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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Sài Gòn Xanh

Last night, after a month and a half in Saigon with no Saigon Xanh, I had a couple of bottles.  It was delicious.

To those who aren’t aware, Xanh means green, so this beer is translated into English as Green Saigon (as opposed to Red Saigon and Saigon Special).

I don’t know why, but there seems to be a trend of moving away from Saigon Xanh and all of the restaurants and drinking establishments that I’ve been to since I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City don’t serve Saigon Xanh anymore.

I had my start in Vietnam in Long Xuyên, in the Mekong Delta, and the standard beer for most places was Saigon Xanh.  Sadly, even in Long Xuyên now, the trend is catching on and some of my old haunts have stopped serving Saigon Xanh.

For me however, Saigon Xanh and drinking are synonymous: it is the beer.  It has a lower alcohol content that other beers so you can keep going longer, it comes in a bigger bottle than other beers and it’s cheaper than most other beers.  It has everything, which is why I don’t understand places that refuse to serve it.  Some of my buddies in Long Xuyên and I even changed the words of this song to: “Sài Gòn đẹp lắm, Sài Gòn Xanh, Sài Gòn Xanh!”

Last night a friend texted me and we arranged to meet up for some drinks, on the condition that they served Saigon Xanh and we were the only foreigners at the establishment.  He agreed and we went traveling into unknown territory on the border between District 5 and District 10.  We stopped by a couple places, but they didn’t serve Saigon Xanh.  Then we saw a sign down a small alley and stopped by and asked.  While we were asking I noticed an elderly man sitting alone and drinking a Saigon Xanh.  This was the place!

The bottles were served very cold and the first sip after such a long time was amazingly refreshing.  For tradition, and to fight against the onslaught of profit mongering, drink Saigon Xanh.