Monday, 10 September 2012

Strange sights and chance finds at Cho Ben Thanh

This morning I was delighted at the prospect of eggs for breakfast, which Thuy fried for me and served with fresh Vietnamese bread. These short, light baguettes are used for Banh Mi, a popular sandwich that can be bought on the streets of Saigon, where the customer chooses a meat filling to be served inside the roll. (I was told that this street snack inspired the founder of American fast food sandwich chain Subway, a fact that I doubt does justice to Banh Mi, which is meant to be delicious.) After breakfast I had a chore to do in visiting a clinic to have a Hepatitis B vaccination that was due. Jessica had given me the name and address of an international clinic near the palace and the number of a girl named Annie, whose aunt used to work with Jessica, and who had kindly agreed to help me with this task. I enjoyed the bus journey into the city, passing through District 4 which was bustling with mid-morning trade of locally manufactured products. This certainly seemed to be the area in the city to come to for men's shoes. I found Columbia Clinic easily and met Annie outside- conveniently we had both arrived at exactly the same time. Unfortunately, I was not able to have my vaccination. The doctor, an extremely gangly Swiss man who never once removed his surgical mask throughout our consultation and reminded me unnervingly of Dr. Frankenstein, told me that he wasn't comfortable giving me the second dose of an accelerated course until at least a week after the first, and I would have to come back tomorrow. Although this was irritating, I was relieved to find that communication at the clinic was easy and hassle-free, and felt confident I could come here again by myself the following day.

Annie and I had around an hour and a half free, before she went to a swing dance class and I took the bus home for lunch. She showed me around the Ben Thanh market, Saigon's largest, which was great to look around but not the best for cheap purchases, she told me, because it was very tourist-orientated. Annie is a really lovely girl and it was very generous of her to come to the clinic with me and then to show me around. Although she was born in Vietnam, she has only recently moved back to Ho Chi Minh City after eight years overseas, studying in Singapore for her IB, and then at Exeter University, from which she recently graduated with a business/management degree. She has now been back in the city for a month, taking dance classes, doing occasional work for Jessica and trying to get her head back around the Saigon traffic.

Customers waiting for fruit orders
The markets were very interesting to walk around, along narrow routes between colourful and tightly-packed stalls. Seeing the jewelled scarves and dresses I remembered that Jessica was taking me to a charity ball on Saturday night with an Arabian Nights theme, and I had yet to sort out a costume for it. I explained this to Annie, who immediately understood the sort of style I was looking for. She spoke a few sentences in Vietnamese including the words 'Ali Baba' to a woman working on a scarf stall. This woman had nothing appropriate herself but led us around the corner and down a very narrow passage to another clothing stall where I was immediately presented a beautiful pair of blue silk pantaloons. It was very impressive that we had found something so perfect as quickly and easily as that. I remembered how only last week, back in Leeds, I had dragged my best friend around Kirkgate market for an hour looking for a Chinese-style dress to wear for my leaving party. I knew they were sold at this market but no-one I asked was able to help me to locate the stall I needed. With this in mind, I had thought it would be an impossible task to assemble a Princess Jasmine-style outfit from somewhere in Ho Chi Minh City with only a week, and yet here it was, sorted out only five minutes after I raised the idea.

Dried fish
After this we looked around the food stalls, where we saw dried fish and shrimps and Vietnamese sweets, syrupy and colourful and served in tall drinking glasses, with layers of different sweets creating eye-catching stripes. We then saw the wet market, having to dodge the streams of water that came rushing at us from the fish tables. Annie was amused by my amazement at the types of seafood available, like blue crabs and live snails with beautiful spiralled shells, that were slithering all over each other in a bucket. Annie said she will take me to eat snails when I have got used to the Vietnamese diet! Another thing that frightened me was the sight of a stack of small live crabs, lined up uniformly in a crate with their faces upwards and beady eyes looking straight at me. They were bubbling slightly at the mouths and occasionally waving their claws. They looked like an army and I half-expected them to suddenly leap towards me in attack-mode. So I moved quickly on.

Sweeties, Vietnamese style
We left the markets and took a taxi to my bus stop. We passed Kem Bach Dang, an ice cream parlour that has been in Saigon since before French colonisation, which Annie also promised to take me to. I returned home by bus to a lunch prepared by Thuy. I was interested to identify tiny dried shrimps in the soup she made for me, which earlier I had seen for sale in the market. Happy sat beside me throughout my meal, imploring me with her big sad eyes, and I indulged her with pieces of delicious smoky-tasting pork. It seemed to pay off as in the afternoon she was much friendlier with me than usual. I was feeling tired, my body aching all over from yesterday's run, so I spent the rest of the day at home.

Live blue crabs

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