The last time I ate at this trusty “com binh dan” I could barely count to three. I’d stand there in the way gawking at all the selections sprawled across the table and then sheepishly point to the most innocuous choice. That was then but oh how the times have changed (for the better). Mama still lords over the scene half in the sidewalk half in the shop while barking out orders and collecting cash. But the place has upgraded somewhat as the staff now wear yellow polo shirts with Com 37’s name boldly emblazoned across the back along with its address of 37 Ly Tu Trong Street in District 1.
The biggest change though is one not readily apparent until after I had paid and left. Without even realizing it, I had conducted my entire lunch in Vietnamese, albeit a crude and rudimentary version probably leaving everyone scratching their heads. But still that’s a step up from pointing and grunting and hoping for the best as before.
With utmost confidence I said “một gà chiên” as I walked past a huge silver bowl of fried chicken parts slathered in a sticky sweet spicy chili sauce. I didn’t even feel the need to linger and take ten minutes selecting a food. Of course about 5 people had to mimic my words over and over again. I just smiled politely and thought at least they understood I was saying “one fried chicken.”
Now that basic language skills were not in the way, I could devote my attention to more pressing challenges. These would include how to eat a sticky piece of chicken without touching it. I know the Vietnamese hold things down with a fork and tear off meat with a spoon. I’ve done it before and am well-schooled in the practice. But since I already had chopsticks in hand, I veered from proper protocol to use them instead to stabilize the meat. An old woman rushed over and pulled the plastic sticks from my grip and shoved a fork right at me. I thought she was trying to maybe cut me.
OK, no problem. I’ll just eat using the silverware she was so keen on scaring me with. So I stabbed a green bean with my fork and carried it right to my mouth. The old lady came right back to the rescue and put the chopsticks back in my hand. OK. OK. I get it…chopsticks for the beans, fork for the meat.
I picked the fork back up to cull some more bird flesh from the bone, and used it to scoop up a heap of rice. Wrong, wrong, wrong I would soon find out. Grandma took the fork from my hand and placed the spoon in between my fingers before pulling my hand through the motion of picking up rice to eat it. I felt like I was some two year old child playing the choo choo train game at feeding time. Remember that one where mom pretended the food was a train and your mouth was the station?
With this tutorial now behind me, I was ready to fly solo. Of course I crashed and burned one more time since I left behind all the fat and skin. Grandma got up from her stool yet again to admonish me, and now all eyes were on me. It was like everyone was saying, “Oooooooooh. He’s in trouble.” I know grandma had to have been saying, “I know this damn fool didn’t make me get up off stool again.” I picked as crispy a piece of skin I could find, swirled it in the chili sauce, and ate it. Choi oi! Oh my god! I definitely can’t stomach fat.
I waved goodbye to grandma, paid for my lunch, and even understood mama when she told me 30,000 Dong in Vietnamese. I realize that I may have been using western silverware wrong the past 40 years, but at least now I can maneuver around a street food joint with some basic language skills.