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I hope you have a menu.

September 16, 2010

One thing I really like about Vietnam is that the people here don’t make you feel foolish for not knowing what’s going on. They are friendly and seemingly honest. I know we get the “white price” on a lot of things, but it becomes a game of handing them different denominations and them giving us back whatever isn’t necessary. If you accidentally hand them a 100,000 bill instead of a 10,000 they won’t keep it. It’s not uncommon for someone to hold the contents of their wallet out to the taxi driver and let him take what is owed. Dealing with prices with so many zeros behind them has taken some getting used to.

Having lived overseas before, I am especially appreciative of the companionship and money I have now. When I lived in Spain I rarely went out alone. I was intimidated by my lack of knowledge and often felt vulnerable as a lone female. I know once we move to Saigon, Jonathan starts flying, and the other ladies stay here in Hanoi I will be on my own a lot more, but I believe that now, while I have my safety net of Jonathan and friends, I will become comfortable enough to be fine when I am on my own.

In Spain, I was also constantly struggling to make ends meet. I didn’t want to order something without knowing how much it would cost and if it would be worth my money. We definitely have more money now (which is wonderful), but knowing how much further the money goes makes a huge difference to me mentally. It’s much easier to order – not really knowing what you’re getting, hoping it’s something edible – knowing that there’s no way it can cost more than $5.

We have eaten at several new places this week. One of them was where we had phở bò, which I knew they had based on the sign out front. The other two were more of a challenge.

Tuesday night four of us walked to the right out of the hotel entrance. This is a less explored area for most of us, but I figured based on the amount of traffic we had seen earlier, there must be food. We walked and walked, passing empty chairs at curbside cafes, looking for a place that was busy. Everyone says if it’s busy it must be good and safe. The few places that did have people didn’t have any available seats.

We finally got to the end of the road and found a huge, two-story place. It was facing the main road. The downstairs was full of chairs and tables that spilled out on the curb – nearly onto the road. Between the customers and the traffic it was a noisy, lively place. We followed their hands signs, walked upstairs, and took an empty table. Everyone seemed to notice us – we were the only white people there – but unlike many places I’ve been, we rarely got more than a curious glance. I think it’s because we were in a bia (beer) house.

The waitress brought us four plastic packets that had towels in them. After seeing these again at another restaurant, we discovered that they will charge us for these,whether we use them or not, unless we specifically return them. They will also bring more than you need. I can only assume they hope you won’t notice, won’t use them, and will pay anyway. Maybe it’s their service charge.

She also brought two plates of peanuts in their shells. They didn’t look like our boiled peanuts, but when we started eating them the insides tasted boiled. She asked if we wanted beer, but since everyone had to study for a test the next day, we ordered four Cokes. She returned with four glasses, and four cans of warm Coke.

Then came the part where she stood there looking expectantly at us waiting for our order. All four of us frantically examined the tables around us, but couldn’t figure out what to get. The waitress brought an older man from downstairs who was very friendly, smiling, and asking where we were from. He brought one menu. It had several pages, all full of writing, with only silhouette images of animals. We referenced the menu section of my phrasebook and attempted to order from the rau (vegetable) section and the section with the cow.

After all that this is what we ended up with: a large oval plate of what I believe is watercress (it looked like long, small celery with more greenery on it) stir-fried with garlic; another similar plate of beef stir-fried with onions, carrots, and some other green vegetable; and two bowls of a cold salad that involved shredded carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts, white, woody stalks of something, slivers of meat resembling bologna (Wikipedia says it’s chả lụa – a sausage made with lean pork and potato starch), and green leaves that I assume were herbs. It had a dressing on it and, between the woody stalks and unidentified meat, was my least favorite of the dishes.

The total for our meal was 250,000 VND – which is about $3.20 per person.

The one other non-pilot, Saigon lady, Kari, and I went for a walk around the entire West Lake yesterday, and ended up in a very similar meal situation. We did go for the beer this time. It’s all locally brewed, and at these places there is always someone sitting next to a keg pouring glasses and pitchers. From what I can tell, it’s about two steps above water, but tastes good on a hot day.

This time our lunch started with bags of roasted peanuts (which we were also charged for – not a big deal, but good to know) and signing for a menu. It was a huge place with tables inside and out, and I had to position my chair in a certain spot to avoid the view of a whole, roasted, hairless, teeth-intact – man’s best friend. I don’t consider myself to be particularly squeamish, but even writing about it makes my stomach turn. We debated asking whether it was actually dog, but were afraid they might think we wanted some. (We asked after we had eaten and it was confirmed – in English.)

Instead we pulled out the phrasebook and ordered things we knew would not have meat in them – fried rice and vegetables. The vegetables were, again, stir-fried with garlic and wonderful. The receipt says rau muong xao (I don’t know how to make it tonally correct with this keyboard). Xao means (surprise, surprise) stir-fried, and muong is water spinach. It’s so good. The book says the fried rice is Cantonese-style. It reminded me more of couscous because of the crumbly versus sticky texture. There were tiny bits of meat, as is common in fried rice, and was also tasty. They brought us two plates of it, but we could have shared one since neither of us could finish it.

Price of lunch for two – including four beers, peanuts, and one washcloth – was 94,000 VND/ $4.82.

I saved the receipt from the lunch place (first one I’ve seen in a week) and took note at dinner the other night. In order to write using more than color descriptors and Vietnamese words, I’ve spent almost as much time researching as I have writing this. This is also helping me become more accustomed to what I’m seeing every day. Certain words are showing up over and over and starting to look familiar.

I still have no idea about the pronunciation of most things, but we’re taking it one step at a time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dorothy permalink
    September 21, 2010 03:52

    How exciting! I love your blog so much! Your writing is descriptive and humorous and so colorful! I can almost see you dodging traffic and people on the street and can almost smell the pho! I can’t wait for your next installments!!!

  2. Israel Holby permalink
    September 22, 2010 11:30

    The wet napkins in the plastic bag, boiled peanuts (not as good as Georgia), and warm bev’s sound just like here.

    Learning how to order food has been one the more difficult things to do. My first year hear I just took notes (or best a photo with a note), of dishes I liked and asked for it the next time.

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