Christmas Day, Saigon 2019.
A motorbike would have been easier. But we’d not yet figured out how to grab a bike for the two of us, so we went by car. To a neighbourhood district north of the city centre. Streets like strips of ribbon, flexing and turning. Bikes beeping behind us. Those that could not wait, over-taking on the inside, as the driver tried to pour the cab around a corner. ‘Do they have a death wish?’ I wondered, but they didn’t bat even an eyelid. The driver stayed calm. A man raised himself slowly from his pavement deck-chair, and helped him negotiate a food cart, with a few slow languid gestures. We were the only ones stressing. We offered to walk the short distance to our destination. The driver shook his head. His only slightly vigorous movement.
We reached the street. Alighted. A family, eating dinner on the pavement outside their home, gaped. ‘Xin chào’, we said, and they smiled. We spotted number 146/59, its doors open to the street; shoes spilling from the outside step. A young man invited us in, telling us to sit. He indicated a hard, wooden, heavily-carved settee placed immediately inside the door. A place to see and be seen. A young girl served cold tea, tumbling over ice cubes it splashed into glasses with a clatter. ‘It’s sugar cane and corn, and all sorts of vegetables’, the young man told us, with an air that conveyed he cared not what vegetables. He talked. His English was good. He was a barista, he said, with a passion for his job. ‘My parents don’t like it. They want me to be a teacher or an engineer. They want me to earn money’. We were joined by his sister and cousin, young, pretty and shy, they watched us, eyes wide open. ‘We’re doing this so they can practice their English’, Me* told us. ‘But they only tell me they don’t know what to say’, he laughed. Their aunt/mum was busy in the kitchen. She never spoke to us, and appeared only to put plates on the table and clear dishes.
I tried to get the girls to talk. Henne, seventeen and fresh-faced, was still at school. She leaves the house around 06.30, studies till 11.00, and then goes back again in the afternoon. Some students have extra lessons in the evening. ‘School in Vietnam is tough’, Me told us. Van was about to start at university, to study graphic design. She asked if we liked pets. Henne and Me had had a dog, but eventually had to give it away, as everyone was out all day, from early morning to early evening. ‘I cried every day’, Henne told me.
We were called to the round table, decked with a blue cloth, small bowls, chopsticks and plates heaped with greens. Sheets of rice paper appeared. They held theirs deftly in the palm of their hand, we had to lay ours flat on the tablecloth while we moistened it by tracing a wet green leaf lightly over it’s surface. Laden with bean-sprouts, noodles, shrimp and pork, we tucked in the edges and folded. Not quick enough. Our rice paper stuck to the cloth a little, and our rolls were skinny, misshapen efforts. But when Henne stuffed a roll too full, and her filling burst through it’s rice skin, we all laughed. Even the experts get it wrong sometimes.
Mum, a school teacher, sporting a golden yellow ao dai, arrived home and joined us at the table. Amongst other things she taught cooking. ‘My aunt also teaches cooking’, Me said. They were two of nine siblings. Me and Henne had only each other. ‘Different times’, said Me with an air of wisdom that only a twenty-year-old could muster. I asked him about the altar on the floor. Two gods sitting sagely side by side. ‘They think it brings luck’, he said. I assumed ‘they’ were his parents.
Two plates of fish appeared. A fresh-water river-crab soup. Lady’s fingers laced with garlic. Long strips of aubergine, soft and smoky. Mum reduced the aubergine strips to manageable bite-sized portions with chopsticks and then placed portions in our bowls. Me doled out steamed rice from a large plastic tub at his side. Mum added fish to our bowls. They were a double act working in tandem, with a joint purpose, to get us to eat as much as possible. ‘Please eat more rice, we have so much rice’, said Me. ‘Normally we eat one meat dish, one vegetable dish and rice’, Me told us, ‘but today we wanted to give you a taste of several different things’.
All dishes were shared, everyone dipped their chopsticks into everything, everyone laughed and talked. Bursts of Vietnamese amongst the family, Me translating for us. Until we could eat no more.
Red pomelo fruit was bought to the table and while auntie cleared the dishes we moved back to the ornamental sofa and sipped on miniscule cups of warm tea. Still trying to fatten us up, they offered us fruit to take away. Our ‘Oh no, we really couldn’t.’ exclamations fading into the dark night, as we slipped on our shoes and made our way back through the alleys, to return to District 1.
I booked our dinner via https://www.eatingsaigon.com/
Cost $24 p.p. Transport cost to the home of the host is not covered and needs to be arranged independently.
* I am positive I have not spelled the names of any of our young hosts correctly. Apologies to them!