I love Saigon’s Book Street

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Despite the noise and shambolic chaos of life in Saigon, there are many tranquil oases if you need to escape the heat and catch your breath.  Most of these are in the form of quiet cafes, but one of my favourite places is Book Street (Đường Sách), or to call it by its official name, Nguyễn Văn Bình Street in District 1.

Even its location is magical: Book Street is a shady, tree-lined, pedestrianised zone off the side of the Notre Dame Basilica, right next to a 24 hour McDonalds, the grand old Saigon Central Post Office, and Popeyes (one of the world’s finest purveyors of fried chicken).

In Sydney, whenever I had the blues or ‘the mean reds’ I used to walk around the Dymocks bookstore on George Street.  Next to being by the water, I think wandering around a well-stocked bookstore is one of the most comforting and inspiring things you can do.  Book Street allows you to do all this out here in the cheap showiness of nature. On one side is a row of book stores; on the other, a row of cafe-cum-book stores. Because of the heat and humidity, they all open out onto the street.

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A lingering visit here is the perfect antidote to a morning of having to deal with the country’s bureaucracy.  I like to come here particularly after a few hours spent at the Office of External Affairs, and more recently, after I’ve been reading the news. A walk from the Hai Ba Trung end towards the Basilica is far better for restoring and fortifying the body and the soul than say, beating your head against a desk.

Here, you’ll find an eclectic range of translated traditional and modern classics  (Christie,  Remarque, Plato, Austen, Balzac, AA Milne, LM Montgomery, Murakami, and Hergé to name but a few), though there is a selection of English language novels as well.  (There are some books in French, though the selection is limited and haphazard: I was in the area last night, chiefly in search of fried chicken, but also found a hefty French volume on Vietnamese culture.)  One seller peddles second hand books on outdoor tables and I’ve seen some Wodehouse among them (Jeeves & Wooster and Blandings but, alas, no P Smith).

Ahhh, Book Street: where you can expect to find The Republic and The Odyssey sharing shelf-space with…50 Shades of Grey.

Occasionally, Book Street hosts an art exhibition, like its recent showing of ceramics and water colours by local artists:

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I love seeing the kids here loitering in corners or plonked on the floor, reading and oblivious to their surroundings because nothing else exists when books do.

Book Street:  the consummate baby-sitter.
There is always something weird or wonderful to be found here, like this collection of novelised Pixar films (in Vietnamese):

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And, unexpectedly, Richard Clayderman’s back catalogue:

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The stock in these stores doesn’t always get renewed so, if you come wandering down here and see something you like, make it yours straight away.  I wish I’d bought the Vietnamese novelisation of “Cars” when I had the chance.

On Christmas eve, when it was deserted, we came here and I noticed for the first time an enormous pillar that proclaims Vietnam’s ownership of the Paracel and Spratley Islands:

Book Street: where knowledge and learning are combined with
anti-Chinese propaganda and international territorial disputes
All of which, are reasons while I’ll be spending more time here in the immediate future because, well, have you seen the news lately??
 
  

That time I went to the Miss Vietnam Pageant (Southern and Central provinces round)

While I’m about as feminist as the next feminist, I can also be disgracefully shallow.  As W. Somerset Maugham said of beauty:

…we should be thankful if we are happy enough to possess it and thankful, if we are not, that others possess it for our pleasure.

 And so, thanks to a family friend with a spare ticket, I spent this evening at the Hòa Bình Theatre in District 10, watching the Southern and Central provinces round of Miss Vietnam 2016, and cheering a parade of nationally certified babes.

For the record, I feel only a low level of conflict about this, and suspect I should be feeling none at all.  As a friend of mine once said (she being a feminist, and also one of Australia’s foremost legal minds): of course you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but you’re perfectly entitled to judge a bookcover on its merits as a bookcover.  I am only sorry that this isn’t taking place in Bangkok so that I can entitle this post “Babes in Thai Land”.

We are in the upper circle so have a distant but expansive view of the stage.  If last week’s theatre experience and my previous attendance at ex-pat Vietnamese community events are anything to go by, we can expect a lot of laser lights and smoke machines.

Proceedings begin with a song and dance from a local performer and her troupe.  Part way through, the contestants come onstage in tight, glittery mini-dresses.  These are not the sort of dresses that you would wear to an all-you-can-eat buffet.  I don’t think I’ve seen this many sequins outside of Mardi Gras actually, but then, I am not a regular pageant attendee so this might just normally be a sequin-rich environment.

The girls are called out to the front of the stage one by one; a pre-recorded video introduction from each appears as she walks downstage.  Apparently not every province is represented because well, not every province was able to nominate a sufficiently pretty lady (although I may be wrong…?).  Up until now, in any case, the judging criterion has been limited to the pressing issue of “Hot or Not?”.  This, I’m told, is why Saigon and Hue have three representatives each. It seems unsporting to name the minging, unrepresented provinces, so I shan’t.

At the end of the introductory round, my favourites are Miss Đắk Lắk (no. 155) and one of the Miss Cần Thơs (no. 036).  Miss Đắk Lắk is amazonian at 6 feet tall and hails from the Ê Đê (Rade, or Rhade) people, one of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities.  Both women are from areas that have seen some blending of the Khmer and Cham with Viets over the centuries which may account for how striking they are.  I also like them because they seem to have shunned the cosmetic skin whitening products you find everywhere in Asia.

Our hosts take to the stage, but I pay them no heed because a bizarre lighting display has started where rotating beams of glaring white light are shone directly into the crowd’s faces.  Everyone is looking around a bit confused and discombobulated because every 45 seconds or so, a flash of light with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns is searing our retinas.  I mean, just what is going on?? Only a moment ago we’d been watching some pretty girls standing around, and now it’s like the test site for the Manhattan Project.  Is this a metaphor for life? Our MCs are still on stage all blah-blah-blah, oblivious to the suffering around them.  It goes on for about another TEN MINUTES, by which time everyone is cowering in their seats and covering their faces.  A cynical person might suggest that the VN government was just trying out a new form of crowd control.

At last, the lights dim.  The ambient temperature falls by about fifteen degrees and after some action from the smoke machine and a bit of singing and dancing, it is time for…The Άo Dài  Round!

The áo dài is one of Vietnam’s (main) national costumes for women; the other is the áo yêm (which is basically a piece of cloth with ties around the neck and across the back, and is very revealing actually).  The traditional áo dài consists of a long, light-weight tunic with long sleeves, a fitted mandarin collar, and side slits that start at the waist and continue down to the hem.  It is worn over a pair of wide leg trousers, also of a light-weight fabric.  If you look at early 21st century photos, áo dài are not as fitted as they are now but were worn quite loose in the bodice.  These days they are worn very fitted on the torso to accentuate the wearer’s bust, waist and arms.  Their length has varied over the years with previous generations wearing them short (mid-shin for example, for convenience); presently the mode is for floor length tunics.  The neckline has seen some variation over the years as well with boat-necks and crew necks which are more comfortable; to me though, the high mandarin collar still looks best.

I love the look of a well-cut áo dài – how floaty and elegant they are especially on a woman who can walk well in one.  It is a look that is both modest and immodest because as I said, the waist and bust are accentuated but the hips and haunches are hidden. They are, however, a massive ball-ache to wear.  You have to remember to lift the back flap up when you sit, and the hems generally when you’re in the mucky streets; they’re also very tight under the arms which can make them uncomfortable in a hot and humid climate.  At secondary school, all the girls have to wear a uniform of white áo dài with white trousers.  Can you imagine the sort of cruel and perverse mind that dreamt up that scheme?  I would have been furious at being made to wear that!

But I digress.  Back onstage the girls come out in colour co-ordinated groups of five and take turns to saunter across the stage looking elegant and divine.  No one trips on their hems or topples down the stairs – well done, all!

This is followed by a Tron-inspired dance routine and when the lights come back on again we are being entertained a Vietnamese boy band!  How splendid. I think perhaps this is the pageant organisers’ attempt at equal opportunity ogling, but no, this is merely the prelude to…THE BIKINI ROUND!

I’m not sure much needs to be said of this part of proceedings except that there is a sudden increase in the “creepiness” factor because when the girls take their turn to do their individual struts, their measurements (height, weight, bust, waist and hips) are announced to all and sundry! What the-?  I don’t see the relevance of their actual measurements when they are already mincing about in skimpy bathers, unless you are the sort of degenerate body fascist who wants to work out everyone’s BMI and make them feel bad about it later?  Miss Đắk Lắk, in particular, is a crowd favourite because she looks especially bombshell-y.  She seems to be enjoying herself immensely.  Again, they all look very nice.  Although, I think that if any of these girls were my daughters I would probably rush the stage and cover them up in a doonah.  They do a group dance routine to end the round

As we wait for the next part, the smoke machines come on again and we are transported into a magical woodland setting.  There’s some more singing and prancing about but no one is really paying attention because those BLINDING TRACTOR BEAMS have been switched on again!  Urgh!  I mean, sure, you might expect this to happen if you were being made to submit to an invading race of lizard overlords, but this sort of thing just has no place at a beauty pageant.  What is this about?

Finally, the song ends, the giant trees are wheeled offstage and it is time for…the EVERNING WEAR ROUND.

The girls take turns to sashay across the stage in western style evening and ball-wear.  Some have been inspired by Disney, others by the trashy and flamboyant world of international figure skating, and yet others by casino dresses favoured by eighties Bond Girls.  Again, there are a lot of sequins happening.  It all reminds of me a girl I went to school with who danced competitively.  She said that it was such a bitchy sport that you’d have girls who would rip off a handful of sequins from other girls’ costumes as they walked by, knowing that as soon one sequin fell off, they’d all start coming off.  I wonder if such crazy japes are happening backstage right now.

Miss Đắk Lắk comes out in a racy red (sequinned) dress that looks like a monokini with an optional skirt attachment. But Miss Cần Thơ (036), who has been inspired by both Gone with the Wind and Stephen Hawking, leaves them all for dust. Her dress has a fitted bodice and a wide hooped skirt with a celestial theme printed on it.  She looks set to save Tara, then present on String Theory.

At the end of all that sashaying we’re told it is time for the judges to deliberate.  Hold up.  That’s it?  Where is the TALENT ROUND?  There must be some mistake.  The Talent Round, no matter how cursory, is the round that gives dignity to the Bikini Round – those two being, I posit, the Yin and Yang of beauty pageantry.  How can there not be a Talent Round here?  Are we are to be denied a rendition of Bourée in E Minor with water glasses, the cheering sight of someone tap-dancing across the stage to Tea for Two, and a jaunty glockenspiel arrangement of Smells Like Teen Spirit?  Say it ain’t so, judges…

But that really is it for the evening, because the ladies are coming back out again.

Eighteen ladies are called to step up and go through to the National finals in August, including Miss Đắk Lắk and Miss Cần Thơ (036).    Will I be tuning in?  You bet.

EDITED TO ADD:  A friend has pointed out that the pageant world has long abandoned The Talent Round. Mea culpa.  Full disclosure:  Beauty pageants are not my area of expertise.  I fact, I learnt all I know about beauty pageants from Miss Congeniality and The Baby-Sitters Club #15  Little Miss Stoneybrook and Dawn.  

 

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Miss VN 3
Argh! My eyes, zees goggles do nussink!
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Smoke fills the stage for no discernable reason

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I have to say, I’m quite impressed with the low light performance of the Fujinon 18-135mmm lens. This was taken at about 135mm and although the image is quite soft in the corners is is sharp in the centre which is good going considering how far away I was.

 

Three more hours of Dostoevsky

At today’s reading an American tourist told me “Your English is excellent!”  How splendid.  A lot of the locals and tourists came up to have a listen and a chat today.  I’m afraid that I sounded like a Christian evangelist because the first hundred or so pages are dense with religious theorising.  One of the locals wanted to know how I could be certain that my friend really was doing the same thing at the same time in Trafalgar Square – the implication being that it could all have been a great hoax to make me look like a nutter in Saigon.

We had spectacular weather conditions tonight. For the second half, there was a spectacular lightening storm right overhead (no thunder) for about 90 minutes; all these thick, dark clouds rolling past, with a flashing sky.  It also rained a bit so for a good hour, it was just me and Old Ho on the mall, in the rain with the lightening.  Then a man came up and said wouldn’t I rather move somewhere else because he was worried I’d get struck down, however, I did not and remain unharmed..

Atonement

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I had the most wonderful and off the wall cultural experience yesterday thanks to a colleague who told me about a theatre night being presented by the HCMC Open University.  Every six months the students in the Faculty of Foreign Languages put on a weekend of English language theatre.  This time round they were doing three shows and the previous evening had staged The Rose and the Nightingale, as well as Vanity Fair (the latter being condensed into 45 minutes apparently, so well done them!)  Last night we went off to 30 Trần Hưng Đạo to watch a production of Atonement (the most gloriously filmed and depressing two hours of cinema ever). [1]

These Vietnamese students put on a production in English, using the word ‘cunt’, and simulating sex on stage (which, given how conservative the Vietnamese are about sex, at least in public, made it quite a racy evening).  There were smoke machines, laser light displays, gyrations to Beyonce’s Crazy in Love.  I mean sure, they deviated a little from the source material but it was done with such enthusiasm and sincerity you couldn’t help but love it.  The audible gasps and shocked responses from the audience were especially endearing.

The immediacy of live performance and the sense that anything can happen on stage is what makes theatre so enlivening for me.  Vietnamese theatre has evolved so much over the past 150 years by absorbing external cultural influences, first from the French and then from its Cold War allies that it is exciting and intriguing to see how it will develop in the coming years as the theatrical practices of Western trade partners start filtering through.

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[1] Last year, when mum came to visit we went down to Seven Sisters to see the Coast Guard cottages that feature in the film.  Because she hadn’t seen it, I put it on that night and she was so bummed out at the end of it, we had to watch some Downton Abbey reruns to cheer her.

***

A very, VERY brief history of

Vietnamese theatre

Prior to the twentieth century, traditional Vietnamese theatre consisted of two main forms of musical theatre hat tuong and hat cheo – neither of which involved spoken dialogue.

Hat tuong (‘Tuong’) was derived from Chinese theatrical traditions (like many aspects of Vietnamese culture though they are probably loathe to admit it) and in particular, Peking Opera, with its use of painted faces, coordinated moves, dances and martial arts.  Tuong plots also borrowed from Chinese history and fiction though they also dramatised events in Vietnamese history, legends and literature. Themes included struggles at court between an evil courtier and the emperor, loyalty, filial piety (of course), and the virtues of patriotism.

Hat cheo (‘Cheo’), on the other hand, is a popular folk theatre tradition which includes dance, song, pantomime, improvisation, interaction with the audience and in fact, audience commentary.  Cheo was commonly performed in village temples or out in the open at the village market on mats which allowed for the audience to sit around the stage thus eliminating the distance between performer and audience.  The staging was minimalist and its plots centred on Buddhist themes, human destiny, the fate of the poor, lofty altruism, and longings for happiness confronting corruption and praising virtue within rural society. These themes were favoured by the peasants, craftsmen, and poor townsfolk who made up the bulk of the Cheo audience.  In Cheo, the actors and the audience work together to create, analyse and comment on the story and the performance.  In contrast to the classical and Chinese style of the Tuong genre, Cheo plays were meant to be funny and light-hearted entertainment.

The formal French colonisation of Vietnam began in the late 19th Century.  French presence had a number of effects on Vietnamese theatrical traditions.  First was that there was an increasing awareness among the Vietnamese educated classes of Western literature and music.  Secondly, the inclusion of Western theatrical practices, literature and music led to the development of a form of Vietnamese theatre called Cai Luong (“reformed theatre”) and spoken theatre.  Thirdly, the pauperisation of the local population led to the decline of Cheo and Tuong performances, particularly Cheo which was performed mainly in rural areas; Cheo and Truong theatre have been in decline ever since.

One Vietnamese intellectual, Nguyen Van Vinh, was so impressed by the prosperity of France compared to Indochina, sought to increase the intellectual development of his people by translating and disseminating the works of Dumas and Hugo.  He also translated and spread Moliere plays and this culminated in the first spoken Vietnamese performance in April 1920 of Vinh’s production of La Malade Imaginaire (under the Vietnamese title Benh Tuong). Although the French colonists had been enjoying French spoken theatre in the colony since the end of the 19thC, this was the first spoken Vietnamese language theatre production; it was sponsored and coached by the French and the audience was largely French.  Apparently the play had been chosen because Moliere’s comedies were close to Cheo theatre in the way they reflected society satirically.

Vinh’s production of  La Malade Imaginaire inspired Vietnamese writers to create and stage their own spoken theatre plays about their own people and issues faced by them. Although, Vietnamese spoken theatre was such a significant departure from traditional theatre practices that in its early years, performers were sometimes heckled by the audience demanding to know when the music and singing would start.

French rule in Indochina in the 1910s and 1920s brought about other changes in theatre: Western music traditions were introduced, and incorporated, in Vietnamese performances. The use of contemporary French music with traditional Vietnamese chamber music to accompany Tuong theatre stories and a more realistic style of acting (influenced by Western acting theory and practice) gave rise to a theatrical genre called Cai Luong (reformed theatre);  Cai Luong came to be the most popular form of Vietnamese theatre in the 20th century.

Cai Luong embraces two distinctly different types of plots and presentation styles – one played in contemporary dress with its plots focusing on contemporary social and domestic problems, the other based on historical episodes but always emphasising the sad and the sentimental.  One of its main characteristics is that it emphasises emotionally fraught and tearful dramas.

After the French were defeated in 1954, Communism increased its grip on the country and became established throughout in 1975, Vietnamese theatre was exposed to, and was unsurprisingly, influenced by theatrical practices of other Communist countries.  With Russia as its strongest political ally and financial supporter, cultural exchanges took place where Vietnamese theatre practitioners travelled to Russia and Eastern Europe to study and train under the Stanislavsky Method.

The Communist regime supported theatres but saw theatre and the arts as a crucial and important tool for propaganda rather than important for their own sakes.  Although actors embraced Stanislavsky’s acting theories and applied them, the restrictiveness of socialist realism dampened their artistic development. In the early decades after 1975 the themes addressed by dramatists focused on the struggle against China (Vietnam’s historical foe) morality, honesty, self-sacrifice, and love.

Since the mid-1990s, as Vietnam’s Communist allies moved away from Communism, Vietnam chose also to open its economy and allow controlled access to foreign cultural influences, in particular Western films, music and plays.  Its theatre practitioners have been sent on cultural exchanges to the US, Australia and Britain and as a consequence have sought to incorporate aspects of theories espoused by Brecht, Grotowski, and Boal into their works.  The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The House of Bernarda Alba and Macbeth, for example have all been adapted for a Vietnamese audience.  Black-box theatre has also been gaining popularity in Vietnam due to the budgetary constraints faced by the arts industry.

You can read more about the history of Vietnamese theatre here:

  • Diamond, C. (1997). The Pandora’s Box of ‘Doi Moi’: the Open-Door Policy and Contemporary Theatre in Vietnam. NTQ, 13(52)
  • Diamond, C. (2005). The Palimpsest of Vietnamese Contemporary Spoken Drama. TRI, 30(03)
  • Gibbs, J. (2000). Spoken Theater, La Scene Tonkinoise, and the First Modern Vietnamese Songs. Asian Music, 31(2)
  •  Mackerras, C. (1987). Theatre in Vietnam. Asian Theatre Journal, 4(1)
  •  Nguyen, Dinh Thi, Theatre internationalisation: a Vietnamese perspective, PhD thesis, School of Music and Drama, University of Wollongong, 2005. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/672

 

Reading Dostoevsky to Ho Chi Minh

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Nguyễn Huệ Street (or Boulevard Charner as it was known during colonial times) stretches out from the steps of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee building (or formerly, and less of a mouthful, the Hôtel de Ville de Saïgon) right down to the Saigon River. It consists of a broad central promenade separating two narrow one way streets.  To its right is the lavish Rex Hotel; to its left, Union Square (which, as far as I can tell is a completely pointless high-end shopping centre).  At the centre of this configuration is a statue of Old Ho himself, standing and waving benevolently at the folks strutting up and down the mall.

I mention this because when I caught up with a very talented writer friend and classmate  before I left London, he mentioned that he’d always wanted to do a reading of one of Dostoevsky’s works in Trafalgar Square and was going to bite the bullet over the summer.  What a brilliant idea.  I offered to support him by doing a simultaneous reading in a public space in Saigon, which is why I found myself  standing by Old Ho reading aloud the Brothers Karamazov this afternoon.

It was cool and rainy  – perfect conditions for reading aloud in a public space.  I had a slight wobble of nerves as I walked up the mall and all throughout the Author’s note, especially when some Americans asked my mother what the hell I was doing.  More unsettling was how quickly I lost any sense of self-consciousness and just really got into it.  A dangerous development because, really, my problem is needing to care more about how I appear to others.

I was left relatively unmolested by the throng of tourists who came to photograph Old Ho and the HCMPC building, although a công an came up to me every half an hour or so and circled around me to try and figure out what I was doing.  No doubt he was worried that I was some political demagogue delivering an anti-communist filibuster and trying to foment revolution.  I suppose at times like these it pays to look Korean and not like a local.  If recent pro-fish demonstrations are anything to go by this may well be a country where police brutality is encouraged rather than frowned upon.  Same time next week, when we will be reading for THREE hours!

 

Cures for jetlag: District 10 food marathon

I have been living Wislawa Szymborska’s Four in the Morning for the last several mornings.  If only jetlag could be as profound or as touching as her poetry.  But it isn’t and it’s really messing with my day-time plans because I keep falling asleep at five in the afternoon (a sub-optimal time for falling asleep).

The remedy was obvious:  I would eat myself into a stupor and then pass out for an unbroken night of sweet repose.

I set off at 7pm, woozy from two hours of ill-timed slumber, into the disorienting glare of District 10’s Nguyễn Tri Phương Street.    Now most visitors to Saigon generally stay within the confines of Districts 1,3 and 5 where the street cafés have adult sized steel chairs with canvas upholstery.  They don’t go in for such frippery in District 10.  In District 10, you’ll be sitting on the pavement on a plastic chair designed for a three-year old Western toddler.  You’ll be seated so low that your bent knees almost come up to your shoulders.  It’s basically supported squatting.

In the early days of French Indochina the colons apparently avoided native dishes and produce for fear they would catch typhoid.  Well, I’ve had my typhoid booster and I’m ready to go. For the purpose of this exercise, I decide to go native and eschew any eatery that looks like it might approximate Western standards of hygiene.  This will be My Year of Living Dangerously.  Naturally, I am wearing shorts with a forgiving waist-band.  (All-you-can-eat adventures require forgiving apparel.  You don’t want to be like my ex-law firm colleagues who turned up to an eating competition in their work-clothes.  That way, lies madness and cramps.)

Every step brings a different olfactory sensation. Here, the smell of char-grilled squid.  There, the scent of drains and durian. Oddly pleasing. Next, an unfortunate whiff of shrimp paste and chilli.

Our first stop is with a purveyor of Broken Rice and Grilled Pork Chops.  They ask if I want “extra fat”, which is sweet music to my ears. It means that you get an extra piece of grilled marinated pork belly where the fat has been infused with whatever magic concoction of MSG and spices they’ve used.  Delicious!  And a bargain at 18K dong (or about 55p in hard currency).

Next up is the old lady with a trolley selling char-grilled dried squid.  Dozens of flattened dried squid hang from the top of her trolley where they are ingeniously held in place by plastic clothes pegs.  She sticks my squid into a claypot crucible where the burning coals heat it and release the bitter meaty smell I always associate with Têt.  A half-inch long cockroach ambles across the trolley’s surface as I wait, and I agree that it is far too hot for scuttling.  She puts the hot squid through a roller to tenderise it and hands it to me in a little plastic bag with a portion of chilli sauce.  Delicious!  (40K dong.)

Further on is a stall selling Vietnamese rice soup with, blood jelly, offal, and Vietnamese sausage (i.e. intestines stuffed with miscellaneous meat products) topped with fried bread sticks.  The offal etc are lined up on a trolley on the footpath and lit by a tube of fluorescent lighting.  It all looks a bit melancholic but doesn’t taste too bad at 20K dong.  Even though the ambient temperature is about 30 degrees and sticky, the soup is served at near boiling point so it takes quite some time to finish. I can’t tell if it is the suffocating, soporific heat, the temperature of the food or general food sweats that it causing me to perspire so.  I soon regret the decision to add chilli paste.

Looking around, I see numerous denim clad lasses in skinny jeans.  SKINNY JEANS.  I can’t bear to have anything touching me in this heat much less tightly stretched denim, vacuum sealing my legs like sausage cases.  It’s because I’m getting old, right?  Seriously, it is so hot I would just walk around wearing running shorts and nothing else if I didn’t think it would lead to arrest and a diplomatic scandal where I’m disowned by one native and two adoptive countries.

Anyway next up, is an alley way vendor selling crab soup.  As geckos crawl across the wall behind me, I am served a bowl that hardly contains any crab and several bits of corn have been thrown in as an after thought – outrageous! There is a bonus of two quails eggs which appeases me, but only a little.  This soup also takes forever to eat because it is also served at about 100 degrees centigrade.  It occurs to me that this must be the most efficient way for vendors to minimise E.Coli.  I guess I will know for sure in about an hour?  My mother sees me struggling to finish, as the soup scorches my oesophagus on its way down.

“You don’t have to finish it, you know,” she says.

“Yes…I do…,” I pant back.

“Why are you doing this again?”

“Because I’m greedy, [puff] and it’s there.”

The final course of savouries is found at a place that promises Banh Canh Crab.  Banh canh is a type of noodle soup in which the noodles are made from tapioca.  The bowl arrives with a baby crab sitting on top with its beady black eyes staring at me all, “Are you weally going to eat me?  But I’m so cuuute!”

Yes.  I am. But first, I move some crunchy tubular (but otherwise unidentifiable) things aside and find that they have duped me!  I have been given flat rice noodles not tapioca ones!  Quel scandale!    The soup is some coconut broth that can’t be authentically Vietnamese.  This is by far the worst thing I have eaten all night.  I manage to finish, but I’m not happy about it.

We move on hurriedly to sweets.  Dessert is going to be durian based: Che Thai which is half soup half drink made with tapioca, chunks of durian, longan, jelly and a weird, plasticky lump that is meant to mimic the look of pomegranate but is in fact tasteless goo.  My second dessert is durian on top of sweetened bean curd in a durian coconut sauce.  Anything with durian is a winner in my book.

And then, as a chaser we lumber back to the juice cart lady and I have a soursop smoothie to wash away the memory of that weird Banh Canh crab.

I lurch back home ready to greet sweet slumber.  Did it work?

No!  For I am still wide awake at 4.30 am.  Again.  I don’t know what could have possibly gone wrong.  Did I not eat enough?  Maybe that was it – I knew I should have gone for a bao and/or some banh mi – because as sure as night follows day, deep sleep follows a massive meal!  For non-Christians that is, like, the entire point of Christmas!

It presents, however, an ideal opportunity to watch again quite possibly the finest TED talk ever:  The Museum of Four in the Morning.