Eating snails with travel writer Matt Gross by Morgan Ommer
From 2006 to 2010, globe-trotting Gross populated his column in the The New York Times with humorous anecdotes about the realities of frugal travel. Out of years of misadventures and getting lost, came his literary debut, The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World. He’s since traded in the nonstop wandering for a more stable journalistic routine. The professional travel writer now heads the editorial operations over at Panna, a digital library of kitchen wisdom dished out by world famous chefs, while still finding time to munch on cricket eggs benedict.
We caught up with the writer over streetside snails on a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City. Read below for why Vietnam has charmed him for over two decades.
I became a travel writer by accident. I was working low-level editorial jobs in New York and got really bored. So, I decided to spend several months in Vietnam and Cambodia researching a novel that I was writing. A friend connected me to The New York Times Travel Section, who I then offered a “Hey, I’m in the neighbourhood. I can check out stuff.” The editor wrote back and said, “Nope. No thanks. Have a great trip.” I came out here anyway, did research for my book, and about six weeks into the trip, I got an email from the editor saying, ‘Hey, we’re looking for Vietnam and Cambodia stuff. Whaddya got?"
I pitched her three stories and she accepted three stories. And then I wrote them and they liked them. And I wrote more, and they liked them... And that’s how I became a travel writer.
60-65 countries. That’s about a third of the world. I’ll get to all of them eventually.
There are two ways to think about travel: the places I like to go and the places I tell people that they should go. Vietnam is in the top two on both lists. The way I assess where people should go is how much energy you should put out versus how much enjoyment you get back.
And Vietnam, you just show up and you take a seat, and things will happen around you. The unique experiences will happen without you having to do a thing. You just show up and that to me violates a law of physics. You put out no energy and you get a ton of energy back.”
I remember riding in a taxi from the airport, staring at the buildings, the motorbikes, and the density of it all. I spotted a storefront whose sign read, “Product Consumption Store.” I just thought, “Yes, obviously.” It was hot, crowded, and noisy, and I’m not saying those things are bad things, but they were new things to me.
I’ve come back to visit about 10 times over the last two decades. The outside is new: there are new buildings, new malls -- urban development. The waterways are clearer and you can walk down the canals without being overpowered by the smell. There are more cars and fewer cyclos. There’s money flowing through this country.
And then on the inside, it’s the same. People are incredibly outgoing and charming, friendly and curious about everyone and everything. There’s no holding back and that is what I love. That is why I keep coming back again and again and again. You can have these types of encounters and experiences you can’t have anywhere else in the world.
I’m a Saigon boy. I like exactly what we’re doing now: hanging out at a low table on a sidewalk. Eating, drinking, and interacting with everyone and everything that is happening.. I’m obsessed with this guy on the grill cooking up whole octopuses and watching the cars pull up to the sidewalk and drop people off and pick people up. This is it. This is why you come to Saigon. This is what it’s all about. People who like Hanoi like the refinement, the culture, the art galleries, and that’s great. But Saigon is for being out late at night, eating and drinking, and meeting new people.
It’s the people. It’s easy to go to a country for the food or the natural beauty, but those things change and you don’t want to experience those things in a vacuum. You want to experience those things with people – people you know, people you don’t know, and people you want to know. As long as Vietnamese people don’t suddenly get shy or self-conscious, then that’s going to be the lasting charm, or rather, the charm that fuels the rest of the charm.
If I’m with my kids, it’s bún thịt nướng, which is great and you can get it anywhere and everywhere. This time around, I went to the well-known, Chị Tuyền, on 195 Cô Giang. Last time I was here, we went to a market in Phú Nhuận. You just go to the market and see what they have.
Part of the weird thing about talking about Vietnam and Vietnamese food is at this point, so much of what I ate 20 years ago is burned into this long-term memory that it’s hard to eat something now without thinking about how I ate it then. There was cơm bình dân around the corner from the Lucy Hotel that I ate lunch at every day. I would get the most basic thing, grilled pork chop on rice with morning glory. It was very good and very simple and in some ways, I want that to be my first meal but that place doesn’t exist anymore. Since I can’t go to the same place, do I want to get that somewhere else? I don’t know.
I feel like I need to learn more about bún bò huế. I don’t feel like I know it as well as I should.
The best Vietnamese restaurant is not as good as the worst Vietnamese restaurant in California because in New York, the Vietnamese restaurants are not for Vietnamese people. They’re cooking for non-Vietnamese who think they like phở.
It’s a million times better here because the baseline level for Vietnamese food is just high. Nobody is going to put up with just anything. Competition breeds quality.
We’re going to go the Cu Chi Tunnels. I appreciated it when I first went when I was 22 years old because it was 1996 and it felt like, wow, you can go see this thing. But in the intervening years, I realised how touristy it was and what a strange experience it is. But now, I can go and bring my kids and actually get excited about climbing around in tunnels. Maybe that will make them love this place as much as I do… Or they complain about it being really hot and want ice cream.
Vietnam is a game and you have to treat it like that because Vietnamese people do. Every interaction should be treated playfully. You get in a taxi, you go somewhere, and you think they’re charging you too much. Maybe they are. But maybe they’re doing it to see how you react. There’s a negotiation aspect to it. People want to talk and interact; they come to you and want you to engage with them.
In the same vein of being here, if you actually want to get a lot out of this place, you have to put yourself into it. You have to talk to people, you have to communicate and connect. Otherwise, this place can be really overwhelming and maddening. It can drive you crazy. But, if you decide to bring yourself to that same level, to make everything fun, then it’s wonderful.
You can have a million conversations a day. It’s easy to get annoyed if you’re expecting Switzerland. Or Singapore. Or Thailand. This is not Thailand. This is not the land of smiles. This is the land of honesty.
For more Matt Gross, you can find him over at worldmatt.org or on instagram at @worldmatt.