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Day 67 – Something with Coffee (Vietnamese Potpourri)

May 9, 2010

Dateline: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam – Sunday, May 9, 2010

I give up. I filled today with tons of activity, but none of it fits under a nice, neat umbrella theme. I’m also feeling lazy. So, you know what that means: a list! The oldest trick in the writer’s handbook. So, without further ado, a collection of random thoughts and less random occurrences. A traveling potpourri, if you will.

**I’ve done a great job the last few weeks of avoiding my traveling Achilles’ heel: buying books. Books are heavy. Books take up space. Books can be expensive. Since I haven’t indulged in any new reading materials I’ve actually reread books I’ve already purchased. In the case of Moneyball, I’ve re-reread. That’s right. Three times. Luckily, I have a high tolerance for repetitive activity. (Having said that, it’s a wonder that I haven’t been more successful in my relationships. But, I digress.)

I’m also hoping that through reading the work of good writers their ability will, through osmosis, transfer to me. Have you noticed a difference? Just say, “Yes.”

Thanks.

Today, though, I stumbled across a bookstore selling all kinds of really cheap books. I suspect that these books are bootlegs, but I couldn’t resist the bargain. I am of the Napster generation. We have no conscience when it comes to intellectual property. As Chuck Klosterman once wrote, there’s a reason why Talk Like a Pirate Day thrives—our generation has a little pirate in all of us.

That, and finding a legit bookstore would have been harder than I’d want. Oh, and how do I really know if these are fakes. They could just have come from really crappy print houses that make the pages only look like they were photocopied. If I’m ever hauled into court, I’ll have to plead the Fifth.

I went a little crazy staring at all the books. I browsed for over an hour, peeling plastic off paperbacks and previewing content. Great irony of the shop: they were selling a copy of George Orwell’s 1984. A novel written decrying the dangers of Big Brother in a country that’s arguably one of the most Big Brother-esque in the world. Go figure.

I settled on two books that seemed to have good writing: a book by Jeremy Clarkson and one written by a former L.A. Times reporter about post-war Vietnam. From my brief read through I’m pretty sure their prose won’t infect my writing with suckage. If you notice a drop off in the quality of my work, you can blame it on Clarkson. I know I will.

**Today I had my first Vietnamese coffee. I know I know I know. I’m an idiot. That’s what I said to myself as I took my first sip.

I had mine iced. When the waitress brought it to me the cup was filled to the brim with ice and only half full of coffee. I followed the lead of those around me and pounded at the ice with the long metal spoon. In short order the ice melted and the coffee reached the top of the glass. You might think that this diluted java might be weak and watery. You’d be wrong.

The stuff had viscosity. It was like drinking bitter motor oil. It was the love child of Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei, parading down a dusty Central American village street in a Rolls Royce Phantom dipped in gold and rolled in diamonds–it flaunted its richness without regard for consequences. The dark liquid led a bourgeoisie assault against my country poor taste buds.

I don’t drink coffee. I love it too much (if that makes sense). I will, however, make an exception for this stuff. It’s my cocaine. One taste and I know I’m an addict.

Prepare the cushy rehab facility. When I come down off this stuff in three weeks it’s going to be one hell of a low. Till then, I’ll be enjoying the ride.

**I didn’t stop there. I walked out past the Tran Ngueyn Hai statue that sits in the roundabout. I was looking for the Ben Thanh Market. Like any worthwhile buzz, my high drove me out in search of snacks. I’d heard the market had good food stands.

Of course, in the heat, I walked right past the giant building housing the food stalls. Having unknowingly overshot my target and pouring sweat from the afternoon heat, I stopped at an ice cream shop for a break. I sat down under a fan and ordered a durian shake.

Good stuff. Real good. Some people say durian tastes like stinky feet. Not in shake form. It’s a complex flavor for sure. It morphs in your mouth. Blended like I had it, the sweetness removes much of what the uninitiated find offensive. At least in my opinion it does. Let’s just say it hit the spot and leave it at that. Not as addictive as Vietnamese iced coffee but definitely a worthy chaser.

**After my snack, I backtracked and found the Ben Thanh Market. I’d already had my snack so I just snapped a few pics of the exterior. I also stood in the traffic circle and just stared at traffic. I took way more pictures than I’d initially expected. Really, it’s fascinating. If you’re the kind of person that’s mesmerized by an aquarium of fish, then you’ll be captivated by Saigon traffic.

Click through to today’s gallery at the link at the bottom of the page for a bunch of photos. Pay particular attention to the series that shows a family crossing from the traffic circle to the park across the road. Notice how the traffic swirls around them as they edge across. Watch how the green bus “69” doesn’t even pretend it’s going to stop for them. See how they all survive.

Then, when you come to Saigon and are overwhelmed by the madness in the street, just remember the old granny and little kid in the pics and remember that they survived. If they can do it, so can you. Just gird your loins and walk. Slowly. And pray. With your eyes open.

Good luck.

**I walked through the park back to my Saigon home, the Ha Vy hotel. It being Sunday, there were lots of people recreating in the park (recreation can be a verb, right?). Most fascinating were the guys playing what appeared to be volleyball using their feet and a woven wicker ball.

I’m terrible at volleyball. I embarrass myself playing hacky sack. My only redeeming quality at soccer is that, when fit, I will never stop running.

Recognizing all that, I know I will never play this game. The guys were pretty good. If the game is as big in Vietnam as it appears to be in the Saigon park, then the world better watch out. Once this country gets its nutrition and health care issues worked out, there are going to be a lot of world-class soccer players on the world stage.

I am, of course, assuming the skills translate. Of course, what do I know. I pulled a hamstring just watching these guys.

**I can’t figure out what about this country isn’t capitalist. Perhaps there’s something in the government that controls some of the means of production. I am woefully ignorant. I’m not sure a local could even explain it to me. It’s not like the Vietnamese authorities are explaining their policies to the masses. Transparency is one thing this communist regime’s managed to resist.

While walking through a nearby shopping district this evening I noticed a hammer and sickle flag sitting under a Ninno Maxx sign. Down the road were Boscini stores, Adidas shops, Versace galleries, and various high fashion establishments. Towering over the socialist, communist, Marxist regalia were some of the biggest capitalist brands on earth.

Times, they are a changing, I guess.

**I was in the shopping district to find Mon Hue, a local restaurant chain that’s supposed to have a good variety of traditional Vietnamese dishes. Like the Ben Thanh Market, I overshot the place like it wasn’t there. It’s like I didn’t want to find the place or something.

I sat down, confused the waitress by looking Vietnamese, then established myself as a foreigner by brandishing my English.

I had steamed rice paper rolls with beef and pork and Hue rice with clams. The food was pretty good. The rolls were straightforward.

The rice was not. It came with a clear soup. At least I assume it was soup. It might have been meant to be poured over the dish. It also came with a spicy purple sauce. At least I assume it was a sauce. It might have been a dish unto itself.

This was a “some assembly required” dish and I didn’t have the instruction manual. I soldiered my way through. It was a bit dry, but the flavors were interesting. A mix of spicy and seafood. If you don’t like the taste of the ocean, then this dish is not for you.

I had a tapioca coconut drink, too. This was interesting because each tapioca had a piece of coconut at its core. Like many Vietnamese drinks, the glass was full of ice and only half filled with juice. I had to mash at the ice with my spoon to fill the cup with liquid. Good stuff. Sweet but not too sweet. Refreshing.

And that’s that. Lots of walking. Lots of eating. Lots of reading. Lots of staring at traffic. Lots of activity. None of it thematic. At least not in the state I’m in. Gawd I love Vietnamese coffee. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s fix. Until then

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