The quest for Vung Tau's forbidden bread

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Borscht is not borscht without bread

I first heard tell of a "Russian village" in Vung Tau about a year ago.

A co-worker who grew up eating breakfasts of thick toast from the village bakery remembered them fondly.

What was it like there?

He did not know. No one was allowed inside.

I forgot about the bakery and the village until last week, when I decided to flee Saigon on a rusty Russian-made hydrofoil to meet a Ukrainian friend working in a salted fish factory.

Over beer and a plate of pork lard at a place called "Ukrainian Restaurant," we both got a hankering for some homemade borscht.

But borscht would not be borscht, he sighed, without real bread.

Dip a proper banh mi in a bowl of curry and it will melt like a sugar cube. Squeeze it, and it will fold into itself like a rat slinking under a doorway.

To really make a meal of borscht, we would need something solid.

"What about the Russian village?" I asked. "What about the bakery?"

"No way," he said. "You need a friend living there to apply for a visitor's pass. They need to ask the general director!"

But you are half a Russian, I reminded him.

"It doesn't matter," he said.

After more beer and endless prodding, he agreed to try to slip inside the compound to buy some bread. How this caper would work, we had no idea.

Perhaps, I imagined, we could find some sort of disguise. Or hide in a bread truck.

All my illusions about sneaking in quickly evaporated when we arrived.

The "village" turned out to be about as quaint as a medium-security prison. A 12-foot wall topped with iron spikes lined the perimeter. CCTV cameras looked down from the worn walls of a series of aging apartment blocks.

The compound was built in the 80's and once housed around 5,000 employees of VietSovPetro, the Soviet Petroleum Joint-Venture. According to a March article in Vietnam Logistics Online, children here grow up studying and socializing entirely in Russian.

The article failed to note the general creepiness of the place or the oddity of the notion that foreigners require their own segregated microcosms.

"It's just like a miniature of Russian society with absolute security and necessary infrastructures such as culture center, commercial center, library, schools, hospitals," the article noted.

During a tour of the village bakery, a pair of kindly Russian baker women presented the unnamed author with a bag full of bread.

When we got to the iron gate, a faint whiff of baked goods wafted through the bars.

"Don't worry," I said as he headed into the office. "Just speak Russian and tell them you need bread. They've got to let you in."

Minutes later, he shuffled out looking fairly dejected.

The stern woman at the counter had refused to smile or allow him access to the bakery. She reminded him, he said, of a Ukrainian school marm.

 "She even had the white shirt!" he said.

Undaunted, we drove all over the peninsula like a pair of junkies, grilling taxi drivers and hotel desk clerks about where we could get the bread.

LINH PHUONG
[Specialty Store]

Address: 86 Tran Hung Dao Street, Vung Tau
Phone: (064) 385 2789
Price: VND60,000 (black loaf)
         VND24,000 (white loaf)

 
A Ukrainian man is reunited with bread at the Linh Phuong gourmet store in Vung Tau

After a series of missteps, we finally arrived at Linh Phuong, a veritable WillyWonka factory for bread-eaters.

The shelves stretched roughly eight feet to the ceiling and were packed to the brim with butter, jams and teas.

In the center of the store sat a cardboard box of char-topped, black and white loaves that smelled like roasted nuts, cake and home.

"Today," said Nga (Russia), the owner's daughter, pointing to the loaf in my friend's hands.

He squeezed it hard; it would not yield.

After picking up a sack of beets, cabbage, pork ribs and potatoes, my pal rushed us back to his apartment where he set to work whipping it all into a nourishing soup.

While he worked, I watched a comedy about a kindergarten teacher who is conscripted by the Russian police to help recover a golden helmet from a trio of hardened convicts.

Just as the teacher had convinced the crooks to help out a series of unfortunate old ladies, the soup arrived, topped with a thick slab of the bread.

For those unfamiliar with the joys of stewed root vegetables or good bread, no string of adjectives will suffice to relate the power of the meal.

The following morning, I returned to Linh Phuong and filled my backpack with bread, jam and butter.

Before catching the noon hydrofoil home, I ate half a loaf slathered in Nutella while staring at the ocean.

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