We entered a modest storefront cafe that opened to a large high-ceilinged room with Formica tables, the inimitable plastic chairs, no menus but daily offerings posted on the walls with hand-written notes. It was packed with locals only, mostly women. So this was where The Ladies Who Lunch in District 10 hang out. They all eyed me, with restraint. What was a round-eye doing here?
Phuong asked if I had any food preferences. "I'll eat anything as long as it's not still alive in the broth," I said. "I prefer fish to meat though, and not salty, please." For me she ordered a crab soup, banh canh cua, which came with a salad. She ordered a denser soup and similar salad for herself. To drink we had sua dau phong, peanut pressed milk, like a watery peanut butter milkshake.
Everything was good, plentiful, satisfying, brimming with atmosphere. I can report that I suffered no tummy troubles then or later...or ever during my two weeks in Vietnam, actually. The bill was also satisfying—about $2.00 for both of us.
Outside again, walking along Tran Ba Giao, blinking in the bright sunshine, dust, and heat, I followed Phuong as she darted into a motorcycle sales and repair shop. We crossed the "showroom" area and into a back room where repairs were done, and then outside, and found ourselves on a pier at river's edge. We stood there a few minutes and then a wooden boat came by and stopped for us. This was the river taxi taking us to the Mieu Noi Floating Temple.
Also known as Phu Chau, this temple doesn't literally float on water, but on a 27,000 square-foot islet in the middle of the river. The first impact is of a Disneyland pagoda fantasy with curved green rooftops and lavish dollops of red-tinged dragons, tigers, phoenixes, and other symbols dear to Vietnamese (and Chinese) culture. It was built early in the 18th century, supposedly at the behest of a fisherman who had found the body of a drowned woman on the island and wanted to honor her death with a shrine.
During the Vietnam War the temple was neglected. In 1989 a Vietnamese businessman of Chinese descent, one Luc Cau, donated money for its renovation, and it began to attract visitors once more. The various pagodas, the many colorful statues, the swaths of green gardens and walkways, the occasional breeze from the river make this place a peaceful respite from the urban chaos of Vietnam's largest city. Ho Chi Minh City has four, eight, or 13 million people, depending on how you count.
There were no hordes of tourists when we were there; mostly believers lighting incense before one Buddha or another and clasping hands in earnest prayer. The major business seemed to be the sale of incense sticks, though an enterprising entrepreneur would have made a killing selling Coca-Cola on a hot day like ours.
As we waited for the water taxi to take us back to the motorcycle shop and the bus from authentic—and grimy—District 10 to affluent—and glitzy—District One, I asked Phuong how she felt about Americans. "No problem. We move forward, no look back."
And the French? I wondered. "Long time ago. We move on. No one speaks French here. Too long back. Young people all study English as second language in school. English is better."
What about the Chinese? She paused, frowning. "Chinese are evil."
Curiously she wound up asking me as many questions as I put to her. Hers weren't geopolitical but personal, and two of them were zingers. When I said my husband and I had been married a long time, she asked, "Do you still kiss?" It was such an unexpected question that I didn't understand it at first. A few minutes later she asked, "Do you and your husband still have passion?" I was taken aback by this one too but managed to stammer out an answer that appeased her.
En route to the hotel from the bus stop, we passed a scene that seemed to encapsulate everything we had experienced this day. A Vietnamese "doctor" was treating a patient's earache, on the street, in view of all passers-by. He wore a white coat and modern dress, used clean towels and seemingly sanitized instruments, but the treatment was traditional and incense filled the air. Like the country of Vietnam, he was integrating past and future in a seamless continuum, unfazed by the parade of humanity crowded around. My day of "not the usual sights" ended far more insightfully than I had dared to hope.
Claudia Flisi is a dual citizen writer based in Milan, Italy. Her stories have appeared in the International New York Times, Newsweek, Fortune, Variety, and many others. She has visited more than 100 countries, fallen off horses on six continents, and trained dogs in three languages. Her book about an Italian dog, Crystal and Jade, was published in 2016.
The Guilt Café in Vietnam - Kirsten Koza
A Man and His Dragons in Southern Thailand - Tim Leffel
Stories in Stone: Walking Vietnam's Long Wall - Ben Keene
Bring Your Daughter to the Torajan Slaughter in Indonesia - Marco Ferrarese
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