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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thai Girls (Welcome to the Jungle!)

Ever get the feeling that you are missing out on life, and that somewhere far away people are having the fun which should, rightfully, be yours? This was the suspicion which tormented me one steamy day last month in the vicinity of Khao San Road, Bangkok (the City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, Magnificent City of the Nine Gems), at the start of my latest Oriental adventure. I had just made it down to the Kingdom for the first time in six years, en route to episode three of tropical love in Vietnam. Tropical love with Thai girls wasn't even on my agenda for the three-day layover, I was more interested in finding a Drum'n'Bass club, and some cool places to hang out. The sky had been all torrid and theatrical as my Royal Thai Airways jetliner tore across Cambodia on the journey south, many of the clouds outside looking like elephants (some of them rearing). Underneath, rivers and rice paddies gave way to urban sprawl, then presently we were skidding into Suvarnabhumi Airport, me marveling at the futuristic terminals, the futuristic control tower, the El Al plane on the tarmac next to us a testament to the popularity of this place with Israeli tourists (French and Russians go to Vietnam, Israelis and Swedes go to Thailand -- that has been my observation these past 269 obsessive days.) I helped some English girls out in the queue for Immigration, then got hassled by a hustler as I looked for the public bus to Phra Nakhon (พระนคร) district, where I was hoping to stay. Eventually found the bus though it wasn't much cheaper than the taxi the tout was endorsing, and a lot slower. Up on board, the soundsystem was tuned into Thai radio: some kind of manic, repetitive percussive acoustic house music with a Rock edge, and the DJ's jibber-jabbering all over the top: jibber-jabber, jibber-jibber-jabber, jibber-jibber-jabber-jibber-jabber. Each song stretched for like 30 minutes. There were heaps of Australian girls convened up the back shrieking and talking loudly about their periods and other vulgar matters, dropping the "f" bomb liberally. They reminded me, poignantly, of why I fear moving home to Australia to live, despite all my recent bouts of loneliness in Japan. Aussies just have no class. Even though this was my first landing at Suvarnabhumi, cruising downtown was very much a trip down Memory Lane and I amazed myself with how much I actually knew the city, knew the landmarks -- for example the impressive Democracy Monument, the beautiful Grand Palace a vision from a dream. Elephant motifs and stupas were all over the place, this being Thailand of course! I couldn't wait to hit the pavement, find a hotel, and then dive headlong into the pub and club scene!

Elephant motifs adorn this stupa, near the MBK department store in Bangkok (Thailand, 2008) 
In my dream life I wouldn't be shackled to one place and job as I am now, but would be free to circulate the globe, circumnavigate the world endlessly, like a satellite following an eccentric orbit, forever cutting against the grain. It turns out I am not the only one with elite expat dreams (of delusion, of grandeur, or illusions of grandeur?). Global Nanpa out of Germany writes:

Think about it, I am convinced that my life is much better than that of the often cited Playboy Hugh Hefner for example. I didn't realize in the past years how important health and age is, but it does matter a lot, more even than money. US college girl blondines are not my taste anyway. Sounds arrogant but I can have more girls than him, paid AND for free. Nanpa makes it possible. I also don't have to pop any pills before the magic happens LOL. My honest ratio for paid/unpaid female companionship on my recent trips was around 75% paid, 25% for free. I plan to hold it like this for the next decade, turning now 30 years-old end of September. The freebies in retroperspective were actually often the more painful memories, that's why I try to keep a balanced ratio : I don't want to inflict too much emotional pain on others and on myself. Like regular readers know, I have the idea of finding the true girl-friend experience (GFE) during my trips.
This life is so much better than being a real celebrity, because you don't have to deal with the negative side effects like getting watched carefully by the public all the time and not being able to walk around freely in public places anymore. I would never trade my life with anyone. Once your skills, looks and budget reach a certain level, you can literally live the ultimate dream life in Asia. Trust me, it's good...
Along with Nanpa, Stickman and the guy they call Mango Sauce, I will always be beguiled by Bangkok because it hosts so many happening scenes here. As Nanpa attests, Bangkok is like a miniature version of the world with everything you might need crammed inside it. To take one example: Bangkok has to my mind become the London of the East with its own Drum'n'Bass nights, resident DJ's, bars, crazy clubs -- I dig all that and I am also into Thai music as well, all the macho Thai hard metal. That shit rocks! It is a cheap place to stay (I can find adequate lodgings for under $20 a night), the food is awesome, and there are tonnes of colorful temples to be enjoyed if that is your thing. Bangkok is centrally located -- there is easy access to Ho Chi Minh City, Yangon, Kathmandu, Guangzhou, Calcutta, Jakarta, Medan, all of these places exotic as f+ck and only an hour or two plane-ride away. On top of that it is a great place to pick up  budget tickets. While you are waiting for your visa to come through you can kick back with a cold Singha or Chang, watch some videos, and poke your fork into a plate of pad thai. And there are, of course, the girls. Millions, millions of beautiful, cute, sexy girls. All waiting for a piece of you! All waiting, perchance, for a piece of me!

Wat Chana Songkhram Rachawora Mahawiharn, near Khao San Road, Bangkok (Thailand, 2008)
Of course Bangkok has long had a reputation as a city of sin and on previous trips I have spotted plenty of frightening farang with the local lasses, sweaty overweight German dudes and tattooed British hooligans with their unlikely looking dates, eating noodles at MBK or climbing out of a tuk-tuk, or whatever. You watch these couples sauntering down the sois and think to yourself: Yeah right (to use the Australian vernacular)... as if! The Asian girlfriend experience is a big business, but it has never appealed to me, at least in its cruder forms. If you have to pay for it it is not a real conquest, in my opinion -- these girls you are purchasing are just like those hidden divers in Imperial China whose job it was to secretly latch fish on to the Emperor's hook, while the Emperor was out fishing. It is self delusional and a wank to think this is "real", and although some men might need the physical relief, I can go without it if necessary. For me, the idea that you could get it if the circumstances were more favorable is often more tantalizing than the actual getting of it, if you understand my reasoning. So, I am not interested in going to girly bars, hiring escorts, or getting a massage (even though my New Zealand bud Maniac High Dennis the Menace threatened to bitch slap me if I didn't get laid this trip.) I'm sorry Dennis -- I didn't get laid while I was in Thailand, but I wasn't in Thailand to get laid, I was more on a recon kind of mish, and in any case I am pretty well taken at the moment thank you very much, comfortably committed to my love in Vietnam! I was just biding my time this trip, and scoping the scene, more as an observer than an actual participant, to see the kind of potential this place offers me if I ever (touch wood) turn single again. And one of the first things I observed, after hitting the pavement on Khao San Road, was the number of hot young Thai girls with (wait for it)... normal young Western guys! The kind of guys who could get a girlfriend in their own country, if they so desired. I'd never noticed this phenomenon in the past, and it surprised me. What were these Western guys doing in Thailand? I wondered. Did they have a job here or something? The girls they were with were well fit, indeed... many of them looked like fashion models. It rubbed me somewhat, and it set me thinking: why do I slave my days away with a maniac landlord/boss in Tokyo, chanting to the gohonzon, singing on the telephone, saving my pennies for an occasional episode of tropical love in Vietnam? why am I doing all that when I could be here in the Land of Smiles, here in the City of Angels, living the dream on a daily basis, with a whole harem of hotties? Of course, there are plenty of model quality girls in Japan, but you don't often see the ultra-hot ones dating foreigners, and you certainly don't see them dating me. A full harem has always eluded me. Was I living in the wrong country, living the wrong life entirely? I asked myself. Envy arose in my soul like a poison, and impure thoughts clouded my mind. If I could have just talked to Nga on the phone, then my d(a)emons might have been kept at bay, for one night at least. But she never answers the phone, and she was also all quiet on the email front. Once again I was all on my own, to ride out the storm.

Khao San Road, Bangkok's original golden mile, in Banglamphu (Thailand, 2008)

Bangkok's original Golden Mile and backpacker Mecca, Khao San Road, has a happening party scene rammed with folk from all corners of the map. Whenever I stay here, I am pretty much guaranteed to have an adventure every time I step out of my hotel. The place swarms with freaks, of all colors and creeds. In recent years the street has also developed a seriously credible nightlife scene and last month, after a long absence, I had the chance to check it out in person, in the flesh. Within 10 minutes of leaving my hotel midway down the Golden Mile I was handed a flyer promising Drum'n'Bass and other pleasures at the Immortal Bar, just up the road. (The joint, located on the second floor of the Bayon Building (website: MySpace site here), apparently also does a pretty mean heavy metal show, although I never got the chance to witness that). You can play pool inside, or you can sit out on the balcony drinking Red Bull and vodka combinations, watching lightning lick the skies. Inside the bar, basslines thunder like a summer tempest. I sank my Red Bull and vodkas, and then a couple of Tiger beers. Apart from the music, there wasn't particularly much going on, so I eventually headed out for a while, ostensibly to explore the surrounding streets, or cross the river in the dark, I can't quite remember which. As it turns out, I didn't make it past the gates of Khao San Road. I stopped off down at the police station end, the site of my first landing in Bangkok in 1992, at an Israeli style falafel stand. Waiting for my turn, a black African man introduced himself to me. He said he was from The Sudan. He bought me a falafel, vegetarian as far as I recall, brimming with Middle Eastern textures and flavor. There were a couple of Israeli guys (former soldiers, no doubt) loitering nearby, enjoying the monsoon. I asked the black African guy what he was doing in Thailand. I didn't quite get his reply, but I think he said that business had forced him to stay in Bangkok a couple of weeks, and that he had spent every night of his stay at Khao San Road. Which kind of implied that he liked it here, but then he started confusing me, by denouncing the scene. "I don't agree with all this drinking," he said, nodding to the heaving, staggering masses, all the alcohol adverts hanging from the shophouse façades. "I don't agree with this materialism, this rudeness, all this sex. You see, the Prophet laid out guidelines of how to live, instructions for how to live. Since it was God who created us, it is only natural, that God should give us the instructions on how to use our physical vehicles. That is something you never got in the Bible, and that is something the Jews never understood either! The Qur'an is a user manual for the human being."

Mobile food court moves through the heaving masses (Thailand, 2008)
The scene around us was a hubbub -- a constant coming and going of backpackers, taxis and delivery trucks snaking their way through the scrum, locals looking for an international experience, ladies pushing carts stacked with fried chicken and noodles and corn on the cob. There were peddlers from the highlands hawking hammocks strung together from synthetic fibers, or stroking wooden frogs with small batons to make compellingly froglike croaks. One of the Israeli guys at the stand glared at us, having overheard the reference to the Qur'an. "People in the west are so materialistic now," the African was saying. "They have lost touch with the important things in life, such as following God's commandments."

"Have you ever drunk alcohol?" I asked him.

"Never, not once. Liquor has never so much as even passed my lips."

Sometime later the subject of September 11 came up, and the Muslim boldly proclaimed: "That was an inside job carried out by Jews and Americans." It should be remembered we were standing at an Israeli falafel stand at the time, and there were former Israeli soldiers turned backpackers loitering nearby, doubtless some of them with combat experience. I was in no mood to make enemies or get into a fight, so I decided it was time to ditch this extremist. Which was kind of good timing, because he wanted to go back to his hotel anyway. He escorted me as far as the Bayon Building, where I resumed my sinful indulgences. I never got to take my night walk along the river, past the old embankments, out of the Old City. Nonetheless, it is always nice to meet someone from a farflung corner of the world... that happens a lot when I am Khao San Road. It is one neat place to hang out.

God willing, there is always something going on at the Immortal Bar (Thailand, 2008)
The next night I was back at the Immortal Bar drinking and enjoying a chaotic set when I met this Thai girl who called herself Far 2 Juicy (her real name being Phar I believe.) She was sitting on a couch with this young, blond English guy. "It is not as if he is my boyfriend or anything," she claimed at one point, but judging by the way they went home together, he most probably was. At least until something better came along, I suspected. She seemed to have eyes for me though, and once again it made me think that if I hung out more often in Bangkok in the future, I could get plenty of action here. Just a pity that I am already taken! I consoled myself. When I woke up in the morning (which was a Sunday), I was amazed to find her email address (far2_Juicy@hotmail) in my jeans' pocket, scribbled on a used paper plate. I was so drunk, I must have totally forgot that she gave me that!

I showered, shaved, gulped a quick coffee at the restaurant downstairs, and then raced over to an Internet cafe on Soi Rambuttri, just past the Wat Chana Songkhram Rachawora Mahawiharn. Excitement gripped me, and devious fantasies played themselves out in my mind: imagine having two girlfriends in south-east Asia, a girl in every port! That's how we Immortals play it, the south-East Asian style! I seated myself at a terminal, ordered a Coke or possibly a fruit juice, and opened GMail on the browser. There was a short message from N. waiting in my inbox, promising to pick me up at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City the following day after I arrived there (my flight was scheduled for Monday.) It made me feel a little hesitant about the stunt I was about to pull off, just a wee bit guilty. But I had to have something to take home to Dennis the Menace: if not the actual booty, at least the promise of booty soon to come! There was nothing wrong with just sending Phar an email, after all (even though it was "just an email" that led to my whole long distance relationship with N.!) So, I punched out an epistle to her on the keyboard, not exactly Mystery magnitude, but as seductive as I could manage with a hangover on a hot day: 
Hello this is Rob I met you at the bar at the Bayon Center on Khao San Road last night.
Thanks for giving me your email address.
I was drunk last night and forgot that you had given me your address until this morning.
Then when I saw it I remembered what happened.
Did you have a good time last night?
I will be going to Khao San Road again tonight, probably to the same places I went to last night.
I am leaving Thailand tomorrow morning but I hope to be back many times in the future.
So, I hope to see you again someday.
I pushed send, and the mail flew off to meet its destiny. GMail defaulted back to its inbox folder, and I noticed right at the top, an item newly minted, manifested from the ether, titled: "Delivery Status Notification (Failure)". My heart skipped a beat as I absorbed this news. Failure? That didn't sound good, that didn't sound good at all! I clicked on the item to open it, just to make sure, and the message which appeared on my sceen made grim reading indeed:
This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification
Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:
Technical details of permanent failure:
Google tried to deliver your message, but it was rejected by the recipient domain. We recommend contacting the other email provider for further information about the cause of this error. The error that the other server returned was: 550 550 Requested action not taken: mailbox unavailable (state 14).
I slumped back and took a long sip of my Coke, perplexed. Had Phar given me the wrong email? I wondered. Had she written it down incorrectly? Was it all just a game? was she merely messing with my mind? (Actually, I was later to find out that Hotmail sometimes block emails from GMail for security reasons, so it was probably just a technical problem.) I studied her scrawl anew on the paper plate she had given me, which was still encrusted with pizza remains we evidently must have scoffed together at the pub. Her address sure looked like "far2_juicy" to me, and I had to concede it was a cool handle. If that wasn't her email address, then it most certainly should have been. So what else was up? Maybe it's just my connection that's bad? I reasoned. Maybe it's just a little hiccup with this decrepit computer! I cut and paste my original message, which was now scrambled with all the junk at the bottom of the delivery failure notification, and crafted a brand new email, free of clutter. And then I pressed send. GMail defaulted back to its inbox folder, and I noticed a new item sitting at the top, freshly minted, titled: "Delivery Status Notification (Failure)". Right on top of the previous rebuff that I had received, from the System.

It seemed like I was caught in a loop going round and round, with no way out. Time for a different approach, I figured. I cast another critical look at the address on my paper plate, just to make sure I had typed it in right. I've learnt that in Thai script the character which looks like an "s" (ร), for example, is actually an "r", so you have to be careful around here with false similarities. Phar's email address was written in English, of course, but it was entirely possible that the "r" in "far" was actually an "n", according to the logic of her penmanship. That meant her email address wasn't far2_Juicy@hotmail at all, it was fan2_Juicy@hotmail! Hooray! I'd read it wrong! I reloaded a new email scavenged from the detritus of the old, and fired it away, optimistically, at fan2_Juicy@hotmail. And then I defaulted back to the inbox screen, to see if the email had gone through. It hadn't, in fact, and now I had three rejection letters in a row, sitting at the top of my folder. Return to sender.

I spent the next hour at the Internet cafe, trying every variation on the email address Phar had given me, on that folded-up paper plate. I tried them all:,,,,, Even, even though the address on the plate clearly started with an "f". Every single time, the email bounced back at me, leaving a failure notification in my inbox. Before too long, my folder was full of failure notifications. It began to make me feel, well, something of a failure. I just thought that this lead was so promising, that I couldn't just give it up. But there is only so long you can beat a dead horse, before the flailed, mutilated carcass starts to gross you out. At some point, I reached my gross out point. I looked at all those fail notifications, and decided that I had done enough. It was time to admit defeat, and move on. I had a fish on the line, but now that fish was gone. In any case it didn't really matter, because I already had a girlfriend. So I started walking, right out the door, and I didn't stop walking for a couple of hours at least.

I even managed to cross that bridge over the Phadung Krung Kasem (คลองผดุงกรุงเกษม), which actually has a kind of sentimental importance to me. It was on this bridge, leaving the Old City in the year 2000, that I shook off the bout of homesickness and ennui which had plagued me since I uprooted myself from my workaday life in Australia, and commenced my ceaseless wanderings. Crossing the bridge a second time, I felt like I was completing a cosmic loop. Out of nowhere my resolution rose, and I decided, defiantly: There's no way I am going back to Australia to live, no way at all. This Asian Affair has only just begun! The endless journey will go on. I kept on walking, right up to the National Library, near the banks of the Chao Phraya River. There was a computer room in there with free Internet, and I made use of it, but I refrained from sending another email to Phar. That obsession was history, I just had to let it die. I sent a message to N. instead, letting her know how much I missed her. And then went out again, one last time, to all the pubs and clubs of Khao San Road that I could find. I only got four hours sleep, before it was time to rush out to Suvarnabhumi, and board my bird for Vietnam.

The next afternoon I was lying in bed at the City Star in Ho Chi Minh City, trying to shake off a wicked hangover. There was glorious sunshine outside, and Nga was pottering round the room in some regal white number, it might even have been an áo dài. We were due to return to the airport in a few hours to pick up my parents, and she was apparently getting nervous. Lying back in bed with the cool air-con blowing, Vietnamese soap operas on TV, I felt the cares of my life starting to drop away. The entire Far 2 Juicy malarkey suddenly seemed desperate and tawdry. What could have possessed me at act that way? I wondered. How could I have contemplated cheating on my girl?

Let's blame it on Bangkok, I thought to myself, and nodded off to sleep.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Autumn in Harajuku (When Topman Came to Tokes)

Clear autumn sunshine always takes me back to my first morning in Japan, November 11 2000, when I arrived at Shibuya Station all baffled and dishevelled and with literally nothing but the shirt on my back. My luggage had gone awol at Singapore's Changi Airport, and I had only a T-shirt to protect myself from the northern chill, which was steadily coming on. I walked up to Yoyogi Park looking for the youth hostel, only to find it closed. I had more luck, however, locating plenty of gorgeous garments in the greater Shibuya/Harajuku area, including a jacket appropriate for the seasonal clime. Since that time I have accumulated several layers of Harajuku clothes, and on top of that, an even thicker layer of Harajuku memories, some of the most poignant of them dating from autumn -- there is something about the crisp blue skies which really bring out the beauty of this place. Blue skies and marauding crows -- that is my image of Harajuku in autumn. Heaving crowds and steam puffing from the surrounding buildings. Venerable old ichou ginkgo trees, threatening to turn yellow. Cute girls wherever you look. Guys that could almost be girls, if they tried a little harder.

One girl holding two bags, and two girls holding hands, on one of the many promising backstreets of Harajuku (Japan, 2006)
At the end of 2006 I spent a classic series of afternoons wandering around the sunny streets, ripped thanks to my mate Maniac High (aka Dennis the Menace), taking photographs of the shops, chilling in the park, and checking out all the cute girls holding hands. That was about the era that this Shibuya shopping guide thing here came of age, and it reached its apogee in the Lesbian Christmas of Shinjuku 2 Chome (and celebrity shopping with my cousin Kel!) Since then, a lot has happened in my life, and Harajuku hasn't featured so prominently in my life. It has always been there of course, I am often there, but I have taken it for granted, and ignored it. It has become a place I pass through, on my way to other goals. I understood the potential that was there, but I had my sights set on juicier targets -- for example getting to my love in Vietnam, or making money from Adsense. Yesterday, after finishing my 9000 Yen per hour job near Harajuku Station, I walked down the famous Takeshita Avenue heading to Parco Department Store in Shibuya (to see about my debt), and found myself reveling in the amazing sun and generally Indian summer weather. I thought to myself: My god, it has been a long time I have been inspired to write about Harajuku... nearly two years! I wish I could find inspiration again, because there is so much to write about it here, all around me!

Topshop, by Topman, due to open in Harajuku on October 16 (Japan, 2008)
At that moment some lady belled me to get out of the way of her bicycle, and I looked up to see a huge white building on the other side of the road, with a sign proclaiming: TOPMAN. I hadn't realized it before, but Topman (Topshop) had made it to Japan. In fact, it is part of the legendary La Foret complex! But then again, everything makes it to Japan eventually, everything but The Simpsons of course. (They do like Columbo though, and The Sopranos. Japan introduced me to these shows.)

Love Girls Market branch, on the mighty Meiji Dori, near Harajuku (Japan, 2008)
On my side of the street, which I believe was the mighty Meiji Dori (明治道り), I photographed the quaint shop pictured above, called Love Girls Market / Green Tribe. This is a branch of the Love Girls Market franchise, which presents a fusion of fashion heavily influenced by ethnic styles, and has stores in Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Fukuoka, Sendai and Sapporo, as well as Hong Kong. You learn so much, encounter so much, just by walking through the streets of Harajuku early on a Tuesday morning! I ought to do it more often. I ought to appreciate it more often.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Meat on a Stick, and Food Stalls Near the Democracy Monument (Bangkok, Thailand)

Go to any convenience store in Bangkok and you will find them: small skewered sausages posing on the counter with the Slush puppies and other synthetic junk, gleaming brown and burgundy in their intestinal cases. I have never munched one of these mystery meat Wieners in Thailand, partly because they aren't exotic enough to warrant the time, money and stomach space, and partly because I am worried about getting sick. To put it blunt, Bangkok doesn't seem the place to be eating sausages... it seems a bit cheesy, a little bit too porky, and I'd feel a little bit too much like Homer Simpson on vacation! That said, I do enjoy stopping off regularly at the many convenience stores in this city whenever I am walking crosstown, to cool off and top up on Red Bull, my tonic of choice in the Kingdom, or hopefully to get into a conversation with any of the young female staff working there! But back to the meat: it turns out you can eat these little skewered sausages out on the street too, although again I have never actually done so. I did enjoy some squid on a stick on my last trip to Bangkok though, at food stalls right near the Democracy Monument (อนุสาวรีย์ประชาธิปไตย), on Thanon Ratchadamnoen Klang. The squid came in a takeaway plastic bag dripping with fiery sauce, and set me back 15฿. There was a Bollywood movie being filmed at the Monument at the time, filling the air with sweet and pungent Indian sounds. I noted to myself how Indian in fact the Democracy Monument looked, with its beds of vivid flowers (I could see why it would make a good backdrop for a Bollywood romance scene.)

Squid for 15 Baht a stick, and sausages on the street outside McDonald's, near the Democracy Monument (Thailand, 2008)

Wrote one Matthew Amster-Burton, back in the year 2000: "The typical Thai breakfast is rice porridge, but vendors offered plenty of atypical selections as well. One woman whose cart stood near the Democracy Monument on Thanon Ratchadamnoen Klang was pouring perfect silver-dollar, and smaller (1 baht?) pancakes onto a griddle. And one of the most beloved foods in Bangkok is ice cream. McDonald's offers a standard soft serve cone for 7B and Baskin-Robbins fights back with its "Teen Scoop", but the street vendors really get weird, piling three scoops of vanilla onto a hot dog bun and topping it with corn kernels or red bean paste. McDonalds, I should add, offers its pies in three flavors: pineapple, taro, and corn..."

Pineapple vendor near the Democracy Monument in central Bangkok
Fresh fruit always goes down a treat on hot summer days (Thailand, 2008)
For more street food Bangkok style hit kyspeaks, who declared after a long expedition grazing in Bangkok: "My favorite would be the bacon stick we had at the Chatuchak weekend market. For 20 baht (around RM2), you get mini sausages wrapped with bacon on a skewer. The union of sausage and bacon was a match made in heaven as the juice and slight saltiness from bacon compliments the texture and taste of the sausage oh so well. You have to try this if you manage to find the stall!"

As I said earlier, I have never eaten these Simpsonish sausages in Bangkok. The next time I am there, I might very well partake! You only live once, and there is no room for food snobbishness in this world!

Vietnamese Supermarkets

Ho Chi Minh City might be cheap as chips when it comes to eating out, but prices are rising (food is up about 40 per cent this year according to one report I read recently), and a lot of folk are doing it tough. Consequently, self catering has developed a certain appeal, and it makes sense for those staying a long time, or thinking of staying a long time. Lonely Planet recommends grabbing a loaf of bread and stuffing it with white Vietnamese cheese and whatever else you can pick up at the market; Crowded World Vagabondic tells you there are plenty more self-catering options than that. If you want cost effectiveness and quality, take a stroll through one of the many supermarkets opening up in the city. We might consider them soulless and barren bastions of corporate greed in the west, but supermarkets pack a novelty punch in Vietnam (to the Vietnamese at least), and enjoy a department store style snob status. I think my girlfriend N. likes to go to the local supermarket just to check out what is on special, have a look around, and soak up the vibe. It is a place to hang out, to see and be seen, kind of like the classic American mall of the 1980s, circa Weird Science. Personally, while I loathe shopping at home, I have always been interested in checking out the supermarkets in foreign countries, just to see how they represent the culture. You can judge the taste and temperament of a people by the way they stock their supermarkets. In Spain, there are whole rows devoted to olives, and they take them seriously indeed. In Japan where I live at the moment, you can sometimes pick up a slab of whale, perfect for a steaming winter nabe, or at the end of the day find discount trays of sushi and sashimi, or crumbed chicken or octopus or squid, which sometime work as a filler between thick slices of bread (that combo does give you indigestion though.) Apart from that, there are always plenty of mushrooms and fish, soy sauce and sake... and grumpy old ladies pushing you out of the way. Icelandic supermarkets are sparse, warm and tasteful and sparse, big on bread, cheese and lamb, and numerous specimens from the deep. Go into a supermarket in London, and it is like all the culinary heritage of the world has been assembled under one roof. Moroccan sandwiches and Indian tandoori takeout and so on. I love all that shit!

Coop supermarket on Cong Quynh Street in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Frantic traffic at the intersection of  Bui Thi Xuan Street and Cong Quynh Street, Ho Chi Minh City, District 1 (Vietnam, 2008) 
So, how do the supermarkets in Vietnam stack up to those of Barcelona, Tokyo, Reykjavík and London? Well, like Vietnam in general, I find them noisy, crowded, and often chaotic. Wheels on trolleys buckle, causing you to lurch. Last time I went shopping in the state owned Co-op Mart at the end of my adopted street, Bùi Thị Xuân Street, on Cống Quỳnh Street in Saigon, I got followed round the aisles by a pervert. He stood in front of my girlfriend N. and gestured obscenely, squeezing the air with two hands to demonstrate what he would like to do with her breasts. Maybe he was a security guard for the supermarket... I heard they don't like foreigners in that place. And a foreign guy with a local girl, that must be their worst nightmare! Guys giving me the envious eye ought to understand that my life is nothing to be envied... I ought to be envying them. Sometimes relationships aren't they're all cracked up to be... sometimes I wish I was free to fly the coop, get out and do what I want to do, drink rice wine with the old dudes in the slums, or hang out with some girls.  But whatever... the odd pervert aside, I like hanging out at the Co-op Mart on Cống Quỳnh (which they call the Co-op Mart CQ for short), and I am always happy to see what they stock. Unlike the steamy markets outside, Vietnamese supermarkets are air conditioned, and you can take your time checking out the exhibits. Racks of durians looking like medieval torture implements. A vast array of odd fruits and vegetables, with an earthiness you can sense. No genetically modified, shrink wrapped produce here (apart from the mushrooms you see below!) No style over substance, no extravagant carbon mileage. But at the same time, no persistent touts or beggars either... just the odd weirdo or pervert. Furthermore, there is no need to bargain like you do out in the wet markets for a decent price. As this photo demonstrates, all the prices are fixed.

Fruit and veg stands
Fruit and veg, Saigon Style, inside the Co-op Mart on Cong Quynh Street (Vietnam, 2008)

In the bottom right corner of this photo you can see some Hồng Dòn, which I believe are a type of Vietnamese persimmon, going for 14,800 Dong (US$0.89) per kilo (if I can read the sign correctly). They don't look nothing like the persimmons I see every late autumn and early winter in Japan, so they must be the bitter persimmons (the ones you're supposed to eat green.) However, hồng supposedly means "red" or "pink" in Vietnamese, so go figure. In any case, Vietnam is a paradise for fruit and veg lovers, and you could make a decent meal, back in your hotel or apartment, out of some of specimens at the market. Many fruits are eaten with a salt and chilli dipping sauce which might seem like a strange accompaniment at first, but is "quite possibly addictive", as Lonely Planet concedes.

N. ascertains the freshness of this mystery fruit, at the CQ branch of the Co-op Supermarket (Vietnam, 2008)

This is another fruit or vegetable I find difficult to identify. Whatever it is, it is probably grown locally -- 95% of the merchandise on sale at Co-op is locally-made or locally-grown products, according to some report I read online. They are quite unlike the type of fruit and vegetables you would see in the West. No boring apples and oranges here! Well, actually there are apples and oranges, but they're in the minority, and they are probably as exotic to locals as the Hồng Dòn are to us

Fuji apples from Japan, wrapped up like gourmet melons in Tokyo, and what seem to be oranges (Vietnam, 2008)

For some reason, milk and dairy products are huge in Vietnam. Probably too huge, in my opinion. You can get free plates and knives and forks attached with cartons of powdered baby milk, which seems a little bit suspicious to me. It seems like aggressive marketing to me, like third world exploitation, the sort that Nestlé might indulge in. Green tea is also rising in popularity in the Land of the South Viets, and you will find gallons of it in the supermarket. Ditto for the local Vietnamese coffee... well, not quite gallons, maybe tons would be a better metric. It's all instant. Back to the tea: I don't know why, but the green tea here seems more yellow than green. For some reason it doesn't work well with me, but then maybe that is my fault. The instant coffee looks like instant coffee anywhere else in the world.

Nga in the coffee and milk goods section of local Coop Mart, a bundle of green tea flavored milk cartons in her trolley
N. with the Nescafe range, in our comfy Co-op (Vietnam, 2008)

On the topic of green tea, the venerable Thanh Nien Daily reports:

Green tea has been drunk in copious amounts by Vietnamese families at home and in restaurants for centuries.
But a recent boom in bottled green tea, made both locally and abroad, means that the traditional beverage is now competing with big names like Pepsi Cola and even bottled water.
Nga (eds. note: no relation to my girlfriend N. featured in this story), a convenience shop owner in a District 5 alley off An Duong Vuong Street, says she started selling bottled green tea – which is often sweetened with honey or sugar – when she noticed the beverages were selling like hotcakes at other local shops...

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