Ten Salty Mosquitoes
Beyond Mainstream Tourism in Saigon
By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
March 27, 2013
Our Vietnamese friends are laughing as Kattina and I attempt to master the nuances of the word, “muoi.” Depending on whether you say it with a low tone, a middle tone, or a tone that starts low and ends high, it can mean “ten,” “salt,” or “mosquitoes.” We have just asked our friends to please pass the mosquitoes.
A few minutes later, we exact linguistic revenge when our pal, Phúc (rhymes with “book”), asks if we are strong swimmers or if we can only swim “doggy style.” We explain that “doggy paddle” and “doggy style” are two different things.
Phúc masters this nuance more quickly than we figure out the muoi, muoi, muoi challenge. (If you want to get technical, each word is spelled with different tonal marks, which might not show up in all web browsers: mười, muối, and muỗi.) “Doggy paddle” versus “doggy style” is also phonetically easier to explain than “selfish” versus “shellfish,” a conversation I had with another friend here last year.
Ten of us are seated around a long, low table at a restaurant in District 9, a 30-minute motorbike ride from Saigon’s touristy center. It’s a neighborhood joint that specializes in goat. In front of us are huge plates of barbecued goat, goat fondue, curried goat, and goat soup. We are probably the only tourists for miles. We are having a feast.
As the meal winds down, Phúc reaches into the soup with his chopsticks and retrieves a smooth, grayish piece of meat. It’s a little over an inch long, roughly the width of a pencil. “Do you know what this is?” he asks me.
After our chicken incident a few years ago, I’m worried. But I relax when Phúc waves the small, erect piece of meat in front of me and says, “It’s the tail.”
I lean over to Kattina and whisper, “I ate the chicken penis at his mom’s house. The tail is all yours.”
Kattina eats things that challenge our cultural culinary sensibilities with less drama than I do. She grabs the tail with her chopsticks, crunches it down, and reports that it has some small bones and not a lot of meat, but it’s otherwise okay.
After lunch, our convoy of five motorbikes zooms down the block, around a corner, down a dirt road flanked on both sides by one-story buildings with one-room studio apartments. One of the rooms is where Phúc lives with his wife, Ngoc, and their seven-year-old son, An. We go there with the pretense of drinking coffee, but Phúc whips up side orders of Vietnamese vodka and sarsi, a rootbeer’esque soft drink. He then decides his cocktail will taste better spiked with sweet and hyper-caffeinated Vietnamese iced coffee. His homemade energy drink is tastier than we expect. Kattina and I name it the “Phúc You Up.”
While Phúc plays bartender, his son, An, fires up the family laptop. We cajole An into showing us his Gangnam Style dance moves. Minh, the 14-year-old son of one of Phúc’s friends, takes a photo with us to show off to his girlfriend because, hey, foreign guests in the hood are a big deal.
These are the moments we live for when traveling – when we stray from mainstream tourist activities and go do something “normal.” Not normal for us; normal for people who live in the places we visit. If people on the street are staring, wondering what we’re doing there, we are in the right place.
This particular episode happened because Kattina and I have visited Saigon a lot. Phúc is one of several close friends we met on our first trip in 2008. When we landed this past Saturday, we didn’t know that on Sunday, we’d be hanging out miles from the city center, munching on goat and muttering, “ten, salt, mosquito,” over and over in Vietnamese, as a tableful of old and new friends laughed at us. All we knew was we had a fun weekend of randomness ahead.
This is my ninth visit to Saigon, Kattina’s sixth, so for us, breaking out of the tourist bubble here is easy. But there are ways to have these experiences, even on a first visit. You just have to know how to make them happen.
And how do you do that? That story is coming next week.
Postscript: I wrote this in March, 2013, unaware that three years later, I’d be living in Saigon. Wanna come visit? I’ve got tours!