Vietnamese menus have section headings like “Eel” or “Pigeon”, and at some restaurants you feel like you could order anything that walks except human, and anything that flies except airplanes. The menus are big—really big. Some are so big that they begin with tables of contents so that diners don’t have to spend five minutes finding some obscure delicacy.
For the most part, though, the exotic delicacies are for show. Oftentimes we’ll try to order something and the waiter will come back ten minutes later and announce that they don’t have the right type of meat in stock. Sometime they run out of things as basic as beef. Duane and Adam once had to rock-paper-scissors for a hamburger because the restaurant only had enough beef for one. It makes you wonder how often restaurants actually have, say, river turtle, which many menus offer for about $30, ten times the price of a standard dish.
In the Hoan Kim Lake District, there are hundreds of sit-down restaurants and most have English translations. With hundreds of menus offering hundreds of dishes, there are bound to be some linguistic foibles. To indulge the guilty pleasure of anyone who reads this, I’m listing a few gems below…
Pigeon braised with traditional medicinal
Sour Baby Egg – Plant
Frog fried stir with sour and sweet
Apart from the questionable delicacies and occasional hilarious menu translations, Vietnamese food truly is delicious. The standard dish contains meat mixed with fried noodles. Almost all dishes have wild celery, carrots and chunks of a very mild type of onion. Another option that I often pick is a beef dish smothered in pepper sauce served beside a hot clay pot full of steamed rice. These types of dishes are safe, tasty, and like most things in Vietnam, absurdly cheap.
Many restaurants also serve great fruit juice concoctions, such as mango lassies and watermelon juice. And of course there is always a full selection of sodas and Southeast Asian beer brands. But the scotch culture is out-of-the-ordinary. Almost every menu has a list of expensive scotches, priced by the bottle. I’ve seen larger Vietnamese dinner groups go through a bottle or two. Ordering bottles of scotch seems to be customary. If the dinner celebrates an important event, such as a graduation, or the conclusion of a business deal, the host orders Chivas Regal 18 to mark the occasion. Otherwise, the dinners are content with Jameson or Red Label.
Ordering food can take a long time, although it’s almost always worth the wait. I’ve been impressed with the overall familiarity of English in Hanoi, but even at restaurants in Hoan Kim, the language barrier can be huge. Pronunciation is usually the root of the problem because the Vietnamese language is entirely unsuited to English words. One time I ordered a beef dish and the waitress asked me, “Chi-o-lye?” The poor girl had to repeat it several times before I gathered that she was asking whether I’d prefer “Chips or rice.” In other cases, the waiters know all sorts of terms for food but can’t understand sentences or complex ideas. One night we were at a nice restaurant that generates income for a local school. The waiters were very eager but any deviation from the normal serving process became a fiasco. One girl asked whether the waiter would recommend the pot-pie or the baked fish. A question like that dug us a deep linguistic hole. It was about five minutes before we made it out of that confused exchange. So the language barrier can complicate things, but I should say that I emphasize with the struggling waiters, because I’ve started taking Vietnamese and would not want to work at a restaurant in Vietnam.
Once the ordering gets taken care of, the dishes come in haphazardly. One person will get their food and have time to finish it before the last person gets theirs. A meat dish will come but the steamed rice will trail it by fifteen minutes. In the beginning, we used to sit around awkwardly waiting for everyone to get their food before starting, but by now we’ve realized that it makes sense to start when each dish arrives.
Finally, after an invariably delicious meal, it’s time to begin the paying process. Since our meals often have more than ten people this becomes a ten minute arithmetic nightmare. It doesn’t help that the 100,000 bills are the same color as the 10,000 bills. And it’s not as if one has Abraham Lincoln and the other shows Andrew Jackson—all money sports the fatherly countenance of Ho Chi Minh. Oftentimes we’ll all throw money into the pile but end up 100,000 short. After a bunch of chaotic backtracking, we’ll conclude that someone mistook a 10,000 for a 100,000, but there’s no way of knowing who it was.
So a meal in a Vietnamese restaurant can be confused and disorganized, but it never fails to be interesting and enjoyable.