Her wares are covered in banana leaves in two bamboo baskets on either side of her. She squats, covered also, in Vietnam’s number one head protector, the conical hat. From my perspective standing above her, it’s a practical geometry lesson of three perfect circles. But my nose tells me otherwise.
There is more to this vendor than meets the eye. As I crouch to ground level, I note a forth much more interesting circle, hidden in the shadow cast by the vendor’s hat. She smiles at my interest while no doubt doing multiplications in her head about just how much she can get away with charging a curious holiday-maker. I can almost see the dollar signs flipping under her eyelids.
The forth circle is a blackened pan of coals, flaky and white, only seconds away from glowing red. It’s an impromptu barbeque and I’m going to start the ball rolling by putting in my order.
The banana leaves are lifted to reveal an obsessively arranged stack of skewers, dead straight and parallel, at the end of which is pork marinated in chili and lemongrass. Resembling little masts with meat flags, they are transferred to the brazier for a touch of charring. This is achieved in the most primitive of ways, with a simple yet repetitive waving of a hand fan by the vendor.
Delicately fringed in black, my thịt nướng (grilled meat) sticks are ready in minutes. As the vendor sells not to travelers but predominately to local shopkeepers, she does not carry furniture so there is a bit of a circus act involved in procuring a make-do mismatch of stools for us to sit at. Twice during eating there is occasion for us to stand up momentarily and sit down again…on different stools. This is more problematic than you might think as we’re not just handling pork on sticks here.
This snack comes accompanied. With a green plate of lettuce, herbs and fines slivers of cucumber. With soft sheets of rice flour pancake (banh cuon). With tương, a sauce of fermented bean paste, to which chili is added. And, with rice paper. For beginners, there may be a certain rigmarole involved in rolling the ingredients in the rice paper and dipping the roll into the sauce without losing the lot. After nearly nine years of practice in Vietnam, I do have the knack. Common practice has it that the sheet of rice paper is held in the left hand, ingredients are picked up with chopsticks and arranged in the lower third before chopsticks are set aside and the right hand encloses everything by rolling the sheet up the left hand.
But you know what…manage it anyway you can. If you can't quite manufacture that perfect cylinder of snack, just mix all of the ingredients up...in your mouth.
This Hội An thịt nướng vendor is mobile in the old town's streets. We came across her at lunch time in Nguyễn Thái Học St, parallel with the river.