Hello Uncle Foreigner

coffee

Apr 29, 2015

The grime of Saigon’s backpacker streets

Chucking it in and embracing the cheesiness

We were happiest when we were literally above it all on Phạm Ngũ Lão
We were happiest when we were literally above it all on Phạm Ngũ Lão.
The backpacker nightlifeNeed some diabetes?We need a lot of electricityBeers on the streetOut front at the New Saigon Hotel
The New Saigon Hotel was an oasis of calm.
Our room at New SaigonStreet eats!

“The bar is open until 3 am. That’s all we need.”
— American tourist in Pham Ngu Lão

Phạm Ngũ Lão is Saigon’s backpacker area, and it’s pretty much as seedy as they come. It plays host to an extra-concentrated version of all the bad behaviors of comparatively wealthy, entitled first-worlders exploiting their status in a developing country. Like, I don’t want to buy drugs on my way to dinner, some stranger on the street. And, you’re not fooling anyone, Harold Ramis-looking dude at the Crazy Baby bar; those four young Vietnamese women aren’t your friends for free. Also, restaurants? Why so much crappy western food?

Some of this is on me: I should have done my research better. There are plenty of places to stay in Saigon that aren’t in the middle of a giant vice bubble for young and aging partiers. Were we to do it over again, we definitely would have stayed somewhere else. (Although our hostel was great. If any of this sounds appealing to you, New Saigon has comfortable rooms and a friendly, helpful staff.)

So, it was what it was. And as difficult a time as we had, there was at least one moment of every day that felt worth it. We were within walking distance of much nicer and more interesting neighborhoods, and within Phạm Ngũ Lão itself we learned to sit back with a coffee or beer and embrace the chaos. The second-floor balcony of this bar on Bùi Viện Street made a particularly nice perch. And for every vagabond Boris Johnson stumbling home at 9 am, we saw a Gentle Giant who was genuine friends with the waitstaff at his local. Especially in the mornings, we could watch families and workers getting ready for the day. Motorbikes with high chairs zipped babies to their baby appointments. Locals and tourists gathered together for coffee at legit establishments.

We also found better food. Down the side streets, there were the cơm tấm carts serving sweetly grilled meats over broken rice. Close to our hostel, there was Sozo the bakery that offers work to young Vietnamese people living with disabilities. And just down the way from Sozo, there was Baba’s Kitchen.

Our love of Indian food is well documented. And despite our mission to eat as many bánh mì as we could, we had dinner at Baba’s twice during our stay. We can’t say no to a curry. (Or an aloo chat. Or garlic nan. I just really love bread.) Thanks to a kitchen mixup, we even got a bonus fish masala curry on the house!

All that being said, we spent the last morning of our stay in Phạm Ngũ Lão watching “Finding Nemo” in our hostel. (New Saigon has international cable!) I hate to admit defeat, but it just wasn’t our scene.

Apr 8, 2015

Living the life at the Villa Pinkhouse

The people in our (temporary) neighborhood

The cutest little VWbug of course belongs to the cutest hostel in Dalat
The cutest VW bug, of course, belongs to the cutest hostel in Đà Lat. Pinkhouse forever!
Our accommodationsThis is how to do a coffee break
The neighborhood coffee shop was adjacent to the Easy Rider office, offering convenient parking for all.
We had a sweet little balcony in our roomOur view from the balcony
Our room at the Villa Pinkhouse had a sweet little balcony, left, overlooking a quiet neighborhood, right.
Meatball banh mi
Eat bánh mì every day!

The Villa Pinkhouse, our hotel in Đà Lạt, is down a small alley at the top of a hill in the northwest of the city. Its neighbors are another hotel, a primary school, an outpost of the Easy Riders motorbike touring company, and a small coffee shop. It’s run by a lovely family in which all of the young men speak fairly fluent English, and the older members smile and speak happy Vietnamese. We loved all of Đà Lạt, but this area especially spoke to us.

The coffee shop just across the way from the hotel. This was not one of your grab-and-go affairs, but a French-y kind of cafe, where one sits and chats for hours. We spent a crisp, cool morning there at one of the low tables out front, watching the neighborhood wander by. Delivery people, children and parents, tourist arrivals, fellow coffee drinkers, friends.

Vietnam is big time about the coffee. It’s the number two exporter in the world, behind Brazil, we were told many times. At home, coffee is brewed strong — with or without a stripe of sweetened condensed milk — through a three-part tin contraption that sits on top of your tiny glass. At the coffee shop, another patron showed us how to stop from making a wet, brown mess by resting the finished filter in its own lid, rather than directly on the table. It’s satisfying to both the gadget- and caffeine-loving parts of my brain.

We met a lot of friendly folks down that alley, despite its small size. There was that Easy Rider who gave us the world’s softest sell on a trip out into the countryside. “Sorry. We already have plans.” “Oh well. Have fun with your other tour guide!” Consistently those guys — who are an institution in Đà Lạt, as are their copycats — were super nice the many times we met them around the city, but also super relaxed about not making a sale.

And then there was the lady selling bánh mì from a cart at the mouth of the alley. She spoke no English, but we had a good chat anyway as she prepared for us a wonderful pork meatball sandwich. She and Peter had similar beaded bracelets, so they were instant friends. And I managed to put together the right words in Vietnamese to explain that we wanted one sandwich and one plain baguette. Oh, and how much is that? Language success!

Down the hill a bit was another hostel — Đà Lạt actually hosts a lot of visitors, but don’t call it a tourist trap. We’re all living like locals. Locals with a lot of free time, that is. Anyway … This place had an open-air cafe, and it was a great place to sit with a glass of Đà Lạt wine. We went with the red: extremely light-bodied with a mild fruity taste. As we sat, we could watch across the street as the children of those business played. One afternoon, someone received a delivery of wooden planks with which the kids barely resisted whacking each other. They watched us, too, and eventually built up the courage to start yelling hello.

Our little slice of the city was good to us. Good food, good drinks, good people. A perfect home away from home.

May 24, 2013

Chongqing Punk Fest: Back to Ciqikou

The rat-free Perfect Time is the perfect place

We found a great hot pot place by Ciqikou

We probably never would have gone back to Ciqikou were it not for punk rock. The Chongqing version of the ubiquitous replica “ancient” town doesn’t really invite repeat viewing, and the hostel there is too far from the city’s central peninsula to be convenient. But, it’s not far from Chongqing’s Shapingba district, home of the Nuts Club, host of this April’s Chongqing Punk Festival. When we heard about the concert, we had a reason to return. And this time around, we were quite charmed by the neighborhood.

It started when staying in such a touristy area meant that I could actually tell cab drivers where to go, instead of thrusting a page of scrawled out characters in their faces, which is my usual move. I feel so cool when I can talk to people!

After we settled in at the hostel, we ventured back out into Ciqikou for some Chongqing hot pot. There’s something of a rivalry between Sichuan and Chongqing (which used to be part of Sichuan but is now its own municipality) as to whose hot pot is the hottest, and there’s a hot pot restaurant pretty much every few feet in Ciqikou. We chose one that was just outside the neighborhood’s entrance gate, because it was the most crowded with people looking like they were having the most fun.

Look at this spice
This here, that’s only Meiguo spicy.

So, I’ll put it up front, Chongqing hot pot is SPICY! Spicier than we’ve had in Sichuan Province. They really aren’t messing around. They even held back on us, I think, seeing our non-Chinese faces. (Which, honestly, was a good call on their part.) We saw other tables’ pots packed with chili peppers — also a healthy scoop of lard, which initially surprised me, but accounts for the richness of the broth.

We got our usual array of vegetables, plus a few wild cards: rolled-up tofu skins — which weren’t a hit — and something that turned out to be the Mexican fruit! When that was delivered to our table, I pulled out my translation sheet and copied down the relevant menu item. Our waitress watched over my shoulder, cheering me on. Generally, I get a lot of smiles when I pull out this sheet — mostly copied from the menu at Tofu Hot Pot.

On our way home, walking through the closed down and mostly empty Ciqikou streets, we heard the sounds of Radiohead wafting on the breeze. This was a surprise, because most of the music we hear while out and about in China is of the terrible pop variety. It was even more surprising when we realized that it was live.

Without really even discussing it, Peter and I both turned down the small alley from where the music was coming. The alley ended in a series of stairs leading to a giant temple, but just before the temple entrance was a small bar. Led inside by our ears, we found a Chinese band playing American rock hits. It was magical.

Unfortunately, it was also quite short. We arrived almost at the end of their set. “I’m sorry, it’s over,” they said to us in English after they finished their last song. We were the only people besides the employees in the bar, so I’m not sure who was more disappointed in our timing. But we had a drink and a good time anyway.

Hey, there's a wedding
Hey! There’s a wedding outside our window!

Saturday we took it easy, resting up for the night’s concert. We breakfasted on roti pancakes, and coffee from a cute little coffee shop near the front gate of Ciqikou. After a quick Carrefour run to replenish our stocks of foreign herbs, spices, and olives, we mostly lazed about in the hostel, enjoying both the English-language channel on the TV, and the view of the river from our window. There was a giant inflatable slide set up outside, and we watched babies and their mother teeter up to the terrifying top and then make their dizzying descent. It was more exciting that it had any right to be. We also watched a wedding take place on the top floor of one of the floating seafood restaurants in the river. It was a big day for someone!

And then, before we knew it, it was time to rock.