LA’s skid row felt sadder and more desperate than anything I’ve ever come across in South East Asia.
I don’t know why I still haven’t written about him, but Vo Quoc appears to be the closest thing to a celebrity chef that Vietnam has.
His three story home contains a publishing house, a classroom and a kitchen studio where he films daily cooking shows.
The chubby-cheeked prodigal son of a large family of government officials skipped college and went straight to culinary school.
In the middle of his education, he was sent to an international cooking competition in China and says he won Vietnam’s first international culinary prize by scrapping the planned menu (mostly elaborately wrapped spring rolls surrounded by garnished vegetables) and inventing some sort of oilless fried rice.
After his victory had been announced, Quoc says he stunned everyone by sharing his recipe with everyone at the event. When he got home, he turned down several offers to run the kitchens of a few big state-run hotels and opted, instead, to do his own thing.
His family connections meant that he ended up catering lots of important state dinners. He also began compiling and printing his recipes. Finally he opened his own awesome restaurant Tom Tep on Nguyen Cu Trinh. He has been a brilliant moneymaker ever since.
When I met him, he was driving Bryant Ng and his wife around town drunk in a brand new silver Mercedes SUV that he’d paid for by pickling shrimp in Hennessy and selling them for $100 a jar.
Over the next two days, he taught us all how to make everything from microwave-fried shrimp served in crab roe and margarine sauce to one of the most exquisite bowls of phở I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat (the secret ingredient was Knorr Chicken powder and dried sea worms).
Everything Quoc does smacks of genius. Vietnam’s lucky to have him.
Not any closer to making sense of things, but I wanted to share this moment.
I spent a whole breakfast watching this man turn this battleship grey matchbox house a cheerful gold and yellow.
Without uttering a curse, he nimbly darted along a row of iron spikes and posted himself up on the balcony to watch the first rain of the season wash away his morning’s work.
My good friend’s dad spent years hitchhiking from England to Afghanistan. He worked odd jobs here and there; did a lot of drugs; we can only assume he had a lot of sex.
"And he didn’t write down a word man," his son said sadly. "He didn’t take one fucking picture of the whole thing. When I ask him about it he just trails off."
We both agreed it was a terrible loss for posterity.
But. My god. What sleep the old man must have had back in England! What joy he must have found in hot showers, warm stout and boredom. Imagine the relief he found in casually forgetting all the things he saw, all the people he met, and moving on with his life as if none of it mattered.
I’m sitting on 60,000 pictures and some 60 pages of pencilled chicken scratchings about Japan, Mexico, Khe San. Two notebooks sit on the floor of my room, promising a thousand disappointments.
I know it’s the things I never wrote down, the things I never photographed that made me blow all that time and money on the road—the things that struck me dumb or tickled me close to pissing myself.
I left a cushy job in Saigon, after all, to pursue the clearness of mind which comes when too drunk or too full to hold a pen.
For some reason, I’ll be spending the next several months pretending to compress those moments into, well, something you can read on tumblr.
I apologize for the pause in posting.
Last night we feasted on boar, silkie, and a heaping pile of chicken hearts and lungs.
We grilled it all up on a clay roofing tile in a room full of drunk, beautiful people bundled up in coats and hats.There have been some great meals on the road, but this one beat them all.
If we really do make our own afterlife, I’d like to politely recommend a purgatory in Thầy Vân ‘s hermitage outside Bảo Lộc—drinking tea and watching soccer while his father runs naked through the denuded hills, scaring the neighbors.
Adding a novice monk (a self-described wanderer) to our crapulence bender through the Highlands has brought some real heaviness to the mix.
Big questions are getting asked between meals—sometimes even during. At times, I look over to find he’s slipped into a meditative trance.
At these times, I can’t help but feel terribly jealous.
I spent my first night on the road in a padlocked five dollar room with my motorbike. I was asked to fill out a double-sided questionnaire for the local police, that included everything from my marital status to my employer. The pillows (inscribed with the word “Beautiful”) had been dosed with some noxious disinfectant that smelled like some Chinese war criminal’s idea of perfume.
The morning began with a dead man lying before a smashed up mini bus.
His crumpled bike looked like mine and the face of the bus looked like the thousands that have come so terribly close to crushing me—save for a Wile E. Coyote-shaped dent.
I pulled over soon after the scene at a massive blue nunnery, where a series of women guided me through the motions of honoring their recently departed spiritual leader and and a trio of female dieties.
One of my welcomers was this young girl in pig tails who smiled so constantly and so purely that I forgot about everything else.
An elderly nun shooed her away and gave me books and prayers and amulets for the road. But I didn’t need any of them. I had been saved by the smile.