Graham Greene dines at La Croix Du Sud
First published by Mekong Review last year, here's Mr. Greene's historic one-star Trip Advisor review of an infamous Saigon tourist trap on rue Catinat (that's Đồng Khởi to you and me, old boy).
I’D BEEN IN A STUPOR ALL DAY. A word of warning: one pipe of Cholon’s finest is never enough, but five ... and on a school night. Tut-tut old boy. It’s true what they say. Saigon is a dangerous town, mostly because of what a man can do to himself. Exhibit A: the elite French parachutists, who routinely rely on penicillin to save the day (i.e. whenever a nocturnal mission to Le Parc aux Buffles goes south).
Only hunger dislodged me from my room at the Continental, but feeling rather tender—I could still taste the traces of vermouth cassis on my breath. Never again!—I planned only to descend to the hotel’s adequate restaurant, hoping perhaps that a dish of pot-au-feu et une petite carafe de pastis might slap the capillaries in my pasty cheeks back to life.
However, downstairs I was duly informed that the American legation had booked out the entire ground floor. Perhaps observing my eyes widening in horror at the thought of seeing so many khaki slacks and one-size-fits-all fashion under one roof, the maître d’ said he could accommodate me as long as I didn’t mind also sampling the set menu américain. I don’t think he quite understood the sarcasm when I quipped, ‘God save us from the good and the innocent. And shrimp cocktails ...’
Now normally I’d be happy to observe les Amerloques from a disdainful distance, but not on an empty stomach and with a ghastly hangover. So I stepped outside, where
one of them had parked his Cadillac (to think these people actually believe they’re keeping a low profile), only to spot one of the newly arrived members of the Americans’ brains trust—awfully creepy chap with a faint moustache and a pet poodle he calls Pierre. Always wants to know if he can read whatever I am writing, too. Pah!—coming around the side of the Opera House.
To paraphrase the poet A.E. Houseman, I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made, wondered what I am doing here? I had an instinct to run screaming. But in which direction?
Well, as always, I set off toward the Saigon River. Only yesterday I had received a letter from the esteemed Norman Lewis, who had got wind that I had returned to Saigon. He wasted a great amount of ink urging me to get ‘the hell out of your “rue Catinat bubble” and plunge headlong into the side streets’. All kinds of sights, sounds and local delicacies awaited me, if I dared to stray from the confines of the city’s wide boulevards. From memory he recalled seeing ‘diaphanous baby octopi, cured pig snouts and battered duck heads ...’
As if knowing I wouldn’t dare be such an adventurous eater, he reassured me that on the fringes of le premier arrondissement I would find the city’s best French restaurants, where Vietnamese and Chinese chefs were using fresh local ingredients, spices and adjuncts; he assured me it was a far superior dining experience compared to the Catinat tourist traps that relied on goods that were likely canned before the fall of the Third Republic.
Yet, as I strode down Catinat, all groggy and regretful, and seven time zones from Dear Old Blighty, I must confess all I could think of was shepherd’s pie. Is that so wrong of me?
With sweat starting to soak through my evening shirt, I suddenly spotted La Croix du Sud, an establishment that has something of a reputation, courtesy of the Corsican mobster, or rather, the ‘legitimate businessman’ and owner, who goes by the name of Monsieur Andréani.
When he is not holding court with the fellow members of the, ahem, Corsican Chamber of Commerce, I have heard the corpulent, clammy Monsieur Andréani likes to boast about how he came from a family of ‘Corsican shepherds’ (surely a standard euphemism for being a member of the Unione Corse!).
According to his own autobiographical accounts, on something of a whim (more likely due to slitting someone’s throat and having to go on the lam) he took a job as a skivvy for the French navy. He then jumped ship in Saigon, where he found remunerated work in the ‘entertainment industry’ (yes, you are quite correct, I do mean he got a job as a pimp in a brothel) along with some other Corsican émigrés, all of whom just happened to be ensconced in Saigon, too. What a small world—and a remarkable tale of plucky entrepreneurialism—it is ... not.
However, I digress from the matter at hand: why did I set aside Monsieur Andréani’s dubious personal history and risk entering La Croix du Sud? You see, I had also been led to understand by the Corsican owner of the Continental that the entire Andréani clan had now absconded, I mean, migrated, to Indochina under the behest of Monsieur Andréani. For that reason, I imagined I might be able to sample some classic Corsican fare to bolster my failing constitution and set my pulses going again. Zuppa corsa made with a ham-bone stock that’s just so? Chestnut fritters and veal sausages? Perhaps, a heart-warming civet de sanglier— must be a wild boar or two thrashing around the vicinities of Saigon, surely?
Alas, none of the above transpired. The first alarm bells sounded when I found myself staring at the sort of generic menu that may very well taint the legacy of French colonialism the world over for decades to come (never mind the inhumane governance and systematic exploitation of the Great Unwashed). My fears that I had indeed willingly walked into a tourist trap were not assuaged by an anxious, floppy-haired waiter who appeared to have wandered into this particular scene without rehearsing a single line. Nonetheless, I settled for bouillabaisse rather than minestrone, côte du porc rather than escalope de veau with haricots verts fraise avec beurre rather than petit pois, and yes, for queen and country, pommels de terre a l’anglaise over frites.
If I played it safe, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, everything, as it turned out. Unfortunately for yours truly, a group of cocksure French grenadiers—all knowing smirks and bawdy gestures—arrived as soon as I ordered, hogging the attention of the utterly hopeless, hapless and helpless staff for the duration of my visit. Naturally, my drink order, a bottle of Hermitage Blanc, and my only hope, sat visibly on a bar, warming in the soupy heat until I fired up a flare to alert the staff of its destination. The French manager, who must have been tailored in the dark, seemed only to orbit (in different directions) the Corsican Chamber of Commerce, who were becoming steadily more boisterous (undoubtedly having been sipping steadily on pastis since midday).
Far from the kitchen, alas, but very close to the cash register, the Andréani women did nothing but count piastres and gossip. I had already begun to despair over the wooden baguette placed on my table when my bouillabaisse finally arrived containing the catch of the day before yesterday and an insipid broth that must have been made with a recipe straight from the Saigon shipyard canteen. It quickly got worse. An ‘orchestra’—all leggy females, surprise-surprise, and all garnished in an elaborate confusion of jackets with frogs and loops and half-strangled with plumes (the legs, at least, remained bare)—took to the ‘stage’ and began butchering hackneyed cabaret tunes under the dull fluorescent lights.
Predictably, the grenadiers began with the wolf whistles and catcalls. When my pork chop arrived it was as tender as a veteran legionnaire’s boot after a mission in Algiers (and I’ve had more nutritious beans served by the evil-eyed matriarchs of Berkhamsted School). The whole time, I had been draining one glass of wine after the other. Of course, no one was on hand to refill it, yet when the pompous French bureaucrats arrived with their Vietnamese maîtresses they were treated like visiting royalty.
When I belatedly received some attention from the French manager, I was ready to wave the white flag but he insisted on haughtily listing the entremets de maison—meringue Chantilly, crêpes Chantilly, mille- feuille Chantilly ... (God, I’d give my eye teeth for a Bakewell tart with proper whipped cream here in the tropics). ‘Non merci, l’addition sans Chantilly, s’il vous plait,’ I replied, rather pleased at my quick wit after a bottle of plonk.
After dumping a pile of piastres on the table, I then stormed up Rue Catinat to the Palais Cafe for a much- appreciated spam sandwich, a vermouth cassis (never say never) and a sympathetic ear—my apologies to Inspector Vigot for my protracted rant and interrupting his game of quatre-vingt-cinq.
As for returning to La Croix du Sud, well, someone would have to drive over me and drag my dead body inside—not entirely impossible that Monsieur Andréani could arrange this in his Citroën Traction. Note to self: don’t post this review until I return to Malacca.