Sep 2008

Faces from the Thành Phố


The people! That’s my answer when anyone asks what I miss most about Vietnam. Here are the faces that made my year in the Thành Phố (city) one of the best ever. Let’s call this a makeshift yearbook.

He told me his name once when we first met, but The Astronomer and I just refer to him as the Banh Mi Thit Nuong Man. Located in District 4, The Astronomer paid this vendor a visit nearly every morning before work. After I got over my “no meat in the morning” barrier, I indulged in grilled meat sandwiches assembled fresh to order alongside The Astronomer. While The Astronomer had to wait until he arrived at the office to dig into his sandwich, I always ate mine while riding on the back of the motorbike because it is irresistible. I miss seeing the Banh Mi Thit Nuong Man’s big smile. Read all about the sandwich that made us swoon here.

My grandma’s sister Ba Sau is hands down the coolest person in the Thành Phố—she drinks beer in the middle of the day for Pete’s sake! The best days in Saigon were the one’s spent eating leisurely at Ba Sau’s house. There was the time when Lush was in town and she invited us over for a lovely lunch, and the time she called just as our plane landed from Nha Trang and made us the best curry ever, and I’ll never forget how she made banh tet from scratch during Tet, and when she introduced me to the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. There ain’t no party like a Ba Sau party.

Sticky rice (xoi) was one of my favorite foods in Saigon—something about sweet simple carbs that I just couldn’t get enough of. This woman sold xoi on Ton That Thuyet Street in District 4. Every morning before I departed on my run, I made sure to stick 2,000 VND in my pocket in order to purchase some xoi as I jogged home. Due to the intense Saigon heat, I always arrived at her stand sweaty and gross, but she was always super-nice and dished me up hearty portions of sticky rice sprinkled with sesame seeds and salt. Read all about running with xoi here.

My grandfather’s younger brother Ong Ty (L) played the role of worried parent while I was in Saigon. He would call me periodically and say things like, “I haven’t heard from you in so long, are you okay?” I was always okay. I invited Ong Ty to a number of meals where English was the primary language spoken and attendees were a quarter of his age. Still, he managed to have a great time every time. What a doll!

Hanh, The Astronomer’s Vietnamese teacher, was one of the sweetest and smartest people we met during our stay. She introduced us to the happy happy joy joys of karaoke for The Astronomer’s 24th birthday, and hooked me up with a new addiction—banh tet chuoi (sticky rice “cake” stuffed with bananas). An interesting fact about Hanh—she’s traveled outside Vietnam quite a bit, but has yet to visit the capital city of Hanoi.

This thach vendor is another one of District 4’s gems. She has a competitor who sells a simliar but inferior product for 500 VND cheaper that I used to frequent until I woke up and tasted her coffee-flavored thach. Forget Gatorade, thach restores my electrolytes after a run better than anything.

Isn’t Miss Adventure just the cutest in her 333 Beer hat? One of my fondest memories of Nina is comparing Vietnamese insults that our mothers taught us or directed at us (when we were kids) while in the Philippines. My personal favorite—“could you please be slightly less stupid so that others can be stupid too?” (It sounds much more offensive in Vietnamese). Nina also introduced me to Quang Ngai delicacies like cha gio bap. I’m gonna make my way to Canada one of these days to visit her and meet her mother.

It’s the Lunch Lady, y’all! Sometimes when I type, Britney Spears makes an unexpected appearance. Unlike Britney, the Lunch Lady has got her act together. Read a sweet profile I wrote about her for AsiaLIFE here. And previous postings about her amazing food here and here. What I wouldn’t give for a bowl of mi ga tiem right about now.

Hawkins striking a pose in a poncho. The rainy season in Saigon is something I definitely don’t miss. There’s a lot to like about this boy, but I think it’s Hawkins’ southern twang that I adore the most. Although we only knew each other for a few short months, we did some big things together, like eating a 1.4 kilogram cheeseburger at the Black Cat and abusing children on the sand dunes of Mui Ne.

Back in the day when I used to work in District 3, The Astronomer and visited Thanh Hai at least once a week for hot and tangy bowls of bun rieu and plates of snails sauteed with basil and green bananas. Sometimes, when we were extra hungry, we’d also share some pork stuffed snails dipped in ginger fish sauce. Mmmm!

Even though Uncle Hai and Aunt Phung always poked fun at The Astronomer and me for eating at “dirty” street food places, they introduced us to some awesome street side eats like coconut ice cream served inside a fresh young coconut at Cong Truong. I took this picture of them at their daughter Mien’s wedding last September. Vietnamese weddings are, dare I say, the bomb! The Astronomer and I really hit it off with my aunt and uncle because they both speak dangerously perfect English. I can’t wait for them to come visit the US of A and tell me their impressions of the place.

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5 thoughts on “Faces from the Thành Phố

  1. ”could you please be slightly less stupid so that others can be stupid too?” LOL I have forgotten that for a while now. I’m so saying it tomorrow to my non-Vietnamese friends.
    Hilarious post.

  2. Aww… sharing insults… good times! I think I look rather dorky in this pic! Please do come visit Canada soon! Montreal is just a 7-8 hour drive from NYC…

  3. NN – Did you use it on your non-Viet friends yet? Hopefully! Are they still your friends?

    WC – I think Nina and I were spared that one. My mom did like to “ky” (harsh noogie) my head as a child. I’m surprised I don’t have any sort of perm brain damage 😉

    Nina – Good to know! It would’ve been easier if I were still living back East. I’ll make it happen.

    Duy – Exactly. That phrase is potent.

    Boots – Thanks! Use the insult sparingly.

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