We, your dislocated hippies (and slightly faded flower children) are in awe of Vietnam. It is after all one of the half a dozen things that defined our generation.
In Sydney one of our favourite Vietnamese restaurants was Non La so it seemed the fates led us to its Saigon sister. We were only momentarily non-plussed on entering to be greeted by a splendid and varied assortment of hostesses arrayed in multi- coloured evening gowns. One pneumatic hostess detached herself from the bevy, adopted us, looked us up and down approvingly and suggested a VIP room.
We accepted only to discover that the VIP rooms were little sealed off air-conditioned rooms on the second story where Veeps could buy and sell, do deals, close factories, retrench workers, discuss party politics, pour tons of chemicals into the Mekong etc or perhaps have deeply intellectual private “conversations’, (perhaps discussing Sartre and existentialism whilst smoking thick Turkish cigarettes and sluicing mud thick coffee between their gold teeth), with any of the hostesses. Not being Captains of Industry we scarpered back to the ground floor and had quite a nice meal. Shaking beef and a HUGE plate of steamed okra with lime and a dipping sauce of schezuan pepper and salt. Oh, and chips !
As we were leaving a whole phalanx of silk swathed goddesses suddenly leapt to their feet, bowing and grinning and nodding. It was a tsunamic onrush of oriental beauty wrapped in silk and it washed over us and swept us away. Bill claimed afterwards that he hadn’t had that sort of mass reaction from women since he tripped over his flares at his Year 10 formal.
The Zoo and Botanical Gardens are…what’s the right word for it ? “Phantasmagorical” might just about do. A fantastic historical allegory. A dream of what museums, zoos and public places were like in a more golden age. It was a hoot, amazing images and completely stuffed stuffed animals, paddle boats and castles, floating clouds and cabinets full of specimens in jars, Ripley’s style freaks of nature, eerie skulls, mermaids, skeletons, unlikely animals, fantastical animals, topiary animals galloping across the plain and lots and lots of people laughing and enjoying themselves. There were also real animals and trees but they were a bit secondary.
The Lunch Lady of Saigon – Anthony Bourdain raves, Mark Wiens eulogizes and we find that our Air BnB apartment is literally steps away from this legend.
We find a seat in what little shade there is , order 2 soups (no menu. no choice). There immediately appears on our table prawn, pork and herb rice paper rolls, fried spring rolls, battered potato and prawn fritters.
We think you only pay for what you eat but no one speaks English so who knows. The soup arrives – stew really – a huge bowl filled with crab pieces, roast pork, small pieces of pork crackling (like croutons), quail eggs, coriander, and a strange luncheon meat (like thick mortadella) in a hearty aromatic spicy stock. Whilst we’re there they continue cooking up, a few slices of bacon rind falling on the ground to be picked up and put in the pile again.
..the soup arrives (again – we’re back once more) this time it’s with big, perfectly cooked slices of beef, and tender squid with a heap of morning glory stems, flavoured with ginger, chilli, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and coriander. The soup lady smiles at us beatifically. The fellow-slurper besides us worries that the place is too dirty for our high-faluting-farangness. We assure him it’s very delicious.
We are loving the little treats of Vietnam: coffee is a BIG deal here so there are cafés every two paces. The supermarchés stock excellent single serve filter coffee (fresh coffee grinds in a DIY filter that you drape over your cup, or else single-serve aluminium filters that drip-o-late over the top of your cup.
The local gummy bears (a confectionary) are excellent with the added bonus of lychee flavour. They are not shaped as bears, but more appropriately as crocodiles.
The bread…Ahhhh! The bread. Crusty, soft and delicious. The baguettes to make a Frenchman cry. Even the sliced bread is briochey and delectable.
then there are the Blade-Runneresque moving cart vendors. Calling out their wares at all hours. Alive-alive-ohhhh!
Today we went to Saigon Kitsch – a cute little shop filled with tea towels, cushions, t-shirts, homewares all with either beautiful Vietnamese women or communist propaganda graphics. We wanted to buy up the whole shop.
We’re somewhat surprised at the paucity of foreigners here. Perhaps they’re all barricaded in the 5-star air-conditioned comfort of their fancy pants hotels. We, the dislocated hippies are lovin’ getting to meet all locals who are all very kind and friendly to a couple of frail and infirm feringhees.
This city abounds in contradictions. Iron clad commitments to Bolshevik retro visions stand side by side with muscular capitalist consumerism.
Ho Chi Minh stands not too far (in every sense) from Ho Chi Minnie.
Sometimes we wonder if the old Vietcong diggers down at their local rissole, in between a round of rice wine and the call for the tray of buffalo meat look at each other and say, ” You know Tran, we won the war…but we lost the peace.”
Most of the locals, we suspect, couldn’t care less. Here are two just having fun.
We know you may be reluctant to just up sticks and come to Saigon. Perhaps you’re worried that you may miss out on the panto season ? Well, fear no more for the panto is well and truly here. Yes, Ali Baba & his 40 Thieves. Sort of East meets Middle East meets West ?.
And finally, to leave you on a mock musical note and with no apologies to Redgum whatsoever we blow on our pitch pipe, ignore it and drone flatly…
“And what’s this rash that comes and goes ?
I hope that it’s benign,
God help me…….
I was only 59”.