14 April 2016
I’ve dreamed of this holiday for years. Vietnam has had a big attraction for me ever since I became a bit more familiar with it, how else than through food, thanks to the large Vietnamese community in Prague. Finally, the occasion arose to do the trip, and while we were at it, also visit a country that is only just opening up to the world – Burma aka Myanmar. I spent hours and days planning and researching, because although we do have quite a lot of time (almost 6 weeks), the conditions of travel especially in Burma can really slow things down if one hasn’t thought it through. Language is another major barrier that impedes sorting things out. So with a complete itinerary, bookings and flights in place, we set forth.
There is precious little that could make the actual process of getting places attractive to me anymore (except business / first class). Flying is simply a state of suspension. Time is irrelevant because it ceases to apply up there in the air. Place is irrelevant because in the air you are essentially nowhere. And the further you go, the longer you spend in this state. So the flight via Istanbul was thoroughly uneventful, except that we got quite lucky with the seating and on the final leg between Bangkok and Saigon, there was virtually nobody at all in the plane. Everything went smoothly at the airport and then we stepped out of the arrivals hall.
It’s like walking into a sauna. The heat and humidity… and this was fairly decent at 35 degree C. Everything still looks very civilized at the airport, one like many others all over the world, with taxis and travelers… until you exit the airport compound and find yourself in the midst of the city in a veritable flood of traffic. Anybody who has been to SE Asia knows what this is like, but for me as a first-timer, it was overwhelming. The sheer quantities of people (mostly on scooters) and all of them in motion, rivers of traffic that just merge and flow, without any visible form of regulation, yet smooth as water. It was dusk by then and the city was glowing with lights. Our accommodation was strategically chosen to be close to the airport (which seemed to annoy the taxi driver, who appeared to complain the entire way – we thought he was lost but he found the place just fine. Maybe it wasn’t far enough?), and in an absolutely NON-touristy area. Not a backpacker in sight! We dropped off the bags and headed into the night. We strayed at most 3 blocks from our hotel, but it was already a feast for the senses… noise, people, lights, traffic, smells, colours all blended together! And yet it was all unaggressive.
We walked down the street (as the sidewalks are crowded with tables and chairs and stalls and scooters and stands and fruit and garbage and everything else) without any fear of being run over by the myriad motorbikes. We asked for some directions and although the young man couldn’t help, when we walked past 5 minutes later he ran out to tell us he knew what we were looking for and walked us there with a smile. The first place we ate was somewhat restaurant-ish, albeit full of locals eating mostly seafood… but after that we went for the real street style… while Dany shopped for a new phone, I sat on a square in a plastic children’s chair at a low table and observed the couple next to me eating Bahn Xeo (my new favourite thing) and 4 duck eggs… I read about this recently, apparently there is actually a duck fetus inside the egg, and I have to say it did look rather strange and dark reddish inside. I asked about it, and although there was no English in the conversation, we agreed that it was a “quack quack egg”. I was then offered one, but have to admit that I chickened (ducked?) out and declined.
We did, however, try the Bahn Xeo, which involves a dry rice paper, a pile of greens (spicy lemony peppery basily leaves and something that looks like romaine lettuce but tastes like cabbage), some dipping sauce and some fried pancakes filled with shrimp, beef and bean sprouts. All these are combined together into fantastic, crispy, fresh rolls at the absurd price of 7 CZK a piece (the piece being the pancake). We ate only 2, but I could probably eat twenty.
This all chased by the local Saigon brew, which is mediocre and requires a large quantity of ice to even somewhat cool it off, which further waters it down (and increases the risk of gastric problems due to the water used for the ice… I say it’s best to grow the proper microflora straight away). The streets live with people and people live in the streets… relaxed, friendly, equalitarian… I like it here very, very much.