Guest Post by Martyn Barmby
Why would you fly 6,000 miles to Vietnam to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken? Twice actually: once successfully and once with the bathetic failure of vegetarian falafel.
It’s not that I dislike Vietnamese food; I love it. Nor is it that I lost patience with my badly wrapped Banh Xeos (“I would not smoke it, never mind eat it” was the withering review of my efforts). It is not even the repeated faux pas of mixing the wrong sauce with each gorgeous parcel of fish, vegetables and the most fragrant herbs. It is more about friendship with a dash of nostalgia and maybe a dipping sauce of stubbornness.
After what might technically count as a long weekend in Saigon I got a second taste of what our dear friends love about the place. Although crossing the road in itself is as fun as going on your average roller coaster, Tim Bishop tours laid on a number of special experiences.
Heading out of the city into the Mekong Delta on scooters was an amazing way to see other sides to Vietnam. Paddy fields and shrimp farms were dotted with reminders of the industriousness of the people here. A woman has a steady production line that can churn out 30 kilos of incense sticks all from her back porch. We stop for coffee and briefly wonder how so many men can be sleeping, chatting or playing board games in the middle of the morning. It turns out they have been in the fields since 6am and will be heading out again in a couple of hours. I guiltily suspect they might have more reason to question the industriousness of two people from Britain who are touring round the outskirts of Saigon eating a range of local shellfish, drinking coffee and watching other people make incense sticks. We hastily smile, wave and move on.
Seeing Florence and Martha on such outstanding form was another highlight. In the nearly two years since I last saw her Florence has turned into a tremendously grown up five year old. She takes her responsibilities as a big sister seriously offering wise thoughts and guidance to Martha which are occasionally heeded. For her part, Martha is a hilarious and energetic companion. I just hope that “Uncle Cakey’s” responses to her favourite question (Why?) passed muster. You could not wish for brighter, happier or loving girls. They proudly told me of Lou’s “proper” job in a hospital compared to Daddy’s “easy” job in the office!
So back to the KFC, and let’s take the Martha Bishop approach.
Because when I first met Tim we caught a train from Durham to Newcastle specifically to buy a KFC and then ate it on the way back on the train.
Because Durham did not have a KFC.
“No you idiot (my words not Martha’s), why go to all that effort for a meal of such dubious quality they feel it appropriate to serve it in buckets?”
At this point I scratch my head and go back to two year old Martha for her inspiration. If you ask her “Why?” she will say, “Because”.
I do not think I know exactly why. Certainly, one reason is that going to KFC reminds us of glorious successes and heroic failures (falafel and vegetarian!) Our digestive systems might complain. Facebook pictures of the meal may be scant on ‘Likes’. But I think it is a reasonable measure of friendship if you can have a brilliant time with someone even if your accompaniment is a bucket of wings and some fizzy pop.
So if you are going to Vietnam here is my food tip: try a KFC XL meal. Avoid the one by the Opera House as that only seems to sell custard tarts. Ignore anyone who tells you there is one at the Vin Comm Centre. Believe me they do not tell the truth. Once you have found the right place, just share it with your top mate and there will be a story to tell wherever in the world you might next meet up.