I am not squeamish about street food. I swear by it, generally speaking. The occasions I get rip-roaring sick I have usually traced back to a crappy “proper” restaurant; a couple in the fancy malls of Bangkok are guilty culprits. (Notable exception was the two-month double whammy amoebic dysentery – giardiasis maybe food poisoning and works of Satan incident back in Egypt/Syria. Good times.)
But the thing is, you try to ignore some of the eating and food prep conditions. Then there are those moments when you just didn’t look away and you think: really?? The fact that we don’t get sick perhaps is more a credit to our immune systems and the odds in a game of bacteria bingo.
We were in Hue, the Imperial City of Vietnam, a UNESCO-listed town, and a glorious food destination. Our first night we walked a mile to get to one of the famous, sidewalk-table eateries. The restaurant’s claim to fame is the owner, a deaf mute who takes the orders in his homegrown sign language. Les Routard, Rough Guides, and Lonely Planet have written the place up and signs say as much. We found two restaurants side by side and while they seemed to be nearly the same — and each seemed to also have an older man who didn’t speak — we recognized the one on the left as the one our hotel had recommended: Bánh khoái Lạc Thiện
The thing to order was bánh khoái, a pancake made with rice flour and done in a small pan over an open flame. Shrimp, shell still on in this case, ground pork, and bean sprouts are folded in. But along with the order came spring rolls, some assembly required: pork meatballs grilled on sticks – nem lụi – with spring roll rice paper, a pile of greens, slices of cucumber and a vegetable resembling chayote, a plate of raw garlic and chilies, and a small bowl of sauce made with fermented soy beans. Roll your own. The heat and moisture of the meat softened the rice paper enough to roll it without cracking it. The pancake had a nice fried crispiness to the outside.
The food was simple, cheap, and delicious. The beer – Festival Beer, made with Danish technology, suitable for festivals, or so the label claimed – was like water, though a step up from the sister brew, Huda, which is a water alternative for those who cannot bear the strong taste of water.
Suddenly, Tip gasped and looked pale. “What? What’s wrong?” She was looking over my shoulder and I wanted to know before I committed to looking. She tried to tell me what she saw, but she’d get two or three words into a sentence and gag: “The old lady jus—nguuekh” cough “She turned her head and –nguuekh” “On the sidewalk she—nguuekh!” Every phrase ended in a gag reflex. Finally, she just mimicked it. “She–” and she cleared her throat deeply, pretending to summon up a loogie from the lower depths, and turned and pretended to spit “–right on the sidewalk.” Next to where she was preparing the food, that is. I glanced back. “Yeah, well… it’s on the sidewalk. We’re not eating off the sidewalk. It’s OK.” We laughed at her inability to override a gag reflex.
Toward the end of the meal I turned to watch the staff work. The man and his hand signals, a young woman over the burners, customers doing a much more graceful job than mine of assembling their spring rolls. I still had a few pieces on the sidewalk around my feet. You know, for the birds. Behind me on the sidewalk squatted an old woman with a bowl of the hard little vegetable. In her hand she held a paring knife, and she appeared to be swiping it across something to sharpen, but it wasn’t a whetting stone. I squinted at the black object, slightly wet, and recognized it as her flip flop turned over. She was wiping the knife across the sole of her flip flops. For a moment the odd sight made me think she was repairing shoes, but no, she was definitely one of the food preppers. Then she leaned to lift her foot, slipped the flip flop back on, returned to the balanced squat, and kept peeling and slicing vegetables. Wait. What???
I turned back to Tip.
“I can’t tell you. I won’t.”
“You don’t want to know.” But I needed to tell someone. Why not tell the gagger? So I reported my findings. Her mouth just hung open for a while and she leaned slowly over to get a line of sight.
“Are we going to be sick?” We joked about asking our hotel for a room upgrade to something with his and her toilets. And ordered one more pancake.
**We spent three more days here, three more in Hanoi with a couple more so-bad-it’s-funny kitchen views. Never sick once. Decision still stands: eat your street food!
And if someone knows what these are, please let me know!