Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Saigon: Sticking to the Best

I awoke to a rainy day.  While it cooled the city down a bit, I grumbled because I would be jumping continuously from meeting to meeting for most of the day.  The rain wouldn’t help my packed schedule, where I already had little free time.

Officially, today was the start of a long holiday weekend in Vietnam.  Although called Reunification Day, the celebration actually runs through the weekend.  My counterparts had been gracious enough to stick around to take meetings with me for today.  However, they would all leave for holidays for the balance of the week, so I jammed in as many meetings as possible.  My meetings were in the center of District 1, so I spent most of the day breathlessly zig zagging across the main circle.

Saigon remains a vibrant city, the business center of Vietnam, and District 1 is the center of Saigon.  Bitexco Tower, the city’s tallest building, dominates the skyline and reflects the country’s ambition to become the next Asian economic tiger.

I wouldn’t bet against that ambition.  From what I could gather, the economy remains in pretty good shape, though everyone seems worried about inflation, in contrast to most elsewhere in the world where deflation appears to be the bigger economic threat.  However, new office construction appears to be ongoing at a good clip, including this almost completed blue-hued building I had never noticed before.

Given my limited free time, I stuck with my tried-and-true “best of Saigon” from my past trips, rather than look for new food venues.  For lunch, that meant banh mi.  These delicious freshly baked little baguette sandwiches, filled with barbecued meat and other delicacies, come smothered with a local spicy relish and produce a unique East-West taste combination.   In District 1, no place is better for the stuff than Banh Mi Nhu Lan.  So in between meetings, I stopped by to grab a couple of banh mis, along with a freshly blended fruit juice, all for about $3.

Normally, I would have had a nice picnic lunch at the nearby harbor, but the rain doused those plans.  Instead, I took the food back to my room, where I munched away while admiring, err, looking at the view from my window.  I love Saigon, but overall, it is not as picturesque as much of Vietnam.  In any case, the tasty sandwiches carried me through my afternoon obligations.

When Westerners think of pancakes, we typically imagine those fluffy cakes that we cover with syrup and chomp with bacon for breakfast.   Vietnamese pancakes, by comparison, can be the best of dinner delicacies.  Given that, I sought dinner in my favorite Vietnamese pancake joint, Bahn Xeo 335, which is in District 3.   In this side street foodie stalwart, the makeshift kitchen produces only two dishes (with very little variation) for patrons to devour while sitting in the small outdoor plastic chairs.  If you want something else, they don’t want you here.   I ordered both of them, the spring rolls with fried dried shrimp, and of course, the signature pancakes.

The pancakes resemble a mix between an omelet and a flour tortilla, stuffed with fresh prawns and pork, and then covered with bean sprouts and quickly fried to order.  The basket of assorted fresh leafy greens is critical.  The owner claims to get her vegetables daily from the Mekong Delta.  Maybe, maybe not, but I started with a lettuce leaf, then tore a generous piece of the pancake along with a heaping assortment of fresh basil and other greens, and thus created my own wrap.  For the dip, my concoction involves adding fiery hot pepper paste to the traditional fish sauce.  That first bite of that pancake wrap was heavenly.  So were the subsequent ones.

I stuffed myself on two pancakes, along with an ice cold beer, all of which (together with the spring rolls) made me about $5 poorer.  Oh my, that was satisfying.  There is a reason why Bahn Xeo 335 is among my Saigon favorites.  They even have a “drive in window” for those who want a take away meal.

As an aside, did you notice I was drinking beer with ice and a straw?  Southeast Asia is the only place in the world where I have no problem doing that.  Do what the locals do, right?  And I guess that goes for the vegetables as well.  For the longest time, I avoided fresh veggies in the region because of the perceived potential for contamination from pesticides and whatnot.  And if you rinse the produce as a precaution, you could be exposed to undrinkable water.  At some point in the past, however, I said “screw it” and started eating where and what the locals loved, including street food and fresh vegetables.  As best as I can tell, I have had no ill effects, but the experience opened up a whole new exciting culinary world, and my taste buds are grateful for that.

This place is so popular that by 7:30pm, they had run out of food, and turned away many people who stopped by for a bite.  The owner only buys enough ingredients to be served fresh, rather than stock up and serve lower quality food.   Go sufficiently early if you want to try some.

I thoroughly dig live music.  Charismatic old time Vietnamese crooners ply their traditional trade at Café Soi Da, and it’s worth stopping by for the experience.  But that isn’t my favorite Saigon live music venue, and tonight was only about favorites.  A couple doors down from Café Soi Da is Acoustic Bar.  You can’t miss it as the entrance is decorated by a vertically raised VW Beetle.

I discovered this place by accident a couple years ago, as I caught the rifts of a jamming guitar as I was leaving Café Soi Dai.  The place may be called Acoustic, but they are all about rock and roll.  Tonight, they had removed the tables and chairs for a holiday battle of the bands.  The place was packed to the rafters with happy 20-something year old Vietnamese singing and jumping along to both Vietnamese and Western rock.  On this night, at least, I doubt you could find many over the age of 30, and I counted literally only a handful of Western faces among the sweaty, hopping crowd.

I’m sure I stuck out like a sore thumb, but I stopped giving a crap about stuff like that a long time ago.  And by the time the second band came on with their version of “It’s My Life”, I screamed the lyrics along with enough alcohol-fortified emotion that I quickly became buddies with the bunch around me.  It was like being in a mosh pit, but with polite people.

The bands were ranged from mediocre to amazing, but the audience seemed to love them all.

Just before the main act, there was a break and the MC came up on stage to hold a contest.  He invited 8 members of the audience on stage for a chance to win $100.  The challenge was to pass a sausage to the next person, simply using one’s mouth.  For a successful pass, both parties needed to take and keep a piece of the sausage in their mouth.  With each subsequent pass, of course, the level of “intimacy” increased as more lips were needed for the pass, until at some point, there wasn’t enough sausage to constitute a successful pass.  Those contestants would be eliminated.  The audience hooted and cheered the forced “kissing”, especially on the same-sex sausage passes; it was all in good fun.

The highlight band was a group called “MTV”, which I later discovered is one of the most popular acts in the country.  They have many albums to their credit.  I knew none of their songs, but the tunes were certainly catchy.  Then they broke out into a song that sounded vaguely familiar.  What?  They were singing The Wonder Girls’ “Nobody But You”, but as a Vietnamese ballad?  I had to laugh out loud.  How can you not love a Vietnamese boy band, singing a ballad cover of a Korean girl band’s hit dance song, that was originally designed for an American audience?

I am not sure what time I made it back to my hotel, but by then I suffered from tired legs, hoarse throat, and ringing ears.  It was all worth it.  My Saigon favorites had delivered once again.

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