I used to think that eating any non-local food while being abroad was lame…that is, until I started spending more time abroad. Years ago, when I was volunteering in Thailand for a month, one of the greatest meals I had was at a Scandinavian restaurant in the seaside town I was staying in: toasted ham and cheese sandwich served with fries and ketchup. After a solid month of Thai food (and a month before that of Turkish food), it felt like a real treat.
Saigon is more cosmopolitan than ever, so there are a lot of non-Vietnamese culinary delights. As much as I love Viet food, I was keen to have a break. So as part of my 31st birthday celebrations we had yum cha (dim sum) for lunch at a Cantonese restaurant…
…and that night, we trekked across town to a restaurant called Scott and Binh, which catered to expats. Not only was it in another part of town, it ended being another world.
I knew that South Koreans were buying up Vietnam – as evidenced by the large number of Korean companies with plants on the outskirts of town – but I had no sense of where all the Korean expats lived. And not just Koreans; also Chinese, Japanese and others, as evidenced by this sign I saw outside a local language school near the restaurant:
The neighbourhood was much like other modern satellite towns throughout Asia – I’ve visited Gurgaon outside of Delhi before, so that comes to mind – with its wide tree-lined streets, huge houses and large number of small hotels. Unlike the parts of the city I had been spending time in, the silence was palpable. It was so peaceful sitting outside on a balmy evening with a cocktail and a plate of pasta.
After dinner we went for a walk around the suburb. We shared the pavement with Korean families out for an evening walk, and went past local bars, pubs and restaurants, catering to the expat population. According to the American owner of the restaurant, the whole area was owned by a Korean company, which had created a neighbourhood for its workers. Made me think of Cypress Creek!
It’s obvious that things are changing incredibly fast and Saigon will be much like Bangkok (without the skytrain) in years to come. Including the growing expat population. I saw so much this time that reminded me of life in Thailand – we got lost in a neighbourhood that looked exactly like the back streets of inner city Chiang Mai. The two countries are not quite as different as I had supposed.
On our last night we went to the movies with my cousin to watch Snow White and the Huntsman – and we could have been anywhere in the world. A Hollywood movie in English, a bucket of popcorn and a Coke.
There’s something a bit sad about the way the world is homogeneising – and the more I travel and spend time overseas the more I see it – same music, same manufactured desire for goods, same consumer brands. Actually, Vietnam is clearly a sweatshop for America, because we found a lot of authentic cheap and designer clothes with labels cut off. (I bought a genuine Anne Klein top for an absolute steal.)
The thing is, developing countries are absolutely within their rights to modernise and aspire to the comfortable middle-class life we largely take for granted in countries in the West. I really believe this, which is why I think it’s very unfair that people in Australia criticise China and India for their carbon emissions, when the West has been polluting and pillaging for centuries to get to where we are now. Still, it’s sad to see that the development of cities in a lot of cities in Asia is pretty irresponsible, with little thought given to sustainability, public housing and decent infrastructure. It’s not surprising about this lack of attention given that governments in places like Vietnam are particularly unaccountable and it’s obvious that they are trying to just take as much as they can get.
Of course, the upside of globalisation is access to the internet – I noticed this time that Facebook seems to no longer blocked in Vietnam – as well as cosmopolitanism and I am an unequivocal fan of these developments. People being more exposed to different cultures and ways of thinking within their own countries is absolutely a positive. And from my selfish viewpoint, at the very least it means being able to have a plate of pasta every now and then : )
(Brief note: In a blog post last week I mentioned that I took a trip to a local day spa on the first day. The thing that was interesting about this trip was that my aunt spent the whole time loudly criticising the salon for not being clean enough, for making people wait too long – but no one took offence and by the end she was talking quite amiably to one of the girls and asking questions about her life. And I saw the same thing happen again and again with taxi drivers, stall keepers etc. I really didn’t quite get how she felt so free with her opinions – and for all of my intellectual freedoms in Australia, it’s often hard to express one’s opinions in various public contexts. Just thought I’d sneak this in here as a brief observation.)