Life is on the street

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The area offers a special atmosphere with the space of the Independence Palace garden with their exquisitely lit paths

Food is best when shared with others, and there's no better place to share it than a sidewalk eatery.

It's more than just the exotic taste of Asian food that goes so well with the street, it's the proximity of the lively and unpredictable world that makes the pavement the place to dine or snack.

Last week, a new French-American friend invited us to "a BBQ get-together dinner" at a place he knew on downtown Nguyen Trung Truc Street.

He said there would be people there that perhaps we knew so it should be good for networking.

Nguyen Trung Truc is a short street behind Ben Thanh Market. It goes from Le Thanh Ton Street to one-way Nguyen Du Street, so there is less traffic than elsewhere in the city center.

At the Nguyen Du Street end, there are some small pavement restaurants, one of which is decorated with paintings. The scene is typical of this exciting southern city.

We stopped and parked our motorbike in front of the last café, right on the corner of Nguyen Du, took some seats against the wall of a construction site, and settled down to chat, eat, and do a spot of people-watching.

To our left were the spacious grounds of the Independence Palace with their exquisitely lit paths, expansive lawns and green silence that made it easy to talk amongst ourselves.

Our companions for the evening were mostly young people, some of them working in film, some writers, a couple of researchers at a hospital, and a man who worked for a chocolate company.

The casual atmosphere of our surroundings was a quick ice-breaker and soon we were gabbing like old friends.

A vendor fortune teller reading palms at a street restaurant on Nguyen Trung Truc Street

The others had already ordered the food: baked pork chops, mussels, rice, and morning glory and garlic cooked in the southern style, minus the young leaves on top, making it light and crunchy. And beer, of course, large glasses of fresh beer.

The servings were generous so we went with the usual Asian dining custom and shared them. It was a nutritious dinner with lots of local herbs and spices, and only cost us VND100,000 each plus the beer. I ate little as I was recovering from a small operation, but still enjoyed my meal.

After the second round of beer, the American took out a bar of chocolate made in Vietnam by his company and started sharing it around.

Most of Vietnam's chocolate makers get their processed powder from outside Vietnam, so it was interesting to hear that the American had been visiting cacao farms from Vung Tau to Dong Nai and up in the highlands to find quality cacao beans.

Anyway, his chocolate was delicious in the classic sense, and perfect for the occasion.

Street life has a kind of magic that satisfies the most curious. Some are there to chill out and relax after work, others to earn some pennies. Everybody belongs.

Like in many streets in Asia, there were elders in abundance, children selling lottery tickets, or trying to, and quite a few wheelchair-bound people enjoying the bustling outdoors.

Two middle-aged Vietnamese men and their guitars arrived while we were eating. After playing some festive songs, they disappeared into the crowd and the darkness of the street as seamlessly as they had appeared before us.

It was getting chilly as the night grew late and I was saying my goodbyes when I saw we had a newcomer at the corner of our table.

It was an old man with grey hair and a light on his forehead like a miner. He was reading the palm of a table mate.

As I moved closer to have a look, the soothsayer kept talking in a calm, monotonous voice about my fellow patron's life and how he would get a big promotion at work when he was forty years old.

For me, a street dinner get-together like this is the way to feel part of the honest world, to encounter people from all walks of life, and to experience Saigon at its most generous.

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