Hospitality in Saigon

"Arm! Arm!" a Vietnamese waitress instructed me, as she shoved my messenger bag into my chest and wrapped my arm around it.  All around Saigon's touristy district 1, visitors can be witnessed hugging their backpacks to their chests to prevent theft.  Our waitress was helping protect our belongings, which I appreciate, but I'm not going to walk around clutching my purse.  Some questions were raised: where are all of these Vietnamese scoundrels?  How and when will they strike?  Paige and I strolled the streets near our hotel, lined with food hawkers, children at play, and old men quaffing coffee.  I examined the hundreds of faces we passed, searching for bad intentions.  What I discovered were smiles, compliments on my hair and beard, and cute kids who wanted their picture taken.  What we experienced in Saigon was a common warmth and hospitality which are rare anywhere else I've been.  Our first day in Vietnam included two trips down alleyways and a sit down at a coffee shop.  These experiences were indicative of our week in Saigon.

Our first morning's plan was based around trying a well recommended Vietnamese sandwich shop.  After months of nothing but rice and noodles, the notion of crusty bread slathered with pâté and mayo induced our collective salivation.  But when we arrived, our appetites were put on hold.  The shop doesn't open until afternoon.  We weren't dejected for long.  No more than 100 feet away, we spotted a chrome food cart peaking out of an alley.  The sign read BÚN BÒ HUÊ, which at the time meant nothing to me.  Our rumbling stomachs led us there nonetheless.

At this point in our travels I don't expect greetings to be easy at street restaurants.  I smile and say hello.  Often times, in return I get a blank stare followed by reluctant service.  I'm not complaining.  I certainly don't need to be pampered.  I only mention it because of the friendly greeting we got at this alleyway soup cart.  The elderly matron of this family business freely offered her grandmother's smile, and without hesitation led us to one of the plastic tables that lined the narrow lane.  She then pulled a stool up to the table for us to put our bags on.  Where else do they provide stools for handbags?  For one, Del Posto, the New York Times 4 star restaurant in Manhattan.

Bún bó huê turned out to be a delicious rice noodle soup with beef that originates in Huê, a town in central Vietnam.  We slurped noodles, all the while a young boy kept tabs on the wellbeing of diners.  When we got up to pay, one of the women who worked there engaged us in a conversation about the soup we just ate.  The rest of the family joined a cordial discourse about the origins of bún bó huê, where we were from, and what we would do in Vietnam.  For that moment of chatter and laughs, we went from being tourists to being guests in Saigon.

Having been fed, it was time we were caffeinated.  There might be tens of thousands of places in Saigon to get the concentrated, sweet, chicory scented coffee that Vietnam is famous for.  We chose to sit down at one of the street amphitheaters where men gather to pass the hot afternoons, sitting on plastic chairs, drinking strong iced coffee, and watching the street dramatics.  Our coffee arrived accompanied by two glasses of iced jasmine tea.  It wasn't a mistake.  Everyone sitting next to us also had glasses of aromatic iced tea.  We sat, sipped, and watched for hours.  Our tea was generously refilled as long as we sat there.  I've spent 20 times the money on a cup of coffee in Manhattan without being offered a glass of water.  A simple offering of comfort to guests, a somewhat lost art in western culture, is just common courtesy in Saigon coffee houses.

Thoroughly entertained, and wired, we rose from our front row seats and started back towards the sandwiches we originally set out for.  By our calculations, if we walked a few blocks and took our next left we would be on the right track.  Unbeknownst to us, our next left was a dead end alley.

By the time it became clear that we weren't on a through street, Paige and I were standing in front of a table where two gentleman were sharing lunch.  The one on the right reached out, touched my arm and proclaimed, "I want you to drink this!"  With his other hand he presented a shot of liquor.  I was dumbfounded.  In my subconscious my mother was surely lecturing me on taking candy from strangers.  Was this the robbery plot? A back alley roofey?  I knew what it wasn't: the day I would start refusing drinks.  Down the hatch it went, and when I looked up he was stuffing some fried egg into a piece of baguette.  He handed it to me to chase the liquor.  We repeated this four times.  A buzz gathered behind my eyes.  We started bowing to each other.  We began conversations that were deflected by the language barrier, we didn't care.  Neighbors started to become interested.  Before long there was a handful of us out there mixing it up.  A proud father holding his stark naked two-year-old boy urged us to photograph him.  Everyone, in fact, wanted their picture taken.  We spent some time taking photos, showing them to everyone and laughing.

Paige and I said our goodbyes and continued on our way.  A sudden sadness caught me off guard.  We had just met, I wasn't going to miss them; why the sorrow?  Maybe that was the point: on our only meeting, they treated us the way our family and close friends do.  I wanted to invite them over for dinner and become fast friends forever.  Our next few days in Saigon tempered that feeling.  We met many Vietnamese people who were equally kind and gracious.  Old men picked up trash off the street.  Strangers bantered with us over beers.  We heard a lot of talk about pickpockets and robbers.  I'm sure they exist in Saigon the way they exist in most big cities.  The real story is the infectious kindness of the Vietnamese people.