The tip of the tip of the iceberg; a handful of books that I would like to read over the next year or so. All depends on time, energy and availability. Be that as it may, here’s a short selection:
Guy Debord (1931 – 1994, France)
First up, the French artist and philosopher Debord who was part of the Situationist International (a group of intellectuals and artists) from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. His most famous work is from 1967, ‘Society of the Spectacle’ which analyses aspects of post-war society from a Marxist viewpoint (of course, the book is much more complex than that, but I want to keep this blog short and concise).
Ryszard Kapuściński (1932 – 2007, Poland)
A poet and journalist, Kapuściński was considered for a Noble Prize. ‘Another day of Life’ from 1976 is an account of the civil war in Angola.
Madeline Miller (Born 1978, USA)
I read the Classics at University, and still love the myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. ‘Circe’ from 2018, is regarded in some circles as one of the best books of the 2010 – 2020 decade, and has been described as a feminist retelling of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’.
Ruth Ozeki (Born 1956, USA)
I read about this book while searching for Post-Post-Modern fiction (i.e. who are the present-day equivalents of David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers et al). This novel sounds extremely interesting, telling the story of a teenage girl in Japan who keeps a diary which is eventually found by a Japanese-American writer in the USA, washed ashore in the aftermath of a tsunami.
Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936, Germany)
I did start this massive two-volume history of the world (published in 1918 & 1922) many years ago back in London, a short loan from the local library but wasn’t able to finish it in time. Maybe this is one for retirement; a comfy chair, some tea and no screaming students. Sounds like Paradise.
Ronald Sukenick (1932 – 2004, USA)
An author of whom I’ve only recently become aware, Sukenick began writing in the late 1960s, mixing cultural theory, fiction and metafiction. One review states that his writing was Post-Modernist before the term had been invented. ‘Up’, published in 1968 challenges or even rejects conventional fiction writing. If you like Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller & Vladimir Nabokov, this could be for you.
Coffee shops, as I drill into my students, are ubiquitous in Sai Gon, so cafes need something special to make them stand out, to encourage people to go there by choice, not merely out of convenience. One such cafe is:
Cà Phê Cô Ba
4-6 Đồng Khởi, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 700000
The cafe exudes an old-world charm, a romanticised exotic and mysterious Sai Gon. Dark-wood furniture, a twirling staircase, the aroma of fresh coffee; it requires but little imagination to picture the spirits of beautiful Vietnamese ladies in áo dài, amidst the heady scent of perfume and opium.
Enhancing the ambience, the main room has antique sewing machines along one wall, while the wooden shutters display the boy reporter Tintin on his (unofficial) visit to Viet Nam.
Furthermore, there is a back story. The cafe is named after Trần Ngọc Trà, born around 1906, and named ‘The First Beauty of Sai Gon.’
I’ve had to rely on some online translations, but it appears Ms Ba Trà was a great beauty who intoxicated powerful and wealthy men with her charm. Unfortunately, as her looks faded, she became addicted to gambling and ended her days in poverty.
The coffee is pretty average but the price is reasonable considering the central location. Incongruously, the cafe is situated inside a modern office block and is reached by lift. The sounds of modern Ho Chi Minh City, of people shouting into mobile phones, and advertising covering every space bring one back to the modern world.
Serendipity – I had to go into my bank, which had moved to a new location, and afterwards, driving around a famous ex-pat area of District 2, I discovered this:
I haven’t had a bagel since my last visit to London, way back in 2020, and that was factory produced, purchased from a supermarket, in a pack of six. There was nothing for it – I simply had to go in, get my coffee ‘n’ bagel fix.
I opted for the classic smoked salmon & cream cheese, along with ice coffee.
Motorbikes, coffee and bagels … a sign of changing Sai Gon.
Bagel with ‘everything’ (poppy seed, sesame, cheese). My bagel cost about £3, the BLT £2, coffee just over £1.
The verdict ? Well, delicious, of course, nostalgic, you betcha, but a bagel … ? No, not what we have back in east London (where there are still two all-night bagel bakeries). It was more like crusty bread, bagel-shaped, as opposed to the chewy, doughy texture I am used to (goes without saying that bacon and ham are not on the menu in Kosher delis).
However, I was delighted to find this store and though it’s a little far away, I’ll be happy to return.
Meanwhile, I noticed a New York Bagel store in District 1 … I shall try that in due course.
Quán Lúa: Address: 537/3 Đường Nguyễn Duy Trinh, Phường Bình Trưng Tây, Quận 2, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
I visited this restaurant back in December just before Christmas and, along with my trusty sidekick, sampled some of the fish dishes:
Prawns with onions and peanuts; the best dish.
Canh Chua Cá (Sour Fish Soup). I’m not such a fan of this Viet dish. It was average, nothing special.
Baked fish with sticky rice.
Gettin’ ready to tuck in …
The service was very friendly and, as you see, they didn’t object to my sidekick in the outside area. Cost was reasonable while I would rank the food thus: the prawns were delicious, the baked fish satisfactory and the rice well-flavoured. The soup looks colourful, it’s just not my cup of tea. To be fair, as I went early some of my first choices were not available. I really went as a break from home-cooking, and to support a local restaurant. I’ll leave the last word to my trusty sidekick:
“Wow … that’s so strong, but it’s got a ball of coconut ice-cream in the middle … whoah !”
And the young lady who I believe is Korean adds:
“I wanna try … This is the coffee king … ahhhhhhhh !”
The young travellers give their views on the environment and cleanliness of District 1 which is the city centre [UK] or downtown area [USA].
To what extent do you agree with them ?
What do Vietnamese students think of the Vlogger’s appraisal of Sai Gon ?
Let’s move on and talk about traffic which is quite a serious issue in Vietnam. Firstly, attending driving school … what can go wrong ? A clip from the world-famous motoring show from the BBC, ‘Top Gear.’
A compilation of videos about Viet Nam for use in class. Some clips are made by westerners, other by Vietnamese speaking English. The clips can be used for listening practice, learning vocabulary, pronunciation, or just to learn more about the country.
I agree totally // I agree to an extent // I’m not sure I totally agree // That has not been my experience // She is spot on ! // She is over-simplifying // There’s an element of truth in what she says // She’s talking nonsense !
A mouth-watering selection of local delicacies from street food to bakeries, small restaurants to city centre lunch bars … and a small trip to the beach for good measure.
I’m focusing mainly on food in my local area, Nguyen Duy Trinh Street in Quan (District 2):
Map of Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City). As you can see, District 2 is south-east. It is separated from the central District 1 by the Sai Gon river. The area is undergoing a lot of construction, with many new apartment blocks springing up, new restaurants and bars, as well as keeping the traditional shophouses and street food stalls. For a closer view of my area, here is a zoom – in of Nguyen Duy Trinh, the axis of our food tour.
Let’s kick off with a Mi Quang restaurant at 300 Nguyen Duy Trinh. The signature dish is a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, from central Vietnam. The small amount of soup differentiates it from the ubiquitous pho. Mi Quang comes with shrimp or meat, quail eggs and the usual side dishes of herbs, chilis and lime. Prices range from 35 000 to 45 000 VND (1.18UKP to 1.50 UKP / $1.51 to $1.94.
With or without meat. Accompanied by fresh vegetables and herbs, and crispy sesame rice crackers. Notice how thick the noodles are, while the broth is far less than one gets with pho.
And the obligatory condiments blend of fish sauce, dried chilis and chili sauce:
Now for a new bubble tea shop: Royal Tea at 242 Nguyen Duy Trinh. I loved this shop; I went after work, after teaching a great but energy-consuming young learners’ class. It was a typical, humid tropical day, but inside, quiet and peaceful. Soft background music, gentle and friendly staff. Drinks around 50 000 VND ( 1.68 UKP /$2.15). Again, Foody.VN have a review (you may need to hit the ‘translate’ button):
This will certainly be one of my haunts (a place I like to hang out). Now, If you’ve followed my blogs, you know I am a fan of the US TV series ‘Twin Peaks’. The police officers really appreciate damn fine coffee and doughnuts (UK) donuts (USA). So, next stop, moving east on Nguyen Duy Trinh, we come to a new bakery. Great for my donuts fix, terrible for my calorie intake … but just look:
And only 18 000 VND each (60p or 77c). They sell ready-made cakes and individual slices, but the doughnuts were excellent … and dangerous ! Here’s the store front:
Don’t worry – I have a gym and swimming pool in my apartment, so I can burn off the calories and balance will be restored. Directly opposite is a street food stall, run by a Korean gentleman and his Vietnamese wife. They offer quite an eclectic mix of food:
I was able to use my extensive knowledge of Hangul (Korean) to say ‘Hello,’ and ‘Thank you.’
A little side note; you see how pavements in Sai Gon are really not designed for pedestrians. It can make walking quite arduous, not to say dangerous, certainly not a pleasure.
For sure, it’s heavy on the fast food, deep fried menu, but healthy options are available. I’ll go back for some Korean non-meat items and report later.
Recently, I had to go into District 1 on business so, as it was lunchtime, I thought I’d hang out with the office workers and go to a ‘point-and-eat’ joint: a ‘point-joint,’ (to coin a new phrase) Here, the food is displayed at the front, so for non-Vietnamese speakers you just, yeah, you guessed it, point … and eat. Service is very quick, though food does tend to be on the cold side. This was one of many in the Ton Duc Thang area of District 1. The centre of the road has been completely torn up, as they plan to construct a new bridge. The restaurant was in a side street:
See, just point and eat.
Various meat, fish and tofu dishes.
I had fried fish (a lot of de-boning required) and tofu in tomato sauce, served with rice, pickled vegetables and vegetable soup. Word of warning, the soup is often meat broth or contains small pieces of meat, so vegetarians be careful.
Fish soup, probably a mackerel or similar oily fish.
Finally, after lockdown restriction were lifted, Vietnamese were allowed to travel outside of their hometown. I was invited to a 5-star hotel in Vung Tau, less than two hours drive from Sai Gon.
Opposite the hotel was a Russian restaurant, mainly sea food, naturally, as this is a beach resort, but I was able to forego the rice or noodles, and have some western black bread … and it was delicious.
Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read my blog. I hope you found it vaguely interesting. If you have any questions about life in Viet Nam, I’d be happy to (try to) answer them, as best I can.
Furthermore, should you have any questions about English, feel free to ask.
Here’s another request blog; a friend, Pete (who has featured in some of my lessons) is planning a party this Friday. His daughter, who is turning 18, has requested some Vietnamese food.
However, Pete lives in the UK, which is still under lockdown (quarantine), so many restaurants are closed. Furthermore, he lives in the middle of the country, so had no access to really fresh sea food (the Vietnamese only say sea food is fresh IF it was swimming in the sea just ten minutes before).
Additionally, Pete won’t be able to get his hands on some vegetables or ingredients so we’ll have to take that into account. Having said that, here are some tips for making Vietnamese food in a western kitchen.
Banh xeo is like a pancake filled with beansprouts, shrimps, salad, grilled meat …
Grilled pork is ubiquitous – a street food stable served with rice and pickled vegetables.
Fried spring or summer rolls – can be a bit fiddly (difficult) to make, and require special material. Probably available in Asian supermarkets, but hard to get in small towns (or just order online like everyone else in 2020). Contains salad leaves and shrimp and vegetables).
Pho (pronounced ‘far’) is THE traditional food of Vietnam, and is normally eaten for breakfast. It’s basically noodle soup with meat of your choice. Shrimps (prawns) or just vegetables could be substituted. Another ubiquitous dish.
And now, without further ado … how to cook Vietnamese:
First, one of the UK’s most loved, and sadly missed chefs, Keith Floyd. Keith came to Vietnam as part of an east Asian cooking show. In Sai Gon, he made this dish, beef cooked in sweet and spicy stock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fO6cSQ8Vly8
The scene starts at 06.39
But, I hear you protest, how can a westerner make authentic Vietnamese food ?
For fans of the fowl, connoisseurs of the chicken, I haven’t forgotten you. Here’s an interesting recipe, lemongrass chicken (lemongrass, which is ten-a-penny in Vietnam, that is, very cheap, can be so expensive in the UK. I once saw 5 lemongrass on sale for £1, that’s over 30 000 VND): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJtMlTnqyw0