HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, October 11, 2010

This & That

My mind has been pretty fertile lately, so I apologize if I'm overloading anyone with posts. This page has basically turned into my journal, since I much prefer typing to writing with pen and paper, and there's a lot of interesting stuff to talk about. This post will basically be a dumping ground for everything I've been wanting to discuss lately.

1 - Consumerism v. the State

Vietnam's official name is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The most basic definition of Socialism is: "an economic and political theory advocating public or common ownership and cooperative ownership of the means of production and allocation of resources." The theory criticizes the tendency of capitalist societies to concentrate wealth in a tiny minority. The merits of both of these theories have been central to many of the conflicts of the past century, and I am not going to discuss which I think is best here.

What I want to do is point out the contradictory nature of much of Saigon. If Vietnam were perfectly Socialist everyone would, in theory, be able to afford all of the same things and live the same comfortable lifestlye as everyone else. However, spending just a few minutes downtown will show you that Vietnam is not very Socialist at all. Sure, there are government-supplied posters displaying the iconic hammer and sickle on light poles, and banners extolling the virtues of Socialism and praising Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he is known to Vietnamese, for his glorious resistance of colonialism and capitalism in the 1960s and 70s. There are plenty of signs celebrating the ideal socialist worker that look they are straight out of the USSR or East Berlin - even including the stereotypical white peasant or laborer.

But right below these banners sit storefronts advertising the fashion behemoths of the "capitalist" West: Louis Vuitton, Prada, French Connection, Nine West. The list of luxury cars I've seen wouldn't look out of place in London or New York: Rolls Royce, Aston Martin, Bentley, Lamborghini, Porsche. In one market Gucci, Armani, and Burberry clothing itmes line the shelves. I have no idea if they are real or knock off, but that is besides the point. People aspire to owning those lables. Clearly, people here want many of the things we take for granted in the West, despite what their government says about our economic system. I'm very curious to see which side wins out: will the wishes of the consumer lead to a more open, Western society, or will the government eventually decide that their ideology has become too diluted and crack down somehow?

2 - I could talk food all day

Well it's been a few days and I haven't mentioned food, so it's time to once again mention what is possibly the best part about living here. The restaurant scene is amazing. Almost everytime I go for a walk I come across several delicious-looking places. The diversity is fantastic - I've had a great time sampling all of the hole-in-the-wall pho places, we spotted a German biergarten the other night (scouting report to come soon), and for dinner on Sunday I had a British-style roasted feast - roast pork, vegetables, roasted potatoes, and Yorkshire pudding. I may have gained a few pounds but it was delicious. Fruits and vegetables of all kinds can be found on seemingly every corner, and they are always incredibly fresh and criminally cheap. If you're thinking of visiting but don't think you can handle Vietnamese food, fear not. You can easily find burgers, Italian, Mediterranean, Mexican...really whatever you please, although you will be missing out on the incredible cuisine of Vietnam. Or, if you're really boring you can go to KFC or Pizza Hut. Then again, if you eat that, don't even bother to come here. Oh and I almost forgot - I finally found a place that serves lamb! (My favorite meat.) Oddly enough, the restaurant was called "Poulet De France" - literally "Chicken of France." Sometimes the names of businesses here could use some work.

3 - Excuse me, do you know where John Lennon is from?
On Sunday I observed three classes at a school where I will soon be working. (Yes, for those of you who think I've just been on an extended vacation...I basically have been. That ends soon.) I'd like to share a few of the interactions I had with students there. I made it to the first class before the teacher, which completely confused the kids (between 9-12 years old), since they thought I was the new teacher for the day and wondered why I was sitting in one of their desks. A very bright boy asked me what my favorite food was, and I said banh xeo, a classic Vietnamese dish (below), thinking that he wouldn't know any international cuisine, since the kids I taught during my training didn't. My, how wrong I was. His favorite foods are "tacos, lasagna, and NACHOS!"
Later in the class, while they were doing some group work, one student asked if I knew where John Lennon was from. Flabbergasted by the fact that he knew the name John Lennon, I stammered out "England". These kids were seriously sharp. They knew the capital of the U.S., the largest city, what the White House is, and could name our President. I will be very happy if I end up teaching a class like that.

The next class was an absolute riot. As soon as I walked in the entire class (7-9 year olds) starting chanting "Michael! Michael! Michael!" I had no idea what was going on but started cracking up. Then, the Vietnamese teacher told me that she had informed the class the day before that someone named Michael would be watching their class. The students at this school all have American nicknames and, funnily enough, a student in the class was also named Michael. Hence the excitment. As soon as the little Michael entered the room the entire class erupted in cheers and hoots of laughter. They had even saved the seat next to me just so we could next to each other. For the first 10 minutes of the lesson the students loved looking at me and saying "two Michaels!!", seemingly in disbelief that two people could have the same name! (Although there are several names, such as Hien, Anh, Phuc, and Nguyen that are very common here.)

4 - All the corners of the Earth
On Friday night we went on a barcrawl organized through a website called Meet Up - it's a social site where people who are under 39 and living in or visiting Saigon can arrange social gatherings. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but the night ended up being a fantastic cultural education. There were around 20 people, and Andee, Allison and I were the only Americans. The backgrounds of the other people spanned the globe - Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland (thanks for the round of vodka Boris!), Vietnam, the Philippines, and Australia...oh yea and one random guy from Barbados. It was very entertaining to hear all of the different accents and outlooks on life. It was also refreshing to hang out with a group of people outside of the teaching community - none of the others taught, unlike almost everyone else we've gone out with thus far. The night was also a useful reminder of how big our world is, and I was once again thankful for the opportunity to come here. I still have a lot of time left in Vietnam, but even in a little over a month I feel like I've experienced a year's worth of culture and excitement. I've also decided that I will now try even harder to convince people to see as much of the world as they possibly can - this planet is simply too big to stay in one place your whole life.
OK, that cleared my mind a bit. Hopefully by the next time I post I'll have started working. Until then, keep on keepin' on.

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