Why I Love Saigon
I first discovered the dragon fruit in 2004 on a visit to China. I was in Nanning on a short vacation from lawyering in New York, and it was my first time in Asia. Mystified and overwhelmed at the many different fruits and vegetables (let alone people’s personalities) it was one of the most wholehearted culture shocks I’ve ever experienced. On an afternoon wandering alone, I stopped in my tracks when I saw the dragonfruit. South Vietnam tours packages
It wasn’t enough that there were piles of lychees and longan, strange bulbous fruits like giant, angry grapes clinging to a tree. The dragon fruit was in a class of its own, rich in colour and texture. If Dr. Seuss designed one of our fruits, the dragonfruit would be it. The most popular variety is white on the inside with tiny black seeds and a shockingly pink outer peel tinged with green. I bought one and held it by its tail, peeling away the pink outer layer and eating it like a banana. Kids came pouring out of the alley ways and pointed and laughed; the fruit vendor shook her head in disgust. How was I to know that in China dragon fruit is usually served in a smoothie, or with other accompanying fruits to compliment the taste? As a Montrealer, it was a fruit to try. As a visitor to China, I was breaking an unspoken rule of fruit-eating. And I was getting ridiculed.
I was reunited with the lovely bright fruit here in Saigon, and my daily dragonfruit is one of the many things I will miss when I leave. People often ask me why I come back, or what it is about the city that draws me in, and it truly isn’t one thing. It’s a confluence of chaos and noise and food and people, the small interactions and routines that make living here so fun. The Vaudeville-inclined humour, the Sesame Street hellos from strangers and acquaintances alike, the unending labyrinth of alleyways and passages, cities within cities. And, of course, the dragonfruit. AMALOTUS CRUISE MEKONG
In no order of preference, here are some of the things I love about Saigon. This isn’t a list of objective sights to see, but rather the moments that make up my days here, aggregated into one place.
In the quest to consume as much pho as possible in my Vietnam days, I quickly realized that most of what I had assumed about pho was actually wrong. That is, the phos up north in Hanoi are not the same as the phos down south in Saigon, which makes sense, given that the cities are quite far away from each other.
Different parts of the country have disparate flavour desires, so dishes that originated in one part but were brought to another morphed into a somewhat different version. I’ll be writing more about pho specifically, but suffice it to say that one of my favourites in town is a Hanoi-style pho called Thanh Binh, which is open late and has a rich broth with a generous portion of meat. We called it Prison Pho because the soup is served in what feels like a prison yard of sorts, under a ripped canopy and beside chain-link fence, garbage swept off the table and onto the floor, a favourite of taxi drivers and xe om drivers and — now, at least — friends of a Canadian named Jodi.
But more importantly, it has granny. With a cropped cut of snowy hair and the most enthusiastic of daytime pyjamas, granny sits on a lawn chair just outside the pho joint, surveying people, traffic and the goings on in her restaurant. Occasionally one of her many sons will come and sit next to her, one with a feline face and bright white hair, the other younger with a moustache and a sad look behind his eyes. She sits with a wad of cash, boss of it all.
When I first started visiting her pho joint, she would just throw her head back and cackle at me as I wandered in. Next, I started bringing friends, and she laughed even harder, clasping my hand or smacking me on the arm when I paid up. Soon, it progressed to the side arm hugging around the waist that then wandered down to the ass grab. And now she plies me with sweets even when I’m not eating there. At night she falls asleep, huge wad of cash in-hand. No one dares take the money or mess with her; granny is untouchable. I’ll miss her, with her glowing hair and knowing laugh. And I’ll miss her soup.
The way Vietnamese people say “no” is by raising their hand and rotating it in a half moon, like a fast version of the royal wave. But don’t be fooled — this action is not merely “no”. It’s a no with a tiny pinch of fuck you, a smidgen of mirth, and a whole lot of effusiveness. It’s a good thing to learn as a tourist too, because it comes in handy when vendors come by and you’re not interested in buying anything. Without a word, you just raise your hand and rotate your wrist side-to-side.
One of my favourites of the “no” in practice was when I stood at the side of the road trying to hail a cab home. Despite being empty, the cabbie wasn’t interested in our fare. Careening around the corner at full speed, a cigarette casually hanging from his mouth, he raised up his arm and without looking at us gave us the “yeah, no”. It was beautiful.
It’s common in Asia and South America and elsewhere for parks to be places of social gathering. In Thailand, 6pm aerobics classes are offered for free in many of the parks, but people disperse thereafter. In Saigon, the parks are hopping for most of the evening.
Around 5pm, school kids arrive in their uniforms, tired from their long day, seeking snacks and relaxation. They rent a piece of plastic or cardboard to sit on, plonk down with friends and usually a guitar, and clustered around a pile of street snacks, spend hours on the side of the road. Ladies wander the parks with nibbles like banh trang cuon or banh trang nuong (below), with unripe mango to munch on, or iced tea to drink.
At the same time, in more active parks elsewhere, families and couples come to walk around the running track and get some exercise, talking about their day. Or, to use the exercise machines that the city has set up to keep people limber. Once dusk falls the lights pop on, and after their workouts many of the city dwellers will stop in to the centre of the park to grab a snack before heading home. I loved heading to a park at dusk not far from my house, walking or running around the uneven track with locals and their kids, rewarding myself with yoghurt as my treat for my sweaty workout.
There’s nothing particularly surprising about any of this, but the sense of community and gathering outside is something I will miss. Local friends say that because people cannot afford houses with a big gathering place, many take to the parks. Or kids and teens are lacking privacy at home (as with our teenaged year too!), and use the parks as a place for fun and private meeting. Either way, it’s fun to temporarily parachute myself into these routines with my own park workouts or gatherings with friends. A relaxing evening doesn’t have to be at a bar, consuming expensive drinks. It’s also nice to make it a time to drink tea and down $0.50 street snacks.
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