Saigon, again, is more about food, friends and fun than anything else. This morning, though, we combined food with history, on a visit to Phở Bình Restaurant. Like Phở Hòa, Phở Bình specializes in phở, or beef soup with rice noodles. What makes Phở Bình special, though, is that the premises were used to plot the bombing of the American embassy in 1968. Phở Bình was popular with everyone on both sides, which made it the ideal cover. The bombing (with other projects) had been a success, and the owner, who I met, became quite a celebrity.
The owner is in his nineties now, and absolutely loves to have his picture taken with Americans. "That was then, and this is now," he says. He's also a businessman who knows good publicity. That day, the place was pretty empty. I was told that as communist fervor goes on the wane, so go the fortunes of the soup shop. There are many restaurants abroad named after Phở Hòa, but not a single one that's named after Phở Bình. I won't argue any of the politics, but I did find that the soup at Phở Bình was noticeably better.
That morning we took a tour of Saigon and visited some of the museums. Again, we saw a show of water puppets. Water puppets come from the north, but they're so originally Vietnamese that if you're only visiting Saigon, it's well worth seeing them. We looked at archaeological stuff and met a mummy, which I'd call a productive morning of tourism.
Lunch was another memorable experience. One of the best Vietnamese dishes you can eat is cơm tấm, pork on broken rice. There's grilled pork, dried pork, and an omlette made with ground pork, and with a liberal bit of sweet sauce, it's a pleasure. I ate this dish all the time at home, and the restaurant we went to was famous for the best cơm tấm in Saigon. It was great. We also had pork intestine with pickled mustard greens (much, much better than it sounds), and fish head soup. I was an instant celebrity as we walked into the restaurant, no doubt again, because of my striking good looks! Incidentally, I was the only non-Vietnamese there. It's nice to be noticed, but hard to look around if everyone is looking at you.
During the afternoon we toured around again, visiting a Buddhist temple. One of the good deeds you can do as a Buddhist is to set a bird free. Unfortunately, this means that there's someone outside the temple who's caught the birds, and charges you for the privilege. I've yet to work out the balance of karma in this transaction, but at best, the bird comes out almost even.
That evening we took a walk around Saigon. We walked near the river. The streets in Saigon are extra wide, and there are a lot of shops. There are huge, neon signs across the river, and it's a matter of time before Saigon spills over there as well. Bright city lights or not, there are people who sit on the street and eat. As we passed, the diners kept asking whether Duyên lives overseas. On our walk we passed by an auto showroom apparently people in Saigon are affluent enough to buy cars. That, in and of itself isn't fascinating, but what really caught my eye was that Mitsubishi is now advertising a car called the Pajero. I don't know if they have this model elsewhere, but it brings to mind the debacle when Chevrolet tried to sell a car in Mexico called the Nova. They found out way too late that "No va" in Spanish means "won't go". It looks like people never learn from their mistakes. Ask a Spanish-speaking friend what pajero means, but do pick a friend who doesn't blush easily.
You can never go more than a few hours without a meal in Saigon. That evening was dinner at a restaurant called Blue Ginger. We were stuffed from breakfast and stuffed from lunch, but this restaurant had Vietnamese classical music, like the music we saw in Huế. The extremely unmemorable dinner consisted of clay pot pork, pumpkin flowers and a soup with stuffed bitter melon. Even the bitter melon was stuffed, and though we did our best with the food, it wasn't good enough (neither our best nor the food). Fortunately, the music was much better than the food.
Speaking of music, I had wanted to look into buying a musical instrument since coming to Vietnam. In Hanoi, our Chuck Norris driver said he knew where to find instruments, and drove us to a furniture store instead. It was all right, since it would have been a nuisance to carry an instrument for the entire trip. The prices they wanted for instruments at the museum in Saigon were a joke, but we had been given the address of an instrument builder. The next day, we trekked to an outer borough to see this man.
The house was in an alley behind some florist shops, and impossible to find unless you knew where you were going. As we walked through the alley there was someone knocking sticks together this is what noodle sellers do to announce themselves. It doesn't get much more Vietnamese than this. The people in the alley eyed us as if the Martians had just landed. We met the man's wife, looked at the instruments, and later, we came back to buy (which, in Vietnam, inevitably meant, "to bargain".) They assumed that Duyên was my tour guide (which happened a lot, I'm afraid), but in this situation it got him a great discount on the instruments.
The prices were so good, in fact, that I'm afraid it made us greedy. Each of us got 3 instruments, with cases, and they all went into a giant crate. Now the problem was what to do with the instruments. No car could take this coffin-sized crate, so Duyên's brother called over a cyclo, and ended up riding on top of the crate, on a cyclo, in the middle of rush hour traffic an act of bravery that I'll always admire. We had similar issues getting the instruments to the airport, and in the end, they had to be left for shipping. I'm still looking forward to playing them.
Our last dinner in Saigon was memorable, again. This time we went to Qúy Thành, famous for its seafood. It's one of those places that's heaving with people. They have guys outside the restaurant whose duty it is to jump in front of oncoming cars to stop them, pull open the doors and yank the people out, then hurl them into the restaurant. When this happened to us, I didn't know what was going on. They were slapping the front of the car and opening the doors, so I figured that it was a search and seizure of some kind. It turned out to be a simple case of marketing.
The meal was out-of-this-world, starting with small snails in coconut milk. We went on to large, broiled snails and nước clams, which were dipped in salt, pepper and lime. There was wasabi for the adventurous. There were oysters, crabs, squid with ginger and coriander, green mussels with a sweet, brown sauce, and fish and rice soup. This place had dessert. It was a three-layered jelly of coconut, seaweed and coffee, and was certainly one of the best desserts I've ever had. Anywhere. Ever.
We hauled ourselves home. Between the last night's dinner and the next morning's breakfast we somehow managed to sleep and shower. We also packed, because unfortunately, the trip was over. After one last time at Phở Hòa and a baguette on the street for good measure, we sat on the street and drank coffee, acting wistful. There was a lot of life on the street, constant stimulation, and not everyone you saw was that incredibly lucky. We had the luxury of being tourists and the time to sit and drink coffee something you'd never do at home. It would be quite another thing to live in this place.
I was very sorry to go. I couldn't have kept up the orgiastic eating much longer and there was nothing to do unless you lived there, but nonetheless, I could have spent just a few days more.
Phở Bình: Fraternizing with the customers.