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Menu Roulette

My Scholarship entry - A local encounter that changed my life

VIETNAM | Thursday, 19 April 2012 | Views [566] | Scholarship Entry

In the thick of it

In the thick of it

It’s possible Jack and I have stumbled into a gentlemen’s club. I don’t see a single female customer amidst the tables full of men and the impassive little man blocking our entry certainly wants another look at me. I wish I spoke Vietnamese so I could fall to my knees and beg him to feed us before sending us back into chaotic, rain-soaked, traffic-choked Saigon; but I’m limited to traveler words like hello, beer and thank you. He assesses me. We wait. A hush falls.

Finally, he gestures to a table and surprised murmurs well up from the huddle of black-clad waitresses. They whisper and watch as we sit down, stiff from hours on our motorbike. We gratefully order beers and flip through the text menu, casually and then frantically searching for the food pictures that aren’t there. The thought of ordering blind makes me despair, as does the memory of a roasting dog carcass we saw on a downtown grill. I’d consider slinking out but we’ve made such a scene that now we have to take our chances.

Hue, our waitress, arrives and Jack covers his eyes. He flips the menu pages, points and parts his fingers to peek at her. She looks and shakes her head. I point at something and Hue makes a face. “Yuck!” Jack points until she nods and takes our order away while I swig some beer to banish the squishy memory of Cambodian grubs popping between my teeth like overripe grapes.

Hue returns with a battered metal pot emitting fragrant steam and she watches as I dip into the thick red sauce filled with silky tofu chunks. The spicy mouthful lingers with hints of garlic and ginger and I smile, my mind awash with relief. Elated with our victory, we scrape every crispy bit from the pot and proclaim it our best meal ever. Hue nods. Satisfied.

Change requires patience and bravery and everything important starts small. I’ll always remember this story when I look at foreign menus because today my gamble won me a crack in Saigon’s ancient veneer and a taste of her juicy mysterious heart.

Tags: food writing, ho chi minh city, menu roulette, saigon, taking a risk, travel writing, travel writing scholarship 2012, vietnam



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