“Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?” I asked Ngoc.
“You can use both,” Ngoc said, her eyes sparkling with enthusiasm behind thick-rimmed glasses. “Nobody will mind because you are a foreigner. I think Saigon is easier to say.”
We slurped Bun Bò Hue from cracked bowls down a narrow alley on the fringe of Ben Tanh Market. A lady tended to the tick and hiss of metal pots at her food cart. Puffs of insects floated like little clouds around the flourescent lights. The smell of cooked meat and aniseed sweetness clung to the humid air. It was the first stop on our late night food tour of Saigon.
“Ok, let’s go,” Ngoc said, putting on a baby blue motorbike helmet with a cutesy face on the front.
Streets that had seemed slow-paced during the day crackled to life as night fell. I clung to Ngoc’s silken dress as she weaved her motorbike through the thick traffic. We passed makeshift pavement stalls and hot wok stands billowing steam. Sheets piled with crockery, spices, toys and clothes were guarded by old women cawing like crows at passers-by. We got lost in a school of motorbikes waiting at a red light. Entire families perched on single scooters, toddlers peering out from under helmets, wedged into the footwell.
“We are leaving district one now,” Ngoc threw over her shoulder. “Soon we will be in real Saigon.”
Surrounded by people transporting elaborate flower arrangements, sheets of metal and even doors on rusty old bikes, heat from the exhaust stung my ankle. Saigon already felt real to me. One man had a tawny mess of live chickens strapped to his handlebars, clucking and flapping, while he waited for the light to burn green.
As we crossed into district 8, crumbling colonial shop fronts and old warehouses shedding paint huddled under sleek, glass karaoke bars that had popped up on every corner. Squat plastic furniture cluttered a vast concrete space that might have functioned as a car park during the day. We were seated amidst Saigonians reclining happily, empty Ba Ba Ba cans littering their tiny tables. Some prodded lazily at meat roasting on table-top barbeques. Laughter and fast-paced chatter competed with wailing karaoke floating across the car park.
We roasted goat, frog and squid with chopsticks and ate straight from the grill. We called out “Mok, Thai, Ba, YO!” like a gleeful battlecry while we clinked our beers together. Not for the first time in Vietnam, I found myself being spoon (or rather, chopstick) fed. Ngoc even lifted my beer to my mouth until I laughed it out of my nose. The whole meal was fast-paced, messy and left us smiling.
Back on the motorbike we zipped into district 4. Under the chaotic architecture of tall pastel townhouses, open-faced restaurants selling all forms of seafood lined the main road. Teenagers danced to ‘Gangnam Style’ blasting from 80’s boomboxes strapped to the back of their parked motorbikes. Brave from the Ba Ba Ba, we shouted encouragement from our table as we were served fat scallops swimming in lime, ginger and chilli in their shells. Whole crabs covered with deep red dust were delivered next. We cracked open the claws, slurping up the meat inside while the chilli powder tickled our noses.
“Would you like to try the special egg?” Ngoc asked, smiling like a child with a secret.
I nodded and a couple of hard boiled eggs in chipped cups were placed in front of us. I peeled back the top and looked into the gelatinous eye of a baby bird, curled up inside. Ngoc giggled and shook half a pepper pot into the egg.
“In Vietnam, duck foetus is very good for you,” she said.
I raised my spoon as if going into battle and scooped out the shrivelled, feathery blob. I could almost make out a face, beak closed in a downward frown. The bones felt like undercooked spaghetti, the feathers like stubble. I swallowed it, almost whole; not daring to crunch down with my teeth. Ngoc clapped and whooped as if I’d just taken my first steps.
“See, now you are in real Saigon,” she beamed.