Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What's been going on in the 'Gon

We’ve been back in Saigon for three months and many people ask me what I think has changed in the year I’ve been away. So what’s been going on in the ‘Gon that wasn’t before?

Well, you could just as easily ask – what’s not going on anymore? A lot of restaurants and bars have moved or closed and new one’s have sprouted to try their hand at the slippery food and beverage industry. Take Thai Van Lung for example. I was slightly disappointed to see Alibi has evaporated, but also slightly happy to know that the smug faces of Olympique Saigon’s team photo won’t be smirking down at me from behind the bar every time I order a drink anymore. Bernie’s Bar & Grill seems to be the new kid on this ever-changing block, but some stalwarts like Skewers have weathered the stormy wave of change.

On the other side of District 1, the Old Market (Cho Cu) area is flourishing into the new hotspot. With rent prices soaring in traditionally more sough-after areas, this was inevitably going to happen, with Phatties tapping into this rich vein early. Although some establishments have already disappeared, La Cantina being one, the duet of Gringo’s and Mexican Lindo have jumped up to take their place on this stretch in the shadow of that gigantic joint in the sky; the Bitexco Tower (come on, does it really look like a lotus bud to anyone?!). Other notable newbies include the Drunken Duck and the garish X Club. God only knows what happens in there. I think it’s time for an covert assignment to uncover the social evils of Vietnamese nightclubs ala Current Affair or Carte Blanche – hidden camera in tow – and I’ll report back. 

 The Giant Joint

Of course, the rise of shopping centres would always be inevitable, but I must admit a certain shock at the speed with which certain structures have suddenly, as if overnight, established themselves with a certain authority, as if being long-standing historical members of the city, swathed in culture. Cases in point are the ostentatious Kumho Asiana Plaza and the Vincom Centre. When I left, there was but a massive hole in the ground, hidden by tropical fish-painted construction barriers and just down the road, a little park where all the Parkson staff used to soak up some rays over lunchtime. Fast forward one year and ta da! Hard Rock Café, the much-feted Carl Junior’s and other such nonsense have arisen like the Colossus at Rhodes. I have yet to bring myself to enter either of these Leviathans of commercialism. Oh and Eden Mall’s gone, and the Saigon Square has moved (again).

Around my neck of the concrete woods, the construction of the Crescent Mall in Phu My Hung is bustling along quite nicely, along with a throng of high-rise apartment blocks said to rival Seoul by early next century. Reminiscent of the Cold War arms race sans the hate, the glory of being named Saigon’s “next city centre” is certainly on between PMH and District 2. There’s also the pretty new Phu My Bridge that I have a beautiful night-view of from my apartment. In this dynamic, ever-changing city, one thing remains a constant: construction. A lot of, as my students so often utter. Oh and potholes. Let’s not forget them. 

 Cau Phu My

Other things I’ve noticed is a much-welcomed following of the road rules, in a certain Saigon sense, compared to before. I was at first unnerved by the motorbikes sticking religiously to the right lane whilst blissfully cruising down Nguyen Van Linh Boulevard, wondering whether they’ve implemented Orwellian brainwashing techniques to try prevent (I guess a better word would be ‘limit’) road chaos. Looking around nervously for a remote-activated, hovering eye-in-the-sky camera, I was disappointed to discover that a couple of uniformed Big Brothers spattered along the tree-lined boulevard were the only semblance of authority in sight. Given, last month was “Traffic Safety Month”, and six pairs of stone-faced, aviator-shaded beige-men did greet me every morning on the way to work, but was this the reason for the sudden adherence to the law? Well, September came in a deluge of water, and left in pretty-much the same manner, along with Traffic Safety Month. I woke up on October the first, quite positive (it being a Friday and all) that life in traffic would soon be as traumatic as ever, only to discover that all the bikes and cars were at it, slowly puttering along in their own lanes. Must be something in the water…

Other random things I’ve noticed. The Dong’s sliding oh so subtly toward the big 20 000. Maybe we should hold a big coming of age ceremony when it hits the landmark, but all the fireworks might just get too excited and explode pre-emptively like at the last big bash in Hanoi. The tendency towards the proliferation of yoghurt shops seems to have abated, only to be replaced with a new one in the form of deluxe, multi-storeyed ice-cream shops. Perhaps this worrying trend warrants a post on it’s own, co-authored by the World Health Organisation’s Chair for the Propogation of Child Obesity and Diabetes in South East-Asia.

Otherwise, most things haven’t changed much. Bikes. Dust. Culture. Stares. Rain. Smiles. Yummy food. Noise. Charm. Gloves and toe-socks. Internet censorship. Strange smells. Mystery meat. Apo and Go2. And bucketfuls of uniqueness…

Friday, August 13, 2010

Foreign Indulgences

Okay, as much as I ranted about the local food in the previous post, I must admit hauling along quite a number of what you could call “ foreign essentials”, things which are either too dear in Vietnam, too difficult to source out or just impossible to find (for reasons of either legality or culture). Turn the cart upside down, though, and they could be called a Westerner’s “lavish indulgences”, or more harshly; unnecessary excess crap to lug along on an already long flight. Of course I prefer the former term.

Be it as it may, I’d like to share with you now these fine items which are of various values; sentimental, monetary, sanitary or just plain sanity.

First on the list was an essential collection of 20 cds. I think Sarah and I have managed to put together a fine assortment of new albums , cheesy treffers (as they call rubbish music that’s only good for drunken singalongs in South Africa), local (as in Aussie and Saffa) or nostalgic albums. Classified geographically, these are:

Australian: Xaviar Rudd and Izintaba (Koonyum Sun), John Butler Trio x2 (April Uprising and Three), The Whitlams (Love this City), Eskimo Joe (A Song is a City) and Powderfinger (Golden Rule).

South Africa: Jack Parow (Self-titled), The Rudimentals (Set it Proper), Valiant Swart (Die Mystic Boer), The Dirty Skirts(On a Stellar Bender), Max Normal.TV (Good Morning South Africa), Springbok Nude Girls (Goddank vir Klank) and Black Mango Presents (Breathe Sunshine Vol 3).

International: The Flaming Lips (The Soft Bulletin), Florence + the Machine (Lungs), Pendulum x2 (Immersion and In Silico), Kings of Leon x3 (Because of the Times, Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbeat), Putumayo Presents (Sahara Lounge).

Cheesy World Cup Fever induced purchases: African Musical Safari, K’Naan (Troubadour), Listen Up! (The official 2010 World Cup Album).

*A quick endorsement from Metallica: If you haven’t heard of any of the above-mentioned artists go out and illegally download all of their music (except for the ones in the last category which are all pretty naff), and send the royalties to the Royal Society for Protection of African White Tigers.

Next on the list, (and never far from my mind) was foodstuffs: From South Africa and still in the mail are a fine range of Ina Paarman’s spices, stocks, and sauces. Sarah reckons Ina is like South Africa's very own Martha Stewart, but without the criminal record. Also, choccies (think Tempo and Bar One), four small potjies – quintessential SA outdoor cast iron cooking pots).

Our Australian amassment contained…wait for it, Tim Tams! Mint Slice! Gigantic Kit-Kat Chunky bars! Now before, you say: “But you can get Tim Tams in Vietnam, stupid.” As any discerning chocololic worth his block clearly knows, they’re just. not. the same, so rather keep quiet as not to look like you don’t know your cacao from you co…coffee. They’re made in Malaysia where different criteria are used to determined deliciousness, or is it deliciosity?

Anyways, sadly but not unsurprisingly none of the above consignment made it to Week Two of “The Return”. A half-jack of mezcal complete with two alcohol-bloated little worms only just made it into Week Two.

There were also numerous toiletries: think face cleansers without whiteners – I know it’s hard to imagine – and things that won’t make you break out in a rash and hives from just looking at the chemical ingredients on the label.

There were heaps of shoes in Western sizes, including a pair of gumboots (for Saigon downpours), and “real” football boots. What?! You mean the boots they sell for a hundred thousand uncles on Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street aren’t real?! The fact that your toes were sticking out of them after your first kickaround should’ve made that clear, buddy…

Books! I wish I could list all the books we had, but sadly the two pristine rectangular boxes we sent from Australia by post, containing our books, teaching material and other odds and ends arrived a few days after us, battered, bruised and misshapen sans most of our books. Luckily a lot of Sarah’s cook books were saved the culling and I’m pretty sure it’s not the first time Salman Rushdie’s novels haven’t made it into a country. A lot of our teaching materials were also rifled through and some removed (at least we’ll soon have a new generation of Vietnamese postal workers getting 7.5 on their IELTS tests).

Now to what I believe to be the most important items: A Bundaberg Rum Wallabies overall (great for messy nights out with the boys), my silk SA flag, as well as beanie and scarf and the ultimate South African cultural weapon: Our modern day assegai, that much maligned, often misunderstood hornet's nest in a stadium, the bane of all English supporters existence at the World Cup (or possibly a tight second after the Uruguayan referees in the second round match against Germany). The vuvu. The vuvuzela. 

Lavish indulgences? Please, mate. Essentials.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The food, the glorious food!

To pick up where I left off on Friday’s post, there isn’t a single raison d'être for returning to Saigon, but rather the amalgamation of factors which I touched on. Yet, one item that is high up the list, peeking over the top edge with greedy little eyes is this country's gastronomic delights, in extreme plurality.

Despite being a self-confessed hedonist, okay, honestly more of a glutton than a bon vivant, I haven’t had time to revisit and resample all of the epicurean delicacies we so salivated over in Australia. Sarah and I would sit down, with a bucket tied under our chin and knotted behind our ears, which acted as a catchment area for our drool (remember Australia is in a serious long-term drought and any moisture whatsoever is as welcome there as it is on Frank Herbert’s Dune). We’d then remember all our old haunts and reminisce about our favourite dishes:

“Oh, do you remember the ca ri hai san at that com binh dan with the purple taro soup side?” *slabber slabber slobber* or “Beef and cheese, beef and cheese!” that coming excitably from me thinking about that delectable cholesterol bomb at Barbecue Garden, as I dribbled salubriously into my bucket. Memories rekindled and drool arunning, we’d go on for quite a while, before I stomachs would join the festivities, pounding at the door, asking to be fed in substance and not in spirit alone.

In the nine days that we’ve been here, I’ve managed to gulp down mounds of noodles in various forms: mi quang, hu tieu, mi xao and more pho than you can throw a rubber chicken, infused with cilantro and rubbed down with mint, at. I’ve eaten pho probably every day for breakfast, otherwise for a snack or lunch. I’ve got bean sprouts emerging from my nostrils like a newly seeded wheat field, beef brisket on the brain and broth sloshing around in my stomach like a LG top-loader on high. I’ve had goi cuon, bo kho, banh xeo, bo bit tet, com heo nuong and xiu mai, suon heo, soft-shell crab covered in what looked like green Rice Krispies, green mango salads, green papaya salads, freshly baked banh mi's and a steamy, fluffy banh bao filled with well, thap cam, a lot of interesting bits and pieces, some identifiable, some not. 

 There's a marinated rubber chicken submerged in there somewhere.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s still to come. I’m watching and waiting in the dark, biding my time, sourcing out the best bun cha (my all-time fav) and pho Hanoi joints, like a serial killer stalking his prey…I think I need a bucket again, the dribble is making rivulets down my chest and pooling in my belly button.

Any recommendations as to your favourite Hanoi food spots in Saigon? I’d love to hear them.

Adios en lekker eet.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Round Two

The keyboard has been dusted and the mouse de-cobwebbed but my mind is still rusty from a lack of writing and an overwhelming, yet much-anticipated, return to Vietnam.  Sarah and I have been back for exactly a week, having touched down in the sauna that is Saigon for another crack at this spinning, whirling city existence. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what emotions would unwrap themselves from my intestines to coil themselves around my aorta and Hoover my eyeballs, but I’m definitely better prepared and to date the chemical balances have played their part, but can you ever be totally prepared for this place? It’s absolutely nuts, in the macadamia flavoured ice-cream laced with noisy pecans kind of way. It takes some time (nearly exactly a year) away to find some perspective as to how unique – and I use that word brazenly against the better wishes of that fierce invalid home from hot climates Switters – this country and city really is. Who designed this place, or did it just organically grow, like a life-force of it’s own into the chaotic coexistence of rushing people? If I were an anthropologist I’d have my a buffet plate full of this place.

I’ve probably had a dozen or more people ask me, puzzled at why we’ve left the ‘greener climes’ and prospects of Oz behind to back track, “Why did you come to Vietnam?” Sometimes I spluttered a reply that sounded, to me, more like an excuse, trying to justify the decision. Bollocks and brittle bones. None more of that. It’s a step forward in the direction we want to go and I can feel it in my marrow, in that shining ball we have inside us, that things just feel right. It’s the same feeling that I had when I asked Sarah to marry me. Every sinewy fibre says it feels right. For those of you who live in this clamorous, pecan ice-cream of a city, with its wealth of gastronomic goodies, ambition and potential, its accommodating locals and carefree lifestyle, just look around you and rephrase that question to: “What took you so bloody long?!”

That said, I am glad to be back to what feels like “home”, of which I guess I now have three. Having spent the last two months living a transient lifestyle out of a suitcase between Australia, South Africa and Oz again, I am relieved to have finally settled again. Next week we’ll unpack our new life on the dizzying heights of the 9th floor in a larnie new apartment block, fully equipped with touch-pad security, a 25m pool, tennis courts and shiny (and as yet non-sweat stained) gym in a leafy and unexplored corner of District 7.

I’ll try and document, in pictures and words, this new experience. I vow to keep this rickety clunker of a computer mote-free and keep those devious devils of rust and lethargy at bay and blog it out to the end.

Take two.