Back in California when I was looking for tips about Saigon on the internet, I found a small tour company that hires students as guides. One of their itineraries is a dining tour in which a guide takes you to great hole-in-the-wall restaurants tourists never find and/or are too intimidated to visit on their own. I booked this tour for our first night.
Our guide was Van, a 21-year-old economics student whom my father and I liked immediately. She was funny and irreverent and sweet and asked as many questions as she answered. In the picture she was trying to demonstrate the proper way to eat a dish of rice paste and eggs, but started to giggle too much.
She took us to five restaurants where we ate sticky rice and pork tongue (my favorite),
noodles with beef broth, vermicelli noodles with grilled sugarcane pork, fried rice paste with eggs, shrimp cakes, and rice custard. By the end, we could barely walk. The food was staggeringly delicious.
We ate most of these dishes squatting on tiny stools at tiny tables in rooms open to the wet, teeming sidewalk. Was I nervous about hygiene and our delicate American stomachs? OH YES. And still am. It was an imprudent adventure, but very exciting.
Some interchanges with Van:
Van: Jennifer, do you smack your kids when they are bad?
Tipsy: Not very often, Van. Did your mother smack you when you were bad?
Van: (giggling) Oh yes, she had a great big pole. She hit me until I cry and cry when I was bad. In Vietnam, yes.
Van: This is the pregnant woman hospital.
Tipsy: Ah! So this is where women have babies.
Van: Yes! And (taps her belly matter-of-factly) abortion. (She smiles cheerfully.)
Van: How do you feel with everyone staring at you?
Tipsy: Are people staring at us?
Van: Oh yes. In Vietnam everyone stare at foreigners because of how different they look. They maybe pretend they're not, but . . (She shoots an intense, sidelong glance to show how we are being furtively observed.)
She was wonderful.
She also told us about:
-weasel coffee. Weasels eat the coffee beans, poop them out, and the poop is used to brew coffee. I thought she was joking, but no.
-"baby eggs" (a.k.a. balut) which she calls by their Vietnamese name -- trung vit lon. These are embryonic ducks still in the shell and they are considered a great delicacy. She offered to take me to eat one ("they're very good before the duckling get too big, before you can see the fur,") but it was late in the evening and I was just too stuffed. Really.