#033: Return to the Saigon AlleyTak's dispatch released on 9 June 2015

Bush Seller in Saigon

You step out from the windowless room, with green and blue tiles reflecting the dusty golden artificial light escaping from the wall sconce. The bathroom, a long, narrow chamber where pipes glisten, drip and gurgle. There is something you find appealing to the raw design, a place where the porcelain sink spits its contents directly onto the sloped floor, on an adventure towards the uncovered drain hole in the room’s corner.

You grab your trusty flip flops at the entrance, an entrance whose only separation with the world outside is the old steel gate pulled down in the dark of night. An illustrious world painted and heaving awaits in front of you.

You step off the tile entryway, turn right into the alleyway and weave around the tired motorbikes. At the end of the alleyway sits a Mexican restaurant, or perhaps a tacky caricature of one, a novelty and conundrum all in one. You wonder the origins, the thoughts, the plans behind such; perhaps a North American yearning for the cuisine sensed a need for the concept?

Regardless, several vanilla characters tend to be frequenting it each time you waltz past. One of the times half the restaurant was being jack-hammered, concrete dust clouding the confines, while diners on the other side of the curtain are tending to nachos seemingly oblivious.

You split to the right again, now out of the dark alleyway, littered with bubbling pots of fish heads and sauces, and onto an electrically-charged street, a carnival without a ferris wheel, a circus without a ringmaster. Bicycle vendors selling, what you can only guess are rodent traps, circulate intermittently as you walk the shoulder.

Motorbikes race through the air. The dissipating sound of several entering the distances ahead are quickly replaced by the rising cacophony of more oncoming. It is a one-way street with two-way traffic. Paying attention to road signs appears a mere fool’s game.

An older man cavorts along nonchalantly, scanning faces along the street for interest. His motorbike piled high and wide with tropical plants—green bushes, blooming trees, pole-climbing vines, an amorphous mass of plant life.

A woman makes a sharp turn in front of him with her motorbike. He immediately halts, cuts the engine and engages with her. Her stance, her focus, her motions tell she is looking for something specific. He grimaces, looks to the sky while listening intently. He turns, sweeps his arm into the portable jungle and digs for a red clay pot buried beneath. She makes a motion, he puts the pot back and pulls out another. She nods ever so slightly, yet still detached. She rotates her key in the ignition and evaporates into the mayhem. Unfazed, the rolling jungle continues its move down the chaotic street. Might the jungle be experiencing a better adventure than most. Perhaps. Perhaps.

Bo La Lot

You peer out onto the street from your perch atop the small plastic chair, the same used for children back home. You hardly even notice the chair, it is far beyond the immediate sensory overload present. Smoke tumbles off of charcoal fires atop stainless carts. The delicious scents of roasted meats in betel leaves ride the smoke through the air. The buzz of motorbikes—a constant at all times—merges with the occasional horn and the merciless thwacks of a vintage kitchen cleaver hacking bones efficiently.

You order one. What it is, you have yet to discover, but it matters not. Nothing that typically matters, matters here. Your brain is too preoccupied with the smells, the sounds, the sights.

A large plate, an assortment of greens, white spongy squares, bánh tráng—an edible paper made of rice flour or tapioca starch—and of course the charcoal-roasted beef wrapped in betel leaves. You pick up the circular bánh tráng. Your chopsticks grab a piece of the beef and drop it on the rice paper, followed by the greens, some bean sprouts and the sponge squares. You pour chili sauce over the spongy squares, which instantly absorb the stream. Tightly wrapped, you bite into it as chili sauce blasts in several directions. The flavours, a polygamous marriage beyond imagination, excite and impress.

You glance to your side, hands sticky with drippings, noticing the gentleman dipping the roll into the sauce for each bite (rather than pouring it on beforehand). Another bánh tráng translucently shows your palm facing skyward, as your chopsticks once again transfer the desired items into place. The chili sauce is absent this time during your construction process, patiently awaiting below. The rice paper is tightly rolled, and then dipped into the chili sauce. No more mess.

The smoke continues its dance from the charcoal piles, enveloping the crowd in a mystical fog. The chaos of the street is somehow peaceful. Another bánh tráng, another collection of flavours, another dip, and another, followed by another bánh tráng. Who is truly rich in this life? Can wealth be measured with numbers? Another bánh tráng slips off the stack.

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Tak

New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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