Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Where do the locals eat?

My hotel was of the 5-star variety and was ideally located and beautifully decorated. An internet acquaintance of mine had commented that he felt it was one of the best, if not THE best, hotels in all of Asia. I found it hard to argue with him as the service was impeccable and the rooms were roomy and well decorated with many amenities. The windows had beautiful wooden shutters on the inside that opened up to a beautiful view of the skyline and local neighborhood. I would stand at the window and watch the morning chaos of scooters and bicycles emerge as the day began. As with all such accommodations, I was grateful my company paid the bill – which they should, after all I was here on their business – because if I had traveled to Vietnam on my own I would most certainly be staying in a cheap hotel of questionable quality.

My hosts were not free for dinner that first night so I was on my own. I simply dropped my luggage in the closet and headed out for a bite to eat. Sure, I could have played it safe and expensed a fat dinner at one of the hotel’s prestigious restaurants, but what’s the fun in that? Here I was in a new city I had never been to before and would have no idea when I might be back. Working all day long meant few chances to see anything, so I decided to take advantage of the hotel’s ideal downtown location and find a local place to eat that wasn’t inhabited by tourists and businessmen.

Easier said then done. In the U.S. we have our Chinatowns, Little Kabul, Little Saigon, Little Italy, etc. In some places, like Oakland or San Francisco, the Chinatowns’ are large enough and offer a diversity of businesses (along with huge Chinese/Asian populations) that an immigrant from China could completely live and survive within their own culture, never having to fully learn the language or fully involve themselves in mainstream American business and culture. The same thing is true of what we call the expat culture overseas; westerners tend to congregate in mostly foreign occupied housing, go to English speaking international schools, shop at English speaking western-style supermarkets, etc. I saw the same thing when I lived in Hong Kong, where entire luxury apartment buildings, clubs, restaurants, supermarkets, and even office buildings catered almost exclusively to expats and foreigners. I knew of one guy who had lived in Hong Kong for over 10 years and couldn’t speak more than a few words of Cantonese and couldn’t remember the last time he had ever ventured off of Hong Kong island, not to mention his own general neighborhood. He worked in an international company with other foreigners and English speaking local staff, ate with colleagues and friends in western-style restaurants, bought his food on the weekend from the local international supermarket located within walking distance from his home, cooked and ate the same food he ate in his home country and mostly hung out with his foreign neighbors and friends. He basically lived life no differently then when he was at home. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, he was a great guy who just didn’t fancy the Chinese culture or cuisine and felt more comfortable living in his “own environment”.

Downtown Ho Chi Minh City is no expat village, but since it’s mostly a collection of international hotels, multinational office buildings, and tourist attractions it certainly tends to attract a mostly expat clientele. While there were plenty of locals bustling about, there was also an equal amount of, if not more, foreigners milling about, particularly at dinner time as employees were leaving the offices after a day’s work and heading home. In this environment, finding a nice “local” restaurant turned out to be impossible. I first wandered around the streets just to get a feel for the neighborhood, and I am a fast walker and enjoy exploring, so I covered a lot of ground. There were plenty of restaurants, but they catered entirely to expats and foreigners – Italian restaurants, German restaurants, Japanese restaurants, French restaurants. There were some restaurants that claimed to actually serve local Vietnamese cuisine, and perhaps they did, but when I looked through the windows all I saw where western faces looking back at me – which I took as a bad sign, considering I was in Vietnam!

Perhaps some travelers like the “comforts of home” so to speak but when I travel to a new destination I want to try something new, experience at least a taste of local life, and what better way to do it then to try some local cuisine, preferably in a local setting and not chock full of tourists.

Another thing I noticed was the prices. This was Vietnam, after all, a still developing country where the GDP per capita was only $3,100 and food supplies were therefore relatively cheap, comparably speaking. Yet the prices I was seeing on menus were more than I would pay back home in the U.S. It didn’t affect me directly since I could expense it with my company, but normally when I travel to Asia I tend to spend less eating out then back at home.

I finally gave up trying to find out where the locals ate and settled on a Thai restaurant, of all things (having just traveled from Thailand). There were ZERO locals in the restaurant, the only Vietnamese people in there were those that worked there and they all spoke English. Various couples and people from a multitude of origins populated the restaurant. There were some Indian people there, plenty of Caucasians, and a handful of Asians who appeared to be from either Singapore or Hong Kong. I ordered an herb tea, an appetizer, and one small noodle dish: total bill, including tip? USD 20.00. The food was certainly good, but the same meal in Thailand would have cost less than half as much.

Walking back to the hotel I kept getting bothered by bicycle tour guides, where you sit in a little cab pulled by a bicyclist. Other vendors also bothered me with wares or service, and like Bali they were very insistent. I was polite at first, but unlike Bali they didn’t leave me alone. So I finally ignored them and just kept walking faster. At one point I had like 3-4 guys hurriedly following me, all shouting at once for my business – I think I would have been treated differently had I not been alone – perhaps families or groups were bothered less, but it’s a little unsettling to be in a foreign city in the dark at night, walking alone, and having people accost you aggressively for business.

To be continued….

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