Earlier this week, the Flying Classroom made an unplanned stop in Vietnam. Despite the short notice, we were met with smiles from the moment we opened the cabin door until we closed it, 24 hours later. There was something buzzing in this city of 8 million and it wasn't just the motorbikes.
“Honestly, I felt love,” said Barrington. “Like the people actually wanted to share who they are.”
Exhibit A: Tan Nguyenvan, owner of T&T Travel. He had been hired to drive us to our hotel near the airport, but that didn’t sit right with him. Instead, he insisted we stay at his beautiful Hotel Catina downtown, free of charge.
The generosity didn’t stop there. Tan treated us to dinner next door at a restaurant whose menu was unlike any we’d ever encountered: sautéed squids, winter melon soup, seafood served in a pineapple. We dared Barrington to order the Giant Gourami fish. When it showed up, scales and all (left), he was like, “There’s no way I could eat this.” But he did! The fins tasted like potato chips.
Back at the hotel, Tan offered another Southeast Asian delicacy: civet coffee—or more accurately, civet poop coffee. As we soon learned, civets are cat-like mammals that live in the Vietnamese highlands. At night, they sneak into the plantations to eat the cherries off the coffee trees. After spitting out the outer peels, they swallow the coffee beans inside. Then something sort of magic happens. Special enzymes in their digestive tract transform the protein structure of the beans. This makes them less bitter. When the beans come out the other end, farmers harvest the droppings. We were comforted to learn that the beans then go through extensive drying and washing before roasting. After that, the poo is ready to brew.
Tan’s baristas brought out a special siphon gizmo that used an open flame and the physics of gas expansion and vacuums to brew the coffee (left). A nutty aroma filled the room as the baristas filled our cups. Barrington took a sip. “For something that’s been digested by an animal, that’s stronger than you think,” he said.
The next morning, we met downstairs for breakfast. The New York Times recently published a piece on what children eat for breakfast in different parts of the world: cornmeal porridge in Malawi; fermented soybean paste in Japan. In Vietnam, they eat pho, a clear noodle soup topped with meat, bean sprouts, lime juice, mint, hot peppers, and fish sauce. It’s become pretty popular in the U.S., but I always thought it was a lunch or dinner thing. Pho every morning for breakfast? Move over cereal.
When we had learned we would be stopping in Vietnam instead of Hong Kong, Barrington and Shaesta began casting about for things we could do in less than 24 hours. Could we visit the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War? Could we fly to the highlands to see the civets? Ultimately, Barrington decided that the story of this stop was Vietnam’s vibrant culture. And since food is so integral to that culture, he wanted to spend our day grocery shopping, Vietnamese-style.
The 19th-century Ben Thanh Market overflows with vendors hawking everything from scarfs and chopsticks to dragonfruits and cow tongues. Barrington wanted to buy a fish. Minh, our guide from T&T Travel, translated the request. After a quick demo from the vendor, Barrington managed to wrangle a snakehead fish—or ca loc—from its tub (above). “I totally underestimated the strength of that fish,” he said, dripping with sweat. “That’s a very tough fish.” It was still fighting as the vendor cleaned it and bagged it up for Minh to take home.
Barrington, Minh and I wandered the stalls for another hour, learning how to pick a good brain, skin a frog, slice a cow liver. What food did Barrington like most? A sweet and juicy red fruit called a rambutan—or as he dubbed it, “the hairy thing.”
The most surprising? The pig brain. “I was shocked at how small it was.”
Barrington was also surprised at how small the people’s waistlines were. “For a culture known for its food, no one’s obese here,” he said. “You eat all this food, and it doesn’t feel heavy. You feel energized. Compare that to a lot of food in the U.S., fried this, fried that. Makes you think about what natural food is and what isn’t.”
Indeed it does. Before we left for the airport, Minh took us to a traditional Vietnamese buffet for lunch. I put a large boiled egg on my plate. Back at the table, I saved it for last. Juices streamed out as I cracked the shell open. Inside was a gooey clump of yellow and grey. “Good luck with that,” Tom said as he and the rest of the Flying Classroom team got up and left me staring at a partially developed duck embryo in a bowl.
Before we took off for Singapore, I tried to tip Minh (pictured here on the right) for his hospitality and for helping us navigate the market. He refused and said with a big smile, “I love my country, and I love sharing it with other people.” Then he gave me a hug. “We are friends now.”