It is easy to remember Vietnam for the war. After all, I came from a state that still uses American lenses to examine other countries most of the time. I grew up in a town where Vietnamese people sought refuge for more than a decade, starting in 1980.
As a kid, whenever I heard the word “Vietnamese”, I thought of helicopters, killing fields as portrayed in American films, and refugees. When I was in grade three, my school’s marching band played at the refugee camp because a politician was coming for a visit. I got so mad when one of my bandmates lent my melodica to a Vietnamese teenager.
My perspective changed as I grew older, of course. But I was turning 31. I owed myself some kind of education, if not redemption. I decided to spend my birthday weekend in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
A good friend advised me to have my tour at the Cu Chi Tunnels scheduled on Saturday. He believed it might ruin my celebratory mood if I’d go there on my birth anniversary. Good point.
Trang picked me up from the hotel at 9:00 in the morning. She got there a bit earlier but didn’t want to make me hurry. She waited patiently at the lobby until I went down. I feel a lump in my throat whenever I pass by the reception, where a sign says: “Prices exclusive of 10% VAT.” Value-added tax in Vietnam ranges from 0% to 10%. There. I just had to let that out.
Our first stop was HCM Villages, an organic farm that also offers cooking classes. It was about an hour away from the hotel, which was near the Tan Son Nhat Airport.
I told Trang that I wasn’t able to eat breakfast before the trip. We made a few stops along the road to the farm. First, to buy iced coffee from a mobile coffee store. Second, to eat pho. And lastly, to buy gas masks.
The trip to the organic farm served as an alternative to the educational tour I was supposed to join for my course at the University of the Philippines – Open University. While I was busy sniffing about ten kinds of (legit) herbs and picking up other ingredients for the cooking class with Chef Tan at Ho Chi Minh Villages, my classmates were going around Laguna for the required class trip.
The menu for the cooking class had banh mi with pork barbeque, honey chicken, barbeque eggplant and banana spring roll with coconut cream sauce. There were just two students in the class, myself and Quinn. Quinn has been practicing law in California for almost two decades. She’s now taking a break and visiting a few countries and every trip includes cooking lessons. That got me inspired: maybe all of my solo trips should include some culinary education as well. Let’s see.
After the cooking class, Trang brought me to a shop and showed me how rice paper is made. On our way to the tunnels, we stopped at a rubber tree plantation. It was a quick stop since the odor of the rubber is not good for the health.
At Cu Chi, I wondered how it feels to be an American citizen and see the documentary film and the writings there. But really, the Americans at the tour didn’t seem to mind. I thought of my great grandfather’s little monument at Capiz. The old man was an officer of the Katipunan. He remained loyal to Gat Andres Bonifacio to the very end, my lola used to say, and as a kid that made me feel courageous. In the tunnels, I saw how the Vietnamese fought. I thought of General Douglas MacArthur’s statue in Leyte and for some reason that made me feel less brave.
It was raining hard on our way back to the hotel. We wore raincoats and braved the Ho Chi Minh traffic and rain for less than an hour. Trang asked me a few times if I was all right. The whole trip back I was just worried that the two jars of tay ninh (or shrimp chili salt), which I bought earlier, would get soaked. Thank you, reliable backpack rain cover. We stopped somewhere near the hotel to buy slippers because my running shoes were already wet and I was a baby that way.
That evening I also got my ceremonial pre-birthday haircut. The good thing about having a haircut in a country where you don’t know the native language is that hair grows back anyway. I ended the day with a meal of hu tieu and banh mi.
The day began with a market tour. Chef Khang of Hoa Tuc Restaurant guided us around Ben Thanh Market, where we bought the ingredients for our lessons. That morning, I learned how to make (1) Saigon fried spring rolls, (2) chicken stew with basil, ginger and coconut sauce and (3) water spinach salad with dry prawns and quail eggs.
There were more students there compared to the class I attended the day before. But everyone was friendly, I didn’t mind the touristy feel. Also, Chef Khang was generous enough to teach me how to make the beef pho that wasn’t in the menu. He also gave me the recipe for that.
My, Hoa Tuc’s supervisor, offered me a ride on her motorbike and brought me to the Post Office after the class. I spent the rest of the day exploring the district, mostly the museums and galleries. I dropped by at Tara and Khys’ Gallery at Dong Du Street and got myself a print of one of Tara’s paintings.
One thing I noticed along the streets were the elevated trash containers. That would be useful along the streets in Manila, which usually gets flooded. Also, the garbage trucks have automatic bins where the collectors put trash bags. The bin moves and the bags are dropped into the middle part of the truck. All the garbage collection crew were wearing gas masks.
“Why am I watching garbage collection in another country on the night of my 31st birthday?” I asked myself. I walked on and bought souvenirs and a few spices from the shops. I also had a massage. If you’re a millionaire for one weekend, it helps to have your bills divided and organized. I had clips for four-,five- and six-digit bills.
Before going back to the hotel, I ate seafood pho and drank cafe sua da. The hours of walking made me feel entitled to a feast, but there’s a plane to catch before midnight. There was no time for more food tripping. I picked the nearest food stall. The cook and owner didn’t understand English, we had to resort to pointing to the menu, even for the payment.
In the ’80s, a storekeeper at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center taught me a Vietnamese term: choi oi. It’s a cuss word. I wish I tried to learn conversational Vietnamese before visiting the country. I wanted to tell the stall owner that the food and coffee were fantastic, but all I had at the tip of my tongue was a cuss word.