Eating Pho in Saigon, At Last

After six months in Albania, it was time to move on.

Céline, “When you stay too long in the same place, things and people go to pot on you, they rot and start stinking for your special benefit.”

Actually, this did not happen to me in Albania. The longer I stayed, the more I loved the place and people, and during my last month, I even discovered an out-of-this-world seafood joint, right on my street, Mine Peza.

For just five bucks at Detari Fish, you can get octopus and mackerel drenched in olive oil, tagliatelle with shrimps or even a tub of clams plus a beer. Freshly caught, all the fish are deftly seasoned.

Saying goodbye to my landlady, I gave her a hug then tapped my heart three times, as if in penance. She chirped, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” That’s her only English, besides “good morning.”

When I was sick with likely Covid in March, I really thought I had killed the cheerful old bird. After coming to my door to deliver a package, she disappeared for about a week. Hearing no sounds in the hallway each day, I felt terrible lying in bed.

Great, now I will always be remembered in this neighborhood as the Chinaman who came all the way from Wuhan to murder Mrs. Berisha! When she showed up again, I babbled my happiness, though she couldn’t understand a word of it.

A week before my departure, Emirates canceled my flight, so I had to book another with KLM. Instead of one layover, now I had two, and my ticket even cost $200 more! Such is traveling during Covid.

Granted, my destination wasn’t exactly hot, or it’s hot in all the wrong ways. I imagined many folks were trying to get out, even for good.

The day before my flight, I went for my Covid test at 7AM, to get the result by 1PM. If it came back falsely positive, I could dash to another lab, I reasoned. I also had to make sure the entry rules at my destination hadn’t changed, and there was no new lockdown.

Since Covid started, I had been in South KoreaSerbiaNorth MacedoniaLebanonEgyptAlbania and Montenegro. In all these countries, life was practically normal, with restaurants and cafes all open, and public buses or trains packed.

Only in Lebanon was I subjected to a lockdown, lasting two weeks, but it was so loosely enforced, it barely bothered me. (The Lebanese government has not been in control of much for a while.) During this “lockdown,” I traveled to several villages, and had pizza then coffee at two places around Tyre.

Much of East Asia is experiencing new Covid restrictions, as triggered by the “Delta variant.” In Vietnam, the surge in Covid deaths coincided with the introduction of foreign vaccines, starting this July. Saigon is in the midst of a five-week lockdown.

Two weeks ago, a Saigon friend emailed me a video of Cho Ray Hospital, with Covid patients lying immobile, and there’s even a corpse covered by a reed mat, with just his bony brown feet sticking out.

I’m familiar with that stiff posture (of the still living). Sick, I had to think for maybe an hour before daring to shift positions, and even worse, I could never really sleep. My extreme discomfort was constant for a month, with a two week span truly hellish.

In the video, a male voice narrates, “Oh God, I can’t even find a doctor at this hospital since this morning. They’re all hiding. There’s a dead body lying here since this morning, with no one to remove him to be cremated or be buried.

“Give the old man some oxygen! He’s about to die and there’s no doctor around. He probably won’t make it. All the doctors are hiding somewhere. The doctors don’t even dare to be here. There’s a corpse lying here since this morning. No burial, for real. There’s not a shadow of any medical personnel or doctor. Oh God, there’s an old man who’s about to die and there’s no doctor to save him.”

I was also emailed photos of a completely dead Saigon, including Trung Sisters Street in downtown at 6:34PM on July 26th.

Normally, there’s always some traffic on every Saigon street, even at 3AM, and a Saigon day starts at 5AM. In the middle of the night, farm produce is brought to wet markets all over the city, and there’s always a cafe that’s open wherever you are.

In Tirana, I was downing beer and seafood at Detari Fish, among laughing diners, with no social distancing whatsoever. Almost no Albanians wear masks anymore.

Just hours before my flight, I went to my neighborhood café, Lami’s, for the last time. Hearing, again, some rather schlocky Italian pop actually teared me up. Deep down, I’m just a total pussy. Adriano Celentano, “Io non so parlar d’amore / L’emozione non ha voce / E mi manca un po’ il respiro / Se ci sei c’è troppa luce.”

Just before taking the bus to the airport, I had my last Tirana meal at Chinese Garden, mostly to say goodbye to the Albanian waiter.

Like the two young ladies at Lami’s, he worked each day, and hadn’t had a day off in over four months. In fact, he had told me he worked 16 hours a day.

“No way, man! So when do you sleep?!”

“I barely sleep.”

“When do you see your girlfriend?”

“What girlfriend?! I don’t even have friends.”

But it’s OK, he said, for he was saving to buy an old car. “In Albania, they don’t appreciate these classic cars, but I want one. I’ll get one in five years.”

As a child, he had spent a decade in Greece, but he’s happy to be home, “Too many Albanians become criminals overseas, or they have dirty jobs. Yes, I’m a waiter, but my job is clean.”

Chinese Garden has a Chinese cook. In Tirana for five years, he’d work every day for 11 months, then fly home to see his wife and kids for a month. With Covid, airfares have jacked up and there’s a two-week quarantine, so he hasn’t been home in two years. Once, I heard him screaming for about half a minute in the kitchen. It must be terrible, his stress and loneliness.

As I walked out of the restaurant with my luggage, the waiter said, “Good luck, sir.”

“Maybe they’ll kill me,” I joked.

My first stop was Rome. With more than nine hours at Fiumicino, I lay on the floor in an empty section of Terminal 3, to await my 6:10AM flight. Slipping briefly into sleep, I heard footsteps all around me, but there was no one.

During boarding for Amsterdam, six Latin American women and an African nun cut into line, but no one said anything. As the nun tried to inch ahead of me, I stood my ground. I didn’t need that nonsense.

If you had to be trapped inside one airport until death, Schiphol wouldn’t be a bad choice. Except for the masks, it was as bustling, civilized and well-appointed as ever. Flying from there, I still had 11 more hours in the air.

Though masks were mandatory on all three planes of my long trip, we took them off each time food or drinks were served, so it was a farce, really. At each airport, almost no social distancing was observed.

So I’ve arrived at my new base, where I will be for at least a month. I went from summer to winter, but it’s mild here. Today’s low is 44 Fahrenheit, and the high is 59.

Yesterday in Saigon, I had an excellent bowl of pho, just about every Vietnamese’ favorite comfort food. Walking in, I was greeted by a colored man, then seated and served by a black waiter. Looking towards the kitchen, I spotted a masked man who was almost certainly Vietnamese. He was rolling sushi, though.

Just to make sure, I asked my waiter, “Are your cooks Vietnamese?”

“Yes,” and he pointed to the sushi chef, so I walked over to introduce myself.

I was living in Vietnam, I said, but because of Covid, I have been locked out for a year and a half. I’ve been all over. I have just arrived in Cape Town.

“You must have a bowl of pho then,” he smiled.

“I already ordered that.”

“I’ll make it special!”

Returning to my table, I looked out at the handsome, three-story Hoërskool Jan van Riebeeck, with its steep roof, dignified gables and rows of stately windows. Behind it rose the magnificent Table Mountain, with a tiny cable car, just a red speck, really, barely moving towards its top.

When my pho arrived, it, too, was almost too much. I was given a second bowl with fatty broth, brisket and a soup bone, complete with marrow. With its hoisin sauce, sriracha sauce and bean sprouts, this was definitely Saigon pho, which I find much better than anything I’ve had in Hanoi, pho’s birthplace.

Taking a break, the chef/owner came over to my table for a chat.

Fifty-six-years-old, he has been in South Africa for 24 years, with eight years in Germany before that. He also had a brief spell in New York City. His mother is still in Vietnam, so you can be sure he’s sending her money, but he hasn’t returned home in more than a decade, and no, he doesn’t miss Vietnam at all.

One of his sons went to an English school, while the other attended a German one. South African born, they can hardly speak Vietnamese.

Before Covid, he had a couple of Vietnamese kitchen employees, but they have gone home, so South Africans had to replace them. Because of the pandemic, his income has been reduced by more than half. He thinks this dire situation will last three or four more years.

This is said to be Africa’s most beautiful and cosmopolitan city. I believe it. Walking for two miles towards downtown, I pass all sorts of trendy restaurants, bars and cafes, with a rather astounding selection of international cuisines, Portuguese, Ethiopian, Mozambican, Cuban, Thai, Italian and, of course, Indian and Chinese, which are everywhere.

At Sweeties Beer Hall on Long Street, I met a German from Cologne, here to study law. “I taught for five months in Leipzig,” I told him. I talked to the brother of novelist Dominique Botha. Since he’s a foodie, we compared cheese steaks to banh mi, and discussed the art of rinsing rice.

I chattered with a South African who’s about to emigrate to the UK with his British wife. (When I admitted to her I had spent nine months in Norwich, she broke out laughing, as expected.) The recent riots were the final straw. When he told his wife they should leave, she packed in record time.

I also talked for a long time with his sister. In England for 11 years, the 34-year-old was only back in Cape Town to take care of her ill father. In December, she will return to London, where she’s a pastry chef.

We shared an appreciation for Max Normal, the legendary Cape Town band. She hung out with them during her wild youth. As if to prove this, she showed me her colorfully tattooed forearms. Back then, she also got lots of attention as a graffiti artist. Max Normal would become internationally famous as Die Antwoord.

Half British and half Norwegian, she realized she was a misfit from the time she was eight, she said, and she didn’t feel at home in England either.

“But you are African!” I protested. “Many white South Africans have been here for centuries.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t be here. We invaded someone else’s land.”

“Everyone has invaded other people’s land. Blacks have, too, and Vietnamese… If whites don’t belong in Africa, what about whites in America?”

“They’re probably even worse.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think you should feel ashamed of being a white South African. There’s a very distinctive culture here. Already, I can see it in the architecture, and look at all the writers you’ve produced,” as in Coetzee, Gordimer, Breytenbach and Brink, etc. “There’s a lot to be proud of.”

It won’t matter much, however, if you’re being murdered, dispossessed or chased out, with your history erased.

First of, this is an extremely violent country, with nearly all of the crimes, surprise, surprise, committed by blacks, just like in, well, American cities.

In her harrowing Into the Cannibal’s Pot, Cape Town native Ilana Mercer relates:

Ordinarily, case studies do not a rule make, but you’d be hard pressed to find a family in democratic South Africa whose members have not been brutalized. The travails of this writer’s extended family are fairly typical. They tell of the lives of good people ruined by rubbish: A sister’s partner suffering permanent neurological damage after being brutally assaulted by five Africans; a brother burglarized and beaten in his suburban fortress at two in the morning by an African gang (his wife and infant son were miraculously spared); a father whose neighbor was shot point-blank in front of his little girls as he exited his car to open the garage gates; a spouse, two of whose colleagues were murdered (one shot by African taxi drivers in broad daylight, left to bleed to death on the pavement near his girlfriend’s place), and whose cousin and uncle were hijacked, aunt raped and beaten within an inch of her life. Sean Mercer, Ph.D., found out recently that a fondly remembered professor at his alma mater had been beaten to death with an umbrella by an angry African student.

OK, so Mercer is a paleolibertarian and Trump fan, thus a “right winger,” but here’s a similar account from liberal Henry Trotter, an American professor at the University of Cape Town, and a long-time resident here:

[…] no one who lives in Cape Town has been untouched by some shocking or banal act of personal violation. Almost everyone has a horror story.

In my family alone, my sister-in-law was tied up and held at gunpoint while criminals robbed her house. My brother-in-law was shot in the stomach while sitting in his car in front of his house. Another brother-in-law lost all of his worldly possessions to a gang of thieves who had been targeting his neighborhood. My wife had her purse snatched off her shoulder while riding the train. And I had my cellphone grabbed out of my hand while walking down the street.

But this is nothing. We’ve been quite fortunate. We personally know—as does every Capetonian—people who have been raped, murdered, stabbed, or kidnapped. Parents who have lost children to stray bullets shot from a teenage gangster’s gun. Mothers who have had their newborns snatched from their arms while sleeping at the maternity ward.

And many of us know perpetrators of these terrible acts. Indeed, we often know them as our kin and loved ones.

The normalcy of all of this means that we live in a constant state of vigilance and…well…fear.

Much of this barbarity defies belief. Mercer, “Roughly ten percent of all rapes in the country—52,425 a year—are committed against children under three years of age.” Many South African men, you see, believe that raping an infant will cure them of AIDS.

As for murder, Mercer provides a useful perspective, “Between April 2004 and March 2005, 18,793 people were murdered in South Africa (population 43 million). In comparison, the ‘high-crime’ United States (population 299,398,00016) suffered 16,740 murders.” With nearly seven times more people, the US has less murders than South Africa!

The main reason for this is its lower percentage of blacks, one might deduct. Another is its conviction rate is much higher than South Africa’s abysmal 8%, though if George Soros has his way, America will soon catch up.

Most South African murderers, then, are free to kill again and again, and with whites politically powerless and practically disarmed, black thugs can zero in on them. Outside South Africa, liberal whites are either indifferent to this butchery, or they think it’s justified, as payback for past injustice, but their turn, too, will come.

Sneeringly smug in their suburbs, these are the righteous hypocrites who support Black Lives Matter and defunding the police, but can only count their black acquaintances with one hand, if that. They have never sat in a black bar or restaurant, never entered a black home. To make up for their aversion to blacks, they defend blacks even more fiercely, but from a thousand miles away.

Those who live near many blacks, however, must come up with sane solutions to safeguard their homes and ensure that their kids are educated in a safe and non disruptive environment. To avoid assaults, they may have to adjust their routines or impose their own curfew.

One morning, I took a random bus, thus ended up in upscale Sea Point, but I could easily have been dumped into a township. Maybe next time…

Along the way, I saw many fine houses behind tall walls topped by spikes, barbed wires or, most pleasing aesthetically, electric fencing. Everywhere, there were warning signs posted by security services, with Avenue Response Team the most prevalent. In my neighborhood, Gardens, and downtown, I had already seen plenty of private security guards on sidewalks.

In Albania, there were none of these extreme security measures, needless to say, but I have spent decades in Philadelphia, plus time in Camden, Detroit, Gary and Jackson, etc., so this wasn’t a shock.

With the state unable to provide adequate security, many South Africans have to turn their homes, schools and offices into fortresses, and to pay private cops to maintain peace in their neighborhoods. Should the state fail, however, no South African oasis will be safe.

In Sea Point, I ran into two middle-aged white American expatriates, painting on the sidewalk. One, Michael Durst, has a piece that’s advertised online:

In honor of a great man, The Gift of Love is an inspirational painting with a message of brotherhood and love.

This work, by artist, Dr. Michael Durst, shows Nelson Mandela being crowned with a halo of love by Afra, the first Black Ascended Master.

This highly emotional piece displays the respect and honoring of a great man, who has brought love and peace to people the world over.

In South Africa for more than two decades, they’re here to stay. Their grown children, though, have returned to North America.

I also met a Chinese couple who had a small eatery, Hakka, plus four Airbnb rooms. She was born in South Africa. He arrived in 1995. They had emigrated to Australia, but after eight years, had returned to Cape Town, for they loved it so much.

The husband believes South Africa actually has a better future than China, for it has a younger, more ready to work population. With relatively few people, it has lots of resources. Also, when war breaks out between the US and China, South Africa will be distant from that conflagration, so will benefit from the destruction of both societies.

Hakka doesn’t serve pork, for most of its customers are Jews. On a table, there’s this piece of cloth with a long text that begins, “Manna. This miraculous food fell from the skies every morning for the forty years we wandered through the desert after God took us out of Egypt.” The Chinese couple’s two lovely kids attend a Jewish school. Well-mannered, they made sure to greet me as they walked by.

After Hakka, I eased into the Corner Bar, for I could see that it was a dive where I would fit right in. A beefy black man greeted me with a fist bump. Later, he said, “You look like a kung fu master!”

“No man, I’d get killed within the first second!”

I told a white man in his 60’s I was glad there was no lockdown in South Africa, “We’re all sitting here drinking beer. There’s no social distancing, and no problems. This is normal, man. This is how it should be.”

“But Covid is real.”

“I know, but don’t overreact! There are no needs for lockdowns.”

“I’m not sure about that. Covid is real enough. I lost my wife in January. We were married for 44 years.”

“Oh.”

“They had put her on a ventilator, and I also got sick. I was in hospital for eight days.”

Wandering down Main Road, I noticed all these informal vans picking up passengers. Since they were headed towards downtown, roughly, I decided to hop onto one. Inside, everyone was black.

I saw people paying by passing bills to those in front of them, so I did the same. “It’s my first time,” I said to the lady next to me.

“There’s a first time for everything,” she cheerfully replied.

As we entered downtown, she asked me, “What stop do you want to get off at?” This lovely lady with such a gentle voice wanted to make sure I knew where I was going.

Black, white, colored, Asian or foreign, everyone I’ve encountered in Cape Town has been extremely pleasant, but that’s not so unusual, really, until something horrible happens, of course, as authored by God, beast or, most likely, man, especially in a place like South Africa.

As published at Unz Review, 8/9/21.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.

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