Hunt for French bread in Vietnam and you find a slice of culture
I fumbled with the tongs at the ABC Bakery, coaxing some bread onto a tray. I was afraid the bread, shaped like a teardrop, would fall to the floor, so I picked it up with my hand, hoping no one would notice. I brought my prize to Thanh, but the moment of victory was fleeting.
"The long bread is better," he said.
I regarded the golden-brown loaves. For a moment I was in a Paris boulangerie, but out the shop window, I recognized the constant flow of motorbikes.Thanh and I were searching for baguettes in Saigon. When I first broached the subject – a tour of bakeries in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it's still commonly known – Thanh stared at me.
I had hired Thanh as a translator. With him came the driver, a stoic man I knew only as Mr. Tan. We were exploring the city's temples and museums. Soon we would approach the Reunification Palace, whose gates were breached by North Vietnamese tanks 35 years ago. French bread didn't fit the day's equation.
Still, I insisted on my quest, revealing that I was a journalist interested in Vietnamese culture.
"Why don't you write about rice?" Thanh asked. "Here, rice is more common than bread."
I did my best to channel Anthony Bourdain, conjuring phrases like "the sociopolitical ramifications of baked goods." France had subjugated Vietnam in colonial rule for nearly 80 years, and I wanted to examine some of the residue. As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once wrote: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are."
Thanh turned to Mr. Tan, who was navigating his black Toyota through the traffic. Thanh said something in Vietnamese, and they both chuckled. I imagined the following exchange.
Thanh: "He flies 9,000 miles to Saigon, and all he wants is bread."
Mr. Tan: "Yeah, what's next – barbecue?"
The American-born son of Chinese immigrants, I had grown up eating rice with all of my meals. When I was young, my family lived in Europe for two years. It was then that I developed an affinity for baguettes and croissants.
A central question intrigued me: Could an Asian culture really make good éclairs?
Our first stop was Binh Tay Market in Cholon, the Chinese district. Vendors sold everything from dragon fruit and dried mushrooms to astrology books and surgical masks with "Hello Kitty" designs. (Motorcyclists wear these masks to fend off the dust and pollution.)
Thanh bought a small loaf of bread from a woman who jabbered on, ordering around her employees. Her small stand was an odd oasis amid the piles of sneakers and knock-off designer purses at neighboring stands.
Thanh grew up in a town outside of Hanoi. His parents grew rice and sweet potatoes. He was one of only three people from his town to attend college. He was in his 20s before he ever tasted bread, which wasn't common in the countryside. "I had never seen wheat before," he said.
For Thanh, bread was special. People occasionally ate bread for breakfast, he said, but most families he knew reserved it for celebrations. Which seemed at odds with the number of bakeries I saw across Saigon. Clearly, enough people were buying bread every day to support these businesses.
I began to theorize that a Vietnamese person's point of view on bread depended on his or her socio-economic status. Thanh and his wife, a travel agent, were climbing from their modest origins into the middle class. But there was a wide gap between families such as Thanh's and a small segment of Vietnamese who have become fabulously wealthy as the economy has grown.
Perhaps it is this affluent group that is propelling the bakeries to great success, embracing the vestiges of French colonialism. If the economic gap continues to widen, and one day the poor people rise up, I can imagine the elites saying, "Let them eat cake."
Later that day, as we entered the ABC Bakery, Thanh told me a story. The owner of the ABC Bakery chain had divorced his wife after some libidinal transgression, and she was now a competitor, running another bakery across town. There's nothing quite like sexual intrigue to spur the production of sinful desserts.
I had in my mind that the bakery would be cramped; aromatic of bread, sweat and tears; tucked away in some alley. Instead, the ABC Bakery was clean and well-lighted, resembling a Dunkin' Donuts shop.
Glass-enclosed shelves displayed every sort of bun, cookie, cruller, torte, tart, jellyroll, mille-feuille, strudel and something akin to a Hot Pocket. Along the far wall, in a refrigerated case, were dozens of cakes, some topped with plastic animals from the Chinese Zodiac. (Happy birthday, sweetheart, here's a cobra on your cake.)
After the fumbling-with-the-tongs incident, I brought the baguette back to the car. As Mr. Tan gunned the engine, Thanh and I compared notes. The Binh Tay Market loaf was chewy and stale. But the ABC Bakery baguette was hot and fresh – and sprinkled with sesame seeds. (I can hear the traditionalists mutter, "Sacre bleu.")
Worth hunting for
I finally did find that chocolate éclair.
After lunch, Thanh took me to Brodard Bakery off Dong Khoi, formerly Rue Catinat, the city's main shopping street. The bakery, a tiny shop with a security guard and a window displaying two-tiered wedding cakes, was established in the late 1940s. On the Web, some of the Vietnamese diaspora reminisce about Brodard's pastries.
Thanh and I split the éclair. It may have been the bakery's ambience (or "ambivalence," as one review translated from Vietnamese to English put it), but I thought the éclair was one of the best I've ever had.
Later, I learned that the bakery had been bought by a large corporation that owned several hotels and restaurants. So, strangely enough, that éclair not only represented the residue of French colonialism – it represented the Vietnamese people's embrace of capitalism, or at least their version of it.
I doubt any of this crossed Thanh's mind. He was born in 1978, three years after the fall of Saigon. While he was frank about the effects of the French and American wars on his country, he didn't exhibit any resentment.
For him, the éclair was just an éclair; the baguette was just a baguette.
Whatever their origins were, they were now part of life here. And Thanh and the other young Vietnamese had made all of what they inherited their own.