In Praise of Bình Dân

I’m not really sure how to translate “bình dân” into English. I’ve heard some people translate it as “popular,” but it also implies affordable for the working class. Food and drink for the common man. In my head, “bình” is part of “bình thường”; regular or normal, and “dân” literally means person or people. I like my coffee bình dân, I like my breakfast bình dân, I like my lunch bình dân and I like to drink beer in a place that can be described as bình dân. Why? No bullshit. There are no menus, no stupid ordering flow, no discretely signalling waiters if you need something. It is food and drink done right for people who don’t have time for all the other crap.

When you go to a bình dân place, you sit down at the first available seat you can find. Most bình dân places are out on the street, so if you’re lucky there will be some protection from the sun and/or rain, and maybe a fan. You want aircon? Go downtown and waste your money on a place completely overstaffed and with a badly translated English menu.

Sit down and someone will ask you what you want. If they don’t, tell someone what you want. If they’re busy, start shouting what you want until you’re acknowledged. There is no coming over to politely present a menu for you to look over and then standing idly around while you make a decision. These people are trying to make money, damnit, and the faster they can get you served, the faster another customer can take your place.

So you’ve got your food but need some chili or fish sauce? Start asking immediately. No one is there? Start shouting again. You aren’t expected to eat unless your food is exactly the way you want it. Is there a manager that needs consulted? Nope. They just get things out to you fast and with no bullshit.

Same with the bill. If you’ve had a few things to eat when you’re out for some beers with friends, you may get someone’s messy arithmetic scribbled on a scrap of paper. For breakfast, lunch and coffee though, the staff will just remember what you had, how much everything is and do the addition in their head. Usually the people telling you the bill will hold the money too, so there’s no waiting for your change either. You pay and you’re out.

This is the beauty of bình dân and why it appeals to me. There is no pretentiousness and everyone knows it. You get your beer, or your coffee or your food quick and efficiently and the business owners don’t waste money on overhead. It’s one of the greatest things about Vietnam.

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