We follow our scratchy paper map weaving through the hectic rampage of Ho Chi Minh to the street corner we seek, the next alley on our right is where we get our fix, the lady with the stuff; it can’t be far. Sure enough the alleyway is there, swept concrete of no more than a couple of metres wide and flanked by windowless cliffs of urbanity reduces the former complexity of our map to a single thread. There’s a small box on the ground with some burning embers topped by a fine mesh griddle to greet us. Darting like a heron, chopsticks fly to snap up and turn tiny meat patties sizzling and protesting like witches burnt at the stake, eyes obscured under the broad brim of a hat. There’s a young boy here too, he looks at us quizzically, your faces don’t belong here his says with eyes alone.
A quick glance up and down the alley: gradual descent into darkness fills an unknown on one side while soft afternoon light flickers with the fluttering urgency of a heaving city from the way we came. The boy is still looking, we know too well that we don’t belong here but we need this, we’ve come too far to turn back as our urges overcome timid objections, need is all we know. I hold up one finger before glancing to Charlie, eyes filled with eager desperation waiting for him to urge me to more than just one. I need more but the young boys eyes of warning are now joined by the heron like lady crouching so comfortably on this concrete, and no acquiescence to desire is coming from Charlie. I hold up one finger again.The dark heron snaps and five victims are plucked form the burning embered pond, we’ve waited too long for this. For a moment I stop scratching my forearm and Charlie’s eyes seem to be looking at something rather than an indescript longing, lost somewhere too far away. The heron has hunted and resumes her foraging, the young boy says ‘seventeen’ in surprisingly good english as he hands us our baguette to send us on our way toward the bustling end of the alley rather than the shadows of an unknown alternative. Pre endorphins rush to precede the hit, the wrapping is off before we’ve made it the few steps back into a bright world; for the first time in my life I feel empathy towards junkies. Sadness threatens to swallow me though, they say you can never replicate the first hit but right now the first hit is all I have.
The junkie well, into which we so willingly jump pulls us ever further down, the mere concept of food takes on religious proportions to us but when it’s street food it becomes spiritual. We have definitely saved the best for last with three of our favourite cuisines bringing this trip home, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan all rate highly on our list along with most of the world I imagine; let the great asian title fight begin. The baguette crunches into light nothingness and inside it a collection of the sweet meat patties alongside crispy vegetables and that little special something that, just like all good drug dealers, the dark heron has laced her poison with. We say we won’t be back but we know it as much as the dark heron knows it. Laughable; as if we say we won’t be back, we’re making plans to return before we reach the next corner.It’s our first afternoon in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh city is a food junkies paradise and we walk the streets to affix ourselves to our habit as firmly as possible. Surprisingly clean streets and alleys surround us and the million bikes that flow through the streets like water in the canals of Venice guide our way to the market and another fix. This time we have no reputable dealer but we sit down to spring rolls and barbecued pork grilled on it’s sugar cane skewer. Already there’s no turning back from the firm commitment to eat nothing outside of local eateries shunning the easy comfort of more western style offerings. Of course it all tastes delicious, it’s healthy, but the macro critique of the food itself seems trivial in the face of the concept of street food: like junkies getting a fix, saying it’s delicious just entertains the possibility that it could be otherwise.
Black sticky rice with coconut sends us on our way and into the raging waters of streets that flow like water rather than a collection of metal objects so inflexible. Cars follow the signs and lights but bikes do not, major streets are hundreds and hundreds of bikes pouring down upon us like dams that have burst, a leap of faith is required to cross the torrent. And so we walk, into the gnashing jaws of the tsunami as the roar flows around us; Jesus apparently walked on water, a trifling parlour trick compared to a tsunami bowing to part way for us.The ramshackle simplicity of street food anywhere is its charm and nowhere hits that nail on the head better than Vietnam, on first glance at least. A cutaway tin can, a piece of iron roofing or a beaten pot that had seen better days decades ago yet still goes strong are the tools of the trade; nothing that we would call a cooking implement seems appropriate. From this discarded world the greatest bounty comes; again saying that the food is delicious seems rude and ignorant, of course it is, it’s the setting and lifestyle that truly hooks into our flesh and pulls us in. The idea of ‘behind closed doors’ seems a distant notion, the world here shares the world, it laughs together, cries together and all the while it eats together.
In our culture we laud the romance of a family dinner table, a place to connect, share and often do what we define as being family. What if you needed no sanctuary of space behind closed doors, no big table, no confinement to a Sunday afternoon time-slot? What if we could take all that is held dear and cherished about the family dinner table and not only make it every meal but share it beyond our nearest clan, with the world? Love and companionship is extended to a broader society on an open invitation to come and share with the universal accessibility of a fruit box or upturned paint can chair; it’s not as idealistic as you might think.