Food Rules

  • Our delicious soup consisting of squid, shrimp, vegetables, noodles and pinapple from “The Lunch Lady.”
  • A meal in for the evening (a hamburger from the local bakery, bubble tea and instant noodles).
  • These are the types of alleys where the restaurants we typically go to are found.
  • The bakery across the street from our guest house. The owner speaks English and gives us little tips about living in Sai Gon when we visit, which for me is every day.
  • Justin tries to eat the duck egg-fetus.
  • A buffet we had in Cambodia with every type of Asian food imaginable.
  • “Hot pot” a type of do-it-yourself stew where you choose what ingredients you want from an array of goat meat, intestine, okra, greens and noodles.

Today is the first time I had a really unfortunate experience with food. I was feeling cocky and went to a random restaurant in the alley near our guest house alone. I ordered, or at least thought I ordered, a bowl of rice and chicken, but I what I received was a bowl of porridge with various cow entrails, dried blood and a mysterious black meat. I politely ate at the rice porridge but really could not do the intestine. The waiter at the restaurant seemed confused as to why, but I did not stick around to explain and quickly went to my favorite coffee shop down the street to get something to wash down the unpleasantness.

Food has definitely been a constant theme throughout my travels through Sai Gon, Viet Nam and larger Indo-China, but it is almost always more positive than it has been today. (Two of my friends in the program also thought today would be a good day to try hard boiled duck fetus and chicken feet.)

Obviously, the prevalence of food makes sense. You need to eat no matter where you are, but the past two months have been more than making sure I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. In the States, I never really think about eating. I usually eat at my home. I know what I like and occasionally I will get creative and invite other people over, but for the most part it’s nothing fancy. It’s usually wheat-based, with lots of vegetables, and some milk or bean protein.

Here, this rather simplistic prescription has been turned completely on its head. I do not have access to a kitchen. (My home is more a hotel room than an apartment.) I had no idea what I liked when I first got here and I still don’t really know what most things are called. Finding foods that are good and that I enjoy is not some horrible struggle, but it is definitely something that I have to think of constantly.

Most days I will spend about $7 or 140,000 dong on food. This consists of a breakfast of bahn mi (bread) with eggs, cucumber and pork, a lunch of rice or noodles, a dinner of the same, and two to three cups of coffee throughout the day. I have found that, at least living with our roommates, it is hard to get away from noodle soups. Of course, there is pho, but there are also a whole assortment of similar tasting soups that have slightly differing styles of noodles. Each dish the Vietnamese assert are completely different from one another, but to most Americans I think they would seem, at the very least, closely related.

When we do succeed in escaping the noodle soups, a daily trial on my part, there are fried noodles (which I particularly like), simple rice dishes with beef, chicken or fish, spring roles, Vietnamese egg pancakes (which are nothing like American ones) and fried snails with rice crackers (another personal favorite). No matter what the dish, a healthy helping of various greens, many we would never think to eat in the West, are served along with fish sauce, limes and chilis. Pork and beef are by far the most common meats, but fish and chicken are close seconds. Meat is pretty much in everything so good luck trying to be a vegetarian here. I once ordered rice and tofu and it had a beef meatball hidden in it.

Another reason food is such a prevalent part of my trip so far is that it is everywhere. You would be hard pressed to find a street that doesn’t have at least one vendor, usually a woman, selling fruit, noodles or drinks. (That’s another thing, the fruit smoothies are amazing here.) These informal food merchants sell such a variety of quality, cheap snacks it is impossible not to try a whole host of new things. My favorite food outing to one of these folks has been to  “The Lunch Lady”, a small pho stand on the boarder between District One and the Binh Thanh District that has become internationally famous after a visit by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Despite being nearly impossible to find in the back of a winding alley, the small shop was packed with backpackers and tourists in the little red plastic stools that are so ubiquitous in Saigon.

Food is a powerful force in Viet Nam. Meals are often humble but served with much more meaning that in the States. The act of eating plays a central role in most religious holidays and ceremonies and thousands of people in Ho Chi Minh City make a living off of preparing their grandparents secret recipes for pho, bun, bahn and my for their neighbors.   Personally, I think I’ve felt the most connected to Vietnamese culture while sharing food with both our new friends from here and my fellow Loyolans.

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A Place Called Home?

  • A typical larger Sai Gon apartment building.
  • Graffiti on the side of the cafe that I usually visit.
  • The students at Smile Group.
  • An old colonial home next to more modern buildings.

If there are any avid readers out there, I have to apologize for the large gap in posts. It has nearly been three weeks! But do not fret! I have not abandoned the blog!

The past few weeks have been that point in my experience between novelty and this second emerging part where I attempt to figure out a regular schedule in a place that is now familiar but not quite home. Since Cambodia, I have started to fill my days with some weekly activities; however, this calm is not going to last long since March is filled with trips and visits. Overall, I have a routine but the fact that this than pho is so different still takes a lot out of me everyday. It is definitely no Chicago or Saint Paul and I imagine it would take years to fully adjust to life here. One of my professor’s has been here off and on for 15 years and even he described still having “why moments”, where you just ask why things have to be so difficult.

Part of the reason I haven’t been writing as much is that I actually have a somewhat full week now! Besides class, which I have Monday through Wednesday, I also go to yoga on Monday evenings, a recreational expatriate dodgeball league on Wednesday nights, and my service learning placement on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Yoga is taught by Elisabeth, the woman who helps manage my service learning site. I have only gone once so far but I have thoroughly enjoyed the relaxing, yet physically demanding sessions. Elisabeth is very talented at the traditional style in which she was trained. By the end of the semester I hope to be able to do a meditative headstand, which is apparently very good for you because it allows the blood in your body to flow in the opposite direction for a while.

The dodgeball league is called Sai Gon Dodgeball and it is organized by a group of British and American citizens living in Viet Nam. Everyone pays a small fee to play, the money going to the renting of a court, and the games usually go on for a good two hours. The people there every week are fun and welcoming for the most part. (A few of the guys have an alpha complex and put way too much into what is usually a children’s game.) Lately, the group has been attracting a good mix of expats and their Vietnamese friends. All of the Loyola students have been encouraging their roommates to come and it has been pretty hilarious teaching our friends how to play the game, of which they know nothing about.

Finally, I have my service-learning placement for the semester. I asked to and was given the opportunity to work with Smile Group, an NGO that serves as a community center for children and young adult affected by HIV/AIDS in Sai Gon. Elisabeth and some other committed volunteers work to keep up a small house in the middle of District Three for their clients to come play games, take lessons and eat meals together. I just started last week but I am looking forward to helping out with their valuable mission. You can read more about Smile and the service-learning process in this section of my blog.

It is simultaneously a relief and strange that being here is starting to make sense. I no longer am startled by the traffic, sites and smells of this large, ever-moving city. In fact, some of the aspects of living here are even wearing on me a bit. It’s hard to constantly have to fight past bikes, carts, chairs, tables, and other people on the sidewalk and the temperature increases a bit every day.

Also, it’s been difficult to negotiate with some of the cultural paradigms we are working with in class, especially my gender studies course. There are wonderful aspects of being a family-oriented society, but it can also create situations that seem impossible for individuals who do not quite fit. Learning about how potentially abusive age and gender hierarchies are has made me very appreciative of my cultures’ strong emphasis on the individual perspective; but, then I return to all the problems American society has because of that very perspective. Somewhere between the Vietnamese tendency towards fatalism and the blind American belief in the power of specific men and women, there is a healthy balance. I am just still trying to figure out where it lies.