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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala

SAIGON, VIETNAM (continued)

June 19, Tuesday

It's been a crazy two weeks from Penang to Bangkok to Saigon. Staying in a different place each night, daily fights with taxi drivers, attending a cousin's wedding, visiting family in rural areas, witnessing the dark side of globalization, abandoning a roll of film, and losing two full days of writing in a faulty disk drive has made this last leg of my trip a challenge to record.

When I have time again, I'll try to remember all I wrote about Portuguese salad in Malaysia, orange juice in Thailand, and Nike shoes in Vietnam. I'll post those entries later. Sorry for the circular journal—so goes the traveling.

For now, I'm just very happy to be in Vietnam, where fresh vegetables and herbs appear at every meal. In Malaysia and Singapore, where the cuisine is more heavily influenced by China and India, virtually all vegetables are cooked. A crunchy green papaya salad in Bangkok, served with raw cabbage and long beans, welcomed me back to the lighter, fresher cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam.

Meals are smaller here—even pho' arrives in a bowl less than half the size of those we buy in the US—but I get to eat all day long. My friends and family back in the US know that I have to eat every three hours to stay sane. Although I still haven't completed my earthquake kit for the Big One, I make sure to stash emergency food (beef jerky, energy bars, smoked almonds) in every bag, every vehicle, every room. It's my Vietnamese blood, this constant need to munch. Here in Saigon, whether in the home or on the street, there's always something to eat in sight: a pot of soup, a bundle of rice cakes, an opened jackfruit, a plate of dried fish, a bag of sesame crackers, a jar of sweet black bean pudding. Sometimes the job of a food writer isn't all that fun (try eating at a bad restaurant three times or developing a recipe for low-fat fish and chips). But right now, I have to say, I'm in heaven.


June 20, Wednesday

My taxi stopped in front of a gated estate on Ba Huyen Thanh Quan. A misspelled address scribbled on a square of paper had led me finally to the home of Vu Ngoc An, or Ong Bay (“great-uncle seven”) as I am to call him. An old, two-story home that sprawls on prime land in central Saigon, it sits down the street from Xa Loi Pagoda, where monks died in flames protesting the Diem regime. Just around the corner is Reunification Hall, “liberated” when tanks matter-of-factly announced the fall of South Vietnam 26 years ago. Lining the busy streets radiating from this point are some of Saigon’s trendiest coffee bars and night clubs.

Ong Bay is a distant relative by American standards, an older cousin of my grandmother, but here in Vietnam, that proves more than enough to welcome me for my stay. A framed portrait of Ho Chi Minh, hanging respectfully near the ceiling, is a reminder that my uncle was a high official in the communist government. Friends and business acquaintances all comment likewise, stating (not asking) that my uncle must have been an important “VC” to have this house. I can only nod to confirm the fact. My family was split by the wars, and Ong Bay himself was locked in a prison for eight years. There are no winners here in Vietnam.

It turns out that my uncle is the editor-in-chief at Saigon Tiep Thi, one of the business publications of the Saigon Times Group. We talked shop, as much as I could in my broken Vietnamese, and by the end of the first day, I’d promised to write articles for him about Vietnamese food. Embarrassingly, I will have to write them in English, and one of his editors will translate them into Vietnamese.

The food served at his table differs greatly from my own family’s. There seems to be a heavy influence from the north, with saltier meats and more cooked vegetables. Fresh herbs do not appear as much, and rice dominates every meal. However, his oldest daughter, Thu, eats out a lot and knows all the best restaurants in town.

Last night Thu took my family friend, Trung, and I to a restaurant specializing in banh khaoi from Hue. “Vietnamese pizza” she claims. When the cakes come, they do look remarkably like small pizzas. A small, flat round of rice flour dough is pan-fried with pork, shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, and mushrooms. It’s sort of the thick-crust version of banh xeo, the “happy crepe” that restaurants in the US often serve. We tear pieces of the banh khaoi to wrap in lettuce leaves with thin slices of cucumber, green banana, and green star fruit. A dipping sauce of shrimp paste and peanuts is the final layer of flavor.

Afterwards, we headed to one of the popular music cafés in central Saigon. The extensive drink menu includes cocktails, coffees, and two pages of fruit juices. Although simple foods appear on the menu, I’ve never seen anyone eat at these cafes. Even the drinks are beyond the means of most people here. Wavering between a green herb drink and one of fresh milk, lime juice, and sugar, I was happy to learn the latter is both refreshing and comforting. While we sipped, a trio of violin, cello, and piano offered mellow renditions of old Vietnamese love songs and Western pop rock. Trung and Thu sang along to the American songs and argued about whether or not Western classical music is boring. Although very different, both Trung and Thu belong to a young, affluent class of Saigonese: Trung is an architect with family in the US and Thu’s father is a loyal Party member.

In the eight years since I was last here, bicycles have given way to motorbikes, kids have gotten fat, homes have grown two or three floors, and at least one ATM machine has been installed downtown. Although corrupt officials and fragile laws still hamper Saigon’s growth, life here is not nearly as desperate as before. I’ve seen SUV’s, cell phones, Calvin Klein, and washing machines—signs of a privileged class emerging despite all of Uncle Ho’s efforts.

More Saigon >

June 2001