Short Story #3 comes to you from Vietnam and involves two of my favourite things in the world: travel and food! While Short Story #1 had somewhat of a comical element to it, and Short Story #2 recounted my adventures as an unwitting 19-year-old, I am writing this story based on my heart warming experience of how food brings people together.
I arrived into Hanoi on a late-afternoon flight. It was the middle of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the cold had its fingernails embedded in the city and its inhabitants. Feeling a little unprepared in my thin sweater, I decided to explore the Old Quarter in search of warmer clothing and a hot meal. After picking up a counterfeit North Face jacket and a pair of gloves (yep, these were counterfeit also), I stumbled upon a busy little hole-in-the-wall that comprised of steaming pots of broth and a lady deep-frying springrolls on the sidewalk. The stars had aligned and the months of anticipating the joy of Vietnamese food had come to a head.
Hanoi at its busy best!
As I waited for a table (well, a small plastic stool pulled up to a well used piece of timber), I stood for a while and let my senses run wild. My nostrils were filled with the comforting smell of the broth while at the same time being refreshed with frequent wafts of fresh mint and coriander (cilantro). The hole-in-the-wall opened up into a cavern that was bustling with local families and the odd tourist who was also drawn to the scene. I noticed that the people running the eatery had more in common than their place of employment. The old man with the shoulder bag was obviously the head honcho, as proven by the way he barked orders at each of the women. There were two ladies giggling over the giant pots of broth as they teased the man in between spooning the warming soup into bowls. The squatting lady, who was ferociously turning out springrolls from her makeshift deep-fryer, also laughed and added her comments for good measure.
The springroll lady working at capacity.
The younger ladies were busy running around to each of the tables either clearing them or delivering Pho to the patrons. They too were not shy to give the old man their feedback on the orders he continued to growl at them. After a few minutes of watching these interactions, it became clear that this group of employees was in fact a family.
I have long-held the belief that food bring families together in that it allows them to congregate around a table and gives them an excuse to chat and share the day’s stories. However, this for me was a new realisation, in that some families base their very existence around food and sharing their culinary skills with others. As I continued my observation, it became clear that each family member had their own role. The mother and an aunt were in charge of the Pho, another aunt was producing the best springrolls I had ever eaten, the daughters were putting in the hard yards to keep the tables clear and the little old grandmother was out the back patting the cat in between pulling sprigs of herbs from larger plants (hygiene aside, this was quite nice to see).
Midway through my bowl of Pho Ga (traditional noodle soup with chicken), one of the girls running food looked up into the loft and yelled at the top of her voice. A minute or two later, another young girl, who I assumed was one of her sisters, climbed down the ladder to start her shift. I sat on my undersized stool for a little over an hour as the tables around me filled and then emptied again, all the while watching this family in action. They operated with precision and were driven through the night on laughter and jokes – everyone except the father that is. His role was simply to open beers for the male customers and collect the cash. I thought back to the family structure in the Western world and wondered if this setup would work in my family. It is hard to say but I am guessing that working and living side by side with my extended family day in, day out may have a different result. Perhaps this is due to the ever increasing reality that families in the Western world live very separate lives in comparison.
I left that little whole-in-the-wall feeling warm from my Pho and springrolls and also from watching this family and how they had been brought closer together by food. The beauty of travel is that you find yourself in new and unfamiliar circumstances. It opens your eyes to not only the world but those within it. Travel allows me to see first hand how others live their lives, and as little bits rub off on me, it in turn transform the way I live my own life and view the world.
Pho: Perfection in a bowl.
Typical food scene in Vietnam (photo credit: www.seriouseats.com)
Beer and fresh veg.
One of my true loves.