drive to the hotel gave us our first taste of the famous Saigon traffic. Otherwise known as absolute, total and complete motorbike-filled chaos in which it is an absolute miracle that families of four riding on a motorbike together make it through the intersection together let alone from point A to point B. The motorbikes feel sort of like a river that is flash flooding its way down the street. When the light goes green, hundreds, thousands-even of bikes swarm all around the cars, pedestrians and buses. They go on the correct side of the street, they go into oncoming traffic, they go the wrong direction down a one-way street. They cannot be stopped – they are everywhere! There is really nothing quite like being in the left lane (the lane for cars) and trying to make a right turn into an endless stream of motorbikes. It feels like the driver just closes his eyes and hopes to God, but somehow it all works out. Crossing the street was a similar adventure, but luckily a bit of the New Yorker mentality combined with good luck meant we made it unscathed.

After checking into the fancy Caravelle Hotel (got a good deal on hotels.com), we headed out to Quan An Ngon, a restaurant with a hip atmosphere that serves sort of shmancier versions of street food. The restaurant was buzzing with people – Vietnamese and tourist alike – and the women who were making the food stood at tables ringing the outside of the restaurant. It was cool, probably the most “scene-y” of the places we visited this trip. (Once again we haven’t done the best job of working our way through the nightlife section of the guidebooks. But now that we’re old and married we suppose it’s OK to be lame.) The food was great – pork and “broken” rice, best springs rolls of the trip, rice crepes – with the only dud being the salad with chicken in which the only green was super pungent Thai basil. Good for adding to your noodle soups in small doses, maybe not for chomping down instead of romaine. After dinner we walked to a multi-story ice cream shop with décor that looked right out of 1950s suburban America for a shake and an ice cream sundae. I kept looking around for Archie to be sharing his banana split with Betty and Veronica at a table nearby. No luck. Back to the hotel and off to bed.

Wednesday began with the quest for the best pho in town. We had heard positive things about Pho Hua in District 3, so we headed there in a cab in morning rush hour traffic. The pho did not disappoint. The place was packed with diners all slurping their soups and I was thrilled to rediscover finally the fried dough sticks we had first enjoyed in Hanoi three years ago. Rip them up, toss them in the soup, and it’s like getting the go-ahead to have a giant french fry for breakfast. YUM. A morning of wandering all around Districts 3 and 1 ensued, with a brief stop for Josh to learn how to make Vietnamese coffee from a helpful shopkeeper. (Turns out, surprisingly easy.) We visited a couple of pagodas and then found our way to lunch at Hong Hahn, another place we had read about in the helpful food blog. We waited out (most of) the torrential rain storm enjoying rice crepes with pork and mushrooms and rice paper wraps of veggies, pork and shrimp.

Thus fortified, we headed to the War Museum, telling the story of the Vietnam War (or American War of Aggression as described there) from the Vietnamese perspective. The exhibits were very sobering and after a thought-provoking discussion about capitalism, communism and the different societies they create (I clearly won the argument, three years of law school must have taught me something about intellectual pontificating about rights and values and other stuff like that, though for Josh’s sake we’ll call it a draw), we then strolled home. A visit to the beautiful central post office, some cookies from a woman making them in a Vietnamese pizzelle maker-equivalent on the street, and a Luxe-guide directed shopping stroll down the street near our hotel were our only final diversions.

For dinner, we hopped a cab over to Com Nieu Sai Gon, a restaurant we had read about that apparently also appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s show when he was in Saigon. The food was all very yummy – eggplant with pork and tofu, spicy grilled pork – with the highlight being the restaurant’s signature grilled rice. The rice is cooked in a clay pot which the waiter then breaks in the middle of the restaurant to free the rice. To cool the rice (and impress the diners), he then flings the puck of rice across the restaurant to another waiter, who catches it on a plate and serves it to your table. It was tasty, and the experience even more memorable. A short stroll and then a cab back home and another day of eating was behind us.

Today, September 2, is Vietnamese Independence Day in which they celebrate the triumph over the French in 1945. There were lots of posters around town with Uncle Ho’s smiling face on them, but sadly no big parades to watch. And so, to truly celebrate Vietnam’s independence, we decided to spend our day with the two nations that had done the most to limit Vietnam’s independence, namely China and France. First off, we headed to Cho Lon, the city’s Chinatown. Though the main market was closed for the holiday, people were still selling meat and veggies on the street, and we were able to sneak in two breakfasts – first miscellaneous meat/fish-filled rice dumplings from a cart and then grilled pork over rice from a small street-side grill. We wandered through Cho Lon’s temples and watched as worshippers came to pray and burn incense before the many gods. Highlight of the Cho Lon temple circuit – when I so helpfully read a description from the guidebook of the temple that I believed us to be in (a description which seemed very accurate and enlightening) only to discover that temple was actually several blocks away and we were instead in some totally random one. It didn’t otherwise seem like all the temples were the same, but I guess that at a certain level of description one could make just about anything work.

Our Chinatown wandering complete, we hopped a cab over towards the center of town where, with a quick stop at a food vendor selling a dessert we had been advised to try – banana stuffed into sweet rice and grilled, then covered with coconut milk and tapioca, good though the description sounds sweeter than it actually is – we transitioned to the French portion of our day for fruit smoothies and a crème caramel at Au Parc, a lovely French café on the Park near the Cathedral. A sweet and wonderful way to end our time in Saigon. Back to the hotel and then we were off on our marathon journey to the next phase of our adventure – this time in Europe.

Right now? Well, dear readers, we write to you while enjoying a 6 hour layover (7 pm to 1 am) in the Bangkok airport. It’s our own “One Night in Bangkok” – unsurprisingly I’ve been singing that, much to Josh’s embarrassment – though really more like half a night in the Bangkok airport. Highlights of our short visit here include having Thai Pad Thai (interestingly enough not called just Pad) and the sign at immigration that asks you to take off your sunglasses, hats, etc. for the picture they take of you upon entering the country. The image of a cap with a line through it? Why it was none other than a Yale graduation hat from 1958! Namely a blue baseball cap with 5Y8 on it. Pretty awesome.

Though we are sad to leave our Asian adventuring behind, fear not blog fans, as we are off for a weekend of fun, marriage and likely a yummy Greek meal or two in the coming days. Let the European escapades begin!

2 comments:

cmeg said...

Hope none of your readers are trying to diet because we all know the two of you will not have gained an ounce. Amazing.

Love following your food fest.

Speaking of haircuts, (little or no seque there) EB, I'll bet you didn't know I once gave Josh a Thanksgiving neck shave....

Happy (a little early) 1st Anniversay!

Cuz Carol

Ali said...

Please tell us how to make Vietnamese coffee. Is it as easy as pouring coffee over sweetened condensed milk? I want the scoop!