Monday, October 12, 2009

That Time I Was In Asia: Lunch in Hanoi

Vietnam homes

There I am, sitting on the floor at LAX next to some pay phones, positioning myself near one of the few available electrical outlets. Our connecting flight to Taiwan doesn't leave for a few hours, so I'm recharging my laptop, which contains the entire second season of True Blood (don't ask).

As I'm sitting there preparing myself for the thirteen hour flight ahead, an Asian-American girl sidles up next to me, opens her backpack, and proceeds to empty out about five large bottles of vitamins and supplements and a scotch tape dispenser. She waits a beat, and then asks me if I would watch the items for her while she takes care of something. I agree and scoot a little closer to the pile in a gesture meant to bolster her confidence that I could effectively guard her supplements. Then she leaves.

airport supplements

After about ten minutes I start to wonder if she is coming back. Then I wonder what I would do if someone actually tried to take a bottle. I mean, supplements are popular, and not exactly cheap. What would I say? Would I take a punch for these supplements? I ran through all sorts of scenarios in my mind: someone bigger than me eyes them suspiciously, and without saying a word I get up and walk away; an attractive woman compliments my supplements and I give them to her as a gift; a skateboarding punk comes whooshing by and tries to swipe a bottle, but I tackle him in time and when the Asian-American girl comes back she gives me a $500 reward.

Just as my imagination has moved on to the thought that maybe the supplements are in fact a bomb, the girl comes back. She thanks me profusely, and we have a chat in broken-though-respectable English about destinations and such. Then Brooke texts me that I'm needed at the ticket counter, so I say my goodbyes and run off.

I didn't realize it then, but that would be the most English I would hear from someone other than Brooke for the next five days.
When people say off-handedly "everyone" in Vietnam speaks English, they mean everyone understands the word "water" or "toilet"(though not “bathroom,” which resulted in a curious incident for Brooke that she will recount at a later date). They do not mean that everyone understands things like "What am I eating?" or "Why are you hitting me?" – phrases that over the course of our stay would prove to be infinitely more useful. Which is kind of ironic, because when Brooke and I planned this trip we said the whole reason we were going to Southeast Asia was because we wanted to feel totally out of our element, to experience life differently. In retrospect (i.e. after peeing in a hole in the floor a few times and, if you're Brooke, hiding the used toilet paper behind a bucket of water because you don't know what to do with it) it's funny how innocent the intentions sound.

Vietnam toilet

Still, we wanted the real deal. We didn't want to be the losers who land in New York City and eat dinner at Planet Hollywood. We wanted to dig our hands deep into the soil that is the Vietnamese culture and then wipe them on the seat of our pants. And just like that last sentence, we were really stupid.
We arrive in Hanoi, drop our bags in the hotel room, shower, and decide to go right out for lunch. We ask someone in the hotel lobby if there is a good place to eat nearby. He says something about water and points left, but that is the extent of it, setting a precedent for the trip: No matter how you say the word "restaurant", it won’t translate into Vietnamese. In Spanish it's "restaurante"; Italian "ristorante"; in French there's the verb "restaurer". In Vietnamese it's "danh từ." And don't think you can pronounce it, because you can't.

Taking the non-verbal cue, we head left outside the hotel. And lo and behold, up ahead there is a lake! But the road splits around the east and west bank of the lake. We stand there confused. Sensing our confusion, a kindly old woman sitting outside a shop shouts something at us and then points down the street to the left. "Amazing!" I think. "She knows we're looking for a place to eat and is pointing us in the right direction." We say thank you and go off down the street. (If this logic seems erroneous to you, two points!)

It's not exactly an ugly street. Maybe by my bourgeoisie Western standards it would be more aptly categorized as a lane than a street. And the shops would be bodegas. And the restaurants would be holes-in-the-wall. But damn it we're in Vietnam, so we're doing it Vietnam style.

We continue down the street, slowly casing each eatery. Since the annual climate change in Vietnam ranges from hot to unbearably hot, and air conditioning is something of a luxury, most small stores have no front door. Instead the entire front of the shop is open to the street. Which is how Brooke and I found ourselves uncomfortably standing in the middle of what looked like a cute café with a family eating lunch, but turned out to be someone's cute living room with a family eating lunch. (We would later turn it into the popular Vietnamese street game "Living Room or Restaurant.")

Rattled but not discouraged, we exit the nice people's home and see a bunch of happy-looking people sitting outside on a grassy strip on the bank of a scenic lake. They're all eating and drinking beer and there seems to be too many of them to belong to the same family, so we assume we've found our place.

gross Vietnam soup

The décor is minimalist: small tables set up on the grass with mats for diners to sit on. Some teenagers are sitting in the street on miniature plastic chairs (ubiquitous throughout Hanoi). We follow suit, and a young boy – who may or may not work at the restaurant – brings us a menu. It is entirely in Vietnamese except for the first three items, which are described as "chicken," "fish," or "mixed meat." Our confusion must be evident because the boy jumps in and points to "mixed meat." Brooke seems skeptical, but in the spirit of authenticity I take the waiter/street boy's recommendation and order one mixed meat. Brooke orders two beers (she is fluent in “beer” in 27 languages).

Vietnam soup

A few minutes later, the boy comes back with a big metal pot, portable gas burner, a bowl of dry ingredients (noodles, leaves, spices, etc.), and our beer. The pot is full of some sort of liquid. He turns on the portable gas burner, and leaves. We are actually kind of excited – apparently we ordered soup, and it was going to be prepared right in front of us. How traditional!

Our excitement quickly wanes when the boy returns. In one hand he is holding condiments; in the other, a large plate of various types of raw meat and fish, all cut up and divvied into distinct piles. He puts it on the table, and Brooke and I look at each other with an incredulous gaze that says, "Authentic?" Before I can decipher what exactly is on the plate (I successfully identify squid and clams), Brooke begins the age-old soup dance: Make eye contact with one of the teenagers, pick up a plate, nod. If you get a return nod, proceed. If you get a giggle, stop. This goes on until the waiter/street boy motions for us to put the meat in the soup, which, in turn, begins the age-old "But how do you know when the meat is done?" dance.

Vietnam meat

You know when you went to Colonial Williamsburg when you were a kid and there was a woman dressed in an old-timey costume whose job it was to churn butter? And the eight-year-old version of you looked on in horror in learning that this was where butter comes from? But then when she was done, she took a sample, spread it on crackers, and since everyone else was trying it you had to try it too, but when you did you were pleasantly surprised at how delicious it was? That's exactly what didn't happen here.

I let the pot boil. Brooke takes the opportunity to second guess my choice of mixed meat. Finally the street boy comes over and motions for us to put some of the soup into our bowls. By now, we have drawn a crowd of kids delighted by the sight of Westerners who don't know how to cook their own soup. With so many people watching now, Brooke and I feel compelled to try it. In an effort to avoid the meat portion of things, Brooke reaches for the dry ingredients bowl, but the boy seems to think that this is a crazy thing to do – as though the noodles were just for decoration and Brooke was attempting to eat the table's center piece.

Luckily we are starving (and authentic!) so we start in. "Do you know what this one is?" Brooke asks, holding up a piece of white meat. "Not sure. How about this one?" holding up something round and gray. At one point I swallow a fish bone and think, "At least I know that was fish."

It goes on like this for a few minutes, us eating mostly in stunned silence, before Brooke looks up at me and probingly says, "This is really authentic."

"Very," I respond. "One might even say it's too authentic."

"Yes," Brooke agrees. "This is the deep end of the authenticity pool."

Vietnam bad food

Even at this point we're thinking that perhaps we should stick it out a little longer. When in Vietnam . . . But then Brooke turns my attention to a woman behind me. I look over my shoulder and see her sitting on one of those little plastic chairs, transferring what seems to be animal entrails from one bucket to another. I do a double take, thinking perhaps I am exhausted and had watched too much True Blood on the plane, and if I just shake my head from side to side I would instead see a woman petting a doe-eyed golden retriever.

No such luck. And with that scene, Brooke and I simultaneously come to our senses. We really look around. The décor isn't minimalist, it's trashy. The lake isn't scenic, it's polluted. The people aren't happy, they are barefoot and drunk. In our quest for authenticity, we had stumbled into the most authentic thing of all: the shitty part of town.

Vietnam West Lake

We ask for the check, which is met with some confusion because there's so much mixed meat left to finish. But we insist, pay 200,000 dong (about $10), and leave feeling worse for wear. Like Icarus, we flew too close to the authenticity sun and burned our stomach linings. Hanoi: 1, Us: 0.
If anything good came of that meal, it's that we took away a valuable lesson (or as Brooke says, "It's imprinted on my brain like a dead bug on a windshield"). Sometimes it's okay to be touristy.

And with that we decided to treat ourselves to something very touristy – massages. But even as we washed our hands of the genuine Vietnamese soil, little did we know things were about to get much, much dirtier.


Blogger miss. chief said...

DAN! ahahahaaa so many parts of this made me laugh. ending up in somebody's living room? not knowing why somebody is punching you? hahahaha
oh please keep the stories coming. seriously. are you a travel writer? because you should be.
i think more people need to hear the truth about travelling.

awesome post!

October 12, 2009 at 4:51:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm betting you said one day we will but still aren't laughing about this.

October 12, 2009 at 6:00:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jordan Warren said...

Haha. Yeah, none of Vietnam was exactly what I had in mind either. But I would love to go back!

October 13, 2009 at 12:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Andrew said...

I probably would have given up a lot sooner than you guys did. Nice effort!

October 13, 2009 at 8:41:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Danh tu is the Vietnamese word for "noun" my dear. The word for restaurant is "quan an" or "nha hang" depending on how fancy you want to get.

October 13, 2009 at 10:27:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Dan said...

You see? Even THE INTERNET can't get the translation right.

October 13, 2009 at 10:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger hand.pecked said...

Stay clsoe to Taiwan, beyond that, things get a little weird.

October 13, 2009 at 11:20:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Beej said...

Amazing. and it looks so easy on Bourdain's No Reservations. I nearly laughed my own vomit because of this story.

October 13, 2009 at 11:48:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Kate said...

The fact that you walked into someone's living room killed me.

We just got back from Romania and I swear I would never know that a place served food if it weren't for these large awnings and tables outside of houses. I don't know what we'd have done if the weather wasn't nice!

October 13, 2009 at 12:23:00 PM EDT  
Blogger deezee said...

you two are awesome. how's that for a minimalist comment?

October 13, 2009 at 12:57:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous ScottsdaleGirl said...

Uhm yeah, that meal, would never have crossed my lips. I would have just had the beer(s) as in MANY of them. Bleh to mixed meat soup. *gags*

October 13, 2009 at 5:42:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Potts said...

I'm hoping for "That Time I Was Sold Into White Slavery" next....

October 13, 2009 at 9:13:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Allison Hatfield said...

this is exactly what i needed to prevent my suicide tonight. thank you.

October 13, 2009 at 10:24:00 PM EDT  
Blogger molls said...

I really hope that Brooke actually IS fluent in "beer" in 27 languages, and that's not just embroidery on your part. she's awesome as is, but the beer thing would just put her over the top.

October 14, 2009 at 3:36:00 AM EDT  

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