Vietnam, Part 1: Om Nom Nom
I’ve been back from Vietnam for a week and a half now, but with the exception of a dribble of status updates and a changed profile picture (WATER BUFFALO!), my post-trip internet presence has been pretty anemic. It’s just that responsibilities backlog and strides are hard to hit, especially when you board a plane in Vietnam and disembark into a landscape that is LITERALLY lashed by the winds of Siberia. As HCB would say, it’s Seoul cold right now.
The problem is that, with so many stories from Vietnam, it’s kind of hard to decide where to start. For the first week, we kept things easy, only hitting two southern destinations, Ho Chi Minh and Phu Quoc, but for the second week, HCB was left to find his way home to Seoul, while I traveled north to visit Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa. Not having a better organizing principle, I suppose chronology will do.
Before I jump into the story though, I have to just say one thing: Ho Chi Minh was not the highlight of the trip. It was interesting and the food was great, but in ten years I won’t still be thinking about Ho Chi Minh in the way I will for some of the other places I’ve been. That said, two activities from my time in HCM were clear winners: eating barbequed shrimp at Ben Thanh Market and exploring the Cu Chi tunnels. Let’s start with the shrimp because what’s the purpose of a travel blog if not to make your friends hungry?
In the center of Ho Chi Minh, a large, open warehouse houses Ben Thanh Market, a riot of fruit stands and coffee vendors and gritty lunch counters.
It’s a total tourist trap, but not in an objectionable way. If you practice defensive shopping, you can make it through the market without buying an armful of overpriced tchotchkes; however, if you can’t dash through the throng fast enough—either because you’re too nice to flatly ignore everyone who speaks to you or because you’re not as light on your feet as you used to be—you will end up with a t-shirt that says, “Phở Real,” an overripe durian fruit and $350 worth of weasel poop coffee. It’s just how it goes. While the day market is the place to go if your cornucopia needs restocking (FRUIT!!!), it’s the night market that drew me back again and again. The warehouse shuts down at about 6 o’clock, but by 7, restaurants and vendors have set up tents in the streets around the market. This is where the life changing shrimp happened.
You guys, we have to talk about the shrimp for a second. The shrimp were, no exaggeration, the best shrimp I have ever eaten in my entire life. Ever. They were huge and the meet was sweet and juicy beyond my wildest imaginings. The sauce they were coated in pitted salt against sweet against spice in a Battle Royale of deliciousness, if Battle Royale had been about people getting along and working together rather than killing each other. In my previous, narrower life, I hated peeling my own shrimp. There was just something too animalistic about picking the exo-skelton off a bug and popping it in your mouth. Only when peeling shrimp did the vegetarian’s creed resonate with me: I don’t eat anything with eyes. Thankfully, living in Asia has disabused me of such finickiness. Through these shrimp, I finally saw the real crime of eating the pre-peeled variety: not only does the shell keep the shrimp tender and moist, but when cooked over a real fire, it chars and blackens, suffusing the meat with an exquisite smokiness.
I’m usually all about experimentation, but having been given so small a window in which to enjoy this, the pinnacle of seafood, I ignored the rest of Ho Chi Minh’s culinary culture, opting instead to eat my shrimpy friends every night. And it was so worth it, you guys. I can’t even explain. The best I can do is hint at how good they were:
Because Ho Chi Minh was our hub city for this trip, we spent more time here than the city itself perhaps warranted—five nights, across two weeks—so in total, I ate the shrimp five times. At the beginning of each of these meals, I told myself, “David, remember, don’t just dive in. Take a photo to show everyone back home. Take a photo, David. Don’t just horf down the whole plate.”
These were the last three shrimp from my last order on the last day. Which is a shame because the complete dish was gorgeous: nine skewered shrimp, shining and black, stacked over aromatic herbs and served with Vietnam’s ubiquitous chili salt and fresh lime wedges. I admit it: with my hands covered in oil and chili flakes and tamarind paste and shrimp-shell fleckum, I half assed this attempt at photojournalism. But that’s just an indication of how good these shrimp were! They appeared on the table and all higher brain function ceased, consumed by a slavering, growling need. WANT TO EAT. And, eat I did. Over and over again.
So, yeah, those shrimp were pretty good. And, oh, did I mention they cost about $6.50? I know, right?!? Vietnam is unreal, you guys.