I have a love-hate-but-understand relationship with the lady vendors of Vietnam. There is a grudging mutual respect underlying most of our dealings, a certain civility no different to the relationships forged between the Vietnamese themselves in these circumstances. Business is business and money is money and we're never going to be best friends. I'm comfortable with this. It's normal.
I've mostly dispensed with the pleases and thank yous too, following local practice. I'm also not averse to commenting bluntly if I think something's not quite right; if the vendor goes overboard with the MSG, for example. Or she's charging me more this week than last week. Or if I get ignored in the service sequence, I will pipe up. This is how I earn my respect.
I also earn it with appropriate facial gestures, a smile being the most important one. And by keeping my big foreign body as unobtrusive as possible, which is a bit of a stretch amongst a population of stick figures. I don't take up space for long either. Nothing worse than a fat-arse foreigner lingering over his food restraining trade, taking up area an entire local family could squeeze into.
So after ten years you might say that I have found a way to fit in.
To such an extent that, in the gutter the other day, I was privy to an episode of street vendor gossip. Over baskets of diaphanous rice-flour pancakes studded with sweated spring onions, the conversation between the womenfolk turned to the subject of the crab parcel vendor who used to be situated opposite.
"Whatever happened to her?"
"You haven't heard? She's done a runner"
"Lots of debt. Every day, somebody was asking her to pay them back"
"Yep. Lucky I didn't lend her any"
"So where is she?"
"Nobody knows. She's just vanished"
The speculation went on as my breakfast carbohydrates were being peeled from their stack and scissored onto my plate. Nước chấm is poured into dipping bowls from recycled bia tươi Việt Hà bottles. I added garlic-infused vinegar and fresh chili plus a drop of essence of cà cuống, a pheremone extracted from the giant water bug commonly used in dipping sauces at Hanoi's bánh cuốn eateries. There on the curb, it was more than likely imitation.
As the vendor cut wedges of giò lụa (pork sausage) onto my plate and I stirred up my dipping sauce to taste, an elderly lady customer spied me. Perhaps my odd presence sparked the memory; she said that she could recall eating this very same dish - bánh cuốn Thanh Trì - as an eight year-old in harder, simpler times.
As I reflected on this, having detached myself from the buôn dưa lê (gossip) for a moment, it did seem that they were the right words for this dish, which originates from a semi-rural district called Thanh Trì to the south-west of Hanoi. Hard and simple, to describe a combination of those past times, when calories and protein were most essential for arduous days in the rice fields, and the nature of the dish, basic meat and carbohydrate.
Bánh Cuốn Thanh Trì
45 Đào Duy Từ St