A NEON CORAL (new color?) Catholic
Church around the corner from the hotel.

[Note: by the way, I know the blog has been running a full week or more behind my experiences – I hope that doesn’t bother you too much. I’m attempting to get into a more present groove, with less of a delay on “live experience” posts. I promise.]

June 30th, 2013, was my birthday [See? I told you I’m running late! I’m sorry]. Technically, it started here and then wormed its way Westward as the Central Time Zone eventually had my birthday – It was a nice long one! Two full days of Birthday wishes, right?! Pretty badass. Maybe not (definitely not, not even close) as raucous and off-the-hook as the Rager we threw for my 30th last year, but if I did that every year there’s an excellent chance I wouldn’t survive to 40.

My two new friends, Rae and Malte, took me out for lunch, sightseeing, coffee, and markets. Initially we were planning on doing it all on Saturday, but  we rescheduled for Sunday. I had initially been planning to spend the day alone, going to the zoo, dinner, and getting ice cream and just doing some general reflecting about where I was and what I was doing. I’m glad that didn’t end up happening (as much as I would have enjoyed it).

Our first stop was… actually back to my hotel room, to find a restaurant with vegetarian options for Rae. Took us a bit, but we found one and walked over there in the heat. It was a little farther than we wanted to walk, but it was breezy and sunny out, and only felt like 90 degrees F or so – a definite plus. We walked past this absurd pink church, above, and checked out a few alleyways on the way, hitting a dead end around once, and eventually arrived at The Organic, a vegetarian restaurant in District 1.

The whole place had these chairs.

We entered through the courtyard and, after trying to communicate “Do you have food here?” a few times to blank stares they brought us into the main dining rooms. It was a strange little place, and we ended up in what looks like it had once been a patio or veranda but was now enclosed in glass and filled with tables and chairs.

The place was housed in a French Colonial building, lending it a certain antique charm. We arrived in the middle of siesta time, on a Sunday, and the service was… eh. No one spoke any English, or apparently any “Mime” which was SUPER frustrating, but worth the laugh in the end.

A salad. I tried to find out what it was from the online menu,
but it was a hopeless case. A hopeless case, Charlie Brown.

The whole place had these ergonomic office chairs for better posture, which was amusing as well. They were certified by some Doctor and were apparently a key part of the ambiance here at The Organic. The website includes this copy about the furniture at the website in various places on the “English language” site:

“Furniture was tested by the Scientists. They quoted Furniture tăng it can help the nutrition absorption, body control and dangerous Decrease risk of chronic diseases.”

Yeah, who knows. All I know, is thank you the Scientists, for a moderately comfy chair for my birthday meal!

Indian Fried Rice, with Cauliflower and Stuff.

There was some vaguely Eastern sounding music playing, and we were the only people in the building (presumably because all residents with any SENSE were asleep in air conditioning at 1:30 in the afternoon. The staff seemed genuinely confused as to why we were there!).

But, thanks to the magic of the “Point and Nod” we are eventually able to place our order. It was absurdly difficult to order bottled water, even though we had a bottle of water that we were pointing at while saying the word for “water.” They brought us a coffee instead, which I drank just because. Eventually they brought us water, but they were frozen inside so there was only a few sips. Stuff like this is fairly normal so far on my trip. It’s annoying, but what can you do. You’re a stranger in a strange land… you get what you get! Until I have the confidence and knowledge to correct the situation in the native tongue, I feel I just need to roll with it.

Rae is eating what her Ayurvedic doctor prescribed her, which meant basically nothing delicious (except mangos, as far as I can tell) and after perusing the menu for a while we settled on a few dishes to eat “family style.” Rae got a salad (above) with some rice crackers, and, while it turned out to have coriander in it and no one else could eat it but me, I thought it was delicious!

Braised Coconut with
Pineapple and Mushrooms.

Malte got some organic pho (also with coriander – apparently it tastes like soap to some people due to a genetic anomaly? That’s gross – I honestly can’t really tell what it even looks like) and Indian Fried Rice with tomatoes, but made out of sticky rice and not basmati, weirdly. The fried rice was great, but I didn’t try the pho. Rae and Malte said it was delicious.

ASIDE: I should note that I almost always forget two things when I’m eating out:

1) I ALWAYS forget to take a picture of the food before I’ve started eating it! You’ll notice that there are very few dishes that look like they just came out of the kitchen – it’s more like some tiny, messy bear got in there and was pawing around before I can snap the picture. That tiny bear is me. I am a hungry, tiny bear, and hopefully I will remember in time to just take a picture of every single thing that I eat before I dig in!

2) I almost ALWAYS forget my messenger bag on the back of the chair. It’s really a problem. I should put an alarm or something on it, or a leash that attaches to my upper arm, or something practical like that. I’ve almost walked off without it twice now. Considering how that’s basically the only time it leaves my back, you’d think I’d miss it.

The messy, hungry little bear was here! Braised Jackfruit.

BACK TO FOOD! I ordered the most flamboyant dish on the menu, and it blew my mind. No really: Braised coconut flesh with pineapple and little mushrooms (you can see one of them on my spoon over there). It was sweet, savory, and really, really good. I’d never had (or knew you could) braised coconut flesh before and the texture was lightly woody and dense, but tender enough to chew and enjoy.

We desperately wanted rice to go along with our meal, but they, very strangely, didn’t offer it on the menu and our limited Vietnamese didn’t allow for “May we please have rice, sir?” which is honestly a woefully common phrase that I must learn ASAP.

Bastard. I know you’re not MY
roosters, but I can hate you anyway.

We also got a tofu dish that we didn’t order: Tofu in ketchup… which they were trying to tell me was just tomato sauce, but STILL. GROSS. The tofu was an excellent consistency – nice and pillowy – but the sauce was really sweet. And I don’t really care for tomato sauce in the first place.

Rae sent it back indignantly (hilarious to watch!) to get the dish we DID order, which ended up being like roughly a billion times more awesome: Braised Jackfruit and Stuff. You can see what’s left of it over to the right here. Jackfruit is something that I’ve only seen in cans from Philippine stores near my Albany Park ‘hood, and is a rather magical fruit. Because it’s very dense, if you simmer or braise it long enough it changes its consistence to become something similar to chicken flesh, tender and juicy and able to be pulled apart like animal flesh. There are also seeds – each roughly twice the size of a pumpkin seed – that develop a nutty, bean-like flavor and texture upon cooking. In Chicago we made Pulled BBQ Jackfruit in the slow cooker (as a vegetarian alternative to Pulled BBQ Pork, my fav) and, while pretty good, my guess is that it would have been even better if the fruit had been fresh! This dish was damn tasty.

Rae (doing something Korean) and Malte (being
German) at Coffee May in District 1. I’ll be back!

I also got a fruit milkshake, called, tactfully, the Graceful Round Shape. It was gone before I even had my camera out, so… sorry about that. I did warn you. It was a delectable mixture of apple, pineapple, strawberries, milk, and sweetened condensed milk (which is in a lot of sweet drinks here), and it was completely delicious, which is why it disappeared in like .5 seconds.

After getting our check and paying (yet another bizarre interaction) we headed out and found a taxi to take us to the city center (stopping along the way to take a picture of this rooster). I had to find an ATM, and Malte and I kind of wanted some coffee. Thank god there’s literally coffee everywhere in Saigon.

We found Coffee May, a two story, open-air coffee shop across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral plaza, and relaxed for an hour, sipping Ca Phe Da (iced black vietnamese coffee) and Ja Da (Iced Tea), laughing and getting to know each other better – it was only the second time I’d met either of them. Fortunately, we got along pretty well and the heat of the afternoon passed as we chatted and watched the tourists and residents below us.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Eventually, we decided to get going on our way to the rest of our plans, and after settling the bill we set off for the Cathedral across the street. Rae, being a good Catholic girl, or at least having an enormous reservoir of Catholic guilt, couldn’t go in with her cutoff shorts or tank top, so it fell to Malte and I and Rae’s camera to document the inside of the beautiful structure. This is a functioning church, and we happened to come in during their Sunday night mass, but people indicated we could take pictures from the back. I’ll have more of those in a post on the history of this beautiful building soon!

 Just as we left it began to rain, which was perfect: our next stop was the Benh Thanh Market not too far away. We took a cab because of the rain, and spent the next hour or two rummaging through the beautiful, the tawdry, the delicious, and the downright inexplicable housed in this massive indoor building.

People in a rush will attend mass by driving their bikes
up to the front gate and parking, watching through the gate
and arches! Hilarious!

Unfortunately, at this point I discovered that I forgot to charge my iPod and so the camera was suddenly out of commission. But as I strolled around the market, looking at clothes and rice makers and deciphering fruits, vegetables, and cuts of meat, I had a feeling I’d be back before too long, if only to take pictures of EVERYTHING. This market is the one for foreigners – everything is 4-5 times more expensive than any other market in town, and you have to haggle quite a bit to get anything down to a reasonable price. It’s actually kind of fun – that was one of the things I thought that I’d have a problem with, but it helps when the prices are so outlandish that they make you laugh!

As the rain came down torrentially, pounding the roof of the Market, we exited and slowly made our way around the building, stopping to look at the Night Market (basically, the same as the Day Market inside the building, but all the shops are under lean-tos on the outside – I swear they even sell the same exact products and foods). We stopped and had some fresh mangosteen, which neither Malte or I had ever had or seen. Rae insisted, and it turned out to be quite delicious.

After walking around the park for another hour, it was time to part ways. I was exhausted from all the new experiences and people, and Malte had hurt his foot by slipping in a road and wanted to get it bandaged up. We bid adieu and went our separate ways.

All in all, my 31st birthday was a rousing success! Good food, relaxing times, new friends, and sightseeing – it was a blast. It was probably more fun than going to the zoo and eating ice cream by myself (as hard as that is to believe, ha ha). If I get more pics from them of the market (especially the crazy gilded horse statue for sale!!) I’ll add them at a later date!

I also couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful and overwhelming outpouring of love from my family and friends in the states. I was on the phone from the moment I got up at 5:30 to the moment I left for lunch, and all evening was spent reconnecting with those of you who left me messages, texts, and facebook hellos. A very enjoyable day, indeed!

Love,
Ben