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Friday, March 9, 2007

I'm Back in 'Nam (and Man this Place Has Changed!)

Well, I am back in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam -- and after roaming the streets for a couple of hours this afternoon taking in the sites and sights, I have to proclaim: "Man, this place sure has changed, I don't even recognize it!" I had an amazing day which saw me shrug off my Tomomian gloom somewhere over the East China Sea, and then cure my fear of flying on my Vietnam Airlines bird, listening to cheesy pop. Over the past couple of years I have grown a little paranoid about air travel, even though I know how safe it is and all. Every time we hit turbulence on the way to Mumbai or Reykjavík on recent trips I have clutched the armrests stiffly, my heart pounding. It was kind of stupid, but that was how I was. It was a primal fear, irreconcilable to logic. Ever since I read that Naomi Campbell enjoyed flying because that was the only time she could really chill out, I have been keen to kick my paranoia. And it all ended today. In fact, I enjoyed the flight so much I wanted to stay up there in the sky all day, just "cloud surfing", as my old friend Matt Tumbers would have dubbed it. I had certainly hit the jackpot at Narita this morning by scoring a whole row of seats to myself, and this allowed me to slump lazily against the window shortly after takeoff and stretch out, bathed in warm sunshine (it's always sunny up there once you punch through the cloud cover!) It was all very comfortable and just like Naomi claimed, you do really feel removed from the problems of the world when you're at 30,000 feet. If I was rich and had my own jet I would spend my life just cruising the clouds, drinking champagne and dropping in at cool cities which I dig, following the party circuit -- but I guess if I did that people would brand me an enviroterrorist, and shun me. Whatever... it was a very pleasant flight and even when we hit a batch of turbulence over The Philippines I just shrugged it off, and sank back into soothing sleep.

Safe on the ground and looking for the bus, at Tan Son Nhat Airport, Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam, 2007)
But now I am back on the ground in Vietnam and after months of romantic strife in Japan, I find myself with a date lined up for the weekend (more about that later!) One of the first things which struck me as I deplaned (apart from the humidity of course), was the irrefutable evidence of how much Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) has changed over the past 10 years, since I was last here. When I first visited as a young innocent in 1995, this city was so primitive and crazy I hid like a mouse in my hotel for the first night, too scared to even venture outside. Whenever you dined at a restaurant in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker district back in those days, you would get mobbed by throngs of postcard salesmen/women/children, beggars, shoe-shiners and all kinds of scammers. You couldn't walk around the block without attracting a retinue of cyclo drivers and taxi touts, or be chased by a gang of streetkids, some of them wielding rocks. The cyclo drivers and taxi touts and assorted hawkers are still here of course and they are still out in force, but the difference is these days they take no for an answer. Unlike in the Vietnam of 1995 -- and unlike present day India. Tell them you don't want to go on their city tour/buy their postcards/get your shoes shined, and they will accept that -- they won't complain or abuse you or follow you around the rest of the day, attempting to pull off the long hustle. I like that. Perhaps that is a sign that Vietnam has become richer as a nation -- or perhaps the millions of backpackers and travelers who have shuffled through the place since 1995 have educated the Vietnamese on international street business etiquette. If someone wants or needs to buy something, they will buy it. Abusing the customer or stalking them around town all day (as what happened to me in India in 2005) never gets you the sale -- it only pisses everyone off. Surely I am not alone in thinking that!

The streets of Ho Chi Minh City are just as congested as they have always been, but they look a bit more upmarket these days (Vietnam, 2007)
Apart from the evolution in tout and street hustler behavior, the skyline of HCMC has also evolved -- upwards. Particularly in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker district and the downtown area, this city is starting to resemble a little Singapore. I have got a photo back in my bedroom in Japan of me drinking with a European woman (maybe Swiss) and an Asian-American guy in a bar at the corner of Phạm Ngũ Lão Street and Đề Thám Street in the middle of 1995, during my first timid tour of duty. That bar is gone -- it has been turned into a Japanese Lotteria hamburger restaurant. The yellow wall you can see in the background of that photo is also history -- it has been knocked down or whatever and replaced by a beautiful green park. On humid nights lovers and African guest workers can be seen frolicking in the park, hemmed in on both sides by streams of swarming motorbikes. What a cool place HCMC is becoming!

As soon as I had found a hotel in Phạm Ngũ Lão and had dropped my bags off there, I was keen to challenge Saigon's famous dining scene. I didn't have any particular destination in mind, I just started walking. The first place that caught my eye was the Trung Nguyên Cafe, situated on a busy intersection opposite the Van Canh restaurant (perhaps it was on the corner of Nguyễn Thái Học Street and Trần Hưng Đạo Avenue -- anyway, it was in that basic ballpark.) I ordered deep fried beef and a Tiger. I flirted with the cute waitress as she tried to squat a fly which kept bothering my food ("You're never going to catch it -- those flies have eyes in the backs of their heads!" I implored.) Nearby me, what looked to be a Singaporean family purveyed the extensive selection of Vietnamese coffee beans on display, in a glass cabinet as I recall.

Deep fried beef and a Tiger beer, at a Nguyen Trung Cafe in District 1 of HCMC (Vietnam, 2007)
I didn't know this at the time, but it turns out that Trung Nguyên Coffee is actually one of the big coffee companies in Vietnam, and that their cafe chain is Vietnam's answer to Starbucks! As Greenspun family has reported:
Capitalizing on an emerging, affluent middle-class and the simple attractions of aromatic coffee, 31-year-old entrepreneur Dang Le Nguyen Vu has successfully launched Vietnam's first nationwide franchise. 
Call it Starbucks, Vietnam-style. 
Over the past four years, Vu's chain of Trung Nguyen cafes has grown to more than 400 outlets in all of Vietnam's provinces, from the busy Ho Chi Minh City to rural of Sapa on the northern border. In Vietnamese, Trung Nguyen means "Central Highlands", an area famous for its coffee, and Vu now wants to spread the reputation of his coffee label well beyond Vietnam's borders. 
'I want to have the Vietnamese brand name of Trung Nguyen well known in the world. Our coffee is good. There's no reason we can't do it.."
I didn't know this at the time, but apparently Trung Nguyên Cafe is a good place to sample one of the best coffee brews in the world -- the notorious Vietnamese weasel shit coffee. Anyway, I really love Vietnamese coffee but I was scared of sampling the wares today, because strong caffeine tends to give me migraines. More about this disturbing handicap of mine later! The beef dish was great nonetheless and I hope to return to the cafe later, to see if I can get some of that weasel shit brew! And possibly even hit on the waitress, if she's there again!

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