'Sorry for this inconvenience'
Reposted in loving memory of the thin blue fence that blocked Le Loi Street for many years, here's a short 2021 essay that was originally published by Mekong Review.
On the day a friend finishes her 15-day quarantine in a hotel by the Saigon River, she resurfaces on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, ravenous for local food. ‘Let’s go for lunch, now,’ she texts. ‘Take me anywhere that’s outdoors.’
So we meet then stroll up Nguyen Hue Street until we get to the Chanel boutique, the one that sits under the Rex Hotel and which faces a high, blue metal fence with a sign that reads ‘SORRY FOR THIS INCONVENIENCE’.
The fencing and inconvenience here have been a fixture for locals, in some parts since 2014. That’s when work on a couple of metro lines began underneath Le Loi Boulevard, which meant sacrificing this major artery for the sake of the city. But many years later, the metro still feels like a pipe-dream while most of us have forgotten what life on Le Loi used to be like.
“Follow me,” I say to my friend, leading the way as it’s best we walk single-file. In places, the fencing runs so close to the shophouses, you have to shuffle sideways to pass other pedestrians. It’s not for claustrophobes, but I regularly plunge down this singular passageway to get to one of my favourite street food joints.
At this go-to spot of mine, three blocks over, you don’t have to order (unless you’re picky) because there’s only one dish. Just park your backside on a plastic stool and soon you’ll be handed a noodle salad with chunks of charcoal-grilled pork, a handful of herbs, some shredded carrot and daikon, a sprinkling of peanuts and a single spring roll packed with wood ear mushrooms, pork and onion, all of which gets doused with a fish-sauce-heavy dressing that’s sweetened with sugar, spiced with chillies and sharpened with a solitary pickled shallot. It doesn’t matter how many times I come here, I will always keep digging greedily to the bottom of the bowl and then fight the temptation to order a second serve.
No one ever believes me that such a sublime iteration of bún thịt nướng chả giò can still be found so centrally in Ho Chi Minh City. Fearing my friend is also sceptical, I suggest sitting close to the gnarled grill, knowing that one waft of pork-scented smoke will win her over.
Sipping on iced teas, we sit watching as the family and their staff assemble bowl after bowl with their backs to a century-old building that has a little-known, minor claim to fame. It was here, in 1929, that 30 comrades founded the Annam Communist Party, which later merged with the Indochina Communist Party to form the Communist Party of Vietnam. There’s no plaque on the façade to mark that historic summit, just a few stickers advertising various food delivery apps, a digital disruption that’s evidently been a boon for lunchtime trade, judging by the queue of delivery guys (impatiently waiting for orders of food and styrofoam, to be bagged and bound in a knot of plastic).
Nowadays, to make room for the collection of online orders, non-virtual punters mostly sit on the other side of the road. There they can eat in relative serenity (it’s effectively a cul de sac for cars, so it’s traffic free) under the shade of camphor trees and alongside another tall, blue metal fence. This ‘temporary’ perimeter conceals a whopping 3,800 square-metre plot of land that one day is supposed to be home to a glassy, high-rise office and retail tower. I tell my friend a groundbreaking ceremony was held in 2016 but the excavators have yet to show. For the time being it’s a carpark.
It’s only after my friend digs into her bowl and gorges on the contents that a penny drops for her: ‘Actually, I think I ordered from here with GrabFood during my quarantine, but it wasn’t nearly as tasty.’ Street food ordered online? I tell her that’s a convenience I can live without.
Extensive personal research has revealed that the second bowl temptation must be resisted at all costs. People with a hefty appetite should instead order an extra ‘chả giò’ or two on the side.