Duped and Duped
“Binh Thay Market. Chinatown. Cholon. Cho-lawn? Chow-luhn?”
It was Day Two in Saigon, our first city, and after a sobering morning at the War Remnants Museum, Dave and I were at last ready to venture away from the compact, attraction-packed district near our hotel. After failed negotiations with a few xe om, or motorbike drivers, we hailed a cab that was not operated by one of the two companies our guidebook recommended. We showed the cabbie a map, pointed to our destination. He looked at it in some confusion, but soon gave a quick nod of his head and said “Yes, Chinatown market.” Dave and I were dubious, the more so because the driver insisted we set a price up front instead of starting the cab’s meter. But the price he quoted was reasonable — about $5 — and the driver assured us that he wouldn’t add any charges later on.
Twenty minutes of deafening traffic later, he pulled over next to a wide alley that did contain some sort of indoor market. But the street we were on did not correspond with the one we wanted according to the map. Dave tried to explain this to our driver.
“Chinatown market! Chinatown market!” the cabbie said, pointing at the building. Flustered, we paid him and jumped out to the curb. A quick study of our map showed that the driver had, in fact, brought us to a Chinatown market — but not the one we wanted. This one was much smaller and a significantly shorter ride from the museum. We would have to catch another cab or walk about two miles to our intended destination.
“Let’s just walk,” I said. “After all, we’re here to explore.” And, I added silently, we need some time to recover from the sting of being ripped off. This didn’t take long. We had only been wandering for a few moments when I spotted a cart creaking with the weight of a growing mound of golden yellow fruit chunks that flew from the knife of an old lady, who was in turn pulling the pods from inside a giant fruit with knobbly green-brown skin.
“Dave — I think that’s durian!”
I had been itching to try this mysterious fruit long before we stepped off the plane into the sultry air of Vietnam. My fruit-loving friend Yifan had exulted its many virtues: an intense sweetness, a complex flavor, and a creamy, luscious texture. After hearing such praise, you can imagine my surprise when a Google search informed me that durians are banned from the Singapore subway system.
Why ban durians and not, say, mangoes?
It turns out that many people, including Southeast Asians, find the fruit’s odor repugnant — an overpowering bouquet of garbage, sewage, and putrid decay. The same people tend to despise the divisive fruit’s flavor, and even those who praise it as the “king of fruits” offer flavor descriptions ranging from odd to alarming. I encountered “banana and garlic pudding,” “vanilla custard with a dirty sock aftertaste,” and “pineapple foie gras.” I couldn’t wait to taste it.
Dave and I approached the Chinatown fruit vendor, who held out a 10,000 dong bill to indicate how much she would charge for a plastic baggie filled with pods that she had pared away from the fruit’s huge round seeds. We paid, thanked her, and walked away with our booty.
I sniffed the bag’s contents: floral, piney, and a bit oniony, but not at all disgusting. Dave wasn’t deterred either.
“Maybe it’s like cilantro — some people smell it, others don’t?”
We tasted. The refreshing flesh crunched between our teeth, releasing notes of sweet pineapple, citrus, and an entirely new essence onto our tongues. The onion aroma translated into a taste mild enough that it wasn’t unpleasant. Dave and I agreed that the fruit was palatable and interesting, but neither outrageously delicious nor horribly disgusting — the two most common ratings of durian.
But, oh well. We had tasted it, fortifying ourselves for the long walk to come and checking another item off our Vietnam to-do list.