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.

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I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam…

Well, we left Phu Quoc for the city of Saigon six weeks ago. We’ve been very undisciplined updating the blog but we’ve got a really good excuse. We have decided to settle in Saigon for a few months before we continue with our travels up north to Hanoi. In the mean time, instead of laying prostrate on a beach or hiking up a scenic mountain we are working our little tushes off.
Being in a bustling city of 9 million was a real novelty for us. Although Phnom Penh is quite a metropolis, it doesn’t even come close to rivalling the life and energy of Saigon. Our first two weeks in Saigon consisted of doing the tourist trail and visiting the local museums, art galleries and places of historical significance like any tourist would.
We followed our travel guide through the city’s District 1, starting in Pham Ngu Lao, the tourist hotspot, then moving towards Ben Thanh Market, a huge indoor market selling quite literally everything. Our first purchase was a pair of Vietnamese drip coffee filters, something of a speciality in this part of the world, and now we couldn’t live without them.
How have we ever lived without these? Bit of condensed milk does the trick
Next was the Fine Arts Museum, a stunning old French villa that now houses Vietnamese art and exhibitions. Nevermind all of the wonderful contemporary art, I couldn’t get over how beautiful the windows were. Patterns of pale blue and frosted stained glass adorned the windowpane that opened out to a small courtyard at the heart of the villa while garlands of roses decorated the balcony windows to the front.
p p p p poser!!
Our next port of call was the Opera House, well, it was more of a landmark for us to find a German Brauhaus called Lion that a bar owner on Phu Quoc had told us about. When we found it we were not disappointed.
Lion brew their own blonde and dark beers using all German imported ingredients and both are refreshing and satisfying beers, as good as any Schneider-Weisse or Paulaner (probably helps that the Master Brewer was trained by Paulaner). The beer is made according to the Thuringian Law of 1434 which is also known as the German Purity Law, so the ingredients are simply water, hops and malt. So, you know you’re getting a pretty decent bevvy. Lion is now one of our regular haunts that we go to for an ‘all you can drink’ Beer Buffet with our flat mates. It gets messy. Oh, and the Opera House looks nice too.
That’s some God-damned tasty beer!!
With a spring to our steps, and after practically dragging Gareth away, we carried on to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, a quaint museum showing the impact of the Vietnam War on the city and its residents. There are also artefacts chronicling the French occupation of Saigon from the late 18thcentury. After our short time there we moved on to the War Remnants Museum.

Previously known as the Museum of American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum is one such place that you need to be prepared for emotionally. As Gareth had visited it back in the day, I knew what I was getting myself into, but for those with a delicate disposition I can imagine it is extremely hard to stomach. Filled with images of the atrocities during the Vietnam War, the museum holds nothing back in its attempt to voice the stories of the victims of US military action. Most of the images were actually documented by US sources and were even broadcast in the West. Photographs of massacres and the after effects of Agent Orange, a herbicide used as chemical warfare, not to mention Napalm, fill the walls. There is even an exhibit showing a deformed foetus. I found myself feeling moved, angry and ashamed but I got the impression at times that language was used throughout the museum in order to influence the reader to hold a certain point of view. Still, it stirred us both to be people who won’t accept just what we are told but instead to question everything and weigh it up. Who wants to live their lives hypnotised?

War Remnants Museum
A big gun thing

Next was the Reunification Palace. Built in 1966, the building’s design is homage to sophisticated 1960’s architecture and has been used as a presidential palace, the American Embassy for South Vietnam and a telecommunications centre during the war. The rooms are stuck in a time warp yet the décor throughout oozes grandeur; a merge of the oriental and art deco.

Reunification Palace
So, this is the living room

A couple of days later, when the weather was right, we rented ourselves the obligatory scooter and visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, a system of tunnels up to seven storeys deep in places. Guerrillas fighting the Americans used the network of tunnels (at one point reaching an area spanning 250km) during the Vietnam War. Now only a very small part of the tunnels are open to the public.

For an hour or so we were treated to a guided tour of the Ben Dinh tunnel site along with an Asian family and a few other Europeans. One of the first things the visitor can do is to lower themselves through an opening into one of the tunnels. Both Gareth and I were twice the size of all of the Asians so we merrily watched them slide their petite frames into the hole and pop their heads up to a gaggle of laughter. When the 6ft European also managed to do it, it really put Gareth and me to shame. We made up for this by being the first to climb on top of a disabled American tank.  We were allowed to crawl through one of the tunnels and exit at either 20 metres, 50 metres or 100 metres, most people only managed to get to 50 metres and even that was a sweaty affair.

Bit of a squeeze
The climax of the day, for Gareth, was the shooting range where he had the choice of shooting a number of assault rifles such as the M16 rifle, AK-47 or a machine gun like the M60. Gareth decided to shoot the M1 Garand, a semi-automatic rifle. The sound of the guns going off simultaneously made one little boy cry his eyes out. It was stupid loud, even with the ear defenders on. I wanted to cry with him, but instead I was commissioned to photograph the man in action.
Can I just say… PHWOAR!

The last stop of the tour had us sat at a long wooden table where we were served hot jasmine tea and boiled tapioca, the diet of the guerrillas. When the tour was over, we made our way to the scooter, hoping that the journey back to our hotel would not be our last. These roads are just outright deadly bearing in mind that in a city of 9 million most people get around by motorbike and a good number of them don’t look to see if there is anything coming when they turn into a road and there’s no such thing as personal space, if there is a space then someone is going to fill it.

After having to budget approximately $50 (£30) a day for all this tourist malarky we found ourselves in a precarious situation: Either we get jobs ASAP or we book our flights home for early July.

We were 12 hours away from booking our flights, having decided that this was the most sensible course. Sat at a roadside drinking beer for 6000 dong (20p), feeling like we’d failed and had to succumb to the truth of the matter, that we were skint, we unexpectedly overheard a bloke asking a table of Swedes next to us if they were interested in teaching English. As soon as Gareth heard this he beckoned the man over. He was a short, middle aged Kiwi and he introduced himself as Neil, handed us his business card, told us he owned a hotel in a district about 30 minutes away, could help us find teaching work, and the clincher, it was real Vietnam. No tourists.

Plastic children’s chairs and 20p draught beer = somewhat uncomfortable heaven

We gave ourselves a few days to weigh it up; our main concern was whether we could afford to invest in an idea that might ultimately not work out. We knew that we had enough cash to live in Vietnam for a month and on top of that enough cash to fly home if we needed to. We decided to just go for it. Teaching English was one thing we’d both wanted to do originally, in fact, on our first date Gareth had told me he wanted to go back to Vietnam and teach English (this made me fancy him even more). We had our TEFL certificates with us and I’d been carting two heavy English books with me across Southeast Asia so it was a bit of a no-brainer in the end.

We moved into a small bright room with white walls and an interestingly positioned mirror that ran alongside the bed. We have our own TV, a pokey fridge, an en-suite bathroom that leaves nothing to the imagination when one of us has to use the loo, and a communal kitchen that we share with around 10 other lodgers. Home sweet home.

When backpacking and moving from location to location every few days the need to be still can become overwhelming. So we gave ourselves a few days to find our feet, did some shopping in a real supermarket, and even cleaning and cooking felt so thrilling.

Within a few days we were out with Neil who took us to 15 schools in the district where we would hand in our CV’s then move on before they asked us any difficult questions such as ‘Have you ever taught before?’ Three days later we got our first job, teaching nursery school.

Now, you might think that’s truly awful, or you might think that’s the easiest job going. At times it can be both. Teaching 3 year olds to count to 5 takes weeks. Taking 5 minutes to line up 4 year olds to play a numbers game that involves them writing on a whiteboard then realising they can’t actually write yet, and some can’t even reach the board, is quite embarrassing. Teaching 5 year olds words for colours then being smacked by one kid when your back’s turned and that 5 year old telling you that the stick they have just hit you with is ‘Red!’ is just a mixed bag of emotions. Dancing and singing is fun but coming home and singing that one song ‘Clap, clap, clap your hands, clap your hands together…’ over and over in your head could make some people really quite ill.

So, now you know, we’re still alive and kicking in Saigon. Got our hands full a bit with the wee ones but we also teach 16 year olds so it’s not all singing and dancing. I started teaching adults last Monday, which is probably the most relaxing part of my week, unless I’ve got a glass of Dalat red wine in my hand that is.

Before I end, let me leave you with this from The Quiet American:

I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam. That a woman’s voice can drug you? That everything is so intense – the colours, the taste, even the rain? Nothing like the filthy rain in London.

They say whatever you’re looking for you will find here.

They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes. But the rest has got to be lived.

The smell, that’s the first thing that hits you – promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat. Your shirt is straight away a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from. But at night, there’s a breeze.

The river is beautiful. You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war, that the gunshots were fireworks, that only pleasure matters. A pipe of opium, or the touch of a girl who might tell you she loves you.

And then something happens, as you knew it would, and nothing can ever be the same again.