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Day 68 – Always Finding Food

May 10, 2010

Dateline: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam – Monday, May 10, 2010

On occasion, we must rediscover certain self-evident truths. For example, life sometimes reminds us that oven mitts are helpful if you’re going to pick up a cookie sheet that’s just been in the oven. Or that what goes up must come down. Or that you never get involved in a land war in Asia.

Today I rediscovered the following: I am terrible at finding things that are sitting right in front of my face.

I planned on this being an eating day. Me on a food tour, with my bike at my hand. I’d jet around the city seeking food that’s not bland. A “quest” if you will.

I secured myself a decent map of HCMC restaurants. Saigon wouldn’t fool me with its dastardly French-planned streets. I plotted a course to a couple of eateries and a coffee joint and set out.

First destination: lunch at Huong Lai, a gourmet Vietnamese restaurant. All the wait staff are from disadvantaged families or are former street children. The restaurant trains them, gives them an education and a place to stay. They then get jobs at other restaurants in the city.

I love fine dining. I love inexpensive fine dining. I love inexpensive fine dining where my money goes to a worthy cause.

It was just a matter of finding the place. Just for fun, I’m going to include street names so you can get a feel for what I was searching for while negotiating traffic on a motorbike. I knew it was midblock on D Ly Tu Trong between D Dong Khui and D Pasteur. To get there from the Ha Vy mini-hotel where I’m staying, I just had to go straight through two roundabouts and then make two left turns. Simple.

I zipped through the roundabouts; one of which housed the Tran Nguyen Hai Statue that I visited yesterday. No problem.

I made my first left onto D Dong Khui. No problem.

I could not, however, make my second left onto D Ly Tu Trong because it is a one-way street. No problem, though. I made a left at the next block, went down two blocks and headed back up D Ly Tu Trong. I didn’t see Huong Lai.

I circled again. Again, I didn’t see Huong Lai.

I pulled over, consulted the map. Confirmed that I was in the right spot and circled again.

I repeated this a couple more times. All the while I’m motoring through Saigon traffic, through blaring horns, through searing heat. I was tired. I was hungry. It felt like a cosmic joke.

I started to feel like a lunatic. It’s like the place didn’t exist. But I knew it did. I’d called them the night before about their hours. A human being gave me relevant information. Presumably the place hadn’t shut down in the last 12 hours.

Finally, I saw it. The restaurant front was a small building nestled between two larger structures. It was partially blocked from the street by a couple of trees. Oh, and the sign used a strange font. No excuses. Just saying.

I walked up a winding, wooden staircase and found a quaint little dining room. All the staff was young except for the manager. I opted not to try out my limited Vietnamese to give them some practice with their English. They kept up with my fast, slurry California accent. Impressive.

I had the fried pork with black pepper and a glass of mulberry juice. The pork might have been a tad overdone, but I didn’t really mind because the flavor was good. Good bite balanced with some sweetness. The mulberry juice was rich and dark red. Never had mulberry juice before. I like it.

For dessert I had the house-made longan ice cream. There was a whole, peeled longan in it with the seed still intact. A great touch. It gave me a chance to eat a whole fruit while enjoying the cool, creamy ice cream. A great finish.

The service was attentive but not overbearing. I didn’t feel like they were hovering over my shoulder, but they managed to be there whenever I needed anything. They’ve been instructed well.

Vietnam does not have a tip culture, but since I was at a charitable organization, I left a bit for the staff. Not much by U.S. terms but quite large when compared proportionally to the bill which came out to 115,000 dong ($6.12). Gourmet food for the price of a fast food meal. Fantastic.

Next up: Vietnamese coffee at Sereneta, a place that’s supposed to have a lovely courtyard garden and pond. Perfect complement for my afternoon agenda which consisted of writing postcards and reading. I live a difficult life.

I bought the postcards and motored out to the corner of D Ngo Thoi Nhiem and D Le Qui Don, the location indicated on map. I found it in no time. What I didn’t find was Sereneta. I circled the block one direction, then the other. I pulled over and looked at the map. I circled again. I saw other coffee shops, but no Sereneta. I saw what looked like a school named after Marie Curie but no Sereneta.

I was going bonkers. Twice in one day? I had a map for God’s sake! I was at the right street corner. I checked again and noticed that the address was on D Ngo Thoi Nhiem and the guidebook, in an entry for a nearby bar, mentioned an alley. I circled again. Nothing.

Forget it, I said. There are a few cafés around here. I’d take my coffee somewhere and be done with it. I parked mid-block in front of a non-Sereneta café next to the Marie Curie school. Just in case, I walked towards the school.

That’s when I found an alley. Fact: there was a large delivery truck parked in it so it looked like a driveway.

I’m just sayin’.

I walked to the back of the alley and found Sereneta. I plopped myself down under an umbrella and fan. Fortified with Lactaid, I went crazy and ordered my iced coffee with milk. You only live once.

Delicious. Even better than the day before. Richer even.

I ripped my way through the postcards. I felt totally bourgeois—sitting in a garden by a pond writing correspondence, sipping on iced office while a servant/waiter regularly refreshed my complimentary glass of green tea. I almost felt guilty. I’m going to have to do it again.

Note: when you write postcards make sure you leave room for the stamp otherwise you’ll have to do a lot of scribbling and rewriting. Just sayin’.

I headed back to Ha Vy for a nap. Driving around and eating food is lots of work.

After sunset I headed out to find Nam Ka, a restaurant that Lonely Planet describes as specializing in “aromatic Vietnamese flavors.” Quite pricey by local standards (average of $10+ per main), but I was in full on splurge mode. Budget be damned, full speed ahead!

The restaurant was supposed to be on D Mac Thi Buoi just off D Dong Khoi near a roundabout. From the hotel, we were talking three turns max. How hard could it be?

My gawd. First off I was driving at night, which was a new experience. Things literally appear out of nowhere. Pedestrians are like ghosts that randomly phase in and out of view. You’ll be plodding along mid-block and the ghost of Ho Chi Minh’s grandson will appear in the middle of your lane. The apparition slips out of your headlight, then disappears. Then it happens all over again. You are constantly on the verge of killing or being killed by something that you’ll never see coming. It’s sort of like playing badminton in the impact zone of a falling satellite. One second you’re happily diving for a shuttlecock, then BAM. Totally out of nowhere.

When you’re trying to foresee where unforeseeable death might come from it’s difficult to concentrate on reading street or restaurant signs.

Of course I circled the block a million times. Of course I didn’t find it. I went with my Sereneta philosophy and decided to park and hunt on foot. I dropped the motorbike off with one of the many motorbike valets in the neighborhood and walked up and down the block. Nothing. NOTHING.

I pulled out the map, checked and rechecked my location. NOTHING. I was in the right part of town, an area filled with high-end shops and hotels. I was near the roundabout. I just couldn’t find it.

When I finally broke down and called the restaurant I found out why—they no longer exist. The phone’s disconnected. At least that’s what I think the Vietnamese lady on the recording said. Who knows. Maybe she was telling me their new location. Doubt it.

So, let me save you some trouble. Nam Ka has gone out of business. Even if they haven’t, they’ve annoyed me enough that I say we should all boycott. I’m not bitter.

I settled on Hoa Tuc, a Vietnamese place that’s situated in a courtyard a few blocks away. I reparked the bike, then set off. I felt so self-righteous after my Nam Ka experience that I immediately got lost and couldn’t find the courtyard. Sometimes we have to relearn self-evident truths multiple times a day, I guess.

I found it. Eventually. I plopped down outdoors, ordered Vietnamese snapper with local peppers. Adequate, but disappointing. It managed to be both too dry and too moist. The meat was overdone while the skin and fat felt undercooked. A feat, but not a good one.

I did indulge my love of sugar cane juice. Delicious. It somehow felt too clean for my taste though. I much prefer the dirty stuff from the street hawkers.

For dessert I went with a sampler trio. The waiter rattled off their names but I can’t remember them all. Let’s just say they were good. One was a citrusy custard, one tasted like Filipino ginataan (a sweet tapioca stew concoction), and one had banana and coconut syrup. All delicious in their own ways.

I headed out of the Hoa Tuc courtyard and managed to relocate the KFC where I’d parked the bike. I may not be the finder of things that are obviously there, but at least I can find things that I’ve located before. Evidently, when fighting a war with your disabilities, you must take every little victory you can.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. bwana permalink
    May 13, 2010 9:15 pm

    you are missing your chance to be a journalist — they are shooting people in thailand.

    p.s. you are going to love Hanoi.

    • May 13, 2010 9:21 pm

      Yeah. I guess I’ll have to save getting shot for my next trip.

      I’m pretty sure I’ll totally be into Hanoi. So far, I’m a big fan of Vietnam.

      I’m actually thinking about going from China back through Vietnam and finishing off in Thailand, all so I can extend my time in my two favorite places in SEAsia.

      That means extending my trip by almost a month, but this is a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I’m a trooper.

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