In eateries outside of Hanoi, in regions and towns I'm less familiar with, I tend to watch my p's and q's more than usual. I don't just bluster in like I own the joint, shouting my order, re-arranging the furniture. I be-have. I try to get a sense of the place; its tenor and drill, so that I can start off on the right foot. I may linger outside for a few minutes, observing the comings and goings, to catch any ritual I may need to pay heed to. Sometimes, particularly as a foreigner, an action as simple as entering an eatery can be nerve-wracking.
Nobody wants to fart in church.
In Hội An a couple of months ago, I entered a cơm gà (chicken rice) eatery with a pious sensibility. Overhead and directly in front upon entry, creating a mezzanine level above the food preparation area, was an ornately carved and gilded altar. Business altars are a common feature throughout Vietnam, placed to appease ancestors and thereby, ancestors willing, bring business success. More religious people may have altars to Buddha or other deities and figures who fight away evil spirits or bad luck. This altar dominated, making me feel as if I should have been genuflecting or lighting incense as I went in. Should I have prayed for holy chicken rice?
I joined other customers at round stainless steel communal tables, looking all around at the other artifacts in the establishment and, under the altar, at the three-handed team running the show. Gathered behind a large table cluttered with an assembly line of ingredients contained in colanders and other vessels, they were quietly mindful of my presence, one woman coming out to take my order. In Hanoi eateries, it's normally me going to them or calling my order in from the table. Vietnam is a broad church.
Every possible shred of chicken is manipulated by hand from the carcass here. Placed on a bed of turmeric stained rice, the shredded chicken flesh and skin comes with a spoonful of stewed chicken innards and blood cake, a handful of mint and Vietnamese mint (rau răm) and a smattering of onion on top. On the side, a plate of young papaya and carrot strips and a perfect good-salty chicken broth. I laced my serving with fabulously complex tương ớt Hội An (Hội An chilli sauce), of which I now have a cupboard full.
People seek comfort in all manner of things, vice or virtue. Some get it at a church of god. I got it that day at a chicken rice church.