I'm perched on a two-foot high plastic stool at a restaurant that's half dining room, half sidewalk, festooned with plastic shell buckets, and just across a few streets from the narrow alleys of Sài Gòn's touristy Phạm Ngữ Lão district. The shouts offering taxis, motorbikes, passport photos, buses to Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, iPhone cases, and marijuana have faded into the background and have been replaced by the ever-present din of constant honking. Not even honking. So constant as to be one, droning, multi-tonal hum.
I'm new to Southeast Asia, so my ears still register this as alarming, rather than white noise. Also, I'm eatingplatefuls of snails, which just became my favorite food about 24 hours ago. Coconut snails. Blood cockles. Spotted, leopard-print snails.
Julian is ambling across the street, camera in hand, parting the sea of motorbikes by what looks like magnetic repulsion. He stops in the middle. The middle of the street! He raises his camera. Are you kidding me, Julian? The middle of the street?
I'm way outside Phạm Ngữ Lão this time, miles out, in the very local Bình Tân district, walking aimlessly, deftly avoiding potholes, uneven sidewalk edges, and space-invading motorbikes. Since I'm white and I'm not hefting a giant backpack and I'm not at the bus station that serves points south and Cambodia, I don't fit into this picture at all. I fit in even less because I'm angry, storming down the street after a fight with Julian, looking neither right nor left at the shops, parks, homes, or street stalls around me.
At some point, I arrive at a T-junction. Directly in front of me is a never-ending whirlwind of helmets, wheels, brushed plastic, and exhaust. Directly in front of THAT is a lady standing at a trio of grills, all covered with little cigar-looking blackish-green things. Surrounding her are buckets of vegetables, vermicelli, and what I gather are raw versions of the cigar things, looking a much brighter green and more like tamales in that state.
The smoke from her grills overpowers even the exhaust: caramelizing meat and some kind of pungent leaf. Suddenly drained of all anger and filled with the singular desire to try whatever is happening on the far side of the street, I find my way home, retrieve Julian, bring him back, and sit down on another two-foot high plastic stool. Then we await whatever happens to people when they sit there.
When we walk in, the lady at the front takes one look at us and runs away, into the kitchen. The young waitress who follows her back out in a minute says cautiously, "How may I help you?"
"Well... we'd like to sit down and order food?" Suddenly, my social script interrupted, I don't even know how to be at a restaurant.
She's embarrassed because they don't have an English menu. "Don't worry," I tell her, but she doesn't really believe me. "We have pork and broken rice..." she says, trailing off, before I see what's on the wall behind me and laughingly, stumblingly order the snail in betel leaves.
Without the frenetic, honking drone and the pouring sweat and the two-foot high plastic stools, it's hard to approximate urban Vietnam. Chả Ốc Gia Huy is about as close as it gets. The kitchen is open and aromatic, divided from the eating area only by a tiny counter. The menu is an afterthought, jumbled onto one laminated page. Workers at the next table mix cha and load leaves with the mixture, rolling them up as deftly as any cigarette-rolling hipster. Their workspace takes up one out of three of the available tables in the restaurant, and puts the laborious process on display for all to see. It makes eating the result all the sweeter. Sometimes, you DO want to see how sausages are made. There's something about looking at the raw sludge of filling and the bright green vegetation, separated and in bowls, while biting into a sweet, caramelized, crackling bundle of umami and marveling at the power of fire and spice.