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Friday, July 22, 2011

In Saigon, Will Enjoy

I was mistaken! Sort of.

My good friend Cristie told me "I have pictures of the rice paper dish!", the one I said I would have to contend with reliving from memory from my last post. (

From here, it was like an assembly line - the fun part. (1) Get a sheet of rice paper (plate farthest from the camera). (2) Dip in water to soften the sheet (plate with red border that looks empty, that's because it's filled with water only). (3) Fill up with assorted veggies and meats of your choosing. (The 2 leftmost plates). (4) Use assorted condiments to taste. (There was nuoc nam - fish sauce, some sweet sauce, a spicy one which is the rightmost dish in the picture. I'm pretty sure there were other condiments and sauces not included in the picture.)

Think of it as Lego for food, building it up one "block" at a time. Great tasting food that's fun to make - what's not to like?

We stopped by the Ben Thanh Market - a rite of passage being the crossing from the rotonda, as you navigate through zigzagging motorcycles and cars that can give Manila a run for the "worst Asian driver" category - and we ended up picking up the infamous banh mi sandwich as well as some cashews.

And the ubiquitous fruit juices. Natural, of course.

Banh Mi - a legacy of the French when they, uh, stayed in Vietnam (stayed forcibly, that is), which explains why all their breads and pastries were excellent. (I even saw Anthony Bourdain in his "A Cook's Tour" saying the baguette in Vietnam is some of the best he's ever tasted.) Filled with pate, assorted hams and meats, vegetables and your choice of condiments, it's a delectable explosion of flavors that's on-the-go, convenient and cheap: I remember these being only 20 to 25 pesos when they were converted to Philippine currency, and these sandwiches were comparable to those I get from our local Oliver's. (Which, I last checked, would cost around 250 to 300 pesos, if I tried to duplicate the same type of ingredients in the banh mi!) Cashews taste pretty much the same whether it's from California, HCMC or Manila, but the price factor was too good to pass up as well (I remember that entire bag pictured above being less than 150 pesos).

Always remember, when ordering in HCMC, expect them to push veggies into your system. (I say this with love to all hard-core carnivores: Be warned.) If you need proof, here are pictures of us ordering seafood or pork ONLY.

If you think you can't take any more veggies, then I suggest washing it down with cafe suada.

You may take it hot or cold (cold in the picture above, left and rightmost glasses), although after eating, it would probably be best to take it hot. The drinks we had above were at the neighborhood store near the hotel, and after a hot day of walking, it was nice to be refreshed with drinks like these. Cafe suada is a concoction of coffee and condensed milk - yes, a thick drink, but one sip and you're all perked up. Hold on to those energy powders I see people mixing in their drinks, you won't need it here.

And you'll notice in the foreground, tea is also a common drink in HCMC (it was a hot day, so we took it cold again). I'm not sure if this is the Chinese influence, but I have to say I like having tea around, and wish that we as Filipinos could also imbibe the same habit (instead we associate all family gatherings with Coke).

Another thing that struck me as unique about Vietnam was that they had their own home grown religion called Cao Daism. Upon researching it, I found out that the headquarters was located near HCMC. So I insisted that our party go and see it, which was said to be a...well, an eyeful.

We were not disappointed. Pink stucco - that's brave.

Apparently, Cao Daism is like a hodge-podge of religions, that include "elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native Vietnamese spiritualism, Christianity and Islam" (from my Lonely Planet: Vietnam guidebook). I asked the guide, is that why it seems like the temple design is a clash of ideas that try to live harmoniously? He lead me to a section of the temple for his enigmatic answer.

I will let the picture speak, as it does so a thousand times more eloquently. (And you may draw whatever conclusions you wish to on your own.)

Back in the city, we decided to stroll and see famous lanmarks, like the Saigon Opera House.

Unfortunately, it was closed (being a Sunday). So we strolled past their much celebrated Post Office,

And onto a couple getting ready for their wedding album.

I have to say, I am digging their national costume, though it must be incredibly stifling in the heat and not too comfortable, especially if you had to work all day, like these two:

Apart from the food, HCMC had little to offer by way of their sights. The War Remnants Museum is a must-see for every visitor, as it chronicles the atrocities of the US-Vietnam war and its effect on the country. However, providing pictures about this would run counter to the blog's heading, war and death being generally acknowledged as depressing subjects. (But if you are in HCMC, do find time to go to the Museum. It will open you up to a different perspective from the one that is commonly told by the West.)

But the people...they were lovely. I have been to Thailand, and I must say, the people in HCMC are way more hospitable and friendlier than their counterparts in Bangkok. The biggest plus was their earnestness in using the English language (making the language barrier almost non existent), and the mistakes they made with it only served to endear their people more to me. I had a daily reminder of this in our hotel bathroom.

Vietnam, we will be back.

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