Half Naked In Ho Chi Minh
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks teaching at a Homestay in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). I sleep in a room with some of the students and other teachers. There’s around 30 students and 7 teachers. The other teachers are backpackers roughly my age including: a Maori couple from New Zealand, a solo travelling Czech guy, a ethnically Vietnamese/culturally Norwegian girl, among others. All the students are wonderful and eager to learn, every night they take us out to delicious local food hidden in cramped alleyways that I would’ve never even walked by had I been alone. It’s also a beautiful thing not having to stumble through interactions of broken Khmer and charades anymore, since the students just do the ordering for me. Vietnamese is not an easy language to pick up general phrases due to its tonal nature. Misplacing a tone can be the difference between being asking for a coffee and not being understood at all, or worse.
The food here is crazy good, I haven’t had anything bad yet and I’m starting to wonder if there's gonna be any losers. Most nights the students cook traditional food for dinner. Generally, it’s a generous buffet served family style consisting of dishes ranging from chicken curry and baguettes to fried pork belly with braised bittermelon to Goi Cuon: pork/prawn spring rolls wrapped in rice paper with fresh mint, rice noodles, cucumber and served with a chili fish sauce. Of course I’ve also had my fair share of noodle soups, one of the students took me to eat a beef soup similar to Pho called Bun Bo. It's amazing, I think I actually prefer it over Pho now, I've been shown the light. The soups here are so clear. When I get a clear soup back home I immediately expect some bland Minestrone-ass tasting shit. Not the case here. The soups are nearly translucent but packed with deep and complex layers of flavor.
But most remarkable meal I've had here was a crab place one of the students took all the teachers to in District 5. When we arrived he told us it would be 300,000 Dong per large crab which we balked at (which is only like $13 but when you've been eating huge meals for $2 it's easy to get spoiled). It was prepared simply, flash fried in a super hot wok with pork fat, garlic and some other stuff that I wish I knew the details of and served with baguettes. Upon trying the sauce I was told my someone else that I exclaimed, "Oh my god". I don't really remember, it was like I blacked out. I just remember eating this sweet, salty sauce that crept into every nook and cranny of the crab. The table was pretty much silent except for the occasional exclamation of eyes rolling back disbelief at how good the crab was. When I woke from my crab induced stupor, covered in savory sauce, I couldn't help but feel something akin to a post-coital shame. It was a good crab.
Then there’s the coffee. Here in Vietnam coffee is built on a foundation of condensed milk over which is poured a healthy dose of strong, high quality espresso. Other takes include egg coffee where egg yolks are beaten with sugar, milk and coffee to create a thick custard which is poured over espresso. The result is an extremely rich almost tiramisu like coffee.
The students here are all adults. Though a couple of them are unemployed, dedicating themselves to learning English exclusively, most of them work office jobs and run side hustles. Thus the house is a rotating door of people coming in for hour long classes during their lunch break. Everyone is super friendly and eager to learn about English and different cultures. Although I feel a little bad because the school brings in a lot of travelers with no teaching experience (like myself) so I get the feeling that a lot of the classes devolve into “Talk to White People for an Hour” hour. I’ve made a concerted effort to have lessons of substance that actually teach them something.
I’m in a district where there are virtually no tourists so we get a lot of stares. I’ve also found that the Vietnamese are more likely to openly stare and point at foreigners compared to the Cambodians. It also doesn’t help that our main posse consists of myself at 6’2, the Samoan/Maori guy also at 6’2 and the huge Czech dude at 6’10, I literally haven’t seen anyone here that even comes close. Seating at restaurants here mostly consist of small, plastic stools no taller than a foot off the ground, and most places aren’t equipped to handle a sudden torrent of 20+ people so we’re often crammed into close quarters. Our gangly limbs constantly fight and nudge for elbow space as we eat in a frog-like squat position. I can see how that could be a sight to behold, so maybe some pointing and jeering is appropriate.
One weekend we went to a water park… it was a trip.
Ho Chi Minh is huge.
There’s 13 million people in the greater metropolitan area.
It was a Saturday.
The water park was busy like a Japanese subway.
Everyone is half naked.
We’re freakishly tall foreigners.
All eyes were on us.
Everyone gave us long, wide eyed stares. The bold approached and opened with an aghast, “wow so tall!” Some asked for pictures with our Czech giant (we’ll call him Karen), some reached out their hands for an awkward caress of our shoulders and backs. Which led to a number of loud exclamations from Karen along the lines of, “I feel uncomfortable right now guys.”
Eventually we found a less populated pool that had a nice view of a zipline ride where we could watch people faceplant into the water. As we lounged in the pool we noticed that the locals would slowly crowd around us until a lifeguard would shout something Vietnamese into a megaphone that would cause all the locals to retreat. At the time we didn’t give it too much thought, although the girl from New Zealand joked that they were being told not to “feed the foreigners”.
That joke later turned out to be true when we told the story to one of the students. The lifeguards apparently have to tell locals to settle down and give foreigners space on the regs.
I'm here for another 2 weeks so I'll probably do a-whole-nother post for the latter half of the stay. This visa cycle I'm staying in the South, next time will be North and Central Vietnam. Definitely want to get up to Hanoi and those spectacular limestone walls.