#034: A Duck Sandwich for the RoadTak's dispatch released on 16 June 2015

Saigon from the Sky

You awake to the buzz of gasoline engines, the sunlight illuminating the flowers printed on the aged curtains, and the blaring loudspeakers from the rat-trap-selling bicycle jockeys, all of which signal another day of good things to come. You stare at the ceiling. You wonder if the yellowed fire alarm up there would even work. You doubt it. You focus on the abstract art that rainwater at some time or another has so deftly stained into ceiling.

Your vision darts to the wires running at the intersection of the wall and ceiling. The small green lizard freezes, waits and disappears into the shadowy corner. Lizards make better companions than mosquitoes you figure.

The cool and conditioned air escapes stealthily from the opening doorway as you exit. Your first instincts do not notice the heat but rather the smell of fish sauce hanging in the atmosphere. Down the stairs, down the alley past the faux-Mexican restaurant, down the street until you amble into a cafe of sorts; merchandise covering the walls. She smiles. You hold up two fingers, she nods and quickly disappears.

The sweetened condensed milk iced coffees sit in front of you and a friend. You both gaze out onto the street, unconsciously emptying the tall glasses of the contents amongst chatter. Another gesture motioned, another pair of replenishing drinks arrive.

And there again, if on cue, the jungle motors along, carrying the same old man as its passenger. He scans to the left, to the right and continues forward. The conversation continues to build. There is no rush, no pressure, no discomfort; peace in chaos is perhaps the most optimal kind.

Saigon Street Scene

The clouds want to talk—you can tell they do—but everytime you think they might, they refuse. You pretend like you don’t care, but you do. You quicken your step, around the corner with broken concrete blocks wedged at various diagonals to each other. You have no umbrella. The continuous hum, or is it a roar, of motorbikes, are they getting quieter?

Bollywood DVDs—replete with their faded covers—stacked neatly on a rickety lime green cart with over-sized wheels are pushed in front of you. You decline, a habitual response on these vendor-infested streets, which makes him more persistent. If not DVDs, perhaps a taxi, a tour guide, a menu, a massage, bananas? You continue briskly. You glance at the clouds, darkening with a heavy heart.

The strips of marinated beef over rice sits in the white styrofoam container, rubber band intact. She slides it into a small plastic shopping bag, chased by several bags full of liquids. She wants $1.50 for it which, despite your approval, is surely marked up. They all assume you’re millionaires.

When you were a child, you remember the familiar sights from the fair, or the several occasions at the pet store, small fish swimming in water, within a protective atmosphere of clear plastic and tied carefully at the top. But instead of fish, there is a dark sauce, a caramel-coloured flecked sauce and a third bag with some sort of cucumber-like vegetable and broth—a soup of some sort.

The clouds steadfast refusal has broken. You pick up your pace, bag in hand, and move across the park. One last road to cross as the vehicles slide by; you wait for a brief moment. That next step is taken, and you have immersed into the ecosystem of the street. Your decision adds yet another layer of chaos, but it just works. The oncoming motorbikes swerve effortlessly around as you ensure a constant pace. One pause will add a very real chaos to the perceived here, the moment when it would all come unglued.

Duck Banh Mi Saigon

Up over the bridge that sends a daily shadow over the murky canal below. Boats filled with bananas, sugarcane and coconuts float over the turgid depths. On one of the boats, a man is visible sleeping alongside the vegetal catch.

You are staring at a couple food carts with carmelized roasted ducks hanging in a row. This is not so much Vietnamese cuisine but of Chinese makings. You ask the first vendor how much a full duck is, how much a half is, how much a quarter is and what it comes with. It only comes with duck. You pass to the next vendor and the responses are pretty much all the same.

You stand back and observe the light traffic in duck transactions amidst the heavy traffic on the streets around you. In Singapore, you ordered a similar looking duck and it was nearly cold, chewy and disappointing. Utilizing your newfound skepticism, you shirk from the idea of ordering a large portion of duck.

“Vit banh mi?” you ask. “Banh mi vit.” They continue to look at you wildly. “Banh mi, banh mi,” you repeat until they repeat back at you that they understand you are looking for a banh mi, or Vietnamese sandwich. “Vit,” you add now, pointing at the duck. “Vit Banh Mi?”. It reminds you of a Sesame Street conjugation game from your youth.

This is the best way to test the duck you figure. Rather than spending $10 on a massive pile of potentially disappointing cold, chewy duck, you spend $1 on a sandwich with duck meat. If the duck is sublime, then you can triple down.

The vendor takes a cut of duck, grabs the nearby butcher knife and starts hacking it into smaller pieces. The unadulterated bones in the precut duck have now been transformed into combination of hacked up chunks and minuscule slivers dispersed in the chopped meat pile. You point at a visible piece of the bone in the meat. They look down, look back up at you and show a look of confusion. Clearly, pieces of bone in the sandwich are part of the grand meal and certainly not a mistake. They hand you the sandwich with a smile.

A couple of days later, you are conveying the story to a local. “Oh, well that is Chinese food; they do not take out the bones.” And so it is, a duck banh mi scored from the Chinese food carts come with a little extra prize. And the duck itself? Cold and chewy. Good thing you remembered the duck lesson from Singapore.

Sugarcane Vietnam

One of the most enjoyable beverages in the Saigon heat is the Nuoc Mia, or sugarcane juice. As you walk the street, you pass a large garage with a flurry of activity. Upon closer inspection, you realize this is a processing hub for the sugarcane, with a man standing in the back stripping off the rough exterior and co-workers hacking it down into deliverable pieces.

You realize how in developed nations, you rarely see the steps of production around you, whereas here, you often see nearly all the vertical steps. For instance, you will witness a chicken eating, getting slaughted, being filleted and being cooked all in sequential order in the same place (or, likewise, the sugarcane coming in on the boat, being stripped down and cut, being delivered and being pressed into juice). In any case, it is a nice benefit to be able to see food move along the process rather than coming out of a black hole.

Saigon Shanty

As you stand with your back to thick and noisy traffic, you look out at shanty towns in very close proximity to downtown. One day, the bulldozers and cranes will level them all, making way for “a better use” as the financiers and well-connected politicians will tout. But for now, you appreciate the birdcage hanging from the window, the two fisherman slinging their bait into the shallow water and the fact that such rudimentary structures can still exist in such a city in this day and age.

You step off the street and down the dirt embankment and walk through the unique area. People lift their heads with, what seems to be, a mix of confusion, curiosity and excitement at the spectacle.

As you take-off, you notice the geometric artwork below you. Roofs, building shapes and neighborhoods are all cut in different shapes, reflecting light and shadows in different ways. Various colours pop out from different units to add to the visual blessing. A pleasure on the ground and a pleasure from the air. It is like a modern art piece that is becoming vogue after many years of struggle. Good old Vietnam.

Baby Chicks in a Box
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New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / takw at triphash dot com

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