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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 22, Friday

Trung invited me to lunch with his friend, Nhat, a fellow architect. They led me down an alley across from Saigon's landmark Ben Thanh market to a another restaurant that specialized in the cuisine of Hue, once the capital of the Nguyen dynasty emperors. Although I would head up there soon enough, Hue's little steamed rice cakes are popular fare in Saigon as well.

All use dough made from rice flour, but creative imperial chefs devised numerous shapes and fillings for the banh, or "cakes." Tiny, dimpled rounds of banh beo hold ground shrimp and a single, crunchy crouton of pork skin. The banana leaf folds of banh nam open like an envelope to reveal a thin rectangle sprinkled with shrimp. The flat, fresh sheets of rice noodle, or banh uot, hold roast pork and fresh herbs.

A small plate piled high with a selection of intricately wrapped treats from Hue: pâté, cured meats known as nem, and sweet rice cakes streaked with fresh coconut.

After lunch, Trung and Nhat took led me through the vast market, past endless aisles of vendors melodically offering everything from dragonfruit to dried fish, silk to soap. Near the center of the covered market, we stopped at a che stall where a row of glasses displayed the colorful ingredients we could choose for our dessert. Che is a distinctly Vietnamese sweet, a cross between a pudding and a drink. Sometimes served in a bowl like a cold soup, it can also be layered in tall glasses for maximum technicolor effect.

Che is based on a myriad of sweet liquids. Depending on region and personal taste, it might be made with thick coconut milk, thin ginger tea, or sweet red bean soup. The fun, though, is in what you want added to your glass. Just a few of the stir-ins you can choose from: lotus seeds, seaweed strips, corn (each kernel sliced thinly into paper-thin rounds!), dried longans, agar-agar confetti, tapioca, lychee, or basil seeds. Because it's fairly filling, che is especially popular as an afternoon snack. (At Vietnamese restaurants in the US, you may see shelves of che on display, chilled behind glass. These tend to be thicker, some set quite firm like a pudding. If there's anything like red bean drink with taro or three-color bean drink or mung bean drink on the menu, try ordering a couple for everyone at the table to share.)

Evidently, business was not pressing back at the Ministry of Trade's office for commercial construction, where Trung and Nhat work, so our next destination was a roadside cafe sitting on the circle of "Turtle Fountain." Nhat explained the nail shape of the towering fountain in front of us. It was commissioned by President Nguyen Van Thieu to secure the tail of the dragon that lives under Saigon, whose head lies beneath the former presidential palace and whose tail stretches to this intersection. Every time the dragon moves his tail, a regime falls. President Thieu hoped the nail of the fountain would secure his presidency, but it obviously proved useless against the National Liberation Front of the North. Now it's a popular meeting place for lovers and quite a happening scene on weekend nights.

Then, late in the afternoon, Turtle Fountain was still quiet. The three of us sipped limeade, watched traffic flow by, and talked about life in Saigon past, present and future.

More Saigon >

June 2001