Good Food + Good Friends = Good Time
[Vung Tau, 4/15/22]
In Windhoek, there are many stretches where you can drive for a mile, easily, without seeing a single restaurant or cafe. In Vietnam, you can’t go a block without several food options. In newly built gated communities, still rare, places to eat and drink have generally been banished, however. Imitating the West, Vietnam’s nouveau riche want to be separated from their society, thus from life.
Paying $330 a month, I have a pleasant room on the fourth floor in the Minh Thư Hotel. Except on weekends, business is slow, so I rarely run into another guest in the hallway. There are no party animals or bickering couples, so I always sleep well. Though I often go without it, the air conditioner works fine. From a window, I can see a golden Buddha spacing out on a mountain. On an adjacent terrace, there are stone benches and table of the kind you’d expect in a park.
In this sauna heat, one goes through several changes of clothing a day, so my washing machine is very useful. I have no stove, however, but that’s not a problem, for an excellent meal can easily be had for less than $2 within two minutes of my building. Walk with me, I’ll show you.
A Vietnamese day begins early. Each dawn, a slim young woman across the street starts hacking at fresh coconuts. Removing its hard shell from one end, she exposes just enough of its soft meat for a straw to be inserted. With sure downward motions, she never misses, so you better watch what you say, buddy, or she’ll transition you into the most au courant Westerner. Each coconut costs from 52 to 61 cents, with the most expensive from Ben Tre, four hours away by truck.
Next to her is a very popular eatery serving rice vermicelli with fish, not my cup of tea. Ten yards away is a guy advertising "nutritious rice gruel," as prepared in Thai Binh, a province way up north. Opening at 6AM, he offers gruel with beef, ground pork, chicken, pigeon, frog, pig's brain, pig's heart and kidney, eel, snakehead fish, salmon, sea crab meat, river crab meat, egg or even cheese, a truly radical ingredient I've never seen with rice gruel, but with so much competition, one must innovate, I suppose. The ultimate comfort food, especially for those about to tip into a belated grave, rice gruel for breakfast is like grits, arroz caldo or polentina elsewhere.
Next, we run into a Family Mart, the Japanese chain. Kids come here to buy hot dogs, fried chicken, microwaveable spaghetti or, most often, just instant noodles, since they’re cheapest. Fancy Korean brands come with seaweed and bits of dehydrated kimchi. Their packaging is high class, what the good life is all about. Sitting at a narrow counter, kids can look at the traffic outside. Vietnamese never tire of watching people and vehicles go by. It’s comforting to be engulfed by your kind.
Still less than a minute from my building, we’re at a traffic circle with six streets radiating from it. Standing right here, you can see three banh mi stands, a sticky rice with Chinese sausage stand, a fried chicken and french fries joint, and a restaurant serving beef stew with french bread in the morning, then seafood hot pot in the evening. My favorite, though, sells rice rolls with minced pork and wood ear mushroom [bánh cuốn], a Hanoi specialty. Served with pork sausage, bean sprouts and mint leaves, and drenched in watered down fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and chopped chili pepper, it costs just 87 cents!
[Vung Tau, 4/13/22]
Now that we’ve had our breakfast, let’s go sit on the second floor at the Cafe Sân Thượng [Terrace Cafe]. Here, a coffee with condensed milk is just 74 cents, and it comes with a free glass of hot tea. Since there’s no music, we can easily think or talk. Canned tunes have clouded and crippled minds everywhere
At the next table, some guy is chattering on the phone. “It’s too wet to work, so I’m taking the morning off,” he says, so he works outside. Then, “We're in a very hot country, so we need cool colors.” Discussing paints, he’s a contractor, then. Calling a friend to join him for coffee, dude cheerfully announces, “I'm at that traffic circle where you had a fight with two gangstas, where you broke the guy's leg, ha, ha! Why don't you come out and look for them?”
Talking to his son, his tone shifts, “When you talk to dad, you don’t say, ‘What time is it?’ You must say, ‘Dad, what time is it?’ You must say, ‘What time is it, big brother, big sister or uncle?’ Not just, ‘What time is it?’ Remember that!”
A society is finished when loutishness or being an asshole hasn’t just become the norm, but is celebrated. In the name of free speech, America has Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, Ron Unz and the sickest porn ever produced. It is well done.
Tone is everything. At Friendly Lounge, my neighborhood dive in Philly, you’d hear “fuck” or “fuckin’” all the time, but there’s almost never any hostility in it. That is not loutishness, but simply vox vulgaris as embodied by Rabelais and explained so well by Bakhtin. Jesus fuckin’ Christ, how the fuck did he drop that ball?! Fuck this woke shit! What’s suppressed always oozes out, thus the ubiquity of shit and fuck in spoken English, or “đụ mẹ” [“fuck mother”] in Vietnamese. When I still posed as a writing professor, I encouraged my students to absorb and deploy all of English.
This brief food tour of my new neighborhood shows the range of eating options available, and we’ve only walked in one direction. Going the other way, there’s Hue beef soup, and an old lady who sells quail and duck embryos (boluts) in the afternoon. If we’re willing to walk five minutes, there’s so much more. The title of this piece is taken from a 25-foot-long slogan in lights at a warehouse-like restaurant, Phú Hào, where excellent seafood is available. Though super trite, it’s still true, and as good a philosophy as any. To a Vietnamese, eating is best enjoyed communally, in a festive setting, and that’s why bright lights, often garish, is preferred over candles. A dim, intimate restaurant is very rare here.
Last night at Phú Hào, a young man had his birthday party, so his face kept showing up on a huge screen, and shouts of “One, two, three, in!” [“Một, hai, ba, dzô!”] kept erupting from his long table as they downed Tiger Beer. Even without a celebration, many Vietnamese restaurants have a party atmosphere in the evening. Walking by, a foreigner may just think everyone inside is celebrating something together, and they are, in a sense. They’re celebrating eating.
With such a concept of eating, there’s no social distancing, and remember that Orientals use chopsticks to pick out morsels from common plates. Riding around, most Vietnamese wear facemasks, but many already did this before Covid, to keep out pollution. Here in Vung Tau, many even swim in the ocean with a facemask on. When it comes time to eat, though, they revert to their normal selves, that of people practically giddy to share a drawn-out meal together. One, two, three, in!
Sign at a restaurant:
don't let TECHNOLOGY
LET'S TURN OFF THE PHONE
and talk to each other
With food shortages widely forecast, how much longer can Vietnamese keep whooping it up as they stuff their faces with anything edible? No Vietnamese I’ve talked to seemed worried. Vietnam exports food, they say. More importantly, Vietnamese can survive on anything, or next to nothing, so even without electricity, running water or nothing to eat but two bowls of rice a day, they’ll make it. Millions of them have been through years, if not decades, of deprivation.
Two decades ago, I stayed in a rural thatch hut where dinner was just rice and water spinach, and that was an improvement. They used to just fry rice with MSG. Vietnamese will use toothpicks to twist out tiny bits of snail meat, and they’ll make an excellent feast out of krills. Many also know which wild plants are edible, and they are adept at raising chickens in cities. In most urban Vietnamese neighborhoods, you can still hear cocks crowing each dawn. A car repair shop might have two chickens cooped in a corner.
Too many Vietnamese have been Covid vaxxed, however, so their survival and endurance skills are useless if they’re poisoned. Although my three closest friends in Vung Tau have not been Jewjabbed, one has noticed many more funerals on his long ride to work each morning, and his own father’s health has been wrecked by Pfizer. The old man used to walk miles each day. Now, he can barely trudge one third of a mile.
[Vung Tau, 4/11/22]
Less than a mile from my building, there’s a restaurant, Bo Cat, that boasts of serving only American beef, never mind factory farmed USA cows yield some of the crappiest meat in history. Fed not on grass, these dismal beasts are even stuffed with processed chicken shit.
On Bo Cat’s wall, there’s an image of the Statue of Liberty, and she appears again on its menu, along with Washington, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt, with Lincoln’s face canceled by a hot pot of beef, with all the fixings. On the back wall, there’s a cartoon cow with “from USA.” Despite all these references to the greatest something ever, there’s not a single American dish on the menu. At each table, though, there’s a bottle of Vietnamese made ketchup.
Though ignorant or indifferent to American cooking, Vietnamese diners still come to Bo Cat because, well, Uncle Sam is still super sexy. This explains why so many were actually thrilled to announce on FaceBook they had been genocided by the old coot, as he stumbled, blathering nonsense, from dignity, honor and relevance, trailing corpses.
[Vung Tau, 4/11/22]