No really. This stuff is legit. Even The New York Times thinks so. Pizza 4P’s (Platform of Personal Pizza for Peace) is owned and operated by Yosuke Masuko, a former financial strategist who can be found stationed at one of the Saigon restaurant’s two wood-fired pizza ovens on any given night. His passion for food and dining is apparent: from the restaurant’s funky bohemian decor to the fact that Masuko makes his own cheeses at a small farm just a few hours northeast of Saigon. Masuko’s methods, which the Times describes as a “holistic approach to pizza,” include applying toppings individually with culinary tweezers and making each pizza one at a time, so that pies inevitably arrive at the table in a staggered fashion, an aspect of the dining experience that requires a certain Zen-like patience to endure.
The wait is worth it. I won’t deny that living in a virtual desert of Western cuisine probably skews my opinion a bit, but a couple of Masuko’s signature creations might honestly be the best pizzas I’ve ever had. It’s the kind of food you can say you’d do anything for and actually mean it. Though it’s hard to relegate the Italian salami to No. 2 — with its nutty balance of spice and fat — or deny the transcendent creaminess of the handmade-burrata pie pictured above, my favorite was a simple combination of “salmon sashimi” (house-cured lox), ricotta, onion and capers. It was so good I ordered another for dessert.
One of the last (and best) meals I ate in Saigon was at a Viet-Mex joint called Khoi Thom (Vietnamese for “fragrant smoke”), the kitchen of which is run by a chef from Mexico.
I was glad he was so far from home.
Everything on the menu that counts was housemade — salsa, guacamole, black beans — and the above plate of pork belly was unreal: three thick slabs of tender, fatty, flavorful meat; pico de gallo, guacamole and salsa verde; well-seasoned black beans and a healthy mound of dirty rice — all for less than $10. I tossed down another $4.75 for a pretty killer caipirinha and declared myself a very happy cliente.
Local extras on a coffee break, probably wondering how much less they were getting paid than the geared-up foreigners.
In between takes and scenes we milled around trying to look as professional as possible.
When the shoot moved into the actual grounds of the university, the students (mostly young girls) got all aflutter with excitement. At some point during the 13-hour day, we all posed for at least one shot with an admiring “fan,” though some of us saw more attention than others.
The set for one of the scenes was a three-block stretch of tree-lined street and the three-hour shoot caused a bit of a stir in the neighborhood. Incredibly, several locals seemingly didn’t notice what was going on and unknowingly walked through several shots on their way into or out of a nearby side street.
Some us looked more soldierly than others.
A couple of original military Jeeps were on hand, plus this classic remnant from the French colonial era.
Yup, that’s me: poorly costumed and (with a borrowed gun) looking more important than my line-less role warranted.
Local crew members and onlookers were excited to have their picture taken with foreign “actors” — famous or not.
The prospect of casting was harmless enough. A lark, really. Something we’d all look back on and have a laugh about, but nothing we’d ready for the night before — if we even showed up.
And then we showed up.
With some holding folded copies of the call for “foreign actors for a Vietnam War movie,” a dozen of us arrived in the early afternoon at a bar where we’d normally be found at night. A casting agent arrived an hour or so later (long enough for us to have a couple beers and speculate that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax to get us to spend money at said bar). Then we followed the agent in her taxi to the faraway studio: a trail of motley foreigners all mounted on motorbike, doing our best to pursue the taxi, revving engines and running red lights, drawing dumbfounded stares from locals along the street.
At the studio, some of us were immediately pegged for extras (or wanted nothing to do with actual acting), while others were given scripts and told to prepare. I tried out for Father Bill, the sensitive-but-hardened Army chaplain, but my dreams of stardom were usurped by another hopeful. Yes, my chance at 15 minutes of fame would later turn into 13 hours of quiet obscurity, passed in the background, carrying random items from one edge of the frame to another or pretending to hold a meaningful conversation with another of my line-less cohorts.
It was at some point during casting that someone figured out that the “movie” was actually a low-budget, made-for-TV affair that would eventually be dubbed into Italian — a compensatory revelation for those relegated to the status of extra, but a downer for the aspiring actors among us.
A few weeks later we found ourselves in downtown Saigon, eating pho and drinking coffee in the early hours of a Tuesday morning in the courtyard of a university once occupied by the U.S. Army, waiting for that day’s shoot to begin. Several scenes and countless takes later, long after the sun had gone down, we walked away exhausted: $100 richer, a little more famous than we’d begun the day and wondering if we’d ever see ourselves on screen.
News of the impending arrival of McDonald’s spread across Saigon like a slathering of secret sauce on a sesame seed bun. Businessweek.com claimed the advent wouldn’t solve Micky D’s “Asia problem,” but it was clear after opening that the chain’s two Saigon stores — one of which now claims the world’s first motorbike-only drive-thru — would probably give the more established Burger King, Lotteria and Pizza Hut franchises a run for their money — though my money will still be happily handed over to the King and his I-swear-it’s-better-than-back-home Jr. Whopper. Fast food in general has made unfortunate inroads in Vietnam, as displayed by the girth of some of my young students and their happy exclamations of “hamburger!” and “pizza!” when I ask them to tell me foods they know.
As I was sitting one evening at a cafe in downtown Saigon, a man and his female copilot pulled up on what had to have been the largest motorcycle in Vietnam — if not in the whole of Asia. And I wasn’t the only one who stared. The cafe’s customers broke from their conversations and looked up as the man killed the engine and he and his companion dismounted, left their helmets on their seats and took chairs at one of the nearby tables; passing drivers slowed to marvel at the outrageous machine, pointing with bemused smirks. On the cramped streets of Saigon — and in a pinched economy such as Vietnam’s — driving this beast would be equivalent to rolling through Smallville in a stretch Hummer, or showing up to a soap box derby on a suped-up ATV. It was a sweet ride — cushy leather upholstery, shiny chrome detailing, choice speakers under the back-seat arm rests — and was probably the pimpest two-wheeled vehicle most Vietnamese will ever see, but the display was unsettlingly ostentatious, and though I gave the guy a thumbs up as I walked to my own more modest motorbike, I didn’t mean it the way he probably thought I did.
At a park in downtown Saigon, local skateboarders (and yes, that’s a foreigner) rest between sessions on the blacktop. Skateboarding is more popular than I would have expected in Saigon: several public spaces around the city have rudimentary skate parks, and a few hip skate shops are helping fuel interest in the sport. For the yearning, repressed youth of Saigon, the counter-cultural draws to skateboarding and its rebellious ethos must be nigh-irresistible.
An aerial view of the suburbs stretching away from Saigon, as seen through the window of what’s known in Vietnam as an “airplane.” It was great to be traveling again after more than a month of being cooped up in the city. Siem Reap and the half-crumbling, half-restored temples of the Khmer empire were less than an hour away.