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.
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.
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.
Yes, we’ve established that.
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 effusive no.
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.
Conversations like this one, which happen almost daily.
(Usually with a Vietnamese stranger over some street meal)
Them: Hi, how do you know about this food?
Me: Oh, I like food.
T: You like Vietnamese food?
M: Yes, very much.
M: It is delicious.
T: Yes, it is delicious. But most foreigners don’t like this food.
M: Well, I guess I am not most foreigners?
T: Maybe it is because you are Vietnamese-sized that you like this food. Tell me, why are you so small?
M: I don’t know, my family isn’t the tallest.
T: Did they feed you as a baby?
M: I think so.
T: Maybe they did not feed you milk?
M: No, they definitely fed me milk.
T: Clearly not enough milk because you are Vietnamese-sized. So, where are you from?
T: How old are you?
M: No, 34.
T: No, 24.
M: I’m not negotiating, I know how old I am.
T: Are you married?
M: No, not yet.
M: I am too busy eating delicious food.
T: Ha! This is why you look young — because you are eating instead of getting married!
M: Yes, that must be why.
The “Hai Guy”.
In Vietnamese, the word for two is hai, pronounced in an exaggerated way (haaaaaai). There is a security guard near my house who, every time I walk by, makes his hand into a peace sign next to his head and says “haaaaaaaai” with a neutral tone, knowing full well it’s also the word for hello in English. He must be about 60 or so, but he giggles like a fiend each time this happens. And of course, I crack up too.
Walking your kid.
At around 7pm, the mothers and grandmothers on my hem (alleyway) leave the house to walk their young kids (around 6 mos – 5 years old). I say this like the kids are pets, but it certainly works in the same fashion. They walk the children around the alley, stuffing food in their mouths from a tiny cup as they do. Sometimes the kids are in strollers, and others are waddling around with squeaky shoes, staring at everything. The noise of the motorbikes and the reverb of outside chatting does not faze them. They are early observers, quietly taking in the scene. Occasionally, one will catch sight of my friends and I on the side of the road and be urged to wave hello.
Usually, they just walk by and then, when the walk is over, walk back. It’s nothing special in the scheme of things, but I love how engaged the toddlers are. Also, they are ridiculously cute. After this period of their lives is over the kids are sent out to play with their friends instead, screaming wildly at the back of the alley, chasing each other around on bikes and by foot. Recently one of the older ones, maybe 7 years old, got his hands on a motorbike and just careened around the back of my alley in a U-shape, being chased by 10 kids on bicycles. Ah, childhood… Vietnamese-style.
Adventures in Sleeping.
Certainly not limited to Saigon, but holy hell has my Adventures in Sleeping series been fun. A sample below. I use the hashtag on Instagram so I can aggregate them all. No shortage of people sleeping in seemingly uncomfortable positions, right in the middle of the bustle and noise. As a light sleeper myself I am infinitely envious of this ability to catch some zs at any place, no matter how bumpy.
The “Pie Cracker”.
My friend John started calling the chiropractor a “pie cracker”, and the name stuck. I’ve had chronic back issues since an accident as a kid, and my back gave out on my after my trip to New Zealand. The American Chiropractic Clinic came highly recommended, and their sessions include not just realignment but physical therapy in the same appointment time. It’s not cheap by Asian standards but the equipment is state-of-the-art, the doctors are American and French, and HOLY CRAP THEY FIXED MY BACK. $65 for initial consultation and $55 for follow up sessions (each follow up is 1 hour of PT plus a realignment). I mention this here because (1) it has saved my back from certain pain, and also (2) many of you write me asking about medical care in Saigon. For joint/back pain/sports injuries, highly recommended. My back is going to miss them.
I’m going to cover this in a different food post, but it merits mention here because I crave this yoghurt like nobody’s business. In the middle of Le Van Tam park, in District 3, is a tiny blue food stall with Pepsi umbrellas. It is run by a gentleman who speaks a little bit of French, and who sells sweets and fried meats on a stick. And yoghurt. Vietnamese yogurt (called sua chua, sour milk, or da ua – in Saigon, yaort usually works too) is a tangy and sweet and sour combination of tastes that derives from it being made from sweetened condensed milk. In lieu of trying to find fresh milk, which spoils more quickly, enterprising Vietnamese use the condensed milk mixed with water and some yogurt. The tangy taste is extremely satisfying and, when almost frozen, a perfect antidote to a sweltering Saigon day. At smoothie joints, ordering yaourt da will give you one of these sweet-sour yogurts on ice, though it’s best to inquire about the yogurt in order to make sure it’s not in its pre-packaged form. In its most delicious version, a small glass container with plastic lid is the real stuff, served in public parks and at tiny stands that line the roads. For a make-at-home recipe without requiring a yogurt maker, see my friend Andrea’s post on Viet World Kitchen here.
Sweeping water and errant brooms.
I’m combining these because they are broom-related. The brooms here usually consist of twigs/brush that are bound together and then fan out toward the floor. It always strikes me to see people sweeping water, since we would normally use a mop, but that’s a very common practice. It rains? Get out the broom and sweep your storefront. You’re cleaning up after a long day at the food stall? Spray down the floor and then sweep the water onto the street. There’s no reason to find this funny other than its deviation from the norms I grew up with, but regardless it always makes me stop for a moment and watch it go down. Perhaps I’ll start sweeping water at my parents’ place and confuse them too.
Errant brooms are also a fave, referring to the great practice of stuffing a tiny broom somewhere on the street for anyone to use if needed. At a nook and cranny in the spiderweb of back alleys? Broom waiting for community use. At a busy intersection, pushed into the minuscule space between light pole and electric wires? Tiny broom. I love it.
Call and answer selling.
The great Tim Doling of Historic Vietnam spoke to me over coffee about the tradition of call-and-answer selling in Saigon. Vendors on bikes cycle by, yelling out into the alleys to offer different fruits, or call to collect recycling, or electronics in need of repair, or other services like sharpening knives. There are a set number of melodies that are indelibly imprinted on my memory, each wafting into my window from the street below at varying times of the day. My friends and I have imitated them all, to the great amusement of Vietnamese friends.
But one guy in particular stands out.
Since we arrived, a vendor in a floppy hat and basket at the back of his bike would come by in the evenings, with a speaker on his bike that would chant “Baaaaaaijiu baijaw. Baijiu baijaaaaaaaaw. Baijaw.” We kept trying to ask people what it was, unable to parse through the cloudy words. Once, my friend Doug tried to stop him and have him open the basket’s burlap covering, so that we could see what was inside. We had already asked many people what was inside but got no answer. Or we got an “effusive no” — surely we didn’t really care what was inside? So we had to take matters into our own hands. Except that once he saw Doug try to flag him down, he just threw some serious shade and kept going.
This quest to find out what was inside became a favourite topic of conversation amongst friends, and we even named our What’s App group “Baijieu Baijaw” as a testament to our dedication. Midway through January, we were wandering down the street when a few employees at nearby restaurant beckoned the Baijieu Baijaw guy over. THIS WAS OUR TIME! We rushed over to his bike, to the confusion of onlookers and the complete disenchantment of the vendor himself.
He peeled back the basket cover and…. banh chung and banh gio, both rice dumplings. Not baijieu baijaw. That’s what he was saying all along. All together, my friends and I went ‘Oooooooh!” and them bought 3 of them on the spot. Baijieu Baijaw guy? Displeased, generally confused and extraordinarily skeptical.
But, since that fateful unveiling we have slowly worn him down and now he stops for us whenever we want a snack. I’ll miss not just his general curmudgeonlyness but also the singsong of vendors outside my window every day.
I’ll let this photo speak for itself. The city is fast changing, and Vietnam is fast changing. It’s growing rapidly and city plans often include tearing down older buildings and building shiny new ones. The skyline as it is right now is one that I will miss, and no doubt the city will be exciting to watch as its morphs and grows.
Xe om badassery.
I love the motortaxi drivers in town. I wrote a long piece about them already, about their careful nonchalance and talented weaving through traffic skills. But in my return this year, I’ve received even more laughs and fun from this group of brothers and friends. Here are a group of them from my street. Current practice is for them to put their hands up and curl fingers into faux glasses and point them at me when I wander by, to the confusion of all the people waiting at the traffic light. They’re usually up to no good, and I will miss them.
I’ll just leave this video here. Enough said. At this point, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve stopped high-fiving friends after successfully crossing the street and now it has just become common practice, and — with the exception of a particularly ridiculous mistaken crossing of a HIGHWAY IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (whoops) — uneventful.
The rules, as I’ve found them working for me:
– keep an even pace, with no erratic movement front or back
– do not make eye contact — people will usually yell hello at me, or smile at me, and then NOT look at where they are going. Just keep eyes focussed on the wave of motorbikes driving straight at you, not at one particular driver.
– slowly walk across the street, inching forward, letting the bikes swerve around you.
– Note that this does not work for: buses (whose drivers will laugh hysterically as they see you leap back in fear), taxi drivers (who seem to be bus-drivers-in-training), foreigners driving motorbikes (unless they are more practiced).
Any food, anywhere.
People ask me what to eat here, and I’m always happy to give some recommendations. But the reality is that it’s almost impossible to mess up street food. I’ve never once gotten sick while trying it, and I have tried a lot. The culture of food is so predominant and so deeply-rooted that food is paramount to Vietnamese people. People use food as a benchmark. When people say “how are you doing?” they don’t literally ask as much. Instead, they say “have you eaten yet?” and, as I’ve mentioned prior, instead of saying someone has a good soul, the expression literally translates to “they have a good stomach.”
As a result, people care about their food more than we (growing up in Canada) care about food. The streets are overrun with vendors, the alleyways are teeming with rice joints and soup stalls and snacks. Roving meals at different times of the day pop up around town. To truly eat well, all you have to do is find an alley filled with food and eat at a busy stall. Or go to the markets in the morning — not Ben Thanh, but to Tan Dinh or Cho Ba Chieu or Bien Tay – and just stuff your face with gloriousness.
I know that sounds a bit vague – “hey man, just go and eat anything as long as it’s not a restaurant” – but it’s true. I will be writing another post, a long one about where I love to eat here, but that rule applies. Friends and I would dedicate new days to new districts, for example, heading out to District 10 or 8 or 5 and just standing in the middle of an intersection and using our noses for the next meal. We not only tried incredible things — Saigon is wonderful because you can actually eat the whole country’s diverse dishes within one city — but also the interactions with people surprised to see us there was rewarding.
The hygiene here is good, the food turnover at these stalls is insanely fast, and every single thing tastes better than the next, unless you don’t like intestines and blood cubes. BUT YOU SHOULD. Because they are delicious.
The city is not only home to millions of people, but it is full of alleyways behind and between the main streets. In my post-Lunar New Year piece, I wrote:
“In the narrow mini-alleyways leading off my street, doors remained open and families played board games or cards, half glancing up as passerbys approached. Kids stood in the middle of the lanes, giggling over a game of badminton or soccer. Groups of women crouched over bingo cards laid out on their living room floors, exposed to the world, a big change from the privacy so valued in the west.
In those tiny interconnected passageways, no wider than my arm span — which, we all know, is not so wide — a whole other world exists. This is the same in many Southeast Asian countries — Thailand’s back alley sois also feel like they are a microcosm of humanity in one small space. But in the days after Tet in Saigon, you are exposed to all of the living at once, with lowered defences and many shouted invites to join in for a game, for a drink, for a bite of food. The spiderweb of tiny connected spaces are there throughout the year, and hellos or nods of greeting pepper any wander within them, but during a week of national celebration the enthusiasm and openness is potent.”
Even at other times of the year, daytime or nighttime wanders through these alleys offer up a wonderful snapshot of what life is like right now. It’s cooler, and quieter, and time moves differently. I don’t take photos of people or their houses, and I don’t want to violate the quiet calm either. But to just wander and look, its very rewarding. For some good alley wanders see Tom’s piece on Vietnam Coracle.
The tofu experience with the most personality this side of the Saigon river. She chases you down the street if you don’t feel hungry, and occasionally tiptoes into a restaurant to slide tofu on the table toward you — how could you say no? — then beams at you angelically. Her warm tofu dish, featuring soft tofu, sweet ginger syrup with tapioca balls, and coconut cream to boot, is delicious.
Feeding my readers.
This year’s Jodi Eats food walks were a great success, and I’ve met and fed over a hundred readers. I didn’t know how these mini-tours would go, or if people grouped together would get along, but happily everyone left glowing reviews, great conversation was had, and we all went home stuffed after an evening or morning of eating.
Two of the people on the tours are now dating, and many others have met up subsequently on travels in Vietnam. It was a great experiment, and I look forward to next season’s redux here in Saigon.
Oh the trees. From my mother, I inherited an obsession with trees large and small, with fat huggable trunks and skinny elegant ones, with fanning leaves and branches that arch toward the sky. In New Zealand I found my beloved Norfolk Pine, and in Saigon the trees line many of the streets, looming over the chaos and the food, curling in their own way toward the heavens.
If it won’t get you killed (so, try it on the sidewalk please), don’t forget to look up in Saigon.
Dog motorbike repair guys.
On the walk to Mimi’s place (see below), there is a side of the road motorcycle repair place, with three dogs in striped sweaters. Dogs in striped sweaters could veritably be another thing on this list, but let’s be honest — it’s a long freaking list. Suffice it to say the city seems really fond of dressing their dogs in striped shirts or sweaters. Specifically green and blue sweaters. Anyhow, I digress. These guys, gruff men with pleated faces where sun has worn them down over the years, happen to have a soft spot for their dogs. They’ve built little boxes on their motorbikes, and the dogs are fed and given water, keeping the men company as they work. Least friendly dogs in the world, but super cute to see on my walk.
I dream of driving this around a far-flung district, wind in my hair and smog in my teeth, doling out bananas.
Mimi the Cat.
My friend Jesse has a cat named Mimi, and I have fallen in love with her quirky sitting-down poses, her unimpressed-with-the-world expression, her bi-coloured eyes, and her all around confusion about who she is. She acts like a dog, coming to you at the door, playing fetch with items around the house, and generally happiest when there are 25 people around, versus 2. She’s a treasure and having catsat her for a month when Jesse was away, I’m really going to miss her insanity. Normal-seeming Mimi:
Aaaand Mimi being Mimi:
Bikes of burden.
So many overloaded, perfectly balanced motorbikes, piled high with everything imaginable. I’ll let photographer Hans Kemp say it in his own words: “I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was an incessant stream of motorbikes on the road in front of me. There were entire families on a bike, guys in suits, girls dolled up. I stood there mesmerized, intoxicated by this all-permeating scent of petrol mixed with perfume, sound, color, and motion. There was an incredible vibrancy to it all.” It’s amazing to see what people carry, and it never gets old.
A photo posted by Jodi Ettenberg (@legalnomads) on
These outdoor barbershops pop up next to busy parks and hospitals, and along the yellow walls of downtown Saigon. During the early morning the barbers hang a mirror on a nail in a wall or a tree, then sit and read the newspaper on a stool until customers come by. For only a few dollars, you can get your hair cut by a dapper gentleman in a dress shirt and slacks, to the mirth of passerbys.
And, of course, great friends from around the world.
* * *
There is so much more than what is on this list, because there are infinite reasons I keep returning to the city. I should add that there are many things I don’t like, too. The air is incredibly polluted, and I find myself getting sick really frequently, my sinuses infected with nasty bacteria. Long-termers say that they’ve developed chronic sinus problems that never dissipate. There are other things that make it tough, but rules here prevent me from writing about them safely, so I’ll leave it at the fact that values are not always aligned. But that’s what you get when you go somewhere else, and in choosing a place to base yourself, you have to be able to tolerate things you dislike, and also truly smile at the things you enjoy.
For now, Saigon is that place for me. Despite the getting sick, despite the dengue, despite the fact that you can’t walk around for too long because you want to throw up from the fumes in the air, it’s still a place I love. For all the reasons on this list, and for hundreds more.
I’m leaving here in just a few days. On Monday I head to Greece, where I’ll meet some of my family before they head on an island cruise, and then I’ll be joining a few friends from Saigon on a Greek island to recover from (you got it) a nasty sinus infection. From there, the UK and potentially Germany, and then to North America.
Readers in NYC: I’ll be in town for a few weeks starting 1 August. A reader meetup and dumpling crawl is in order.
Readers in SF: I’ll be in town briefly mid-August.
And then to Montreal to see my parents and eat as much cheese curds as possible.
I’ll be posting more about Saigon but this marks the end of yet another great season. I came here expecting to stay a few weeks in 2012, and found myself instead falling in love with the city. There’s no question I’ll be back.