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.


Two Things I’ve Never Heard Before

Over this past weekend, I was speaking to two different Vietnamese strangers, and heard two things that I’ve never heard in Vietnamese before. Both times I was surprised in a good way.

On Friday evening, Ngân and I went to eat seafood at one of our favorite sidewalk places. When we were leaving and went to get the motorbike, the parking attendant, thinking that I didn’t speak Vietnamese, said something in pidgin English like: “You! Moto?” I replied in Vietnamese, “Xe đó, số 67” (That bike, number 67, referring to the first two digits of my license plate).

The parking attendant immediately gave me a sheepish look and said, “Xin lỗi anh, em không biết anh nói tiếng Việt” (I’m sorry, I didn’t know you spoke Vietnamese). I told him it was no problem as I got my bike and then thanked him. That was the first time a Vietnamese person apologized to me for assuming that I didn’t speak Vietnamese.

Then on Sunday morning, Ngân and I went to have some brunch downtown. Again, my interaction was with a motorbike parking attendant. As I was taking the ticket to retrieve my bike, I asked the man, in Vietnamese, if I needed to pay before or afterwards. He was a little taken aback, but then asked: “Quê em ở đâu?” (Where’s your hometown?). This was another question that no Vietnamese person had asked me before. Usually, Vietnamese people see a white guy with blue eyes as ask “Anh là người nước nào?” (What country are you from?). But this parking lot attendant used a very Vietnamese phrase to ask where I was from. It was a first for me and made my day.

So after more than six years in the country, I’m still hearing new things, from motorbike parking attendants of all people.


Story Attempt Number 1

Vietnam is not a pancake-friendly society. After I moved back here, it took at least two years before I had pancakes or waffles in this country. I took Ngan with me for waffles one time, and she was not very impressed. About a year after the waffle incident, I started working for a company that owned a hotel with a breakfast buffet, and one of the perks was the free breakfast buffet every morning, if I could tear myself out of bed early enough.

I usually had the waffles, although sometimes I went for the smallish pancakes. The problem at this particular place was the syrup: It was basically non-existent. Most of the time, choosing pancakes or waffles was a gamble. My coworker Tyler and I were traumatized several times after putting pancakes or waffles on our plates only to find that the only syrupy topping was honey. We’d sit across the table making dour faces at each other and wondering who to blame for the lack of maple-flavored syrup.

On the days when maple-flavored syrup was available, it was placed in a tiny pot with only a spoon – which was smaller than a teaspoon – provided for ladling it out, and almost always placed not next to the pancakes and waffles as one would expect, but next to the pastries by clueless Vietnamese staff who either didn’t know what it was or took pleasure from seeing the frustration of Tyler and I searching for it in the morning. A tiny pot and a tiny spoon are not proper transfer vessels for an American like me, and sometimes when I’d get frustrated with the whole situation I’d just pick up the pot and dump its remaining contents on my waffles and flavorless bacon.

Most of the people staying at the hotel were Chinese, and they seemed to prefer garish things like pate and rice porridge with pickled eggs for breakfast. They would stare at me, befuddled, while I took my waffles and smothered them with butter and syrup. Occasionally I’d look around at breakfast time and see an adventurous Asian picking bravely at a pancake with chopsticks, but overall, they didn’t go over well with the Asians, adventurous or not.

One holiday weekend, my neighbor Jeff invited Ngan and I over for a Bloody Mary morning. I excitedly went out and bought bacon, instant pancake mix and 2% maple syrup with Arabic labeling at an import shop downtown. After cooking the pancakes and dousing them with generous amounts of butter and syrup, we were ready to eat. Jeff, along with another American neighbor and myself, were in heaven. Everything was delicious and we devoured the pancakes and bacon with gusto and relish and élan. Ngan and Jeff’s wife, Ca Loan, were not as impressed, but saw our excitement and at least made an attempt to play along.

Now I had a supply of syrup all to myself. I was deathly afraid that the vicious, sugar-loving ants that invaded our kitchen from time to time would find the bottle, get inside somehow and ruin it, so I kept it safely in the refrigerator.

Then the syrup condition at the breakfast buffet started getting worse. Tyler would usually arrive there before me and text me to let me know about the syrup status. For the final few days that Tyler worked across the hall from me, I just carried the bottle of syrup with me to work and wrapped it up tightly in a plastic bag so that it wouldn’t get on my laptop.

After breakfast, I’d bring the bottle to my office with me. I placed it proudly on my desk, like a trophy. “What’s that you’re drinking?” asked a kindly female coworker who shared my cubicle.

“Oh we don’t drink this,” I replied in Vietnamese. “We put it on pancakes. Do you know what a pancake is?”

Cyclo Story

Since one of my first forays to Vietnam, I have never trusted cyclo drivers.  On one of those first trips, our group leader warned us: “Be careful of cyclo drivers.  Make sure you settle on a price first and don’t let them persuade you to pay any more than that.”  First impressions are strong.  Since then, I’ve avoided using cyclos at all costs.  I’ve always opted for xe ôms (motorbike taxis) instead of cyclos, even though xe ôms can be quite cutthroat about prices themselves.

Then, a couple weeks ago, Ngân and I were a position where we needed a vehicle to transport the last large belonging of ours to the new apartment.  It was a desk, and there was no way we could get it on the Honda Wave.  We also needed someone to help us get it down two floors in the old house.

I immediately headed for a place where I’d seen not cyclos, but xe ba gács (motorized cyclos) parked at all hours.

They were interested in making money, but not particularly helpful.  “150,000,” one of them said when Ngân described our situation.  “Or 100,000 if we don’t help you move anything.”  For such a short distance, we couldn’t say yes to a price like that, and headed to our old house with the intention of asking the landlord if she knew any way to transport my desk at a reasonable price.

As it would happen, Ngân spotted a cyclo pedaling along the street in the midst of our short ride.

We pulled alongside and she quickly outlined our situation and what we needed to move.  “30,000,” he told us.  His skin was weathered and he was wearing old clothes and the basic plastic sandals typical of many in his trade.  “We’ll pay you 50,000 if you help us move the desk out,” Ngân told him.  I drove slowly back to our old house and he followed me, puffing on his Hero cigarette.

Once he was off the cyclo, I realized that he was slightly disabled.  It seemed like one of his legs was shorter than the other, and he moved with a limp.  However, he was true to his word and helped me move the desk down two floors of stairs.  In addition to the desk, we had some other odds and ends still in the old house, and when the cyclo driver saw this, he told us to bring everything down and he’d pile it on his vehicle and take it along with him.

He tied everything on his cyclo with rope and straps that he procured from under the seat.  All the while he spoke to me and Ngân in Vietnamese and never even seemed to acknowledge that I was a big foreigner with blue eyes and curly hair.  When everything was secure, he started pedaling to our new house.  Ngân told him where it was and he knew the way.

He arrived at our building only a few minutes after we did on the motorbike.  I helped him unload his cyclo while Ngân held the elevator for us.  I was so impressed with his work ethic, honestly and polite demeanor that I gave him 70,000 for his hard work.  Still peanuts relatively speaking, but much more than he asked for.

After we’d said our thanks to each other and he was climbing back on his cyclo, he looked at me and said: “You speak Vietnamese really well.”

“Thanks uncle,” I said.

Tiếng Nam

I’ve lived in this city for about two months now and one thing that I’ve been noticing lately is the mixture of Vietnamese accents from around the country that mingle together here.  For example, my friend’s girlfriend is from the south-central region, and I work with a girl who has traces of a northern accent.  Once when I was in a talkative mood I started talking to a cab driver only to realize that he had a thick northern accent.

These varied accents sound slightly strange to me.  I consider myself a southern boy and am proud of my southern drawl in Vietnamese; blending vowel sounds and no hard consonant sounds at all.  With the extreme central accents, the tones are all off and sound weird to me.  With extreme northern accents, people sound like they’re choking to death.

One day when I was very motivated, I drafted a pronunciation guide for Southern Vietnamese because you can’t find it in any book and I wanted people to know that southern Vietnamese is different from what you learn when you study Vietnamese in another country.  The slightly crazy thing is that even some people down in the southern Mekong Delta region will say that their Vietnamese is “wrong” because it doesn’t sound like the people choking to death.  How can it be “wrong” if millions of people speak the same way and have been for years?

At my favorite hangouts in Long Xuyen, the Vietnamese flows like a lullaby – the tones roll up and down like waves and there’s not a harsh sound to be heard.

There are still plenty of situations when I converse with southern-accented folks, but down in the Delta that melodious accent is thick and ever present – it envelops you and seeps into your bones.

Yesterday was my weekly trip to the supermarket to buy my food for the week. However, this short outing was different than all the other times I’ve been to the supermarket since I’ve been back in the Mount Vernon area. If anyone who is reading this is familiar with the Mount Vernon/Knox County area, they’ll know that minorities are a rare sight around here. But as I was walking through the supermarket, I saw a woman that I know was from Southeast Asia. I didn’t want to stare because that’s not polite in this culture, but I was almost positive she was Vietnamese. She had that slight build and the light brown skin and the thick black hair that I’d been around for years. I wanted to walk right up to her and her family and ask, “Are you Vietnamese?” I wanted to walk by her and pretend to talk to someone on the phone in Vietnamese and have her recognize the rising and falling loops of that glorious tonal language. She was hovering around the small Asian foods section of the supermarket, probably wondering why we have an entire aisle dedicated to chips while only a small section of the place contained a small number of the glorious flavors of that area of the world.

I didn’t have the guts to walk up and talk to her. But when I got out into the parking lot and also on the ride home, I felt like I’d just seen an old, true love of mine; like I’d just encountered an old lover that I still harbored a smoldering passion for, and my stomach was in knots. Yet there was no physical attraction at all. She, this mythical woman in the supermarket, represented an entire country for me… What do these strange feelings say about me? That I’m dying to speak Vietnamese; I’m dying to be with Vietnamese people again.

My Vietnamese languages skills are withering, and it took me about 15 minutes or more to remember the word for “peanuts” on the ride home.

At least a month or so ago, I was sitting around in a local government office, waiting for a meeting to begin, when my phone started vibrating. I ran out into the lobby to answer it, and it was a call from a quán nhậu (there’s no good English word) in Long Xuyên. The owner of the establishment is a friend of mine, and he was on the phone and I was pacing around the lobby of this particular government building and shouting Vietnamese while people walked around me. One of the things he told me was: The City of Long Xuyên misses you.

More recently, just the other day, I happened to be chatting with a student of mine from Long Xuyên. I mentioned how quickly I was forgetting Vietnamese, and so she started chatting in Vietnamese and I rustily started typing my replies. She asked me to tell her about America. I said something like: The weather is cold and the people are boring. She then asked why the people were boring. Because they have no hope, I said.

It was the best way I could put my thoughts into a language that I’ve barely used in five months.