Post 7: A fork in the Saigon river....of life

I often say that I’m shy, and that particular utterance tends to generate more laughs than most any of my jokes. Yet shy I am; rarely do I strike up a conversation with strangers, and rarer still do I want them to spark their verbal flints on me. When spoken to, I begin suspicious and proceed to perturbed. If you are a stranger and want to be my friend, email.

Last night at the bar made me want to leave the hotel and check into the Unabomber’s cabin (details to follow), but then today, day 7, there was cause for renewed hope…

But first, some inspiring human interactions of a decidedly less verbal variety:

Day 5, dinner: I’m back to being a solo rider, which is kind of good because now I don’t have to walk like I was wearing a kimono (I know, wrong country). Considered going back to the lunch joint, but I realized there was one more half a block I had missed in my pointillist analysis of the street food of secret Saigon. So back I go, and ultimately discover my favorite meal yet: a cart with little sausages wrapped in leaves then grilled, served with ricepaper wrappers and all the stuff to make spring rolls -- lettuce, basil, mint, cucumber, cold noodles, and ground peanuts -- plus some slices of an unknown (to me) citrus and pale green eggplant. The sausages are absolutely delicious, though each one does have an unfortunate little bit of bone chip in it (par for the neighborhood, I suppose; why kvetch?). Delicious as they were, the portion was still Vietnamese sized, so I confess to giving in and trying the Vietnamese fried chicken on my way home. Lord save this sinner man.

So, on to the bar and all the sadness. I didn’t start out on the right foot, clearly. I’ve already noticed that I always seem to be dressed a bit more upscale than any other foreigners (I wear snug black polo shirts with light, well-cut fatigue-y pants every day), which makes me think I’m giving off more than my usual snobby miasma. But then I show up to the watering hole with my journal and a book (the so far not-short-enough Life of Oscar Wao). I’m forced to sit at a table with a visible wanker from down under and a British guy who looks like that old cartoon of the dopey dog but has teeth that evoke a bike chain made out of teak (did I miss a Sotheby’s auction of George Washington’s dentures?). I nod but don’t say a word, take out my journal, and start writing in my guy-from-Seven microscript. The aussie then asks the winning bidder what he does for a living, to which lumber mouth replies, “I drink.”

Now I’ve always thought it odd that people show up alone in bars without a book or journal in hand. But apparently they thought it odd that I showed up with both, and with a vintage tobacco pipe that I took out, loaded, and began puffing away on. From that point, there was no chance of anyone speaking to the dauphin.

Being ostracized was merciful, as it turns out (and often is), because behind me I heard a Vietnamese guy using such pathetic racial and homophobic slurs (though I grant they were new to my ears), that they’re not worth repeating. I was so appalled, I gulped my beer down as fast as it would go and went back to my room to pout.

Sleep was fitful, up for matins, which in my church is beginning to involve noodles.

Day 6, breakfast.

My brother wrote me being concerned that my food experiences might taper off; instead, I opted to take a page out of his autobiography in progress, tentatively titled How to Eat Two Farmer’s Breakfasts and Other at-the-Table Atrocities.

It happened by accident. Still sampling every spicy pho that morning secret Saigon has to offer, I stumbled upon a place with that deep orange/red color stock one seeks out, and marvelous-looking glistening chunks barely concealed by the bubbling. I sit; the proprietor/cook (how nice that that’s always the same person) gestures and asks if I want flank steak with it -- who would say no? -- and I watch her dunk it in a broth for 15 seconds then into a bowl with noodles. I turn to make a note in my journal about thin-sliced flank steak, and look up to find in front of me a bowl…of clear broth. Oh no! Clearly when I opted for the steak, that meant I got the other soup, and now I was in the Lindsey Weiss memorial how-do-I-eat-this-meal-if-it’s-not-spicy pickle.

Bro, I burnt an offering at your altar. Down goes one pho, noodles and all (and note the green leaf here ; it was added with basil for flavor and was as delicious as unknown to me), then I asked for the red one and ate that to the porcelain, generating very wide eyes all around me. When I paid, we all started laughing. I proceeded to waddle back to the hotel.

Day 6, lunch

You will not be surprised to hear that lunch came late, but you might be surprised at how long it could have lasted. It began innocently enough: I walked back to District 4 for a final go-around (I leave Vietnam tomorrow) and to try to get the legume potage I saw a woman selling the first time, plus anything else I missed. Sadly, I was a little late for most of the market, but did manage to score a nice pork skewer from a woman who was inordinately pleased that I bought and photographed it. (Again, in this neighborhood, all the adults stare, all the kids point at me – and many scream “hellaw” – but when I wave they all seem more than a little amused). The potage lady was gone; in my bereaved bewilderment, a banh mi vendor grabbed my arm firmly and smilingly entreated me to get one (but it was the grilled pork I had already had – can’t repeat!), kept laughing and calling out to the neighborhood (who en masse were steadily emerging from their homes) and wouldn’t let me go till I charaded a stomach sign and then squeezed my fist to say (falsely) that I was full. Then I was freed.

Back across the bridge I went (much less fun going with the traffic and not being able to make eye contact with the gawking girls on motos). My only hope was that the final block from last night might have different offerings at lunch than dinner. Indeed, ecstasy: got a stuffed bun for tomorrow’s bus trip (I don’t know what’s in it, but they ranged in price from 5,000 dong to 10, so I opted for the fancy one, following my recently adopted buy-the-most-expensive-thing-at-the-cheapest-place policy, which I think Ron is also subscribing to), as well as a meat/vegetable pile on rice for tomorrow, and a sausage banh mi that sent me over the moon.

But that’s when things got interesting. As I’m eating the transcendent wurst (can’t have that one either, Vic), a 50-or-so year-old woman comes out of a shop and tells me, in English, to put the sauce on the sandwich (which I had already done but of course did again). She then asks where I’m from; I compliment her on her accent and asked how she learned; she said only had a Vietnamese teacher but she’s very intelligent, and then she drops the grenade. “You should come talk with me. I had a husband but I divorced him many years ago. So you have nothing to worry about.”

Trust me when I say that the implications were clear. My Saigon visit could continue – as long as I wanted. Our “talk” was going to be very deep – and thorough. Suddenly I find myself feeling less than prolix, so I said that I had to go and that I was leaving tomorrow. She says she runs her own salon and fruit stand, both right there, and that I should take her number and call her whenever I wanted (her name is also An, like the lady from 2 nights ago, and seeing it on the marquis, I realize here it’s a 2-letter job). I get more nervous. I say I can maybe come by tomorrow before I leave (though my bus is at 6 a.m). She says yes to come. And, like the shy, or nervous, or chickenshit, or stupid, or all-of-the-above person I am, I scuttle away, sweating through my shirt.

Sipping iced green tea from a sidewalk cart two blocks away (which costs 7 cents, by the way, with refills), the possibilities are suppurating: My bad-hair life would be a thing of the past; I’d learn the names of all the mystifying fruits I’ve been seeing; I could be initiated to the secrets of the East (if that’s not merely West orientalizing); I could direct foreign clientele to her salon; and I could probably get bulk discounts on the sausage banh mis out in front. It would be a life, perhaps even an excellent life. But, alas, dear reader, you knew it was coming: I am too shy.