But it turns out that this list is far from exhaustive. Despite the lush productivity of their lands, the effortless fertility of their soil, the Vietnamese seem to have left literally nothing off the table in their quest for a good meal. Holly and I got to experience the smaller, furrier side of Vietnamese cuisine at a place called Huong Lua, far outside of Hue.
Of course, it would be uncle Han who took us to this place. For those of you who don't know, Vietnamese men's favorite past time is an activity known by a single word in Vietnamese with no precise translation in English. To ngo translates roughly as "drinking and eating prodigious amounts at a sub-glacial pace, typically while women form a human conveyor belt of food and alcohol and simultaneously mind the children, houses and businesses." I blame the particular talent and energy that Vietnamese men devote to ngo-ing for why Vietnam hasn't won an Olympic medal in.....well, forever. Uncle Han is a practitioner of the mildest form of ngo, a pleasant collection of overworked older men, gathering for some good natured toasts and friendly ribbing. At the ngo's worst however, spirits can be broken, pride obliterated beyond recognition, vast sums of money exchanged without thought or consideration of consequence. Insiders know that a prolonged ngo session between Ho Chi Minh and President Diem started the whole mess that the country has never really recovered from since, the ultimate day-after hangover.
So our particular ngo began with sight of this little fella. On the ride over to Huong Lua, Uncle Han was explaining to me what sort of foods were available at our destination. As I've described, some foods in Vietnam are odd because of composition, others are weird in translation, still others strange in circumstance. What Uncle Han described to me was sort of all three. I know the word for pork, which is heo. Okay then, something with pork. But he followed it with other words which were lost on me. We stumbled through a few more sentences of missed meanings when he was finally able to break out with a phrase in English: Pig of the Forest. As yes, the elusive Pig of the Forest, terror of woodland denizens everywhere, otherwise known as a wild boar. Arriving at the restaurant/petting zoo/slaughterhouse, we saw this decidedly un-fearsome looking little guy sitting in a cage next to a civit, a hedgehog, and several lizards. Luckily we were spared from having to choose which animal(s) would be served up to us, but we went inside to see what other surprises were to follow.
The remainder of the evening was filled with delights less grisly and more PETA-friendly. It turned out that we were there at the same time as huge group of driving instructors, all of whom were, bizarrely, drinking copiously without a designated driver in sight. Holly and I already know how to parallel park, so they became intent on teaching us other essential Vietnamese skills.
Vietnamese toast in the following ways, nearly all of which involve standing:
- "Tram phan Tram" -This essentially means, 100 parts of 100, or 100%. We would call this, Down in One, or Bottoms Up. In other words, drink your whole glass, or you suck.
- "Nam muoi phan Tram" - 50%, or drink half.
- "Di Saigon" - Literally, Go to Saigon. For people anywhere north of Saigon, the city Saigon represents the the bottom of the country, a proxy for the bottom of the glass, the view of which should be unobstructed by beer by the end of this drinking session.
- "Di Da Nang" - Da Nang is roughly in the middle between Hue and Saigon. Get the picture? People in Ha Noi will substitute this with Hue, which is the exact geographical center of Vietnam. No wonder the Vietnamese are so good with their geography.
So that's how we spent the better part of the evening, analyzing our spatial relationships in relation to other cities in Vietnam and practicing fractions through the soft, light amber haze of our favorite fermented beverage.
To all of those friendly gentlemen, may they always drive straight and use their horns liberally.