Recon

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008, 8:59 am

On our second day in Saigon we rode out to a plantation in the Mekong Delta for a tour. Afterwards most of the group pressed on deeper in the Mekong to visit a school the Friends of Danang had helped build a few years ago, but Noreen and I had planned long before to return to the city and spend some time there. Kelda joined us on the ride back to Saigon–her husband Duane hadn’t been feeling well and stayed behind that day, so the plan was for the four of us to have dinner somewhere that night and grab a drink after.

On paper that plan succeeded. In reality it was a bit more complicated. First of all, we had to drive back to Saigon, which meant driving back through the Saigonese rush hour. I posted a link to this picture but I’m gonna repost it here because it still blows my mind:

On the drive back we passed a guy who had a cage balanced on the back seat of his motorbike. Inside were three good-sized dogs, curled up together and tongues wagging as they zipped by. And no, they don’t eat dogs over there. At least not in Saigon. More of a northern thing, if at all. Another time I saw a guy on a motorbike with a full-sized refrigerator, still in the box, lashed to the back of his bike. He was popping a wheelie as he puttered down the street at around 5mph. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Another quick pic:

Even our driver was muttering about all the lunatics swarming around on motorbikes. Except that the people over there aren’t lunatics. Everyone just does their thing, goes their own way, yields when they have to and hits the gas when they see an opening. People drive up on the sidewalks. They drive the wrong way down six-lane highways. It soon felt completely normal when our drivers would veer across the double-yellow line to pass someone. A couple of times we went all the way across the road to pass someone who was already driving the wrong way to pass someone else. I wondered what it takes to get a traffic ticket in Saigon. Run over the Pope? Nah, you’d probably get away with just a warning. Run over the Pope…then back over him again? Yeah, for that you’d get written up.

But everyone seemed to be an expert pilot. As we drove through the throng I never saw stressed-out faces. True, many of those faces were covered with surgical masks (both to guard against pollution and to keep the sun off) but road rage usually reveals itself in the eyes. Nor did I see anyone with a terrified death-grip on the handlebars. I would’ve been crapping a milkshake if I’d been riding around in rush hour traffic–everyone I saw seemed blasé. What I couldn’t figure out is how you learn to drive in Saigon. It’s not like there’s a lot of open road to get your feet wet. Maybe you just get on the bike and hope for the best, like the first time you try your luck on a 90-meter ski jump. "Hope this goes OK," you say as the speed starts to build.

Anyway. We got back to the hotel, cleaned up, and headed to a restaurant Thanh recommended. It was just around the corner, and it’s name (13) was, I think, also it’s address. Because it was just down the street from a joint called "19". It was a little place, maybe a half-dozen tables, and a few seconds after taking our seat the waiter arrived.

Here began our troubles. Kelda is Vietnamese, but she left when she was little and so doesn’t speak the language. The waiter (and most Vietnamese she encountered) assumed she DID speak the language. So I think the waiter was a bit confused when she wasn’t able to communicate with him, because he just stood there, waiting for us to order. Thing is, he only gave us 2 menus, and as in most restaurants we visited it was as thick as a Saigonese phone book. We managed to give him our drink orders (Tiger! Coke!), but instead of following millenia of waiterly tradition he didn’t leave to get our drinks. He just stood there, pen pressed to his pad, waiting for us to order our food. The ladies flipped through the menus as fast as could be as Duane and I tried, in vain, to explain to our waiter that he could go bring our drinks (I was DYIN’ for a beer) while we figured out what we wanted to eat. But he was determined to fulfill our wishes as soon as they became clear and so he stood there for a good five minutes. I ordered the roasted chicken, because it was the first thing I saw on the menu that I recognized. He wrote down our order and quickly decamped to the kitchen.

A few minutes later (service in Vietnam is, shall we say, leisurely) I was sipping a Tiger beer and all was right with the world. My roasted chicken, when it arrived, was chunks of chicken in a brown sauce I couldn’t identify. It wasn’t the last time I ordered something only to find that the dish placed before me bore little resemblance to it’s description, but who cares? Not me. I just wanted to eat, the food tasted fine, and a second Tiger had me ready to forgive far greater offenses to my delicate sensibilities.

Afterwards we walked up the road to the Rex, another of the old-time hotels from colonial days. We figured we’d go up to their rooftop bar, have a drink or two, call it a night. We passed the Hotel Continental, where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American and which, presumably, serves some of the best Italian food in Saigon:

The sign above the entrance says "Ristorante Venezia", hence the Italian crack. Actually, the breakfasts at the hotels we stayed at always offered a wide range of sliced meats. Salami, cappicola…I don’t think the prosciutto at the Majestic would’ve passed BG’s muster, but the smoked mackerel was pretty good.

To get to the Rex we had to cross a square with the Continental on one corner and this shopping complex on another. What with the lights and traffic (and the beer) my head was swiveling left and right, up and down:

The Rex seemed even more foreigner-focused than the Majestic. We took the elevator to the roof and found ourselves in perhaps the most imposing fern bar in Southeast Asia:

If we needed any additional proof that this place was a cushy tourist trap we got it when a gang of Euros who’d eaten dinner at the same restaurant we had showed up. We waved, they waved, and as we sipped our drinks the band started up again. There were two guys playing acoustic guitar (the one was really, really good) and a dude on drums. They were Vietnamese (or maybe Filipino–I was sitting pretty far away) and they were all wearing serapes and sombreros. Of course they were. At one point a lovely young woman joined them and sang "Top of the World" by the Carpenters. I shook my head and looked at my beer, wondering if someone had dosed it with LSD, when a gentleman in a vanilla suit stood up and the guitarists started playing the intro to a song I’ve heard a few hundred times. Noreen shot some video: 

Somehow I don’t think we added to our knowledge of Vietnamese culture by having drinks at the Rex. Though it did reinforce the fact that folks in Asia really seem to love over-the-top music from the Seventies. This would not be our only encounter with the Carpenters, nor our first sonic visit to the Hotel California.

By this time it was late, we were tired, and already I felt like I was coming down with the respiratory problem that would flatten me the following day (and plagues me even now). We left the Rex, turned right, and after a 15-minutes saunter found ourselves back at the Majestic. This free and easy walk led me to believe that it’d be no problem heading to the Rex by myself the next day, to visit their foreigners-only casino. My overconfidence would cost me dear come to morn.

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One Response to “Recon”

  1. Darx Says:

    I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the next installment 🙂

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