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.


Traffic Safety Month

September is traffic safety month in Vietnam. What this means is that a large number of banners are placed around town with wording describing the amount of fines motorists can expect to receive if running red lights. It also means that more traffic police than average are seen on the streets.

This morning, which is a Saturday, Ngân and I woke up early and went to have breakfast at one of our favorite spots, the Trung Nguyên Cafe on the corner of the busy intersection of Trần Hưng Đạo and Nguyễn Văn Cừ. A pair of traffic police were posted at the intersection, and we sat on the second floor of the coffee shop, pretty much directly above them.

At one point, one of the pair blew his whistle and pointed at a car that was coming from District 4 and turning right onto Trần Hưng Đạo. I didn’t see any obvious infraction of traffic laws. Since we were sitting right above the traffic cops, we were wondering if there was going to be any exchange of money.

Initially, we didn’t see any. The man who had been driving went for his wallet at one point but then put it back. He then gave the police his passport. They gave him back his passport and then pointed at his car. As he was walking back to his car, his hand went for his wallet again. After sitting in his car for a couple seconds, he came back to the police and handed over his passport again. One of the police took his passport and held the passport inside one of the boxes mounted on the side of his motorbike. While he had his hand with the passport inside the box, there were about three motorbikes nearby waiting for the traffic light to change before they started moving. The cop with his hand in the box waved them on while keeping his other hand in the box. After the motorbikes had moved on, he then gave the passport back to the man.

One of the officers then took a pen and pretended to write a traffic citation, but wrote nothing and didn’t give the man any receipt or record of citation. After the man was on his way, the two policemen started packing up and preparing to move on. One thing that one of them did was look around carefully before reaching into the same box on the side of the motorbike and take something out, all the while carefully concealing it.

So, was money exchanged? Did the man who was pulled over pay off the cops? I didn’t see any money, but it’s not hard to guess what happened. Enjoy traffic safety month everyone. Remember, the traffic police are there to protect us and keep order.


It’s hot today. I went home at about 11 a.m. and after just changing into comfortable clothes I had beads of sweat on my forehead. I took a restless nap and afterward went for coffee with a couple friends. The heat at the cafe was insane. There was an awning shading the table where we were, and a wall fan providing a little air, and occasionally a breeze would rise and cool us, but even when I leaned back in my chair it was uncomfortable to have my back touch the plastic, simply because the chair was radiating heat. The fabric of my shirt felt hot too. Even though the coffee was cool and refreshing, the way my body felt did not make it a comfortable time. I seem to remember that the heat always gets bad after Tet until the rain comes.

A couple of weeks ago I copied an idea from Tyler and formed “Coffee Discussion Groups” in my listening and speaking class. This means that a group of six or seven students chooses a topic and a cafe, and I go out with them and they can practice English in a more informal setting than the classroom for an hour or so (they also like the fact that I pay for the coffee). I went out this evening with a group and the topic was childhood. I got to hear some good stories from them and told a few of my own.

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Tuyet, Tu, and Tien; three of my second-year students.