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Those first days and weeks in Saigon were filled with wonder and delight. Since everyone got around the city by scooter, I figured that we should too. I searched online, and found an American who rented scooters from his home in District One. I called him up and arranged for him to deliver two scooters to our villa, one for Handan and one for me. I paid him for a month. This would be great! I’d been riding motorcycles for about 15 years at that point, so I was excited to get out and try to make sense of the wacky Saigon traffic. Handan was less excited about her scooter. She loved riding on the back of mine, though! She never really took to riding, but we gave the neighbors some laughs as I taught her to ride around the empty streets of the villa compound! Sometimes I would ride behind her, shouting instructions as she wobbled all over the road. Other times, I rode on the back of her scooter, shouting encouragement as she attempted to balance the machine with my added weight on back. The neighbors used to come out of their houses to watch when I gave Handan riding lessons. I’m sure it was all tremendous entertainment for them.
One day, I decided to pick Handan up at work and take her out to lunch. We found a cool-looking little spot and parked.
We sat outside, enjoying the climate and the opportunity to have lunch together. I asked for menus in English. Most restaurants had menus in Vietnamese and English. Often the ones in English had higher prices for the same food. When the menus came, I had to swallow my laughter so I didn’t offend the owners. Here were some of the more interesting offerings (I posted these on Facebook five years ago, so I must have written them down or typed them into my iPod).
- Boiled Voting
- Fried Need Water with Garlic
- Fried Bath Tub with Garlic
- Fried Improving Basketball with Garlic
- Cooked Pig’s Feet Like False Dog
- Fish Skin Crawl Fried with Salt and Chili
I considered the boiled voting, but as the boiling tends to soften it too much, I voted against it.
It was a hot day, and I was already pretty parched, so I overlooked the need water.
Since this was a quick lunch, and I didn’t want to fill up too much, I decided against the bath tub. A good fried bath tub is really a dish for two that should be savored over several bottles of wine.
The basketball sounded intriguing. Basketball is not usually my first choice, especially in countries that don’t have good professional teams. But if not prepared properly, basketball can be a bit chewy. I know they said that theirs was improving, but I just couldn’t take the chance. I detest chewy basketball. In the end, I gave the basketball a pass.
Cooked pig’s feet are a favorite of mine! I like them so much better than raw pig’s feet, though raw feet will also do in a pinch. But these pig’s feet were like false dog, and I just can’t abide anything but the real deal. If they were like true dog, I would have been all over them. These feet were barking up the wrong tree.
Now, who doesn’t love a good fish skin crawl, right? When I was a boy, I used to go to illegal fish skin crawl races down by the banks of the Connecticut River. You ain’t never seen a fish skin crawl until you seen a catfish skin crawl, I tell you what! The problem is that if you fry ’em, they can’t crawl any more!
I was getting lost in this menu. Too many strange choices. But then my eyes happened upon The Great Taboo: Shark Fin Soup. Just saying the words in certain company in America can result in mass fainting and bloated indignation.
I had to try it.
I mean, the shark was already dead, and it’s not like I was planning to go on a 30-Day Shark Fin Cleanse or anything. One little serving of finny broth wouldn’t hurt anyone. I ordered a small bowl and imagined the conniptions of my San Francisco friends, if they only knew.
The soup arrived. I glanced around, sweat forming at my brow. I felt like a criminal. I imagined there were Greenpeace eco-warriors hiding in the greenery just waiting for me to take a slurp, whereupon they would jump out and rush me, screaming “BUTCHER!” as they took my scalp in retribution.
I dipped my spoon and stirred a bit. It seemed like regular soup. I saw no signs of devilry or evil. I lifted the spoon to my lips, inserted it into my face and transferred the contents into my stomach.
In the end, it was just soup with some rubbery bits of fin. The soup was neither spectacular nor horrible. It was perfectly average. The broth itself was simple, but good. It reminded me of egg drop soup. If it were just the broth, I would have been happy. The fin bits brought the total score way down. Moral objections aside, I didn’t like their flavor, and I hated their texture. You know that cartilage on the joints of Buffalo chicken wings? Blech, I hate that stuff! Well, that is what shark fin was like, but instead of tasting like awesome and delicious Buffalo sauce, it tasted like fish. If I’m going to have to munch on cartilage, I’d rather it taste like Buffalo chicken. Or grilled steak.
We stopped at a small market on the way back to Handan’s office, so she could pick up a few things. When she got to the register, there was an gnarled and ancient man near the counter. When he saw Handan, his creased and weathered face lit up.
“Hello!” he said. By his accent, he was American.
“Oh, hello!” Handan said, and smiled at the man.
“Do you know if they accept US Dollars here?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Handan said, “I’ll ask. Do you you accept US dollars here?” she said to the clerk.
“No, only Dong,” said the clerk.
Handan turned back to the little man. “What did you want to buy?” she said.
“Just this ice cream,” he said. He held it up with a wrinkled smile.
Handan slapped some Dong on the counter, enough for her items and the old man’s ice cream.
“But I have enough Dong to pay for it!” the old man said.
“It’s done and done. Enjoy your ice cream!” Handan smiled and headed for the door.
“Oh, what a sweetheart you are! Can I marry you, please?” the old man said.
“I’m already married!” she said with a giggle.
The old man turned to the clerk and said, “The moment she dumps her husband, I will marry her!” He laughed and took a bite of his ice cream.
Handan left the store, grinning from ear to ear. She got back on the scooter and told me that she had just received her second-ever marriage proposal. Since she was laughing about it, I wasn’t too worried about my competition. As I drove her back to work, I thought about the little old man, and I hoped that he would find a good companion for the remainder of his golden years.
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