A couple of days in and most of my time can be compartmentalised into one of the following:
- Sweating and
- Trying to avoid getting run over
Whilst the whole fabric of the city is perfect for the two wheel way of life, I have chosen that my feet will get me from A to B. Primarily because I don’t trust myself in a foreign country and especially the subtleties associated with the glorious chaos. Secondly, I will be eating a prodigious quantity of food, so any form of exercise should be encouraged. There is a certain joy with discovering an unassuming side street that you otherwise be a blur on the back on a two wheeler. A magic in meandering.
Sure walking isn’t sexy, compared to being on the back of a bike – the wind through your unwashed hair, heart pounding as your fellow rider decides to light a cigarette, make a phone call and balance a carton of Tiger between their legs. From what I have witnessed in the last forty-eight hours I would be another statistic to add to the over 13,000 dead/severely injured annually.
Before the door of the hotel locks behind me I continue with my new daily “beauty” regime. A good lathering of sunscreen (replaced by insect repellent at night). Remember it’s holidays, not a fashion catwalk so long pants have been the order of the day. Team this with an old business shirt that is on its last rodeo, a bucket hat, sunglasses and a week of no personal grooming and I look like those corporate types who go on those team building jungle retreats and chant mantras while becoming one with nature. My fashion style this trip, I call it “wilderness chic”. According to Google I have clocked up over 12 kilometres a day so I am on pace for my “15,000 steps, 15,000 mouthfuls challenge”.
Maybe I’m unfit (probably) but whatever I drink it does not seem to be filling the void. The hotel gives out a litre of water a day plus my countless waters, iced coffees, teas, juices, soy milks and beers interspersed amongst this hydration effort. Yesterday after lunch, I was that weary I bought six litres of water and a four pack of beer at the local Circle K (Vietnam’s version of 7 Eleven) in an effort to match the fluid loss.
A few eyebrows were likely raised with the soy milk confession. Here it is nothing like the watery, tasteless farce served up in Australia and I have pinpointed the reason why, sugar and kilos of it. On menus you will see “homemade soya milk drink”, this is Vietnamese for the sugar has been added at home in accordance to a recipe that has been passed down from diabetic to diabetic.
The iced coffee here is sublime. As a long black kind of guy, I normally roll my eyes at people who drink lattes, now my eyes roll because of these black and brown addictive concoctions. High end cafes put in “real espresso” but the road side vendors have some syrup which does the job too. Stronger than a superhero and sweeter than a highschool crush, they have regenerative powers when mixed with ice under the belting sun. The coffee culture in Ho Chi Minh City is on another level. We Australians love to pump out our chest and brag about the nation’s caffeine habits but rest assured we have nothing on the Vietnamese. There are two carts on every block and these are in direct competition with the three bricks-and-motar where you will see old men lying in deckchairs, content that they have sweet, black, cold gold within arms reach.
The food has not disappointed. Sure, I have cocked up a order or two due to some miscommunication, but that’s purely on me. First morning I was craving a BBQ pork Bahn Mi and an iced coffee. After researching every crevice of the internet before the trip I found a place that was highly regarded. Old idiot here managed to order the wrong pork sandwich and said no to milk in the coffee thinking they would put condensed milk in instead. The bahn mi had a lot of the fatty pork that South East Asia seems to adore, me I was hoping for something slightly leaner. The coffee, black and icy.
Ego slightly bruised, I continued on. Don Bradman didn’t make a century in his first test so there is hope for me. My next stop was a place the lady at reception had suggested. I ordered a “milk coffee” to buy me some time (pictured above), then settled on the “signature dish”, Bahn Tam Xiu Mau. Had no idea, I know bahn is “rice” so anything with rice noodles is a good foundation in my books. Turns out to be pork meatballs with tapioca noodles simmered in coconut milk and fish sauce. The meatballs were fresh and dissolved in my iced coffee covered tongue.
Replenished, I continued my crosstown trek and stumbled across a place whose food is revered in Ho Chi Minh City. She is that famous she simply goes by her superhero name, “The Lunch Lady”. Each day she serves a different dish. I wish I got the name of it as it is not deserving of the name that I will bestow on it, Meat Medley Of The Highest Quality. It was one of the instances where they place plates in front of you, no menus here.
This place is nestled near the river where most of the buildings would make a structural engineer wince. Before I could sit the ubiquitous plastic chair was cast aside for the “Westerner” model. It was just opening time and I was first customer. Sharing my table with two roosters who were ducking under the tables, while a dog a few tables away was trying to escape the heat. Every hero has a sidekick and her male friend bought out spring rolls, rice paper rolls, shrimp and sweet potato fritters with a peanut sauce and a beer. In all the excitement a few crumbs hit the ground which got the two roosters all hot and bothered.
Her centrepiece was beef and pork. Add in some chilli and lime and you wouldn’t want anything else. The processed pork sausage is the buoyant thing floating in the bowl. This one thankfully had no offal submerged. Time to head home for a rest and freshen up as my clothes are now sticking to me like a second skin and my feet feel like I have cheese graters for insoles. I stop on the side of the road at a coffee cart, most carts aren’t in English but “Ca Phe” sounds life cafe to me (remember the French treated Vietnam as their holiday house some time ago).
Remembering the lesson from earlier I ask for “Coffee, milk?” and he put his index finger in the air as if he was checking the direction of the breeze and starts rummaging around in his icebox. Muddling some ice he starts adding his various bits and pieces until he presents me with his handiwork, but before he gives it to me he looks me in the eye, “Ca phe sua”. I nod so he says it again. He’s wanting me to say it but my inflection must have been amiss so we repeat the process again. Three attempts in I pass his test, bringing a toothless smile to his face (too many milk coffees I presume). He says it again and motions me to follow his lead and here we are, some kind stranger and me chanting “ca phe sua” until I get pushed out of the nest like a baby bird, ready to fly equiped with the skills to never get thirsty.
So maybe my fashion was a sign, a corporate type finding his way in the wilderness? The only difference is my mantra isn’t going to change my life but I could always lift my mood by remembering, CA PHE SUA! CAP PHE SUA!…