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Moving at a snail’s pace

October 14, 2010

After our trip to the Metro, we ran into some of our friends who are house hunting in our apartment building. We were all hungry, didn’t want any of the chain restaurants inside our complex, so we headed down the sidewalk.

The first place we came across smelled good, had a lot of chairs and tables, and one of our building’s security guards was eating there. I tried unsuccessfully to ask him what he was eating, because it looked good – noodles and seafood.

Like most of the places here, it seemed like the whole family was working in the restaurant. A man, who I assumed was the father, came out to greet us. He spoke a tiny bit of English and started showing us different seafood in bowls in front of the cooking area (which was in the corner of the room.)

Most were creatures that live in shells, and since I tend to avoid these I got my phrasebook out and found the word for prawns. From the back room, one of the young men brought a small metal bowl of them sitting among huge circular ice cube. I nodded yes, pointing to myself and to Jonathan, and holding up two fingers. The others pointed to different things, and there was nodding all round. We assumed that we would get a plate of noodles (one of the daughters grabbed a few chunks of noodles that looked like ramen and we nodded) with our selection of seafood.

We helped ourselves to beers from the refrigerator and squeezed into the tiny chairs at the tiny table. The daughters (I’m guessing teenagers or early twenties) brought us beer mugs with a big round ice cube in each one. They came around occasionally throughout the meal refilling our glasses from our cans, bringing us more if needed, or adding another chunk of ice.

For the table, there were a few little bowls with some kind of dark salt, a piece of lime, and blob something made of chilis and a plate of leaves (maybe basil.)  Each person got a small bowl with a spoon and a tiny two-tonged fork. I was a little confused at the forks and lack of chopsticks until they brought out a big plate of snails. They were about the size of a quarter and had pretty, spotted shells. We were confused, not knowing who ordered them, but they were obviously hot out of the pan and smelled so good. I think the father saw our helpless looks and using the spoon and fork moved a snail to my bowl, then held the shell with his thumb and fingers, and flipped the insides out with the tiny fork.

Obviously, I couldn’t do anything but put it in my mouth. I was afraid it would be tough and rubbery – or slimy, but it wasn’t. The sauce, though, was the best part about it. I wanted to suck on the shells to make sure I got as much as I could. It was orangish-brown, and had whole, soft, savory cloves of garlic, along with square chunks of something that we couldn’t identify. There’s a possibility it was pork rind cut in little chunks. It was hard enough that sometimes it broke if you stabbed it with the fork, but when you bit it it was crunchy on the outside and light and crispy on the inside. Kind of like the crispy bits on the bottom and edges of the pan after you cook a turkey.

We were all ooh-ing and aah-ing over the food, wondering how we were so fortunate to stumble across this, when he brought out another plate. This one had little crab legs with an extremely coarse, red, salty seasoning. He indicated that we were supposed to bite them open. Again, the flavor was amazing. Jonathan was snail by snail and leg by leg overcoming his dislike for foods that messy your hands.

During the snail course, the man brought some kind of clam out and offered it to me. I ate it, but didn’t enjoy it as much as the snails. I was afraid he was asking if I wanted some of them. Then he brought a bigger snail for me to eat. Jonathan thought he just liked me and wanted me to try everything, but a few minutes later we heard the big snails being tossed around in the frying pan.

We were starting to get full and slow down, when they finally brought what we thought we had ordered in the first place – two huge plates of ramen noodles with shrimp and squid sautéed with some greens. We ate family style, and managed to suffer through most of it – there may have been one tentacle left on the plate.

All of this, dinner for five and beer for six, cost less than $5 per person. Being able to get there without taking a taxi makes it priceless.

When Jonathan and I had been exploring the alleys behind the apartment we came across a pool hall. After dinner, this sounded like a good idea to everyone, so we managed to find our way back over there in the dark. When we arrived a lady, in silk pajama shorts and shirt, starting bringing the balls out onto the table. This is when we realized there weren’t any pockets on the table. Surprisingly, among the six of us, no one had any idea how to play. There were only three balls, too.

Oh well… Looks like we have something else to learn.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Charity permalink
    October 15, 2010 19:02

    You are ridiculously brave! 🙂

  2. Shane White permalink
    October 16, 2010 13:55

    It’s carom billiards. Only seen one carom table before. Let me know how it goes. Really enjoying learning about Vietnam through your experiences.

    • October 17, 2010 02:04

      Shane, what would we ever do without you? Definitely not play carom billiards 🙂 Thanks for the info and thanks for reading. Where did you see the one other table?

  3. Israel Holby permalink
    October 17, 2010 10:44

    I really like the sea snails, though they are a bit rubbery, but be careful, the small greenish end can be really bitter.

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