Ok, reality check- I served in the Viet Nam War from 1967-68, the first 9 months in Long Binh, with a lot of consultative trips to Vung Tau, Da Nang, Nha Trang, etc, the last three months in Sai Gon, separated neatly by/with the Tet Offensive, but that's another story, the heart of my book which has undergone 20 starts and 3 revisions and shows no hope of being finished before I depart Earth.
Anyway, I returned last week after 50 years absence, and it seems like a zombie movie or tv fast forward, it is zero/nothing like I recall. It's a totally different place and nothing is familiar.
Let's start with the food, the focus of this blog. I recall grilled fish straight from the river, pho with a few ingredients but intense flavors and crappy wine. Now, however, every dish is what I call Aspenized, overprepared, overingrediented and overpresented, the simplicity is gone. And the drink lists are longer than Taillevent's 40 years ago.
One pho I had today, at Pho Hung in Sai Gon, was basic and simple and reflective of those of past eras, before the Vietnamese who moved to France and America decided to "improve" on this peasant dish. Otherwise, I hate to say it, but one meal blended into another, whether high or low table, expensive or cheap, group or intimate.
Except, except, the coffee, which is astonishing, where was this coffee 50 years ago?
On the other hand, what I saw in Ha Long Bay, Hoi An and Sai Gon was dazzling and fresh and unexpected. The rice paddies, which I flew over time and again, then, pockmarked with bomb craters, are from the ground, now, fish ponds or duck pens.
And the Vietnamese, whom even we doctors, treating them, viewed with suspicion, are welcoming, humorous and quick witted with we Yankees.
Finally, let me circle back to it's being a different country. Entering Sai gon I felt I was in a totally different place; from a Mekong village then, it had become a new version of London on the Thames now- billboards, skyscrapers and rational traffic. New multistoried buildings, brightly painted buses and Mercedes showrooms. Unbelieveable. Really unbelievable.
Thank you Viet Nam, like Germany and Japan before you, you've shown that fighting the USA can work to your advantage.