CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included phrasing that could be denoted as insensitive toward Vietnamese culture. It has been updated to reflect the value Cooglife places on cultural diversity and sensitivity.
As we walked in from the parking lot I spotted a Buddhist monk in orange robes standing by the entrance to the mall. His head bowed slightly, he was holding a brown bowl for passersby to drop donations into. The half-smile on his face conveyed a sense of peace, contentment and serenity.
Most of the signage around was in Vietnamese, but the place had the distinct feel of commercialized America. The city of Houston, like many cities around America, does not foster a clash of cultures. Rather, it cements the idea of America as a cultural melting pot. I love that I can drive 20 minutes from home and experience another culture.
Hong Kong City Mall is in the middle of Chinatown in southwest Houston. Despite being named after a Chinese city, its shoppers and store-owners are predominantly Vietnamese. The mall hosts many different kinds of stores, a few restaurants, tea shops and a full sized supermarket. I visited the shopping center twice to write this piece, once with my friend John, who lived in Vietnam until he was fifteen, and again with my friend Tina, who lived there until she was six.
On the first trip, John and I immediately stopped at a Pho restaurant.
Pho is a traditional Vietnamese soup that has rice noodles and chicken or beef with the accompanying broth. It also has herbs like cilantro, onions, bean sprouts, limes, and the broth is commonly seasoned with tea bags full of garlic, coriander seeds, onions, star anise, nutmeg and cinnamon before being used to cook the soup. According to John, I had been eating the soup incorrectly for years. Instead of shoveling the noodles into your mouth with chopsticks and slurping the broth straight from the bowl, you’re supposed to take the noodles and some meat and put them in that pointless little spoon that before had always laid unused next to the bowl, then you dip the spoon into the broth and slurp it all up at once. Add sriracha and hoisin sauce and squeeze a lime over top for good measure, and you’re set.
Feeling contented and a little drowsy, we set off once again into the mall to explore.
As we strolled down the white, tiled atrium surrounded by neon signs, a statue of a woman caught my eye. John said her name was Quan The Am Bo Tat, and that she was the Buddha of compassion. According to tradition, if a person experiencing hardship prays to her, she will be there to guide the person through it.
We came to the entrance of the Asian supermarket, where goods imported from countries like Vietnam, China and Korea are sold. Walking in an unfamiliar smell greeted me.
John explained that fruits, both dried and fresh, are a snacking favorite in Vietnam. We saw durians, plums, kumquats, jackfruits, lychee, mangos, rambutan and many other exotic fruits. The store also had pre-packaged snacks like shrimp chips, which are little shrimp flavored wheat puffs, lots of seafood and other more recognizable supermarket fair.
On my second trip, this time with Tina, our first stop was a tea shop. I got something called coffee milk tea with “boba,” commonly called tapioca. The tea blended the flavors of milk, coffee and green tea together, and the tapioca added a bit of chewiness to the drink. It’s probably best described as an acquired taste, as the gooiness of the tapioca and the blending of flavors created a wholly new sensation. I loved the tea instantly.
As we walked around, I took a closer look at the stores around the mall. There were a number of jewelry stores, a few stores selling toys and knickknacks, a record store, a massage parlor and a store selling dried fruits and meats.
We walked into the dried food store and started poking around. I saw dried fish, dried squid, beef, and pork, with many different types of seasonings. There were also a plethora of dried fruits with as many different preparations. I tried one, called muoi, which was a plum with a seed in the middle. It had a sweet, spicy taste that was somehow also a little bit savory. I bought shredded, baked pork loin (which was as delicious as it sounds) and pig-ear-shaped sesame cookies
Aspects of culture are often uprooted and transplanted to Houston. In this case, parts of this rich culture grew and flourished into several square miles of shops, restaurants and other businesses: most notably Hong Kong Four.
Make sure to check out the Hong Kong Mall and experience it for yourself.