I started posting this poem on my birthday before I turned twenty-four. As I begin the final year of my 20s, I find it even more appropriate.
Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes.
(Bury the dead for fear that they walk to the grave in labour.)
In the groin of the natural doorway I crouched like a tailor
Sewing a shroud for a journey
By the light of the meat-eating sun.
Dressed to die, the sensual strut begun,
With my red veins full of money,
In the final direction of the elementary town
I advance as long as forever is.
Over this past weekend, I was speaking to two different Vietnamese strangers, and heard two things that I’ve never heard in Vietnamese before. Both times I was surprised in a good way.
On Friday evening, Ngân and I went to eat seafood at one of our favorite sidewalk places. When we were leaving and went to get the motorbike, the parking attendant, thinking that I didn’t speak Vietnamese, said something in pidgin English like: “You! Moto?” I replied in Vietnamese, “Xe đó, số 67” (That bike, number 67, referring to the first two digits of my license plate).
The parking attendant immediately gave me a sheepish look and said, “Xin lỗi anh, em không biết anh nói tiếng Việt” (I’m sorry, I didn’t know you spoke Vietnamese). I told him it was no problem as I got my bike and then thanked him. That was the first time a Vietnamese person apologized to me for assuming that I didn’t speak Vietnamese.
Then on Sunday morning, Ngân and I went to have some brunch downtown. Again, my interaction was with a motorbike parking attendant. As I was taking the ticket to retrieve my bike, I asked the man, in Vietnamese, if I needed to pay before or afterwards. He was a little taken aback, but then asked: “Quê em ở đâu?” (Where’s your hometown?). This was another question that no Vietnamese person had asked me before. Usually, Vietnamese people see a white guy with blue eyes as ask “Anh là người nước nào?” (What country are you from?). But this parking lot attendant used a very Vietnamese phrase to ask where I was from. It was a first for me and made my day.
So after more than six years in the country, I’m still hearing new things, from motorbike parking attendants of all people.
I get really tired of reading about people who consider themselves to be “foodies” in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, especially when they brag about how they found this awesome food cart that was only 50 feet from their hotel in the backpacker area. Come on.
Before I moved in Saigon in June, 2010, I lived in Long Xuyen, An Giang, for nearly five years. I still look on my time there with fondness and try to get back to visit friends and family any time there’s a holiday.
On the occasion of Tết, I was able to spend eight days back in Long Xuyen. I met tons of old friends and went back to eat at all of the shops and stalls where I used to eat. And I also confirmed my theory that the food in Saigon is crap. Yes, sorry to disappoint all of you supposed “foodies” who continue to roam the streets of Saigon pouncing upon everything and calling it wonderful.
I’m not sure what exactly makes food in Saigon sub-par, but one theory that I have is that the meats and vegetables used simply aren’t as fresh as they are in the Mekong Delta. Perhaps the dust and pollution makes the food here less tasty, or worse, has affected the cooks to the point where they can’t taste as well.
Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the best dishes and meals that I had in An Giang during the Tet holiday.
My mother-in-law’s xá xíu, or char siu in English.
Unlike the bright red variants found in restaurants, this is much more traditional. It is marinated for several hours and grilled with charcoal, which gives the meat a delicious, smoky flavor. It’s served with đồ chua (pickled carrots and turnips) and everything is dipped in soy sauce with chilies. Absolutely delicious. I think I could eat a couple pounds of this stuff.
Bột Chiên, a delicious street side snack.
Bột chiên is as close to a comfort snack food that I can find in Long Xuyên. I always order everything they have, and they fry it up with an egg and serve it with a distinct sauce and grated, pickled papaya. Nothing in Saigon even holds a candle to the bột chiên in Long Xuyên.
Bò Chiên Nước Mắm at Quán Bình Dân
Beef doused in fish sauce and then grilled. Does it get any simpler? Does it get any better? As much as I love the beef, I am also crazy about grilling up okra covered in sate sauce and then dipping it in fermented tofu. Awesome. And yes, still have not found anything this good in Saigon.
Cháo Trắng Với Cá Cơm và Đu Đủ
I love this stuff. Rice porridge with beans and coconut milk, served with tiny pickled fish and pickled, grated papaya. Simple, cheap and delicious. I certainly have not found the savoriness of this dish in Saigon. The places I’ve had it here are very bland.
Bò né at Quán Tùng
Affectionately known by some as the breakfast of champions, this is quite the way to start your day. Beef, macaroni, onions and an egg all served in a sizzling skillet (cow-shaped, to boot) with a side of lettuce and tomato, just to make you feel a bit less guilty. You eat it with a baguette as well.
Bò né on Nguyễn Thái Học Street
This is yet another variant of bò né in the town of Long Xuyên. Note that at this particular place, there are no noodles and there is a generous dollop of pate. Another excellent breakfast. And I have never, ever found bò né in Saigon that comes close to the goodness of bò né in Long Xuyên.
Hủ Tiếu Mỹ Tho
“What is hủ tiếu Mỹ Tho?” the so-called Vietnamese foodies say while scratching their heads. It ain’t hủ tiếu Nam Vang (i.e. it doesn’t have shrimp or quail eggs) and it’s a lot better, in my opinion. There’s lots of meat. And then a little more. Very filling for less than a dollar a bowl. And the owner still remembered me, even though I hadn’t been there in over a year.
Many people might not agree with me about this one. But I have to say, don’t knock it before you try it. “Cháo” is rice porridge and “lòng” is inside. Basically, it’s rice porridge with a lot of pig offal in it. I like it with lots of chili peppers and a kind of fried bread called “bánh củ cải.” Put it all together and it’s delicious. I am also sentimental about this dish because when I was saving money for the move to Saigon, I ate dinner here almost every night. When you’re saving money, dinner for less than 50 cents makes sense.
Hủ Tiếu Khô at the Swimming Pool Cafe
Why order your hủ tiếu dry, you may ask? I don’t have a good explanation. But it’s just delicious. The pork is savory, the noodles have just the right amount of tenderness and it makes one hell of a breakfast. A good buddy introduced me to this wonderful dish years ago, and for two months, I lived across the street from this cafe. An amazing, and unique, dish.
Grandma’s food in Tân Châu
On the third day of Tết, Ngân and I went to visit her grandmother in Tân Châu, not far from the Cambodia border. I found out later that her grandmother has been involved in making and selling food for her whole life, and it surely showed. The flavors in these dishes absolutely came alive. There was thịt kho, a traditional Tết dish, mì xào giòn (crispy noodles) and tender chicken stewed in herbs. The food was so good I found myself not being able to stop eating. Possibly the best food that I had in An Giang on this trip.
If you’re looking to experience the real flavors of Vietnam, get out of the city and get away from the tourist path where all of the flavors have been dumbed down and all of the meat and vegetables have lost their crispness due to refrigeration. Personally, I think the dishes I listed are some of the best in the country. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.