Breakfast in Saigon


This morning is like any other day at the Palace Sàigòn; up at 0530 or before, a Pepsi to get my heart started, then a trip at 0700 to the Bonsai restaurant on the fifth floor.  It’s pink.  According to the Palace’s website, “Guest will have delicious dinner.  With the wonderful places gyest can enjoy the charm empresseve spot & street of Saigon by night.”  I turn in my “Phiếu Ăn Sáng”—breakfast coupon.

Breakfast Coupon

I tell the hostess I’d like “một cái Coca-Cola,” since they don’t have Pepsi.  She rolls her eyes—it is much too early for carbonation—and tells me to sit down; she sends a waiter over with my drink, and I hand him 15,000 đồng.  This has become a ritual, one we have all followed—me, the hostess and the waiter—every morning but my very first at the Palace.  That was the only day I didn’t eat breakfast, and that was the only day that I was ready to eat wild watermelon by lunchtime.  Except for the occasional jelly doughnut, I don’t normally eat breakfast, but on this trip I found it to be a necessity.

I’m sitting with Sandy, who will eat anything.  She’s having her usual hearty breakfast of rice congee surrounded by multiple dishes of items to add, from sauteed bok choy to slices of pork.  Once I get my drink and have paid for it, I go through the buffet.  “Omelet chay,” I say; vegetarian omelet.  I pick up some of those tasty baby bananas, jam and butter, a pastry.  Various vegetables.  And bread.

Although the bread is descended from French bread, it comes in loaves twice the diameter, half the length, half the mass and half the flavor of a real baguette.  Audrey has she taught me the difference between French Bread and all other, lesser forms of bread.  Real baguettes are two feet long and densely crusted with a fine-textured, chewy crumb—or filet of bread, as I prefer to call it.  Although influenced by the real thing, these short torpedoes are still pale imitations.  Even so, they are superior to Wonder Bread.

I remember Wonder Bread with a great deal of fondness, however, though it has been many, many years since I’ve eaten it.  In 1970, I was with Company B, 369th Signal Battalion, Củ Chi Detachment.  We were too small to have our own mess hall; we ate at one of the mess halls for the 86th Signal Battalion and didn’t have to pull KP because we supplied them with a cook.  The bread they tried to give us on Army bases in Việt Nam was a weezy, disgusting affair.  While it had few weevils, it was utterly tasteless and mostly holes.  After a few weeks incountry, I missed familiar, uniform Wonder Bread with a great passion.  I wrote to my parents about what I missed, and my father undertook to satisfy this unnatural craving.

Mom and Dad lived in Peoria IL, and had done so since 1958, when Dad took a job with the First National Bank as a farm manager.  Few people know that many good-sized banks hold sizable numbers of farms in trust.  In the summertime, he and I would make the rounds to his farms; he managed seventy farms or so, scattered all over the state.  I got used to motel dinners and diner cuisine; Dad would pay with his Diner’s Club card, carefully noting how much my food cost.  He would expense his meals to the Bank, but not mine.

Dad was careful about everything, and knew how to wrap packages.  Before he sent me a care package, he would go to the Giant Store (a kind of home-grown version of Wal Mart long before there was such a thing; out of business years ago) and purchase a large plastic container made to hold heavily mothballed blankets.  These were ordinarily large enough to hold three loaves of bread plus miscellaneous other small stuff; he would pack in two loaves and add pizza mixes, decks of cards, homemade cookies (in foam padding), sausages, and rolls of film.  Sometimes, he would put in a can of spray cheese, a brand new taste treat in 1970.

Once he had fitted everything in with machinist’s precision to eliminate empty space, he would close the lid of the container, force out the last molecules of air, and seal it with heavy-duty sealing tape.  He would then criss-cross the box with strapping tape and place it in a larger cardboard box.  He would fill the space between the plastic and the cardboard with newspaper; styrofoam peanuts did not exist in 1970.

After closing the outer box, he would seal it with heavy plastic tape, which was just becoming available.  When I say “seal,” I mean that it would look as if it had been dipped in liquid plastic; there were no openings in which to insert a knife.  He would then wrap the sealed box with brown paper, tape and address it, and place the same plastic tape over the entire surface of the wrapping paper, leaving, again, no possible openings.

Then he would tie the box with several wrappings of heavy twine, and march it to the post office, where I am sure the clerks would gaze at him in awe.  “It’s for my son,” he would say.  “My son in Vietnam,” implying that they'd better take damn good care of that box.

And they would; one or two weeks later, I would enjoy the fresh taste of home, when the mail room at the 86th Sig would notify me that I had a package.  I would bring it back to my room and begin opening it.  I could not have opened it without a knife, because every seam would be sealed so tightly there would be no place to pick at the tape to peel it off uncut.  Half an hour after beginning, I would have it open and the contents spread out in my room.  That Wonder Bread would taste like it had just come off the grocery store shelf.  I would slice up the pepperoni and run it through the toaster oven and eat it on the bread.  I would make sandwiches with bread and summer sausage and spray cheese.  I would hog most of the cookies for myself, but everyone on site would get at least one.  My mother became the acknowledged Grand Champion Cookie-Maker of the Củ Chi Detachment.

During the remainder of that year, Dad continued to send care packages.  If he sent rye or whole wheat bread, I would share those with the others, but not the Wonder Bread, not ever.  I won’t eat the stuff now, but I remember how close to home it took me in 1970.

In 2002, in the Bonsai Restaurant in the Palace Hotel in Sàigòn, I think of Dad.  He died January 11, 2000, in a small hospital in Florida.  He had moved to Florida after a lifetime of saying he wanted to move back someday—he and Mom had honeymooned in St. Augustine, and we had lived there in the late forties.  He’d been there six months, had a nice little condo and a Crown Victoria.  He and I hadn’t spoken for four years, but my brother kept me apprised of developments.  I was pleased that Dad finally got back to a warm climate; I had expected him to break a hip, not just a leg, the next time he fell on the ice in one of those deadly cold Illinois winters.

In 1950, he and Mom owned a tiny little house in Central Florida.  I don’t have a picture of him with that house where I can get to it easily, but here’s a picture from 1948, or maybe 1949.

Dad and me in 1948

We’re in front of my Mother’s parents’ house in Evansville IN.  The fellow holding the balloon is the same guy who, twenty years after the photograph, would wrap loaves of Wonder Bread well enough to get them safe to an APO 12,000 miles away; that’s the person I like to remember.

The little house in Florida in 1950
Little House in Florida in 1950
The little house in Florida in the late 50s or early 60s
Little House in Florida in the 50s or 60s

In February of 2002, I ordered a Dr. Dolittle book from a dealer.  It’s the shortened and censored 1992 version of Gub-Gubs book.  When it arrives, it is hermetically sealed in four tightly wrapped, nearly impregnable, layers of bubble-wrap, plastic wrap and newspaper.  I need a knife to open it.  Dad would have been proud to know that people could still care, could still take their jobs seriously enough to pack things right, by god.

Dad could get carried away.  My brother and I always say that the family motto is, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.”  One day Dad decided to clean the bedroom airconditioner.  He pulled it out and discovered that there was a nest of baby birds underneath; instead of giving up on the cleaning operation, he covered the birds with a board, careful to leave room for the mother to get through.  She hung about on the gutters for the remainder of the operation.

After first taking off the metal filters, held on with screws, on the back and sides of the mechanism, Dad hosed down the airconditioner innards.  He cleaned and fiddled and picked for the best part of two hours.  He would have made a good archaeologist, I thought, and I told him so.  When the job was nearly done, he placed the filters on the mechanism and screwed them on.  My attention wandered, even though I was perfectly aware that tightening screws is something Dad takes seriously.  To him, there’s no such thing as too much torque.  He was thinking, “Crank that sucker,” and I was spacing out, watching the mother robin.  I heard a “ssssssssss.”

“Uh, Dad?”

“Ssssssssssssss.”

“Dad, I think you can stop tightening now.”

He applied the last possible foot-pound.  His biceps bulged.  The hissing stopped.  He looked at it and swore.  In his position, I would have thrown the screwdriver across the yard.  But all he says is, “Damn.”

“Uh-huh,” I say.  It’s no accident that I’m a completist.  Thomasania, a student of my wife’s, claims that you can never satisfy a professor—professors always respond to all students’ writings and spoken comments, whatever they are, with “Say more.”  After she read one of my pages with embedded links leading to more information, she told Audrey that she had married the right person.  “A professor should always marry a person who can say more,” she said.

By the way, the baby birds were fine; Dad kept the board over them until he could get the tubing repaired and the freon recharged.  When they grew up and moved away, he sealed the hole to dissuade future tenants.

In 2002, an hour after breakfast, Sandy, Bill, Mark Byrnes, Mark Lawrence, Andrew, Carl, Kate, Ed, Christina, Alison, Andrew, Bill and I set off up Tự Do street to visit the cathedral at the street’s end.

Woman riding bike on Tu Do Street

The woman riding the bike has her face hidden.  Mr. Song says that the reason many women wear scarves over their faces and gloves is for beauty, not privacy.  They are afraid the sun will wrinkle or blemish their skin.  In the few days we’ve been here, I’ve seen women on bikes, on mopeds, in cyclos and walking, wearing scarves and gloves and hats—sometimes nón lá, cone hats, like the woman above.

I wonder if Maxim’s is related to the legendary Maxim’s of Paris.

Maxim’s

I rather think not; I doubt if the real Maxim’s would allow karaoke.  I toy with the idea of trying to organize a dinner there tonight.  Later, back home researching this article, I find a map of Maxim’s worldwide locations:  Paris, Monte-Carlo, New York, Mexico, Pékin, Shanghaï.  Sorry, no Sàigòn.  It’s like the T-shirts I find later, in Hội An, of the world-famous Belgian icon, Tintin, in Việt Nam.  Tintin was never in Việt Nam, but, like Maxim, he should have been.

A few blocks later, we take a side trip to take pictures of the People’s Committee.  In 1970, it was City Hall (that’s the Rex on the left side of the picture).

City Hall in 1970 Saigon

There are many fewer cars than there were thirty-two years ago, so streets crammed like they are above are hard to find.

Traffic in 1970 Saigon

There’s another way Sàigòn has changed; no jeeps, no deuce-and-a-halfs (or is that more properly “deuces-and-a-half”?  I also worry about the plural of mongoose), no white mice—ARVN MPs—patrolling the streets.  Today, the traffic comprises pedestrians, bikes, cyclos, mopeds and motorbikes, a few cars and some, sometimes many, trucks.  The cars and trucks you see are mostly Japanese and German brands; no more Dodges and DeSotos and Edsels, not even a lonely old Chevrolet.

Bus in 1970 Saigon

Worst of all, the busses now are bland, innocuous, bereft of character.

Bus in 2002 Vung Tau

Some of them are painted brightly enough, but the schemes have all the earmarks of being chosen by corporate marketing committee, not the individual owner’s aesthetic sensibility.  The picture above shows our tour bus in Vũng Tàu; much as I liked it—it had the best air-conditioning, the best seats and by far the best drivers—it could stand a little cross-fertilization with Filipino Jeepneys.

People’s Committee (City Hall) in 2002

The People’s Committee is on Lê Thánh Tôn Street; under a new coat of paint and a different sort of government, it betrays its origin as a Colonial hotel.  We’re standing at the intersection with Nguyễn Huệ, the street the Palace is on.  Somehow or other, I completely miss the large and famous statue of Uncle Hồ reading to a child.  Luckily, Mark doesn’t.

This photo © 2002 Mark Byrnes
Famous Ho Chi Minh Statue

We head back over to Tự Do; Sandy and I, for some reason, are lagging behind.  A little girl latches on to us, trying to sell us postcards.  “One dollar, one dollar,” she chants, fanning out the cards and showing us the individual scenes as if that alone would convince us to buy several sets.  “Already have,” says Sandy, taking her cue from Dr. Leibo.  He says the best way to keep the peddlers away is to tell them that you’ve already got whatever it is they’re trying to sell you, be it postcards or books or T-shirts or backscratchers.

Dr. Leibo’s plan can backfire, he tells us.  After several minutes of trying to sell him one thing or another, one young woman says to him in disgust, “You sure have a lot of stuff in your house!”

The girl gives up on Sandy and moves to me.  “Postcards!” she announces brightly.

“No, no,” I say, keeping my eyes straight ahead.  I’m emulating Mary Kathleen; I’ve noticed that of us all, she is bothered least by the peddlers.  She says “No” and ignores them.  But the little girl is persistent.  No postcards?  I must want a different set.  She displays those.  “No, no,” I say.  Another different set.  No?  Chopsticks! Fans!  Scarves!  T-Shirts!  She dances ahead, returns.

Every peddler, it seems, tries to sell us a bootleg copy of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.  Only after I return and am researching these articles do I find out that the book is banned by the Vietnamese government.  I don’t know why, since it seems to be about how difficult it is being shallow in Colonial Indochina. The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, is also banned, I learn; again, I don’t know why, since it is an anti-war book.  The rationale behind why a communist government, even one as mostly capitalist as this one, would do anything is beyond me, but then, I have difficulty with the motives of any government anywhere doing anything.

We’ve walked at least a block, I must have changed my mind.  Postcards! she offers.  “No, no,” I say again.

She’s had it.  “No-no, no-no, no-no,” she sing-songs, skipping away and making a face just short of sticking out her tongue.  Sandy and I crack up.  Now, of course, I want to buy something to make it up to her, but she’s already around the corner, gone.

We walk a little further.  Not far from the end of the street, just before the cathedral, we see a sign for the Miss Saigon.  I don’t know if it’s a restaurant, a  theatre or a massage parlor, but it is designed to appeal to tourists.  Anytime you see the diactrics left off, it’s for the safety of the tourists.

Citroen and Miss Saigon

The mural says, in English, “Welcome to Viet Nam”—without diacritics.  The two hand-painted pots contain a palm and a ficus.  The red-and-black Citroën limousine is parked on the sidewalk directly in front of the yellow star and red field of the official flag of Việt Nam.  The pole on the right, holding wires, is left over from Colonial days.  I wonder if the Citroën is left over from the American War—our Vietnam War.

It probably is; in 1936, Citroën founded a subsidiary in Sàigòn, the “Société Automobile d’Extrême-Orient.”  The front-wheel drive “Traction” models, like the one above, all seem to date from 1936 to 1940.  The “2 CV” also dates from 1936.  Although they were produced in quantity after WWII, I doubt many were imported into Việt Nam, and I don’t know how the subsidiary fared after the 1945 revolution.  The Renault 4 CV dates from 1947 (Citroën made a 2 CV and a 5 CV, so didn’t cash in on the lucrative taxi market), and there were thousands of those in the Sàigòn of the 60s and 70s.

We leave Miss Saigon and the Citroën limo behind.  Just ahead is the cathedral.

Notes

ARVN:   Army of the Republic of Việt Nam

Foot-pound:  A measurement of torque.  Today it is measured in Newton-meters:  1 foot-pound = 1.36 Newton-meters.

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