Eggs

In Sai Gon you can eat eggs from many types of birds, at many stages of development. This is a list of some notable methods.

Chick or duckling fetus – the firm tourist favourite. This isn’t as bad as everyone makes out, tastes like egg yolk mostly. Try to get younger fetuses, there is less chance of having to crunch through the embryonic bones.  Don’t eat the rubbery, hard bit; you will chew on it for a long time until you finally choke it down or spit it out.

egg chicken
Chicken fetus gets no points for presentation.

Unlaid eggs – Quick biology lesson; hens’ reproductive tracts create what we call ‘yolks’ which float down to the ovaduct, where they form their shell. Then fully formed, the egg waits at the end of its ovaduct, to be pushed out or ‘laid.’ Hens are full of yolks of different maturity and sizes, all waiting their turn to travel through the ovaduct.

No chicken dies of old age in Viet Nam; they are either slaughtered young for tender meat or left to lay eggs… and then slaughtered when they stop laying. These older birds that have been laying for a while have tougher meat, so they generally made into soup. So, it is in soup restaurants that you’ll find the most unlaid eggs. In your soup will float these unlaid eggs that range from the size of fully developed yolk to pea-sized; they look and taste like rich, subtle egg yolk. They seem to be one of those ‘waste not, want not’ foods; they come free with the chicken carcass anyway, so why not throw them in…?

Unlaid eggs
I’ll bet you didn’t think there were this many unlaid eggs in chicken.

Quail Eggs – so far I’ve eaten as many eggs from Quails as I have from Chickens. As they are prohibitively expensive in my home country; they are quite the treat for me. I love that they are bite sized and each morsel has just the right yolk to white ratio. One thing that bothers me is that I never actually see the Quails that lay them. Given that I saw at least 10 Chickens each day, I would have thought I would have seen at least one Quail by now.

Egg coffee – (Cà Phê Trứng) A Ha Noi specialty, which is very hard to find in Sai Gon, but worth the search. If you can’t find it my beloved Sai Gon, then travel to Ha Hoi and get it there. It is made from beaten raw egg yolk, condensed milk, a strong, hot shot of Viet Nam’s chocolatey Robusta coffee and the tears of the Lord’s sweetest Angels. I can’t be sure about the last ingredient, but I know the result is certainly velvety, rich and very moreish.

Egg coffee
Egg Coffee.

Egg soda (Soda Sữa Hột Gà)  – raw yolk beaten with condensed milk and soda water over ice, a variation on my adored Egg Coffee. I knew I was onto a winner when my Vietnamese colleague thought it sounded terrible and I was crazy for ordering it. It was surprisingly inoffensive, even more surprising was the total absence of violent food poisoning. It tasted how I thought it would – fuzzy, sweet and egg yolky, like egg custard mixed with soda water. A real testament to Vietnamese culinary inventiveness.

Lunch and an existential crisis

There are some places in Sai Gon where you are sure to find foreigners; tourist spots like the Central Post Office, Notre Dame, or the Independence Palace.

I happen to live and work in the dead centre of this tourist zone, so I do tend to spend a lot of time there. I sometimes pick up a Banh Mi (a delicious Vietnamese baguette) and sit down in one of the parks to eat and more often than not, I’ll get some students coming up to me to ask if they can practice their English. Just about every foreigner is assumed to speak English and in my experience it is rare that this isn’t the case. In the last couple of decades, English has easily surpassed French as the Lingua Franca of foreigners living in Viet Nam (sorry Francophones).

These students are always in groups of 3-7 people and are nervous but unfailingly polite.

I’ve had some great conversations and get some wonderful insights into the lives of young Vietnamese people… and then there are those mistranslated questions that have you questioning all your life choices.

Some great examples are – “Where are your feelings?” “What are your visions and dreams?” “What is your life?”

Christ, kid! I’m just trying to eat my sandwich and you’re asking me to plumb the depths of my soul.

To avoid having to answer the sort of existential questions that leave me awake at night, I just quickly fix a couple of those simple errors – I’ll tell them it is better to say, “How are you feeling?” “What do you dream of doing in the future?” and “Can you tell me about your life?”

Actually, I love these students’ enthusiasm and appreciate the amount of courage it takes to walk up to a complete stranger and strike up a conversation in a language they’re still learning. I’d encourage anyone to have a chat with these kids, talk for as long or briefly as you like.  You’ll probably get as much out of the experience as they do and it is an easy way to do that one-good-deed-a-day thing.

If that doesn’t convince you then you should realise that you’re talking to people with local knowledge. Ask those burning questions! Get restaurant recommendations! I was once given the name of a Cha Ca place (pan-fried ling fish made with turmeric, dill, curry powder, peanuts, and vermicelli noodles) that was so good I almost wept. And if you’re not convinced by that alone, then nothing will.

Goodnight Sai Gon

Some nights there is no sleep to be found in my restless city; sometimes it is the heat and humidity, occasionally it is the flashing neon lights. But usually it is the noise. Most of the sounds are familiar to me now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to keep me from falling asleep. The sleeplessness gives my mind time to wander and compose childhood inspired verses.

Goodnight motorbikes, goodnight cars,

Goodnight tourists drinking in bars.

Traffic

.

Goodnight rats, goodnight bats,

Goodnight street children asleep on mats.

.

Goodnight boys sweeping the street,

Goodnight yowling cats in heat.

Cat

.

Goodnight woman selling her bread,

Goodnight monks praying for the dead.

Funeral

.

Goodnight mosquito in my ear,

Goodnight men drunk on beer.

.

Goodnight roosters trained to fight,

Goodnight workers at the building site,

why do you work so late at night?

Cocks

.

Goodnight geckos that go ‘cheep,’

Goodnight taxis that constantly beep.

.

Goodnight karaoke in the air,

Goodnight Sai Gon noises everywhere.

Head of the table

There is a Vietnamese tradition that an important person or guest is given the head of the animal being served during a meal. I am very proud and honoured to say that I have been served the heads of many fish, chickens and ducks over my time in Viet Nam and I couldn’t be more grateful to all my very gracious hosts.

The thing is, for a long time I had exactly no idea what to do with all these animal heads in my bowl.

Was I supposed to eat them? There usually some cheek meat in the heads of some of the larger fish, but not on the smaller ones, or on the chickens. I’d tried nibbling the sides of the chicken heads but I didn’t get very much from my efforts.

Not much eatin'
Not much eatin’

Should I just admire them for a couple of moments and then set them aside? Honestly, those heads took up valuable real estate in my bowl, space that I could have filled with delicious rice noodles instead.

Then I finally figured out just what to do with these heads.

I sometimes have a problem when I sit down to a meal hosted by Vietnamese people, because I was raised with the idea that you should eat everything on your plate and my hosts were raised with the idea that you should fill your guests’ bowls when they are empty. You can’t even refuse these extra servings because that isn’t how this game is played. If you turn away from your empty bowl for a moment, you’ll turn back to see a lovingly hand-peeled prawn or another piece of tofu that you will feel compelled to put into your mouth. This leads my hosts and I into a vicious cycle of overfeeding and overeating, and I end up hobbling away from the table to find a safe place to undo the top button on my pants (who am I kidding? I take off my pants entirely).

Enter the animal head! I just keep it in my bowl and eat around it, when I’m full I just dress up the head with a bit of leftover rice and some vegetable so it looks like I have a full bowl of food that I just can’t eat. And there you have it – food decoy to stop the onslaught.