Arriving in Saigon the first thing that strikes you is the humidity. Fresh from a snowbound Europe as you step off the plane it hits you, along with the assorted fragrances of Asia, leaving you dripping with sweat. It’s like jumping into a bowl of soup, with each breath containing equal parts air and moisture together with a gulp of two-stroke exhaust fumes and a whiff of nuoc mam fish sauce thrown in. We’d arranged to meet up at a bar called the Blue Gecko for a drink before dinner, and I ambled through the sultry evening, past people squatting on low plastic stools at the pho noodle stalls, through the middle of a night market thronging with people. Suddenly fat spots of warm rain began to fall, and the next minute there was a tropical downpour, turning the roads into rivers and sending people scurrying for cover. I ducked under the canopy of a jewellery stall together with a dozen or so Vietnamese, and together we watched the deluge clear the streets. The storm ended almost as suddenly as it had begun, and I set off again into the steamy night decorated with two more bangles that I hadn’t planned on purchasing.
Arriving at a building with a blue neon sign overhead which reflected in the puddles left by the rain I was pounced on by several waitresses in miniskirts, one of whom handed me a menu and asked me if I’d like some Frosties. I was slightly nonplussed to be offered breakfast cereal at that time of night and ordered an Orangina instead. “With Frosties?” she lisped hopefully, giving a slight wiggle. It turned out they were trying to plug Fosters lager, and every time I ordered another drink I was asked if I’d like some Frosties as well. In the corners of the room 5 TV sets showed 5 different sport channels on satellite, and assorted Aussie pub memorabilia was strewn across the walls, including the inevitable kangaroo road sign. The waitresses, who seemed to have been selected from Saigon central casting for their sulky demeanour and pert figures, were the only locals in sight.
After a while we decided to head next door for dinner to Bo Tung Xeo, a large, neon-lit warehouse on two levels. Hundreds of diners sat at long tables and occasional outbreaks of coughing occurred around the room as smoke filled the air from one of the many grills. I set off in search of the bathroom, and was directed down through the kitchens. Chefs yelled at each other as they stood stirring enormous woks while waiters ran back and forth delivering orders. I passed a large sink that was full of slithering eels, and then a pot full of enormous crabs – one climbed over all the others to within inches of the open top, and waved its claw tentatively in the air until a passing waiter slammed a lid over it. Turning a corner I stopped in my tracks: up against the wall was a large glass tank full of scorpions. I returned to the table to find my group looking slightly pensive, and one solemnly pointed out a menu on the wall that listed grilled field rat, fried crickets, she-goat breast, scorpion, and the ultimate in a mind-boggling list of bizarre dishes, beef penis.
There were a few foreigners dotted around, but the clientele was overwhelmingly Vietnamese. The waiter placed a small griddle on the table and delivered bowlfuls of marinaded beef, which was reassuringly un-penis shaped, which were then barbecued at the table. Not for the first time I was glad to be a vegetarian as the thick acrid smoke of seared meat billowed into the air. With eyes streaming I edged away from the table and piously picked at my tofu stir-fry. A large platter of roasted scorpions arrived, nestling in charred intimacy upon a bed of lettuce, and several people got stuck in – ‘like pork crackling’, someone said. Suddenly one of the scorpions twitched a claw and abruptly took off across the tablecloth, making a beeline for the soy sauce before veering off to the north-west and dropping off the edge of the table. You never saw a table cleared so quickly – chairs shrieked backwards as people leapt to their feet, and a waiter was summoned who casually picked up the offending insect and dropped it back on the table, whereupon it took off on a direct course for one of the ladies, causing more chaos. Eventually it was herded into a corner with cutlery and removed by another waiter.
I can’t recall the dessert menu at all – I’m not sure the Vietnamese really do dessert – but I had a ca fé sua, coffee with a centimetre of condensed milk in the base of the glass, which you stir until it reaches the desired level of sweetness. Bo Tung Xeo definitely offers an authentic Saigon experience, and if you don’t fancy the roast scorpion there’s plenty of other things to choose from, including the tofu stir-fry, which wasn’t bad at all. In terms of ‘interestingness’ for the items on the menu, though, Bo Tung Xeo is somewhere that’s hard to beat, and you’d have to try one of the more exotic dishes at least once. But I’m not sure I could ever look at a bull the same way again.