Saigon a la Proust
I saw the most startling thing not long ago. Not long ago I saw Saigon for the first time. Now this was not the Saigon I used to know when she was a callow girl from a far-away province on the far side of the world. No. I saw the new Saigon, and I saw her with new eyes. I saw the ultra-modern, international lady who still wears the Ao Dai and limpet hat of her past. I saw Saigon for the second first time from the same kind of vantage point as the first first time: from a restaurant. It was Shri, on the top floor of the Centec Tower at Hai Ba Trung and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. Now this is not a restaurant review. Indeed, Shri couldn’t pay me to write this. Nor could they pay me not to.
I don’t know if it was genius or serendipity that this building was placed at this most perfect location and this most perfect height for viewing the new city. Either way, the view is delicious and intoxicating. It is something of which to drink deeply and often. It is something addictive. And it’s not just the panorama, the scope and sweep of the city, that the view from Shri reveals. For in it I can read much of the city’s history, and my own memories of it. I can see what she was, what she has become, and what she is becoming. I can read her mind and memory. I have been on nearly every top floor in town, but none peers into Lady Saigon’s heart like this one on the 23rd floor.
It didn’t quite strike me at first, however. Gorgeous as it was, in the first moments I didn’t quite realize what I was looking at. It wasn’t until I had something to eat. Seated at the outer edge of the outdoor terrace, preoccupied with deep thoughts and big ideas, like what to have for dinner that evening, I casually glanced at the bar menu. I noticed boquerones (bo ker OWN ayz), white Spanish anchovies marinated very simply in good vinegar and sea salt. I went to school in Spain. Wrote a book about its food and wine. And I’m damned fond of boquerones. Without looking or thinking further, I ordered a dish along with a chilled vodka. Just like the old vodka-caviar match. Perfect.
When served, and still in my absent-minded mood, I put a boqueron in my mouth and bit down. The rich, almost buttery, flesh resolved itself quickly into a velvety paste and expressed its juice across my tongue. The tang of salt and vinegar both enhanced and attenuated the fishy taste, and produced the most beguiling and perfectly balanced flavor, one of the fixed stars of the culinary firmament. It’s a study in the concept of perfect balance. Not too much of anything, just the right amount of everything.
And as I contemplated this perfect balance of flavor and contemplated the perfect view, it came home to me with special force, that this city that was once on the rim of the world, this charming backwater, this place that I had never wanted to see change and whose changes I have often bemoaned, has come into balance. Old and new, high and low, past and present, local and global, she has come into her own.
From this special vantage point in day time I can see clearly mighty office towers sitting cheek-by-jowl with the rusty tin roofs of old shacks and shops. Between shopping malls and government buildings, I look down into the narrow alleyways, the hems, revealing their tucked-away little coms and phos, sidewalk barbers and fruit sellers. To the South I see the still rising future in the unfinished Saigon Spire, as well as the corner of Rhodes and Pham Ngoc Thac where a lifetime ago I ate my first hot vit lon and for 25 cents bought a T-shirt that proclaimed “American Dream Staff!”
At night I see with renewed clarity that the once lamp-lit town has become an iridescent city, yet husbanding her past in shadows seen only from up here. To the West, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street is an undulating river of headlights. But from here I can see also a beautiful ancient masonry water tower that looks like a fortress, hidden from street level view. To the East the old French-built zoo nestles in its quiet corner, while ultra-modern An Phu glows distantly.
Marcel Proust tasted his humble madeleine, and wrote Remembrance of Things Past. Well, I can’t say a novel will come of this. But with my little boqueron, tasted at Shri, I have been able to taste Saigon anew. Not bad. Not bad at all.