What every young expat in Saigon needs

This afternoon I rented out a semi-automatic Honda Dream motorbike after living in Saigon for over a year. So far my relationship with two wheels has consisted of a month-long fling with an electric bike called Rob that went about 20mph and now sits in the basement garage covered in a pink plastic raincoat, with the front basket filled with an old helmet and empty 2-stroke oil bottles for Gareth’s crosser bike, and a flat tyre. Poor Rob. He served me well on my 10-15 minute commutes to the local primary school. Alas, the battery died after 4 weeks (I had to charge it after every hour of usage) and when I had to ‘slam on’ (at 10mph) because of some ignorant woman not looking, it completely ballsed-up my back tyre.

Poor Rob
Poor Rob

I also used a great automatic scooter on my trip during Tet that took me from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat to Nha Trang, to Mui Ne back to Ho Chi Minh (1400 km). The bike only had one instance of a flat tyre during the whole journey. It was totally reliable and I will forever have fond memories of that scooter.

Renting the Honda Dream today had me thinking ‘Why haven’t I done this sooner?’. All of the friends I have made, men and women, ALL of them, have had their own bike. Most of them from day one. Some have rented while others have bought. I, on the other hand, have played it safe and taken buses, taxis and xe oms (moto taxis) to help me get around Saigon when I haven’t been able to hitch a ride from Gareth.

When I say ‘played it safe’ that doesn’t necessarily mean these options were the safest for me. I have been driven around by a few seemingly psychotic bus drivers, had my fair share of partially drunk and/or aggressive xe om drivers (but I must say, the majority of xe om drivers are so lovely and have driven very carefully) and been slightly ripped off by a taxi driver every now and then. All of these experiences are to be expected in a country inhabited by over 90 million people. One is going to meet every kind of individual, good and bad.

In Saigon, it is generally assumed that if you take the bus you are poor. I am certainly not poor but I’ve loved sitting on the bus and talking to people who want to practice their English and proud to show myself as a westerner using the public services. The handful of psychotic bus drivers are not the reason I have rented a bike.

I love seeing the gentle smile of my favourite xe om driver, who sits patiently outside my apartment building waiting for his next job. He’s so friendly and he has never ripped me off. The aggressive xe om drivers are not the reason I have rented a bike.

Swooon
Swooon

I have only had one memorable taxi ride. It was when my mum and her boyfriend came over to visit me in March. They sat at the back together while I sat up front and spent the 25 minute journey talking pidgin English with the sweetest man I have ever met. He told me about his children (‘my babies’, he said) and his wife (he was so proud of her) and his accomplishments (he had, in the last three years, become a taxi driver). The rip-off taxi drivers are not the reason I have rented a bike.

I have rented a bike because it really is the most practical solution for my social and commuting needs. I mean, if the 12 million riders of Saigon seem to think it’s a good idea then maybe I should have listened to them sooner.

The lady I rented the bike from dropped it off at my apartment at 6pm and, with her husband, gave me a few tips. The semi-automatic works by knocking a pedal up and down for each gear using the ball and heal of your left foot and the back-break is a pedal pressed down by the right foot. To get used to this I practiced going around my building a few times. Easy when there’s no traffic or obstacles in your way. As I was playing with the buttons on my dashboard I noticed I was on empty. There’s no time like the present so on my next whirl around I decided to take the exit onto the main road and head to the nearest petrol station. What I hadn’t considered was the fact it was just after 6pm, and the midst of peak hour.

I couldn’t turn back once I’d hit the flow of the multitude of bikes, so I carried on. I needed to immediately get into the left-hand lane to do a U-turn at the next set of traffic lights. With all the barefaced cheek I could muster, I slowly crawled over, elbowing my way across the two lanes. The U-turn was smooth, and in gear, so I zoomed down the emptier road towards the petrol station, which was on my right next to a crossroads.

The petrol station was full of people waiting to get their bikes filled. About 30 or so bikes lined up; a chaotic symphony at 6 pumps. My heart was pounding and I felt like a thousand watt spot light had just shone on me. I was being stared at by one and all. Half of me used to it; it happens every day in all public situations, half of me wanting to shout ‘Please, I’ve only just rented this bike, give me a break’. I turned off the ignition and tried to move forward using my legs. Shit, it was still in gear and wouldn’t move so I needed to drop down into neutral. Tap, tap, push – still not moving. Tap, tap, push – nope. I gave it another try this time going up and down thinking that was going to make everything better. ‘What a fool’, I heard one man think. ‘She doesn’t know anything’, thought a girl sitting on her mum’s bike beside me. In the end I turned the ignition on and tapped until I couldn’t tap anymore, or at least until the green neutral light popped on.

The Honda Dream
The Honda Dream

Phew. I was now able to move my bike closer so I threw my leg over and walked the bike a few steps. I then leaned the bike against me so as to pop open the seat to get to the petrol cap. I twisted the key and heard a click then tried to pull up the seat. It wasn’t happening. Again? Didn’t work. I used the other key but that didn’t fit.

Key in. Turn, Click, Open? No!

Three minutes of this until a young man came over to help me. I was filled with gratitude and shame. ‘Call yourself a modern woman?!’, he thought. I sheepishly pushed my bike closer towards the pump and without further embarrassment, within 60 seconds I was filled up and reversing out.

At the crossroads I waited for the traffic on my right to stop so I could ride across it and get onto my building’s side of the road. Into gear, I whizzed past and noticed a taxi turning across my path from the road ahead, so I slowed down accordingly. I turned onto my road, too wide and not slow enough it seems, and found myself the receiver of a torrent of beeps from someone on a bike who had been behind the taxi. Oops, my bad.

Mirror, signal, maneuver, breathe, and I was now on the calm, motorbike-free tarmac of my building’s entrance. I rolled down the steep decline into the basement and I parked up, deciding that would be enough adventure for today.

Don’t let this put you off if you intend on spending a significant amount of time in the city and decide to get a bike. Everyone has to start somewhere, and hey, I’m still alive.

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If someone asks me ‘Have you ever starred in a Vietnamese TV show?’ I can say ‘Yes, I have’

You know those days when you go to your favourite cafe and then end up starring in a TV show? Well, on Monday I had one of those days.

At 11am, after Gareth and I had finished working, we pulled up outside our friend Andrew’s cafe (he does the best coffee in Saigon, but more on that in another post) to pick up a bag of his exquisite freshly ground coffee blend, coffee that his family grows just outside of Dalat. The first thing out of Andrew’s mouth when he saw us was ‘Can you both do me a favour, please’ and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ok, I’ll tell you the rest.

Andrew’s friend, who manages a restaurant in Binh Tanh district called Binh Quoi, had a crew coming to film a short documentary piece about the vegetarian buffet that they provide for 160,000 dong, that would be shown on national TV. Andrew, who is Vietnamese but has previously lived in Australia for a few years, had been asked by his friend to bring along a few caucasians who would be interviewed about the buffet. Gareth and I said yes immediately. We really like Andrew, he has always given us impeccable service and did I mention he does the best coffee in Saigon? He’s also a Kung-Foo master so disappointing him could result in some pain…

The best cappuccino in Saigon
The best cappuccino in Saigon

Andrew asked us to return to his cafe at 3:30pm so we went back home to freshen up. During those few hours the nerves kicked in and I’d said to Gareth that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go and that maybe it wasn’t going to be what we thought it was going to be. Gareth persuaded me around by saying it was something different to do and asked what would we be doing instead. I pondered on this and realised that we’d probably just be vegetating all day, so eating vegetarian food and talking about it sounded much more interesting.

We arrived back at Andrew’s cafe at 3:30pm, where we met the lovely Sue from Australia who would be joining us for the day. We got to know one another over a hot cup of cappuccino, the best cappuccino in Saigon. Sue runs a travel business called Go Connect, which is based on co-operative principles. After 15 minutes we were suddenly zipping through alleyways and along stretches of chaotic Saigonian roads and we soon arrived at a beautifully landscaped restaurant that overlooked a still river. This was to be the backdrop to my first taste of fame.

We met the crew, who were all about my age, and were introduced to the very beautiful, and very funny, Vinh who was the MC of the show. I noticed one of the crew, a short bloke wearing glasses, talking to another member of the crew while looking and pointing at me. It was then translated that they wanted me to be in the opening shot with Andrew and Vinh. Gareth and Sue were asked to sit at a table and were served some drinks while they waited patiently for their moment.

The crew - Vinh is in blue
The crew – Vinh is in blue

We were fitted with our hidden microphones, and this in itself was absolutely hilarious to me. Only 6 hours ago I was singing ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ to 4 year olds and now I had a 20-something Vietnamese guy fumbling with my jean’s back pocket so I could be heard saying a few lines for a national TV show.

Andrew and I stood at our starting position, at the end of a footpath leading from the car park towards the restaurant. I could see the film crew about 10 feet away having last minute discussions and Vinh loudly practicing her lines as fast as she could before the film started rolling. My heart was in my throat but I was doing my best to hide my nerves. ‘Just smile Jen and no one will know you’re petrified’ I thought to myself. I asked Andrew how he felt, ‘I’m good, I’m good’.

It took about 6 takes to walk towards Vinh and introduce ourselves then walk forward a few steps in the direction of the restaurant. Our next scene involved us stopping outside a wooden hut that held boxes of dried mushrooms. This was when I was given my first bit of Vietnamese to speak. Andrew asked me if I could say mushroom in Vietnamese. Up until 30 seconds before I had no clue, but when the cameras weren’t recording I’d been told that it was ‘nam’. With feigned confidence I uttered that simple word. Even though I’d practiced it a few times Andrew and Vinh were still pleasantly surprised that I could say it correctly. Or maybe they were acting.

IMG_0295
Let’s eat vegetarian food!

After this we were allowed a short break while the cameramen took shots of the gorgeous buffet.  During our break Andrew informed me that the piece will broadcast to coincide with a Buddhist holiday next week. He took me around the buffet and explained what some of the dishes were. What I took from it was that practically everything contained mushrooms. The craftsmanship was such a high standard and it was clear that a lot of love and care had gone into making the food.

Back to filming and it was time to pick up a plate and grab some of the gorgeous delights on offer. Me being the only westerner, I piled my plate high while Andrew and Vinh had much more self control and gave themselves a delicate portion each.

We were then filmed eating the food and talking about the flavours. This was when I was asked to say the second bit of Vietnamese. At first I was told to just say Cha Gio right? – spring roll right? – but then the director wanted me to say ‘Cha Gio phai khong?’ which translates to ‘spring roll, isn’t it?’ I took the bull by the horns and just went for it. No point refusing. I waited for my cue; a turn of the head and a momentary silence from Vinh, and with all the enthusiasm I could find I uttered my first sentence on camera. It took a few more takes before the director was satisfied though.

After my wondrous moment of Vietnamese fluency, Vinh then said ‘Do you want to know how to make Cha Gio?’, which led to our next scene.

FIlming Food
FIlming Food

Vinh and I moved to sit in front of a gentle old lady who was busy making a few spring rolls. I watched her closely. I wanted to be sure that I looked like I knew what I was doing even if I didn’t have the first clue. It wasn’t that hard. A piece of round rice paper, a dollop of filling a few centimetres from the edge, fold in the sides until they touch, a glutinous paste over the edges to bind it together, and finally, slowly roll the Cha Gio until it looks like a chunky cigar. The gentle old lady made it look easier than it was. Mine looked more like a Christmas cracker than a spring roll.

We giggled our way through making the Cha Gio and when it came time to fry, joked about how rubbish ours were compared to the gentle old lady’s. In the end though, they all tasted marvelous. A high-five and it was a wrap.

I was exhausted and my body felt stiff. I had never felt so amazed at myself for doing something that truly scared the shit out of me yet I’d loved every moment of it.

Gareth and Sue, still sitting, drinking, watching, never did get to have their own scenes or lines although they were interviewed about the buffet on camera by a sweet, but nervous head-of-sales for Saigon Tourist.

From what I’ve been told, the piece will be shown three times in one day next week, in the morning and evening on one channel and in the evening on another channel, but I can’t be too certain as details get lost in translation. When the video is available online I will post it for you all to have a good laugh at my overwhelmed awkward self.

The FInal Scene
The FInal Scene

The food really opened my eyes to a healthy alternative to meat. The dumplings, when dipped in a sweet and sour sauce, were to die for, the Pizza Sake, a pizza that used a sake mushroom for the base, was full of strong flavours, the soups were beautifully seasoned, the spring rolls had the perfect combination of crunchy fried rice paper and juicy filling.

I was a vegetarian from the age of 7 to 14 and if I’d have fully appreciated the benefits of vegetarian food, I don’t think I’d have been tempted by a sausage on toast on that fateful day in the year 2000 when I decided I would return to my old carnivorous ways. Andrew told me that he eats vegetarian food 15 days a month, I was impressed by his self-discipline, and how precisely controlled his diet is. I am going to definitely eat more vegetarian food regularly now, cut down on the meat in my diet, maybe even consider taking meat out of my diet completely, but that will take some serious soul searching.

If the experience has taught me anything, it is that sometimes you have to just say yes. Say yes and see where that takes you.