HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, September 20, 2010

What a wonderful world

I'm loving Saigon more and more every day. The city gives off a vibe of constant energy, and it is impossible not to get sucked in. There is no break for the weekend: traffic on Saturday night is as hectic as it is on Monday. Students still pour out of schools at 3pm. Construction workers are still doing their thing at midnight on Sunday. This place reminds me of a huge New Orleans - there is something to eat, see, or do on basically every corner. I'm happy to report that there is plenty of great live music to enjoy, which is one of my requirements for a great city. Last night Hien, the wonderful LanguageCorps Vietnam manager, took us to a bar that I would've never found otherwise. There was no cover to pay to see a great band that played everything from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Cake to Eric Clatpon and CCR. The drummer even nailed John Bonham's "Heartbreaker" solo. Even though I've only been here 8 days, I've already decided that I plan spending a good bit of time here, as long as I can make loan payments once I start working.
The traffic circle in front of Benh Thanh Market.
I'm feeling so comfortable in my surroundings that I decided to rent a motorbike yesterday. I was a little nervous at first, considering I've never even ridden on one, let alone driven one. But it's actually pretty easy to pick up. I practiced for a few minutes on small streets and then cruised onto a main drag. Traffic at midday Sunday is fairly light, but I did have a couple hairy moments. However, I am still alive and I didn't cause anyone else bodily harm, so I considered the day a success. I did almost have a heart attack at one point though, when I parked in front of a random store to go view an apartment down the street. Apparently someone at the store moved the bike, so when I got back I started freaking out, only to find it about 10 feet away. It will be a while longer before I venture out on a weekday or at night, but I will probably continue to practice every Sunday.

Despite all of this activity in the city, it is pretty easy to slip out of the hyperactive madness and find some really relaxing areas. On Saturday, for example, Bo, a student of ours, took us to a "waterpark" in the countryside. When I heard waterpark I pictured the treeless parks of America where too many fat people think they look fine without a shirt on. As soon as we got to the park, however, it was clear that this was much different. There were four waterslides, but they weren't very tall. The main attractions were the river (canal?) that you could swim in and the hammocks on land to take a break in.
I'm really happy we were able to go out to the park, since it was very relaxing, in addition to being a great way to escape the midday heat of the city. We also had a picnic of watermelon, spring rolls, and rice with fresh vegetables and soy sauce. Delicious.

After half a day of relaxing, we went back to the city for dinner at Bo's house. I felt like I was in an episode of No Reservations, where a family takes you in and cooks as much food as they possibly can for you. This was also a great chance to see a working-class Vietnamese neighborhood. It was fascinating to walk down the narrow alleys between the narrow houses and get glimpses of daily life through the open doors and windows. The Vietnamese are very open about guests coming into their house, so it was easy to peek in on various domestic scenes: children playing video games, women cooking, men working on motorbikes, etc. And the food of course, was delicious.

So far, then, I really couldn't be happier to be in Saigon. The people aren't quite as friendly as they were in Phnom Penh, probably because many of them are too busy making heaps of money, but it is still easy to have some very enjoyable conversations with random people on the street. I had high expectations for the food coming in and my meals have been even better than I had hoped for. Everything is so flavorful and bright and, of course, the prices are unbelievably low. There's a woman, whom I've ingeniously named Amazing Egg Sandwhich Lady, who runs a food cart on a corner near the LanguageCorps office selling amazing egg banh mi (sandwhich) with pate and fresh vegetables. The price? 6,000 dong, which at 19,000 dong to the dollar is well under 50 cents. I've gone there for breakfast so many times that I don't even have to try to order in mangled Vietnamese anymore, she simply sees me standing there and hands me a sandwich. I do hope that some of you, dear readers, make it out here, since Saigon is a truly wonderful place.

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