Stomach full and growing tiresome of tourists I start walking, trying to find somewhere that is truly local. Whether that be a cafe, restaurant or cock fighting event (if I stumbled on cock fighting, I’d dart back home and grab Miss Hong’s rooster). Hoi An at night isn’t the most well lit place when you get a few blocks off the well worn tourist path. Lantern lined streets are replaced with dark laneways, one can get a better insight into Vietnamese life. Convenience shops and hair salons are rolling down their shutters, the end of another day’s trade. I stumble across a cafe which was filled with a handful of locals and laughter. The place where old men come and sit around giving their opinion on the world, telling dirty jokes and have a game of cards. It’s 8:00pm and I imagined this town being one that carries on regardless of the position of the sun/moon in the sky but this is the only thing open for a fair distance. Much like Miss Hong’s place, this is another solid representation of the Vietnamese cafe which is essentially a repurposed garage attached to their house – a place where people come in off the street and socialise.
Seven men of varying ages are sitting out the front on the ubiquitous plastic stools having some local beers. I make my way through them in an effort to get to the guy at the back who I think may be the owner. This results in a mixture of confusion/smiles/stares for all parties involved. Thinking that I could seamlessly fit in by ordering the only thing that I can roll off the tongue in Vietnamese (ca phe sua da) I take a deep breath and order a coffee, my index finger pointing to the ceiling to signify one. The man smiles and nods, “coffee”, his small moustache nearly disappearing up his nostrils. He turns on his heels and heads into the kitchen and reappears with a coffee and a glass of hot water (I don’t know why). Success, he points me to a larger chair and I respond with the universal thumbs up sign.
He asks “American, why here?”, wondering how a tourist would wind up amongst his regulars in his garage. Sensing his English is scratchy at best I reply “Osss-tra-yin” and he nods making two fists and pushing them against his nipples, his portrayal of a kangaroo (or was a tyrannosaurus?) I attempt to tell him I want to experience life like a local but this sentence seems to wash over him. By now I have finished my iced coffee and seeing that I am sitting near the beer fridge I point to it and raise my index finger again. Before I could get up and grab one he has plonked a cold beer in front of me. He rushes out the back and reappears with a plate that has a brown rectangle of some food. He puts it on the plate in front of me and smiles. I pick it up and smell it, fairly certain if is part of the marinated beef jerky family. I ask “bo?” (what I understood to be the Vietnamese word for beef). He nods and smiles until I try to bite into it like a sandwich and he lets out a shriek which stops me in my tracks, my mouth still agape. He shakes his head and then mimes peeling a banana. Being super hard and stringy and you have to treat it like a piece of dried corn meet and start peeling smaller strips away, otherwise your teeth would be broken shards on his tiled floor).
I have my initial taste. It was a pleasant BBQ/tomato like flavour so I put my thumb up again and he returned that with another smile. Words foreign to me were exchanged around the room which resulted in others offering up their bits of food for my opinion. Following the completion of the jerky another rectangle of food was placed in front of me, this one pale and bony looking. A few of them were trying to tell me what it was but I couldn’t comprehend. One man got my attention and pointed to the fishtank in the corner and then I realised it was some form of dried fish. My “fish?” was greeting with a number of bobbing heads and brownish teeth. It was to be to be one of the pet goldfish. This thing looked like it was going to be a long hard slog and my instincts were correct. The beer was used to wash down every mouthful and I kept a smile on my face as I forced each bit down into my gut, masking my indifferent feelings to the bony fish. The owner didn’t have much to say in English so one of the older guys came across and pulled up a seat, interested in the uncommon sight now sitting across from him. His English was very good in comparison to the others. He introduced himself as Mr (name withheld) but for this story let’s call him Mr H.
Having been bestowed two delicacies I think it rude to leave after a coffee and beer so I point to the beer fridge hoping that he would understand that I was going to help myself this time? He nods and smiles so I get up but the chair that I was sitting in sticks to my rear and follows me to the bar fridge. I couldn’t make out the Vietnamese conversation, I was too busy laughing myself. When I sat back down the owner puffed his cheeks out and then laughed, as did I. Mr H was a businessman, a father of a couple of kids, one of whom was studying in Australia. He had visited there many decades earlier and knew his Sydneys from his Melbournes and even Hobart having visited there before. He knows that Australia is an expensive country and asked the owner (the three of us know sitting together) how much are my two beers and coffee? The reply of 50,000 VND (around $3.25 AUD) caused an exchange in which he was trying to explain that in Australia that would be 4 times the price. I could do nothing but agree and offered to pay some extra for the bar snacks but the owner was happy and dismissed my offer.. Mr H wasn’t being aggressive, he was just trying to give his fellow drinkers an education. As he was explaining to me what he did for a living one of the other guys came over and gave me a handful of peanuts – the in the shell boiled kind that were fairly common in bars in Australia 35 years ago. It would be bad manners to refuse so I ate the eight or so peanuts as we were discussing our various family situations.
It was at this time where I bought him a drink, still a bit sheepish about the price of the beers and thought this would be a way to strengthen ties between our two countries. This time I managed to extricate my arse from the chair without incident. Mr H told me that his wife owns a store in town and I need to meet her because she is very “bootiful” and he “very lucky man”. He repeated this again as though I wasn’t listening but I heard him the first time, the alcohol starting to make its feeling felt in every corner of his brain. His wife’s English was apparently a lot better than his, if that was true she would be the Dean of a University. He wrote down the his name and the address of the shop and then proceeded to head towards the toilet. I took this time to do a bit of Googling, a quick background check to see if his story wasn’t one of those you hear in those crime reenactments on Australian television. From what I could fact check he was indeed a man of high standing in the community. On his return I was given strict instructions to meet at 12:00pm tomorrow at the shop. I had to walk in, tell anybody that would listen that “I know Mr H, he is the boss. He will be cooking, not working.” The cooking/working thing didn’t make much sense to me but over the course of the next hour he kept asking me to repeat it and everytime the cooking, working thing was mentioned he would roar laughing. “Not cooking. Working!” He also stressed many times over that if I had any problems during my stay I could get in touch with him and he could sort it out, the kind of thing that only a well connected man would offer.
A lady was riding her bike past, stopped and bought some cobs of corn in. Corn on the cob grilled in the husk. Mr H bought a couple and gave one to me to try. This was some of the juiciest and smokiest corn I have had the pleasure to eat. Here I am, some Australian blow in eating corn with a bunch of strangers, watching two gekkos trying to race to the ceiling, all while feeling like a giant in a dollhouse with its little chairs and table. Every few mouthfuls I was asked to repeat my instructions for tomorrow, by now corn juice is dribbling down my chin and pooling on the floor. Seeing how much I was enjoying the corn Mr H gave me his and by the time I had knocked that one over I had more corn stuck between my teeth than down my throat. Vietnamese men when they are drunk get more boisterous than usual but they also like to get closer to you and get your attention in conversation by tapping your knee. The first few times this happened it was a bit off putting but it’s one of those cultural differences that you try not to think about it. For people that speak two completely different languages we were able to keep chatting longer than I had originally anticipated. Mr H mentioned he was proud of the people he drinks with, calling them all family and friends. He takes pride on keeping them in line and being the eldest of the lot we had garnered a lot of respect from them. He was talking and then his face starts contorting mid sentence as he was having difficulty finding the English words for what he was trying to get across. After reaching for the translation app on his phone, he showed me the results on the screen, “prison”. I saw that and before I could ask a question he pointed to 4 out of 6 and said, “him, him, him…. not der fault”. For a second I thought there might be a throwdown or scuffle but Mr H must have sensed my fear, reassuring me that everything was fine and I have nothing to worry about.
Last drinks and it was time for me to start the stroll home. Mr H by this point had had enough and we both headed towards the street. He grabbed his helmet and was going to ride his scooter home and wanted me to hop on. I said no, which he was offended by so I started making excuses about no helmet, my weight, anything I could think of to convince him not to hop on the back of the scooter. He showed me on a map where his home was, thinking the 200 metre trip would get me riding pillion. I decided to start walking in the direction of his house and he had no choice but to ride at walking pace next to me until we reached his home. His home was luxurious, a double storey place and as we both came up the driveway he rang his wife to come out and meet his new friend. It was as I was a pet rock that a kid would bring for show and tell. She was not at all upset, just confused. “Why did I go to that pub? Why did I want to talk to him? Why weren’t you with the other tourists?”. We got chatting (her English was even better than Mr H had described) and she was talking about many things including her friends from New Farm in Brisbane. She repeated some of the stories that Mr H had already rumbled through, filling in the bits that he had left out originally. Sick of me talking to his wife Mr H interjects telling Mrs H that I will be around for lunch tomorrow after meeting her at the shop. He then points to me as if I am a trained monkey so I repeat my instructions for tomorrow. “Mr H says he is the boss, he says he is not working, he’s cooking.” It didn’t get the same level of laughter in the driveway as it did an hour earlier. Tough crowd. Mr H then offered to give me a lift home but Mrs H was on my side and convinced him that it is safer for me to walk. Tomorrow 12:00pm for lunch – time to make my way back to the hotel, but not before a drink at Miss Hong’s.
The next morning I decided to take advantage of the buffet breakfast after being woken by the chirping air conditioner, the rooster outside and the clashing of plates and cutlery just one floor above. Not knowing what was going to be served up at lunch I was keen to have something light, a near impossible task at a buffet. Somehow I summoned the willpower to stop after a coffee, green papaya salad and sheets of rice noodle with pork.
As midday rolled around I was at the shop as instructed and from there Mrs H drove back to the house and I made my way on foot. Mr H and his dog were there to greet me at the front door. The house is well set back from the road and the driveway has more than enough room to accommodate the two cars, barbecue and four scooters. Taking off my shoes I can hear Mrs H had already made a start cooking and I was introduced to the family which included some in-laws and a niece and nephew. There was a point when Mr H was washing his hands, Mrs H was cooking and it was only the dog and I left together sitting in the lounge room. I decided I should take a picture of one of his car’s registration so that if something happened to me the authorities had some leads. Mr H wasn’t as chatty without the help of a few beers but it wasn’t long before I was ushered into the kitchen for the family lunch.
I was seated at the end of table and told to start. There were two types of fish dishes, some pork belly, a big bowl of soup, scrambled egg and as much rice as you could ever want. My chopstick skills held up to the peering eyes and everybody was eager to see my reaction to this homely meal. It all tasted great, though one of the fish dishes had to be eaten slowly as there was a fear of a bone (or two) causing some drama to my airway. A meal, maybe not fit for a king, but for an inquisitive tourist.
Afterwards, I didn’t really know the etiquette. I offered to help clear the table and clean up but told that this was not necessary. Many thankyous were said in Mrs H’s direction for the beautiful meal but I felt that anything further would feel as if I was being insincere. Before leaving I got Mr H to get me a piece of paper so I could write my email address down. To avoid confusion with pronunciation of my last name I decided to include my Vietnamese name “BRAD LEE”.