1) Take a hard left semi-U-turn out of my house and you're headed down an alley just wide enough for you and a passing motorbike – well, okay, a lot of passing motorbikes – and then it's down home where the real people live. A friend of mine has said that Vietnam is the only country where you have to watch out for getting run over by a restaurant! And in this tight little alley that is indeed the case, because it is in these tiny alleys that the ladies prepare all the food that will end up on the street vendors carts that travel the main streets. It is also where people these people live and you can see them just three feet away from you, feet propped up on the sofa, shirtless men and shoeless women watching TV or operating their computers. I am always a little self conscious in these areas and try not to look as if I am peering into their privacy, but I have to admit, I am curious. Curious about all sorts of things. 2) Why do they decorate their houses the way they do? The Buddha shrines, with flashing Christmas lights way low on the floor next to the steep wooden staircases – the pictures mounted much higher on the walls than would be a conventional eye level – the multitude of what seem to be more Christmas decorations hung in all the oddest places – and of course pictures of babies or recent graduates in gowns or Jesus or Mary. 3) And out front of the shirtless man watching TV will be a small cart of electrical fittings – light bulbs, plugs, wires, fuses and whatnot along with maybe flour or instant noodles that you can buy from his wife – all that stuff on one cart mind you. 4) And I walk through the maze, twisting and turning my way past the Temple and the kids playing 20 year-old massive video games in a tiny room just big enough for four machines as I survey foods I would never see on the main streets. Oh, noodles (Pho) for sure, but other stuff – pickled, what look to be brainy innards of unknown mammals and other things coated in flour and deep fried to obscure whatever the original food was that is now inside. 5) Then boom. The alley spills out onto one of the busiest streets in my neighborhood, Tran Hung Dao Street, and my appetite is confused. Did I really want to try any of that stuff I saw, knowing full well that nobody will be able to speak enough English to explain to me what it was? Maybe not. But I like fried food. 6) Tran Hung Dao is now the center of one of the largest excavations Saigon has ever seen. A combination of installing the air vents for Line 1 of the new subway system and a citywide drainage project have caused the middle of what would normally be a fairly wide boulevard to be a tall green-sheeted-steel construction site forcing all the motorbikes onto the sidewalk during rush hour and most other hours of the day. Bad place to be a pedestrian. 7) I pull a yellow post-it note from my breast shirt pocket and look at the address – 219 Tran Hung Dao – but it's not my handwriting. And I have no idea what this post-it was doing in the pile of papers I cleaned up in my office today. The mysteries here never cease. Time to track down 219. 219 I surmise, is on the other side of the street in that, that seems to be where all the odd numbers are – but that might not always be the case. Sometimes odd and even numbers change at street corners, and never does a 214 on one side find a corresponding 215 on the other side. That could be blocks away. I have no idea why. In Korea, building numbers designate when the building was built, not it's placement on the street – so it would be perfectly normal to find a 217 next to a 712, because 712 was built many years later on the lot that possibly used to be 219, but not probably. But this is Vietnam and not Korea so I'm sure there's some ancient Confucian logic as to why it's fucked up differently than it would be fucked up in another Confucian society. Check the Anelects for the answer. 8) I know a woman here who will not cross the street. Seriously – she will have the cab driver go a full city block down and u-turn to get her directly in front of an address instead of braving traffic and saving a few dong to do so. Because she was hit once by a motorbike and quite seriously injured – broken leg and all – some hospital time she tells me. But I'm a trooper – and I've installed eyes on all four sides of my head. I used to be a lot better looking before the extra eye implants, but now I look better. 9) And it's not just bikes one needs to look out for – it's buses, two guys carrying sheet-glass or large mirror panels on a Honda, guys carrying beer on a Honda, or a refrigerator, three wheeled motorbike dump-trucks, cyclo drivers and the odd bicyclist, or a whole lot of bicyclists and cops. It's "Frogger" for grown-ups. Quite the trip. 10) 219 turns out to be an air-conditioning shop with some other electrical appliances, water heaters and such. I have no idea what that address was doing in my possession. Doesn't make any sense. 11) Most people have no idea what it's like to see a whole city just shedding it's skin daily and rebuilding itself – better, faster, shiny-er. Absolutely no city in the US has ever gone through this sort of a transition – at least not in modern times – and certainly not at this speed. I am just awash in the construction of new buildings at every glance. Addresses for many places are just positively worthless because it's a fairly good bet, if it was an old building, that it's not there anymore. 12) Inflation in Vietnam is being charted at 20% this year, but you won't find the local papers reporting that much. They say 10% – but that's as much BS as the government can shovel and everyone, certainly the Viets, knows it. That's one of the miracles of Communism. People know most of the info is BS and just go about their business anyway. They had 300% inflation in the late 80s so 20% doesn't look so bad today. 13) Back on the same side of the street I started on, I decide it's time for a little stroll, past some of the new car showrooms on Tran Hung Dao when I find the gem – no, not a Bentley this time, but a Jaguar XJ Vanden Plas. This car retails in the US for an MSRP of around $95,000 with tax differing between states but as the Vietnamese salesman happily explains to me – in perfect English, of course – that he can put me behind the wheel for a cool $230,000 I am just amazed. What a bargain. That's almost 1/2 what the Bentley would have set me back – with the 83% Luxury excise tax included! "Wrap it up", I tell him. "My wife will call you with the Amex number". 14) Geeziz. 15) Now I'm ready to eat some of whatever they were selling on alley #1. I double back and find myself strangely happy again to be back in the midst of normal people. Or at least as normal as they get around here. Any of these rice or Pho ladies could easily sell her three-storey flat for a million dollars as a teardown and buy that Jag with money to spare for the kid's education and a nice suburban home in the States. But she won't today. Today she will sell me a mysterious fried delight! To my surprise the elder of the two ladies, and I mean elder like 80, speaks perfect English. "Banana", she says, "Do you want banana?", she repeats. "No, I don't like banana", I tell her – "What's this one over here?" And that's where we hit the language barrier. Whatever it was, didn't have a name I might understand, and she knew that. But it looked good anyway and only cost 2000 dong, about 12 cents, so I took a bag. One of the things you learn around here is to always take a bite and smile, no matter what you are eating, even if it tastes like utter crap. But this was good. A little crispy spicy fried outside with a bit of a sweet soft chewey center, it was a bit like a Cajun Fry with a surprise inside. Charming actually. "Good?", she queried. "Yes, good!", I told her. An 80 year old grin spread from ear to ear and her daughter, the sixty-something one, nodded in approval. I'm sure they both had learned how to feed a GI or two in the old days. 16) Next up, a real dinner. Just a few steps down another lady had a wok in which she was deep frying something that appeared to be shrimp toast. A baguette split, layered with shrimp, shell on of course, and dipped in a very light rice flour batter and then fried over a little camp stove. I ordered two. They came with a sauce of dark soy paste (Hoysen in the US) mixed with a jelly-like chili squirt and a few ground fresh chilis for the lion-hearted to drive it all home. Stir, serve & dip. Man, these suckers were good. Had I ever been raised a suthun' boy these damn things woulda' made Mama proud. Delicious. – I thanked my hosts and moved along. 17) No day like this would be complete without a walk in the park so I ventured back out the alley from which I had started and made the two-block walk to the big city park nearby. Here I saw what looked like the largest stage I had ever seen erected and the set design, still in progress, resembling a cardboard mountain of sorts, with dancers and singers rehearsing for a director who sat atop a motorbike in the parking lot and barked instructions through a wireless microphone at the performers. And I can tell you, he was less than pleased with two of the girl singers. They were cute as hell but honestly couldn't have sung their way out of paper bags and he knew it. I suspect they knew it too but are probably models or sitcom celebrities and have a little too much princess disease to ever be completely cured – that's what backing tracks and lip-sync are for. But on this particular day, they were doing the vocals live against backing tracks and the director was going to get what he wanted, or at least closer to it. He made them do it again. And they sucked even more. NEXT! 18) The next three girls had excellent voices and could really sing but seemed a bit rusty on their blocking and minimal choreography. That what backup dancers are for. The director hurried them off and a large dance group appeared for a whole routine against music. Flag waving and Busby Berkeley kind of stuff. 19) But throughout this whole time, I had a great need to figure out what all this song and dance was going to be about. I didn't see any pictures of Uncle Ho around and it didn't seem to follow the stock government script of love, war, death, rebirth, nationalistic fury and Communist victory. No, this would be about something else entirely different, or at least, staged radically differently. In looking at the site I noticed banners with the moniker EVN 2008 hanging from all the trees. The four men in the poster stood cover-boy handsomely against a backdrop of what appeared to be, Mount Everest. It would be a trip back home and a few hours later before I would have the answer for sure. It looked like a mountain climbing show, but that doesn't make a great deal of sense in Vietnam now does it? Memories of the Jamaican Bobsled Team come to mind. 20) My walk home was punctuated only by the buying of cigarettes and an event that's become all too common and sad in Vietnam – a motorbike cowboy heist. The target is always the same, an unsuspecting tourist, and the bounty, a cel-phone, iPod or camera not attached to the tourist's neck. The routine works like this: Two guys on a bike circle a street corner, seemingly doing nothing and scout out their mark. Then when he or she is trying to cross the aforementioned chaotic street, they whiz buy and snatch the item. I saw this one almost peripherally and was more concerned about being run over by the heisters before I understood it was a robbery. There was nothing I could do. These are the infamous Vietnam motorbike cowboys and they rule the Wild Wild East on the iron horse than has come to be known as the Honda, Yamaha, or Suzuki. God pray when they start importing Harleys around here. With the Bentley, Hummer and Jaguar already running the rails, that can't be far behind. 21) Home would bring me to the end of this post and this walk. Two hours to do the walking and now a little over two hours to do the writing. 22) So
what does EVN 2008 mean? It means that Vietnamese National Television (VTV) has actually produced a reality show where the contestants have had to climb Mount Everest. I shit you not. The damn thing has taken four or five months and I can tell you that this has not been about eating bugs or dangling from perfectly safe stunt mechanisms over swimming pools. These guys have trained on Kinabalu and Kilmanjaro and have now finished Everest. Take that Mark Burnett! The TV show and stage I witnessed are for the homecoming finale in June. 23) Unfarkingbelievable. I took a walk in the park today and the Vietnamese scaled Everest. Did I mention that nothing much else happened in Vietnam today?
For more in the "Nothing much happened" series, check below:
VIII People Are Just Dieing To Get Out of Here
VII The Hair Job
VI Happy New Year! Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!
V The Vietnam sNews
IV At The Center of Miss Universe
III My Walk in the Park Today
II The Stevie Wonder Post
I Ear Cleaning