(No.9, Vol.2, Sep 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

All I knew as I stepped out of the taxi into Saigon Station was that Car No 5, Seat 15, requested my presence at 6:50 a.m. sharp, and two days later a similar train would launch me homeward at another prescribed time officially stamped in black ink on thick paper. At the time, these tickets for a roundtrip Saigon-PhanThiet journey served as nothing more than two tidy bookends to an adventure still awaiting its narration.
After settling into a coach reminiscent of Eastern Europe circa 1983, I marvelled at how the dozens of vinyl seats collected such a motley crew of people with varying missions yet all sharing one common goal of arriving in this coastal town. Were I to have closed my eyes, the train’s rhythmic clickety-clack, clickety-clack could have been at home anywhere in the world, but the only-in-Vietnam scenes whizzing past my dust-streaked window were anything but.

Sidewalk scene in Phan Thiet

Low-slung streetscapes of tin-roof concrete shacks crumbling along narrow once-paved streets now pulverized into rock and dust reminded me of a different Vietnam I had met fifteen years earlier during a week’s vacation. Our train rolled on another four hours through green countryside time’s forward march seemingly has forgotten to take along for the ride. I began daydreaming and wishing I were on the other side of the glass.
I would hazard a guess that most people use travel as an escape vehicle to numb senses stressed from everyday life. Others venture forth into the world to reawaken faculties numbed by those very same daily toils. I fall into the latter camp with my only goal uncovering something of a memorable Phan Thiet nature nonexistent in my own backyard. What lay ahead I did not know for I had commenced this expedition without the advice of the internet, guidebooks, word of mouth, or any other such research a well-prepared traveler might undertake. Sometimes the best way to unveil an area’s hidden secrets is simply to become lost in its streets.
Staying at the well-appointed Villa Del Sol resort in TienThanh Beach 14 kilometres distant from Phan Thiet town proved a double-edge sword. On the one hand, this self-contained oasis set against stunning beach views provides the perfect meditative Zen for rest and recuperation. Yet on the other, sequestration inside these hermetically sealed confines could prove that fait accompli shielding me from the local interaction I so crave for collecting random once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences that has become my travelling mantra.
I asked the front desk staff if they could perhaps recommend a local restaurant to kick start my explorations. Ms Phuong quickly countered with, “Why do you want that? We have a restaurant here.” Even after explaining my desire to dine with the locals in the most local of food shops, she seemed quite perplexed before finally dismissing my inquiries with a stern warning that “local quality might not be good for westerners.” Seeing that I was far from sending the white flag of surrender up the flagpole, she hesitantly scribbled the name of a restaurant on a slip of paper that would soon become my admission ticket to a fascinating journey far from anything I could have ever imagined only hours before on that train.
    Renting a motorbike of suspect repair for VND315,000 a day provided two-wheeled freedom to break through the invisible barrier of the hotel’s neatly manicured grounds into the more rough and tumble environs of BinhThuan Province more suitable to my peculiar tastes. The insertion of my western driving skills into Phan Thiet’s no-rules flow of traffic likely left a trail of destruction in my wake. Motorists in this town sense some sort of order quite elusive to me amongst the bedlam zipping through the streets, and their quizzical looks burned right through me as I sputtered along in Tran Hung Dao Street’s right lane at one quarter the speed of kamikaze grandmothers whizzing past like slingshot projectiles.
One final, harrowing left turn against an onslaught of careening motorbikes pouring across a short bridge over the Ca Ty River brought me for the second time in so many days to Ms. Phuong’s recommendation. I stood in front of Kim Anh Quan’s faded concrete walls at 28A Trung Trac Street and basked in all that is right about a proper Vietnamese feeding hole the average tourist likely will miss.
The owner’s enthusiasm for my loyal patronage showed with an ear-to-ear grin as he ushered me to a choice table underneath a coveted wall-mounted fan. The humidity may have been high enough to saturate the morning air inside this mom-and-pop type establishment yet could do little to dampen my appetite. The breakfast menu’s selection was a veritable who’s who of noodle-based soups, and I was proud to have actually mustered up a rough translation for about half of the exotic sounding vittles.

Transporting fish in baskets from the boat to delivery trucks

A quick game of eenie, meenie, miney, mo landed my finger on hủ tiếu hải sản seafood noodle soup whose sweet liquid with a subtle fish infusion proved so delectable I consciously slowed my normally supersonic eating to a more glacial pace. The perfectly cooked shrimp, octopus, and squid piqued my curiosity as to what lay in the ocean beyond, and a nearby sidewalk vendor’s dessert of dragon fruit with scarlet flesh whetted even more my insatiable hunger for off-the-beaten-path exploration.
This cluster of streets soon became the hub of my rapidly expanding universe for immersion into all things Phan Thiet, and from there I fanned out into the countryside with about as much subtlety as the Big Bang Theory. Stopping short of a bridge across a rather pungent waterway choked with refuse and the other assorted hubris of the human footprint landed me right in the middle of a no- frills outdoor street market at the corner of Thu Khoa Huan and Nguyen Huu Tien Streets.
As I wandered amongst tables deeply stained with the telltale DNA of raw market commerce, I noticed a table of a different sort had quickly turned. In mere steps I had gone from casual observer to the object of intense scrutiny myself as the locals keenly watched my every move with a very vocal narration. People do not just descend upon these markets as I had for a casual window-shopping walkabout, and old women on a mission impatiently pushed around me without apology. I suddenly felt like a broken cog hindering this churning wheel of commerce.
I was drowning in a pool of laughter and finger-pointing as I studied a display of dried fish perfuming anyone downwind with their unique eau-de-market essence. Lingering just a second too long caused the napping, yet amazingly clairvoyant, saleswoman to somehow awaken and commence the hard sell. Several matriarchs motioned for me to try a piece, and oh how I wished I could have asked them beforehand if the taste would prove as rancid as the odiferous fumes.
Hook, line and sinker, these women pulled me well outside my comfort zone, and I carefully chose the least offensive looking specimen. Wow, did that one tiny nibble pack a potent punch best described as a tough beef jerky texture marinated in a fishiness of steroidal proportions! Evidently my new found friends had wagered whether or not I would dare consume such a delicacy. When the roulette wheel landed on ‘He ate it!’ half erupted into rapid-fire murmurs while the rest walked away shaking their heads.
As I politely sought a graceful, no-purchase required exit, little did I know that I would soon retrace this fish’s journey from ocean to my now healing tastebuds. This piquant taste of PhanThiet cuisine unwittingly became the focal point of my journey deep into the countryside and would make the most random of appearances along the way.
Not even a few minutes’ drive beyond the market, a trash-strewn strip of riverside real estate pulsed with a beehive of loud activity near 65 Nguyen Thong Road. Slight women hidden beneath conical hats buzzed back and forth between a steady flow of narrow wooden boats and delivery trucks.

Peachful seaside scene south of Phan Thiet

Expecting a similar sting of glares and stares as in the market, I sloshed through the muddy asphalt in between stacks of crated silver fish and wall-to-wall people.The pursuit of earning a living from the day’s catch proved more compelling than wondering why a western guy was milling about, and in a manner so unlike Vietnam, my presence was completely ignored other than for women occasionally using their fish-stained hands against my once clean shirt to repeatedly reposition me out of their way.
In one curve of the asphalt just beyond this mecca of fish distribution, Mui Ne’s highly developed, very westernized, and for me at least, antithesis of everything Vietnamese I sought now monopolized my thoughts. I paused in front of a shop bursting with gaudy Hawaiian style beachwear, neon coloured bathing suits, and tacky souvenirs and suddenly began craving another walk through that earlier street market so ripe with sounds and smells of a more ‘proper’ commerce. Set down a McDonalds and Burger King at either end of Mui Ne’s main drag, and its metamorphosis into a western enclave would prove complete.
This part of Mui Ne fortunately became a mere speck in my rear view mirror as I motored my way into the actual town proper. Hillside Nguyen Minh Chau Street sent me on a steep, gravity-enhanced trajectory towards the ocean well beyond my motorbike’s braking capabilities, and at the bottom I landed mercifully unscathed in an area well off the tourist trail. A potholed dirt road cutting a path between very basic, one-storey concrete homes funneled me right into a dusty area filled almost wall to wall with metal screens harvesting solar power to transform thousands of fish into what I had earlier sampled.
Right away I felt little in common with these surroundings other than a slow bake under the same searing noonday sun. This road less traveled connected me to others devoted largely to entire farms devoted to the drying of this tiny, silver fish.
The hotel’s open-air lobby barely had welcomed me home from my wanderings just as a clap of thunder split open the heavy looking clouds to unleash a deluge. I asked Ms. Nhung for advice on where to sample another PhanThiet specialty, sun-dried squid. This final rainy evening at Villa del Sol taught me that sometimes in our quest far and wide for the unusual, what we seek could be nearby, right under our noses.
As she carefully deliberated with pursed lips and intense concentration in her eyes, Mr Thoai told me to hop in his golf cart. Off we went into the pouring rain to a coffee shop about three minutes distant, where I bought eight pieces out of a regular household refrigerator. Right on the spot I was ready to sink my teeth into the rubbery flesh, yet in the nick of time Mr Thoai pulled my hand away from my mouth with an animated ‘Mr John, no, no, no, no, no!’
Evidently ‘sun-dried’ still means raw, and five minutes on the hotel’s grill would bring this treat to crispy, now edible perfection. Since these unfamiliar dishes never seem to arrive tableside with an instruction manual for the Western novices amongst us, deeply thankful I was my new friends could show me the ropes. Though we only knew just enough of each other’s languages to barely function beyond the preschool level of How old are you? and What is your name? we shared a wonderful, laughter-filled dinner.
As we greedily separated chewy strips from the squid and dragged them through a spicy, fish-sauce-based nước chấm dipping sauce, I pondered how food really does harbor the power to unite us all by transcending cultures. My journey’s final hours were ironic indeed for only days earlier I had eschewed the hotel as a proper venue where I could get to know Phan Thiet off the beaten path. Quite to the contrary, I made a personal connection with several people from this nation that has hosted me for two dozen months.
Homeward bound riding the rails, Saigon’s lights filled the quickly darkening void as dusk began pulling the sun’s last waning rays into its murky clutches. My train glided through District 3, cutting a close trail past brightly illuminated, open store fronts. Each narrow structure housed a split second, yet highly unfiltered glimpse, into local life. Within the blink of an eye, I spied a shirtless man jumping up and down on stacked cardboard in a futile attempt to compact it further, a young woman hunched over a sewing machine in a room overflowing with fabric, and a group of men raising beer mugs in a toast under a naked light bulb hanging from a wire.
Time has tempered my once awe-struck reaction to these scenes, and I now absorb this city’s familiarity in a different, more mundane light. My journey to Phan Thiet had come full circle as the train lurched into Saigon Station, and I said something to myself for the first time in two years: ‘I am home.’
The hotel’s amicable and helpful general manager, Mr Vinh, would later explain via email, ‘The fish you saw, we call anchovy. If it is still fresh, people can eat. But if it is not fresh, people can dry it to eat later by cooking or they can make fish sauce.’ The truth is I saw more than just ca com drying in the sun. I gained a fresh perspective on a life and culture so unlike my own. Mission accomplished.

Text and pictures by John Russack