District 4 is one of Saigon’s low-income, working-class neighborhoods, and tonight I’ve hired a guide to show me around. By day, there’s little to see except a few coffee vendors, but by five o’clock, the place transforms into an open-air street fair, with block after block of pop-up restaurants featuring affordable “junk food.” Motor bikes constantly jetting by while vendors bark their specials out and the hum of hundreds conversing consuming the air. I’m in heaven.
My guide, [Suzy] from, Saigon Street Eats Food Tours tells me that families usually eat their evening meal at home—typically rice along with a vegetable and fish, pork, beef, or chicken—and then hit the streets to drink, socialize, and nibble on junk food. It might be beef intestine soup, rice flour omelets, or lettuce-wrapped shrimp with basil/mint. And then there’s dessert: rice, bean curd, coconut milk, and raw coconut, topped with sugar, salt, sesame seed, and peanut.
Everything is absolutely fresh and mostly unprocessed, so I’m not sure why it’s called “junk food.” A lettuce wrap with fresh grilled meat and veggies is about as far from processed as you can possibly get. I figure it’s the local expression for “fast food.”
Suzy points out a few vendors offering what I call “Southeast Asian death”: shellfish, clams, mussels, and snails. I react instantaneously: “Fuck, no, not touching that!” She immediately knew I wasn’t your typical Caucasian tourist. “Oh, you smart,” she says. Yes, oh yes, I am smart. Last time I ate that shit I could have walked into oncoming traffic to end my suffering.
Now pay attention here, friends: if you travel to Southeast Asia … Do. Not. Eat. Fucking. Shellfish. Ever. Out and about in Tokyo? Go nuts. But here, you might as well just get down on your hands and knees, stick out your tongue, lick the gutter for a couple of miles becoming patient zero. If you’ve ever had food poisoning, then you know what I’m talking about. Maybe…… The Southeast Asia shellfish version will bring you closer to wanting to suck on a bullet than anything else I’ve ever experienced.
Around five years ago in Malaysia, I was the lucky winner of a trip to shellfish-hell from a soup called Laksa that made me wish I had one of those medi-vac choppers standing by. Alas, I was going nowhere; the cold marble floor next to my toilet was as good as it was going to get. I ended up camping out in the shower for 24 hours, completely incapacitated, sweating, hallucinating about angry shellfish, Fred Flintstone, and curry waterfalls. I vaguely remember my then-wife, Ashley, coming in and hosing me off now and then. The rest of the trip I was a “Shell” of myself (pun intended) and took me weeks to recover. Now I travel with a pharmacy of bacteria fighting drugs including one that fights Anthrax. Seriously! Not ever going through that again.
You know what they say about learning the hard way … well, forget it. Getting sick on shellfish won’t build character; it’ll just make you pray for a quick and painless death. My advice: be open to trying new things, but if you have the slightest doubt about your shellfish, just … don’t. Yabba dabba doooooo!
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If you like stories about Vietnam, check out this story about my favorite soup, Pho.