For more than a month I have been eating bland food–that’s when I’ve felt like eating anything at all. Saltine crackers, oatmeal, peaches & cottage cheese . . . But the last couple of days my appetite has begun to return. A colleague dropped off some loaves of bread from his favorite bakery the other day & toasted it was life-restoring. Tonight, Carole was up in Ottawa with our new dog Buckle getting her first scent detection certifications. She stopped at the Shawarma Palace for dinner & brought me a plain chicken shawarma sandwich. Real Food.
It was late when she got home & I didn’t want to tempt the nausea gods out of hiding, so I only ate a couple of bites. It is difficult for me to describe how good those bites of sandwich tasted. Singer Warren Zevon, then dying of cancer, in his last TV appearance with David Letterman, advised viewers to “enjoy every sandwich.” It’s a clichÃ©, of course, a tossed off piece of carpe diemÂ perfectly suited to Zevon’s persona; but at the same time–& I tell you this now from personal experience–it is achingly true.Â I’m looking forward to eating my chicken shawarma sandwichÂ for breakfast. Talk about a morale boost.
Update: Eaten for breakfast.
My friends Long & Giang took me for lunch yesterday to a restaurant on Tráº¥n VÅ© beside TrÃºc Báº¡ch Lake that specializes inÂ Phá»Ÿ Cuá»‘n, which is basically all the ingredients of a bowl of Phá»Ÿ BÃ² minus the liquid & rolled up in rice paper. Itâ€™s eaten by dipping in a slightly sour dipping sauce. This is the best thing I have eaten on this trip to Vietnam.
The restaurant is on a little island separated from the city by a narrow canal &Â TrÃºc Báº¡ch is itself separated from the much larger & more famous Há»“ TÃ¢y (West Lake) by a narrow causeway. After lunch we went down the street & drank coffee beside the lake.
Pouring rain. Hammering rain. The it stops & the sun comes out. When I go out it will rain again. Itâ€™s about 80Âº. In any case, Iâ€™ve been cooped up for two days–feels like a week–with a stomach bug–bá»¥ng á»‘m in Vietnamese: almost an onomatopoeia! I knew I was recovering when I began to imagine eating some fruit. Vietnam is so full of fruit that after a while it becomes invisible. But when you notice it, the variety and abundance are astonishing. (Here is an overview of whatâ€™s available, though it only scratches the surface. And here is 40 seconds of video that catches the feel of the streets.)
So I knew I was getting better when I began thinking about fruit. But you donâ€™t want to stuff just any fruit into yourÂ bá»¥ng á»‘m–some will actually make you worse. Begin with bananas, which are full of minerals & fiber. Bananas, bottled water, and Vinamilk yogurt will get one through most food-borne intestinal disturbances. With one exception years ago, the combination has always worked for me. That time, I needed to take a course of Cipro & then probiotics & an electrolyte solution that is somehow both sweet & salty at the same time. Actually, yesterday, after I was mostly recovered, I went to the pharmacy to lay in a supply of loperamide in case of emergency (best to avoid until your system has cleaned itself out), along with the standard probiotic & the nasty electrolyte powder (donâ€™t be fooled by the orange on the packet). I was surprised when the pharmacist asked if I wanted a packet of Cipro. â€œKhÃ´ng cÃ³Â toa thuá»‘c bÃ¡c sÄ©?â€ I asked. (Without a doctorâ€™s prescription?) She laughed and said something that may have meant, â€œOh, yes, a doctor!â€ then she laid the blister-pack on the counter, so I got some Cipro, too. Iâ€™m not going to take any of this stuff now except the probiotic, but if I need it later, Iâ€™ll have it. Somehow, though, I usually only getÂ bá»¥ng á»‘m once each time I come.
Finally, a word about yogurt. The largest industrial company in Vietnam (barring foreign & multinationals) is Vinamilk. It is a kind of miracle food. The stuff is highly sweetened & highly processed–Westerners might be tempted to turn up their noses–but it can be transported throughout a tropical country with inadequate transport & refrigeration. It is also full of probiotics.
Sá»¯aÂ chuaÂ is Vietnamese for yogurt & to a non-Vietnamese the word looks a lot likeÂ sá»a chá»¯a, which is actually a different word, in this case meaning â€œfixâ€ or â€œrepair.â€ But if you haveÂ bá»¥ng á»‘m, sá»¯a chuaÂ will helpÂ sá»a chá»¯a your problem. Plenty of water, bananas & Vinamilk yogurt make an excellent first line of defense against travelersâ€™ stomach problems; if that doesnâ€™t work, there does not seem to be much the pharmacist wonâ€™t provide.
What is it about the Vietnamese & karaoke? Iâ€™m seven floors up & I can hear people going at it in the club across from the hotel. Must be a hell of a din downstairs.
Arrived in good order this morning, less wrung out than usual. Hot & muggy, with a rain shower this afternoon while I napped. There is a beautiful new bridge over the Red River & in general Hanoi looks prosperous. The airport, which in the past often had a certain Dantean quality, has been redone & spruced up; neat & efficient, the place was a pleasant surprise, especially in contrast to Hong Kong, where the airport–once a jewel of Asian modernism–has gotten rather tatty. Maybe the decline is related to the mainland’s economic turmoil.
The manager at my hotel remembered me from a couple of years ago & since I was early, settled me with a plate of fresh fruit while my room was gotten ready: passion fruit, dragon fruit & watermelon.
As noted, I slept for a while, then took a short walk & went out to dinner. I always go to the Moca Cafe on my first day in Hanoi–not because it’s the best place, but because of its longevity. The cÆ¡m rang gÃ (chicken fried rice) tastes the same as it did sixteen years ago & it was pleasant to watch the stream of Hanoians & tourists go past the open windows & to hear the raw, unmelodious bell of St. Josephs.
Banh cuon are delicate little rice crepes filled with minced pork or shrimp & little bits of a very black mushroom. A plate of these little delights is then topped with a pile of crunchy fried shallots & coriander. Pick them up with your chopsticks, dip in mild salty-sour dipping sauce . . . a perfect light lunch on a hot day. A plate full & a drink will set you back two or three US dollars. Is this paradise? Yes, I think so.