PALAWAN'S LITTLE SAIGONby: Elmer Nocheseda
About 1,500 Vietnamese are still living in the Philip-pines, most in resettlement camps.
During my business trip to Palawan, I was able to find some time to visit a resettlement camp in Santa Lourdes, which is about 15 kms. from central Puerto Princesa. As taxis hardly come by in this city, I hired a rickety tricycle to bring me to Vietville, which is how this settlement of about 155 houses is called.
Honestly, I was expecting some barbed wire fences to greet me there but fortunately, there were none. What greeted me instead was a spacious church with a manicured garden. What makes it peculiar though, is the life-size image of an oriental Virgin Mary housed in a red-roofed Chinese pagoda.
Nonetheless, the site looked like an ordinary government settlement where everyone is free to come and go.
I arrived quite early. The whole village was still tranquil except for the chirping of the birds, the barking of the dogs, and the crowing of the cocks. The tricycle driver parked his bike in a corner and walked around to inspect the view. The area would look like an ordinary Filipino barrio except for the lilting sound of Vietnamese popular music coming from a distant radio. That sound, though pleasant, is quite unfamiliar to my ears.
Near the main road is a bamboo structure with big red lanterns. It has a wide porch with polished wooden slats that look quite inviting. The hall serves as their village restaurant, meeting place, showroom, and a place where they host some cultural shows and events.
There is a Little of Saigon in Puerto Princesa. With the available building material the residents could find, they have fashioned a village to resemble the village they have left behind.
The place made me think that while a make-believe musical is being staged at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, real Vietnamese refugees have their own stories to tell. These immigrants have made Palawan their nearest neighbor across the China Sea, as their adopted home. (I wonder if they sing the same tune, dance the same Broadway beat or cry over the same sob story.)
More than 40,000 “boat people” fled to the Philippines after the Communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975. Most of them were eventually resettled in the United States and other countries. The others, for some reason, have remained in the country.
The Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) began its first intervention in the lives of the Vietnamese refugees in September 1975 when the Church created the Center for Assistance to Displaced Persons (CADP). The most difficult issue was the forced repatriation of the refugees. This forced repatriation was halted on Feb. 14, 1996, and afterward, a flurry of creative activities ensued, culminating in the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed on July 17, 1997 by the Church and the Philippine Government.
The MOU provides the Remaining Vietnamese Nationals (RVNs) with the possibilities for family reunification with members living in Vietnam or in third countries. They work for local integration, beginning with a permanent residence and eventually leading to Philippine citizenship.
While awaiting these eventualities, the Palawan First Asylum Camp (PFAC) was transferred to this new relocation site in Santa Lourdes. The government deemed the move necessary to ensure that no Vietnamese would be vagrant and jobless and thus become dependent and a burden to the Philippine Society. Those who live outside the village would be registered with the local Catholic Church, which would provide protection and assistance.
Immediately after the groundbreaking ceremony on Oct. 15, 1996, about 155 housing units were constructed. These units were built to provide homes to the more than 650 people who moved in March 1997 from PFAC to the new relocation site in Santa Lourdes, Puerto Princesa City.
Presently the village is self-governed and observes rules and regulations designed and approved by all participants. Some RVNs have taken the opportunity afforded by the travel permits and the open camp policy issued by the Church when the MOU was signed for business opportunities on different islands within the Philippines.
They are now engaged in various businesses. They make Vietnamese noodle, bean sprouts, and French bread that they sell in the restaurant they manage and in some outlets in downtown Puerto Princesa.
The magic of Vietnamese food
I though that the 15-kilometer tricycle ride would lead me nowhere. I just saw endless fields and orchards. I never thought that right in the middle of this “nowhere” I could enjoy authentic Vietnamese food!
The waiter tried to explain to me the food choices. I even tried to look at the kitchen and enjoyed watching them prepare my food. I could not imagine that great food could come out from that simple kitchen.
While waiting for my food, I walked around the garden at the back of the restaurant. Some unusual fruits grow from the vine. Some wild ducks wallow in the open canal that meanders around the bamboo hut. The vine and the water seem to cool the whole place.
I asked them to serve my meal in an outdoor table with a square stool, to which they fondly obliged. Since I was just by myself, I asked the tricycle driver to join me to sample the Vietnamese food. It was his first time to taste the food. He was hesitant at first. He thought that Vietnamese food is spicy and that he could not eat it.
Actually Vietnamese food combines the precise cutting and rapid cooking of Chinese food with the complexity of French seasoning, and the visual enticement of Japanese cuisine. Moreover, the selection of the freshest and most natural ingredients had demonstrated the ancient concern for good health.
Vietnamese cuisine is probably the best solution for today’s health and diet-conscious diners. Most dishes are generally light in nature, using little fat, even in stir-fried foods. Indeed, the Vietnamese like their foods as fat-free possible, and use vegetable oil instead of lard for frying.
The secret is in the herbs
No Vietnamese meal is complete without there being at least two or three fresh herbs present, either as a garnish or as part of the meal. These aromatic herbs are well known among health conscious people, not only for their nutritious benefits, but also their fragrance and flavor. The appeal of Vietnamese food is in its lightness and its fresh, clean flavors.
Everyday dishes, from soups to stir-fried vegetables, are carefully prepared, with a tapestry of flavors and textures that entice rather than overwhelm. The intensely flavored ingredients such as fish sauce or red pepper flakes serve as highlights rather than focal points.
The food is not the same as Chinese or Thai, though it shares cooking methods with the said cuisines. It also shares some classic Thai ingredients, such as lemon grass, coconut milk, fresh basil, rice noodles, and fish sauce. As in most countries, the cuisine is also regional, varying from the north to the south of the country.
Generally, regular Saigon-style menus offer delicious juxtapositions of ingredients such as bouquets of fresh mint, basil, or cilantro, alongside tender, charbroiled pork, or a splash of Vietnamese fish sauce and chopped peanuts over steaming noodle and vegetables dishes. These combinations make your taste buds dance. Soup stocks—whether chicken, beef, pork or fish—are light and delicate, as are curries. One category of soups is hot and sour, flavored with tamarind paste. Noodles are plentiful and are often served in deep bowls with everything from crab to roasted pork, and a Chinese-style wonton or egg roll on top.
Each dish in the menu is numbered, so that one need not struggle with the Vietnamese names, but can order by number or by an English name. Cha Gio Viet, are fried spring rolls with rice vermicelli and a choice of pork, chicken, shrimp or vegetables.
I had some Pho noodle soup, which you can have with beef (flank, brisket, tendon, meatballs, or steak), chicken, or seafood, or probably duck, shrimp and assorted seafood. I had mine with some broiled seasoned pork on top.
You can further add herbs and vegetables to the broth—very crisp bean sprouts with long tails, fresh mint, and basil. You can also flavor it with your sauce of choice (Hoisin, chili,) and/or squeeze in some lemon or calamansi. It is good full meal.
Refreshments include tea (Jasmine or Vietnamese iced tea) fresh lemon soda, Sweet Salty Plum Soda, fresh fruit juices, and soft drinks, as well as Vietnamese coffee (hot or cold and laced with condensed milk), and regular coffee. The dessert list names and illustrates Pandan Mongo Cake, Coco Grass, Green Pearl, Mango Crepe, Coconut Custard, and Mango Pudding.
Good Vietnamese food is available at the Bataan Refugee Camp, which makes it unbelievable that you are in the middle of nowhere. The Vietnamese refugees somehow found spore for planting the herbs and vegetables of home. They also constructed homemade coal-burning ovens, and baked superb French and Vietnamese bread.
I thought I could just have Vietnamese food in Makati but Vietnamese food is excellent and available (and cheap!) in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, where the waters of exile brought in many Vietnamese boats and families and, inevitably, their culture.
There are big and little sunshine stories about Vietville. During the Tabang Mindanaw campaign for the drought in Southern Philippines, the villagers tried to help and raise money. Soon after they read the deathly effects of El Niņo, the Vietnamese collected money among themselves, and with the Center for Assistance adding to it, their contribution came to Philippine Pesos 20,000.
What they did was not an act of paying back. It was human kindness coming in full circle.