Vietnamese Fast Food

During my last year in Paris,

the excitement of the city faded. Everything was always gray, we never had any money, and Parisians were just grumpy in general…and I was probably acting that way by proxy. That year the shadow man and I lived in a minuscule studio apartment up in the 19th arrondissement. The bed came down from the ceiling, and the bathroom was growing black mold. I even developed an awful cough and sounded as if I was hacking up my lungs every morning. Anytime I was not in class or babysitting, I stayed home and lied around in bed watching movies on my laptop. I couldn’t afford to do anything else. Everything felt exhausting…

The relationship between my family and I had deteriorated to almost nothing in my time with the shadow man. I did not want to go home. At the end of my Masters year at the École du Louvre, I found a job posting board with various internship offers in Paris and elsewhere. One that stood out to me was for a small publishing company in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. They were looking for an editorial assistant to work in their office focusing specifically on art history books. The prospect of living in southeast Asia was enticing, and I knew the shadow man would be happy so after an easy interview in a corner brasserie with a bleached blonde French woman, I accepted the position.  

I will never forget the feeling I had upon arriving to Ho Chi Minh and looking down from the airplane window. I could see all of the motorbikes whizzing along like ants in their anthill. Getting off the plane we were greeted by one of my co-workers who would accompany us to our Couchsurfing host’s house. It was hot and sticky. Everything was different. Chaos is how I always explained the atmosphere when talking about my experience there. A beautiful type of chaos. The smells were pungent, there were people everywhere and when we got out of the taxi at our host’s house and there were giant cockroaches scuttling into the corners of the street. Definitely not immaculate like Paris…the museum city. Our host was a smiling PhD student that loved meeting foreigners and showing them his city. We slept on a blanket on the cold tile floor as there were no beds in the house. Again, another feeling of excitement. Another new place and an unknown pathway.

Sleepy but jetlagged, we woke up before the sun rose and headed out on motorbike and watched the city wake up. Everyone was getting ready with the sun. Most everything was done outside since it was so hot. Little kiosks with Vietnamese coffee, markets with mountains of exotic fruits and vegetables came alive. One of my first, and favorite, experiences was having a real Vietnamese iced coffee. The coffee was brewed right there in front of you, hot and black, then poured over ice with gooey, sweet condensed milk. It tasted like a milkshake. You could also get fresh fruit smoothies, sinh to, on the street. My favorite was mango mixed with condensed milk, thick and creamy and delicious.

Experiencing all of the different food was like being a child in a candy store. Everywhere smelt of fermenting fish, which they made in large batched underneath the buildings of the city. The fish sauce was used in all facets of their cuisine. Everyone sat outside on miniature, red plastic chairs and tables slurping their pho and piling it high with fresh herbs and chili oil. Carts of hot pink, fuzzy lychee were lazily pushed along and there was always a banh mi man with his kiosk kitchen around the corner from the office where I worked.

I began at the publishing house right away. A Monday through Friday, full time position, which was a blessing and a curse. I made 1,000 USD per month, which in Vietnam at the time was a lot. But I worked all week and longed to be outside exploring. Some of the first weekend adventures were the most memorable — a deserted amusement park dotted with giant multi-colored buddha statues, a boat trip along the Mekong, overnight bus trips to the beautiful quiet beaches of Mui Ne. Everything was new and different and I was loving soaking it all in.

Living on my salary was easy. We found a spot in District 1, close to everything. The shadow man found a motorbike right away and I found a city bike that I rode to and from work — not quite comfortable with driving a motorbike in the Saigon traffic. In the evenings just before leaving the office during monsoon season, the air would become thick and damp, signaling the coming of a big rain. This happened everyday around the same time. The most amazing part though, was all of the dragonflies that would come out just before the rain started to gobble up indiscernible insects flying around. Hundreds upon hundreds of dragonflies hung in the air, and at that point you knew you needed to quickly grab your poncho unless you were willing to get soaked to the bone.

The monsoons were epic. The rain came hard and fast. You almost had no time to get into some form of shelter before the downpour came. If you weren’t prepared, then you would have to be ready to go to your destination drenched. In lieu of being hot and sticky, you would end up cooled off…and that was also a reprieve in a way. Oftentimes, in order to cool off, I would jump into the cold shower…a hot shower was never necessary.

On one weekend adventure from Saigon to Tay Ninh – a town known for its massive, kitsch Cao Dai temple – we rode the entire way in the rain. Thinking the town was only about 45 minutes away, it ended up being a couple hours. I held onto the back of the motorbike in my poncho with the rain pellets stinging my face. Per usual, we did not organize a place to stay. I was exhausted, wet, cold and in no mood to search and search for a bed to sleep in. Once we finally found somewhere, I jumped in the what, at the time, felt like the most luxurious shower I’d ever had with a dial and hot water heater. I collapsed into bed and fell asleep right away. These quick adventures on the weekends were how I was able to see much of the southern part of the country.

In many ways I feel like my time in Vietnam was cut short. I received a message from a friend in Paris who was nannying for the Saudi royal family. She asked if I’d be interested in a position with a family who was looking for an English-speaking nanny for their two-year-old little prince. The money was…a lot. Plus, I’d have no living expenses whatsoever and I’d likely receive monthly bonuses and many gifts. It was an enticing prospect especially given that I was no longer able to save any money, all of my financial aid from university was gone, and it was not like the shadow man was going to foot the entire bill. I decided to say yes, a bit reluctantly because I was enjoying myself so much where I was, and received a phone call from HRH (Her Royal Highness) Princess Sara. I agreed to fly back to Paris the following week to meet with them for a trial period.

The idea, in my head anyway, was that I would agree to work for them, then leave after a few months with a pocketful of cash. The shadow man was all about this idea. He coaxed me into it. Feeling insecure, I was not happy with my decision about being away from him, because well, I knew how he was in regards to women. He prided himself on being able to charm beautiful women. It was always something he did in front of me that left me feeling anxious and unworthy.

The day I left to go back to Paris, I barely made the flight. On top of that, after eating my last pho, I got sick on the plane and spent the entire time curled up in a ball only making it to the bathroom and back. Thank the gods I had an entire row to myself. I also only had 100 euro in my pocket until my first payment with the Saudis. They paid for my hotel and I had one day to wait until I met with them. I did not feel comfortable spending any of the small amount of money I had on food, so I just waited in the hotel room, still feeling sick from the night before. Eventually I went outside, back into the grey, immaculately kept streets with manicured trees lining the periphery. I walked all the way from the 16th arrondissement across to the Gare de Lyon and met with the shadow man’s parents for dinner. I was muted at this point, tinged with worry and unease, but thankful to be in familiar company.

After dinner, I walked back to the hotel taking in Paris by night…again, then crawled into bed hoping my stomach would cooperate the next morning. When I woke up, I got ready, brushed my teeth then headed down to meet the Princess’ driver in the lobby. He would drive me to the family’s “villa” nearby where I would meet Princess Sara and little Abdullah for the first time. 

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