In the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Darrel Bristow-Bovey learns that exotic dishes can heal a broken heart
Saigon is a strange place to look for romance.
‘Don’t get your hopes too high,’ she told me by email. ‘It’s not Saigon any more, it’s Ho Chi Minh City. And if you’re coming because of me, that’s not a good idea.’ She had been there ten months already, working a contract that had unexpectedly been extended and then been extended again, and we had been trying to make it work between us, but it had fallen apart and I was coming to see if I could put it together again.‘I’m very busy,’ she’d said. ‘I may not even have time to see you. Maybe we should just move on with our lives.’
I’ve always wanted to see Saigon, that place of sensual ease and secrets where men wearing white linen suits catch cyclos (bicycle-powered rickshaws) down to the river to meet their lovers and have hushed conversations by yellow candlelight, walk across the Mong Bridge and stare down into the purple-ink water of the Tàu Hu Canal. In Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, Thomas Fowler smokes languorous pipes of opium and drinks all day at the sidewalk cafe at the Continental Hotel as bombs go off all around the city, waiting for the lovely Phuong in her slit silk gown to come hurrying through the shade of the tamarind trees on chic Rue Catinat to meet him. That was the Saigon I was hoping to see.
But she was right: Ho Chi Minh City is not Saigon any more. It is fast and loud and modern. The cyclos are mostly gone; in their place are clouds of motor-scooters that whine up and down Rue Catinat like furious mosquitoes – except Rue Catinat is now called Dong Khoi and it is vulgar and commercial, and most of the lovely tamarind trees are gone.
There was no room at the Continental, so I walked down Dong Khoi, past the Saigon Opera House and Saigon Notre Dame Basilica and the grand old Post Office building at Lam Son Square to the riverside and checked into the Hotel Majestic and wondered what to do. She said she’d be working all day, so I drank a 33 lager on the rooftop bar and watched the murky river beneath a darkening sky. Small green islands of foliage float down toward the sea and, when the tide turns, they float back in the opposite direction.
I waited for a storm to pass, then walked up the wet streets to the city museum and poked around the American helicopters and the Soviet tanks in the garden. I then made my way over to the War Remnants Museum, where I dismayed myself with its exhibitions of torture and other atrocities, bomb fragments and guillotines.
I sent her a text. She replied, saying she would be working late and wouldn’t be able to see me today at all. ‘I did warn you,’ she said. I was miserable. The air was steamy and everyone was bustling and talking on their cellphones. This wasn’t what I’d expected.
But then I wandered down a dirty alleyway on the north side of Le Thanh Ton, past rows of women being manicured and massaged, and found myself in a tiny eatery called Nam Giao. I was hungry so I ordered bún bò Huê (beef noodle soup) and it was warm and fragrant. I was not hungry any more, but I ordered a plate of sautéed baby clams, each individually shucked by an old woman sitting in the back on a low red plastic stool. They were fresh and delicious, each seasoned with a squeeze of lemon, tossed with chopped herbs and served with a thin, crispy sesame poppadom. I drank two beers as I ate the clams and then ordered another bowl of them, and ate those too.
I staggered out into the hazy oyster-shell evening, and suddenly Ho Chi Minh City looked very different. I saw the traffic and businessmen, but now I also noticed the low cart piled with white flowers, and the boy with the bushel of quacking ducks, and the skinny monk on the black bicycle. Saigon is still there, in-between the rapid modern city, and it’s most especially there in the food.
That same week, she found more and more reasons to avoid me, but I minded less and less because I was discovering Saigon with my mouth. Each morning, I skipped the hotel breakfast and went out early for a bowl of pho. There are many different kinds of pho, but my favourite was a fragrant broth with flat noodles steeped in ginger and coriander, with bean sprouts, chopped spring onions and slices of beef, plus a pinch of chilli and a squeeze of lime – served by a grumpy lady wearing black-rimmed spectacles.
There’s no need to go to restaurants in Vietnam. The food in the street kitchens is just as good and a fraction of the price, so long as you are prepared to eat early to make sure the good ones haven’t sold out. Each kitchen has its own speciality: cá kho tô (fish stew cooked in a clay pot), say; or chao bo (pieces of beef grilled on lemon grass); or ginger-spiced seafood soup, or my lunchtime favourite, bánh xèo, a kind of rice-flour pancake stuffed with prawns and pork, bean sprouts and turmeric, and dipped in sweet peanut sauce.
I bought bánh xèo from my favourite stall and carried them in my backpack when I went on excursions. I went out to Ben Dinh and the Cu Chi tunnels where the Viet Cong soldiers hid during the war, safe from American ordinance in the red-clay ground, some of the tunnels only 80 cm2 and crawling with insects, rats and snakes. Some tunnels have been widened to make them more suited to the shoulders and bellies of burger-fed Westerners. Did I want to crawl through? I declined. I was in a tight enough spot already with my relationship.
We finally met one night in a weird Chinese restaurant near the embassies. It was awkward and she kept checking her phone. She ordered me a terrible dish of duck in plum sauce. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said when I protested. ‘I’ll get the bill.’
The next day I wandered out past Bên Thành Market and then north and visited the Jade Emperor Pagoda. I sat under a tarpaulin canopy drinking bia hoi, locally brewed draught beer, so pure and preservative-free that it only keeps 24 hours, and eating banh bao: steamed dumplings stuffed with green onion, dark forest mushrooms and shredded pork.
My heart was broken, as I knew it would be, but it wasn’t that bad. I knew we weren’t meant to be together. Our time had passed, and now I had to embrace the new. There’s a time for everything, and then the world moves on.
I took a day-trip to the paddy-fields of the Mekong Delta and saw a farmer all in white seem to walk across the surface of emerald water. A flight of storks passed overhead like wind rippling through silk.
When I flew out, I was sad at what I was leaving behind, but I was consoled by remembering what I was taking with me: I had one last bánh xèo wrapped in a napkin in my pocket.
Photography: gallo/getty images, istockphoto, Sean Gallagher/National Geographic Creative