(July 27th) Got a taxi to Nils’ apartment. Here’s the photo.
(July 28th) We woke on the couch in Nils’ apartment in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, named after the man responsible for the reunification of Vietnam after the French colonists had left.
Couldn’t get a SIM card because we’d forgotten to bring a passport with us. Instead of going back, we took a taxi to town, stopping at a small diner for our first Vietnamese food – bánh canh cua. We had no idea what it would be, it was just the largest item on the menu, so we thought it would probably be the right thing to order. Here it is:
Fed, we went on to the war remnants museum, a small, anti-American institution that, according to online reviews, would be horrifically eye-opening. The visit included a brutal free tour, led by a delicate, soft-spoken Vietnamese guide who didn’t tell us much that we couldn’t have read off the walls. But, she did answer the odd question that made it worth having her there. The exhibits gave the military history of Vietnam, from French occupation to the revolution, to French defeat, to Americans and their domino theory war.
There were photos of the distorted Vietnamese children and grandchildren of people who were exposed to Agent Orange, with all of their oddly shaped limbs and contortions. Agent Orange will affect five generations of Vietnamese, and we’ve reached generation 4. A guy in a wheelchair in the adjacent room, crippled by the chemical, was sitting in front of a table that was covered in plastic jewellery he was making. No, I don’t want your bead necklace. But I feel awful that my people did this to your grandparents, and as a result you’re a deformed dwarf reduced to being used as a political point in a museum.
Outside again, having just seen the impact of the American invasion, the war planes and tanks that surrounded the museum looked even more evil. Brilliant anti-American propaganda.
From there we walked through a sculpture park to another cafe (a supposedly secret place that we’d added to the map but don’t know why), and had coffee and spring rolls. Onto the touristy Ben Tham Market, ate a variety of snails (boiled, with side sauces that made them nice), bought a dragon fruit, then went to a rooftop bar on Bui Vien street that Nils later told us was “a scam”, overcharging for shitty drinks and food.
Three beers later, we walked to The Note Cafe, had an egg coffee (sweet, slightly eggy, but mainly just a latte), met Nils and went on to another rooftop bar. At that one, they told us there was the 3 for 2 happy hour on any cocktail. When we got the bill, we discovered Nils’ mocktail wasn’t part of the deal, despite being told that would be fine. They tried getting us to pay extra, but we refused and left.
Now hungry again, we walked around the block with Nils and ate our first of many Vietnamese Pho soups (meat, usually slices of pork or beef, floating on a clear soup with Vietnamese herbs, bean sprouts, spring onions, chillies, rice noodles and broth). The area had come alive, it was a sort-of red light district, full of bars and pretty ladies offering massages. Nils asked a group spa workers whether they give a happy ending. The leader of the pack was a transgender ex-man who looked really pissed off when Nils asked her. It was just curiosity (we weren’t after a hand job), but he’d insulted them.
We nipped into a shop to buy a couple of bottles of sake and some beer, and took them to an apartment party with about 15 TEFL students drinking and smoking weed. Lily and I were 5-10 years older than them, apart from one guy, a pepper buyer for Kraft, in Vietnam to meet a pepper supplier. I was curious about his job, but he didn’t think it was interesting enough to talk about.
We all went on to the opening of a new club; the Observatory. Shitty music but nice open rooftop bar. Lily got some magic mushrooms from one of our new English language friends, and I tried unsuccessfully to relax. People were buying balloons and inhaling the contents: laughing gas. I sucked up a lungful, and felt an intense, pulsating high, everything slowed down, the music went metallic, and within 10 seconds everything was returned to normal. A quick google showed that laughing gas destroys brain cells. And yet people are apparently huffing it legally all over Asia. Home to showers and bed.
(July 29th) Nils and Deema showed us around town on their mopeds. Nils’ is from 1978, a small, red thing he hopes to drive from Vietnam to Germany (through Pakistan, India, up into the Stan countries, then down again to Iran, and up through Europe). He’s always got an idea like that on the go.
We picked up banh mi sandwiches, which are French-inspired sandwich: a light, crispy baguette, stuffed with local herbs and spices, plus meat, bean sprouts and paté. Then went on to a cafe for iced, sweet, milky coffee, then to finally on to get that SIM card, this time armed with a passport. Next stop was a fancy, large post office to send a postcard to mum and dad, via lots of little streets.
Nils and Deema chauffeured us to the street food market for BBQ squid and noodle soup, then on towards a large pedestrianised street, taking a 4-lane highway thick with traffic. We missed a right turn, so we had to go under a densely polluted tunnel, inhaling the fumes of several hundred other mopeds.
We parked and walked up the carless thoroughfare. A wide, multi-jet fountain embedded in the pave-stones surprised us. At the far end was a large statue of Ho Chi Minh. After our selfie, we went over to an apartment block where every apartment on every floor had been converted to a different restaurant or cafe. We had a few drinks overlooking the street.
We ended up at a small restaurant that offered ‘coconut worms’, which were grubs as wide and long as your thumb that we’d seen in a YouTube video about exotic Vietnamese foods.
Two worms were served alive, pulsating in a bowl of chilli oil, daring us to eat them. To do so without getting bitten you have to hold them by their hard, black, flat heads between your fingers, putting the still-pulsating body in your mouth, then chomping down with your front teeth and trying to tear away the body. This is surprisingly difficult because their skin is tough, so there are a few seconds where they wriggle on your tongue before you can eventually chew, with all the juices spilling out into your mouth, and swallow. I managed to keep it together, but almost gagged mid-bite when I saw the other grub thrashing around in the oil, as the one on my tongue exploded. Nils and Deema dropped us off at a massage place, just around the corner from their apartment.
(July 30th) In the tour company’s car to the Mekong Delta, we passed rice fields and pastures dotted with grave sites. Farmers bury the bodies of their ancestors on their own lands, right in the middle of fields, losing space for crops, inefficient for farming but beautiful.
We were on the cooking tour with a mansplaining democrat (Eric) who spoke over his wife (Hannah), interrupted her, corrected her continually and generally just kept speaking. Hannah was no bore; she’d worked for the Obama campaign, and ran the clothing business she and Eric were in Asia to buy stock for. She woke up on the morning after the 2016 elections and puked when she realised Trump had won.
We chatted about books, movies, food, travels, Eric wouldn’t respond or ask questions in our conversations, just say declarative statement after declarative statement, story after story. By themselves, each story was interesting, but together it was awful. Lily and I disagreed about this, by the way. She liked him. “You’re exactly like that”, she said to me.
The Mekong river is the 12th longest in the world, starting in Tibet and travelling over 4,000 km, through 6 countries before ending up here, in the Mekong Delta, a so-called “biological treasure trove” of over 1,000 species of plants, fish, lizards and mammals, making it Vietnam’s most productive aquaculture region. Of course, we saw none of that on our half-hour trip up the river, aside from leafy riverbanks and the odd wooden fishing canoe.
Hannah pointed out how low in the water was the river barge we were passing. Eric quickly revealed to her that the likely cause of its depression was the giant, unmissable mountains of earth it was carrying. He was becoming the cause of my own depression. My mood was lightened by an identical barge we passed, this one unladen, yet just as low in the water than the previous one. Take that, Mr. Man.
We docked on a riverbank at a place where we could pick up our pre-rented bikes. The ride took us past countryside houses, homesteads with farms crisscrossed with irrigation canals surrounded by trees. Beautiful, colourful plants lined the roads, which were sandy enough to create patches that were quite hard to ride through. One of them pitched Eric off his bike, head over heels, but he wasn’t damaged much.
After an hour we arrived at our lunch spot, starving. We got to work grating a taro root, then made egg pancakes. We were served fried fish with the scales on, which to eat we scraped off the scales, then flaked hunks of flesh into lettuce leaves. We also ate sweet boiled pork and rice, crispy deep fried toro spring rolls that we’d just prepared, plus the egg pancake with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork, soup with rice noodles, carrots and beef.
After the class we went to a workshop making all types of useful and tasty things out of coconuts. There were teapots made out of the whole fruit, sculptures and lots of sticky, toffee-like sweets. One girl’s hands moved faster than you could see, wrapping the sweets in rice paper in fractions of a second. Lily defied her allergy to taste royal jelly, with expected results.