Okay – to be fair, regarding Vietnam, I’ve been wrong about a couple of things so far. First things first: cotton DOES kill. Who knew? I made the mistake of wearing a cotton short-sleeved tee shirt on Day Two in Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve been that hot before in my life (Barcelona at one hundred and five degrees comes to mind), usually whining and complaining but never at the equator (have you seen the map?) and because we were in the company of our guide, Captain Cook, I kept silent. Yes. I know what you’re thinking. Liz in short sleeves?
A little perspective and a night’s rest has mellowed me somewhat toward Vietnam. In the barrage of motorbikes and horrible frogs, I didn’t mention the more pleasant activities of Day One. (I have no idea what the date or day of the week is, so I have to refer to our trip as Day One and Day Two.) However we did go to a street stand for grilled pork and sat in the alley on teensy tiny plastic chairs at a teensy tiny plastic table, which is what you see on the sidewalks and in the alleys all over the city. Even men in business suits take their lunch or sit and sip a Pepsi at these low little plastic tables and chairs, making it seem as though everyone’s sitting on furniture for children. In the alley next to the stand we ate a dish made up of glass noodles with fish sauce, peanuts, fried onions, grilled pork, diced pork belly, and shredded braised pork. (See at this point, my naturally sarcastic sense of humor wants to say something about the lack of pork in the dish…but I will refrain.)
In general, the people here have either ignored my camera, or have asked Captain Cook, what’s going on. Naturally he tells them that we’re from CNN and they should turn on their televisions tonight and see themselves. (I haven’t mentioned yet that Captain Cook is a real operator). He says everyone will give us permission to shoot when they hear “CNN.” I want to make him my new agent.
But the real reason I fell in love with the little pork grill on the alley lies in the fact that it’s where I was introduced to Ba Ba Ba. “Ba Ba Ba” translates to “3-3-3” and is a major Vietnamese beer. And since we’re not drinking the water, and since it’s over a hundred degrees, and since the humidity is like eighty percent, and since cotton kills, Ba Ba Ba has become the new water.
Now you begin to understand the mellowing.
So along with the pork, pork, pork, and Ba Ba Ba, I watched a family prepare their dinner on an open cook-fire in the alley. The mother squatted in front of the fire, fanning it and cooking in a wok-like pan, a little girl toddled around and eventually was scooped up and kissed by her father, while a mid-size yellow dog sat on the stoop along with the rest of the family and waited for the meal to be finished cooking. They squatted, smoked, laughed, and every once in a while a motorcycle zoomed through, beeping to clear the way. But the star of this family was a wiry middle aged, chain-smoking woman dressed in yellow short pants and matching yellow tee shirt (evidently cotton only kills Americans).
When the Woman in Yellow saw us approach she suddenly became a film director. No ignoring the camera or asking Captain what was happening, she leaped into action and told Susan, me, and the pork griller where we should stand and where to shoot from (none of it in English). And even though it must have been obvious that we had no idea what she was saying, she never stopped talking until she had decided she was satisfied. Then finally she motioned her hands together as if to say “Now. Go ahead.” and stood back and smoked. So while Susan remembers fondly sitting in the alley on the little plastic chairs eating the marvelous Bun Thit Nuong (all pork all the time…but that’s my translation), I remember Ba Ba Ba and the Woman in Yellow.
After the pork, we visited Banh Xeo, a street restaurant known for the best Vietnamese pancake in the city. Banh Xeo actually means “Vietnamese pancake” so that was lucky because since we arrived, Susan has been practicing “thank you” in Vietnamese. “Cam on” with a downward lilt is what it’s supposed to be, but she has never gotten it right, and most times people look at her and have no idea what she’s trying to say. The beauty of Susan Feniger is that she’s undaunted. I tried to tell her that the comparison would be someone trying to say “thank you” in English, but if it came out sounding like “sa-oo,” we’d have no idea what they meant either. It didn’t stop her from trying to say “thank you” to absolutely everyone, at all times, and once again I wanted to get a gun. But I digress…
Banh Xeo was a covered restaurant with no sides, just a couple of counters and the hot cooking area in the front, where three cooks, squatting in front of open wood fires, cooked the Vietnamese pancakes in saute pans. They each operated five fires, so each cook made five pancakes at a time. It was really something to see and once again, I was reminded that there’s no health department here to insist on closed kitchens. What a life!
Rice flour and coconut milk make up the pancake and then they add pork belly (my new best friend), shrimp, and onions and sometimes cook an egg on the top and then load the whole thing with bean sprouts. It gets served with mixed green lettuce, mint and Thai basil… and my Ba Ba Ba. Somewhere in all of the long tables under the eaves, a guitar and tambourine made the rounds and often we heard groups of people clink their beer glasses together and as a group shout “Yo!”
Day Two was where we discovered Vietnamese iced coffee. Crushed ice, sweetened condensed milk and the dark strong coffee that Vietnam is famous for, made me a believer. I noticed that in the sweltering heat, it didn’t bother me one bit that we sat on tiny little plastic chairs at tiny little plastic tables, on the pavement amongst a row of motorcycles, my head nearly touching the rubber tread. You go to war with the army you have.
Also on Day Two we drove outside of the city where Susan cooked with a famous Vietnamese restaurateur and television Chef, Cam Van Dzoan. Mrs. Dzoan is about sixty, soft spoken with grey hair tied up in a bun, and lives on the most beautiful farm property next to a river. Her property is loaded with star fruit, jack fruit, and Vietnamese Cherries. There’s a pool covered with a footbridge where many of her ten dogs nap in the heat of the day. It’s an amazingly calm and serene setting, a Shangrila.
In her spacious covered outdoor kitchen, Mrs. Dzoan cooked with Susan while I filmed, didn’t complain about my heat seeking cotton tee-shirt, and got eaten alive by insects. In the middle of everything a bug the size of Kansas dropped into my hair, so even though I managed to scream inwardly, you’ll be seeing me in a headscarf for the rest of the trip.
On the plane leaving Ho Chi Minh City (still Saigon to many of its residents), now bound for Hue, surrounded by Vietnamese people I felt a slight scratching on the back of my arm. I turned and a little hand was sticking through the opening between our seats from the row behind. A two-year old Vietnamese girl smiled, peeked through and said in her little voice “thank you” in English. I was so surprised to hear a little child speaking English that I laughed and waved at her. She said “thank you” again. I stuck my hand through, shook her hand and said “thank you” back to her like a sing-song. She said “thank you” again and so did I. The little voice saying “thank you” echoed from behind us over and over, clearly the only English words she knew and it suddenly struck me: here’s someone Susan Feniger could have a conversation with.
By the end of our stay in Ho Chi Minh City, Susan had added the word for “good bye” to her huge roster of Vietnamese. “Tam biet!” she shouts to everyone, almost as much as she abuses “Cam on.” Usually it’s when she’s leaning out the window of our van, waving as we drive away from someone we’ve met. Surely people on the street must think she’s some sort of poor idiot…or just an American.
Tam biet, Saigon!