Tonight was one of the rare occasions in the past three weeks that I’ve gotten a night off. Assignments and lesson plans? Done until tomorrow. So I head out to run some errands at HCMC’s famous Ben Thanh Market, a large local market also popular with tourists, about a 5-10 minute walk from my hotel.
It had been raining lightly when I left the center, but it started to really come down as I got halfway there. I decided to take refuge in a local pho shop for dinner and wait out the worst of the rain. Bad choice. Food? Pretty good. Weather? At the trailing end of the monsoon season, it was out with vengeance.
I discovered that my less-than-elementary Vietnamese still doesn’t help me order food. After scanning the stall for what they had cooking (often, all you have to do is point at what you want), and discovering no con cua (crab), I decide to just get pho veg, sans meat.”Toi an cheh,” I tell the woman. And after much miming eliciting many smirks by onlooking locals, we delight in our common understanding–I don’t want beef! Just veggies!
I further incite giggles from the staff as I pull out my pocket guidebook to order a hot tea. Fail on my part. It’s customary to bring iced tea in Vietnam with most orders, even if you’re just ordering a coffee, and instead of the steaming cup I anticipate, I get a glass of iced tea. Not a big deal, but a slight bruise to my ego and efforts to use the local language.
I love Vietnamese food, because it’s just an interactive, tactile experience. Many dishes come with a plate of lettuce greens to wrap your food in like a lettuce taco. When you order pho, a plate, including bean sprouts, a kind of Vietnamese basil, local lettuces and other assorted greens, accompanies your bowl. Add what spices suit your taste, and you’ve gotten to further customize your already delicious bowl of soup. Grab a pair of chopsticks from the holder on the side of the table, and clean with the limes provided. Use the chopsticks to slurp your noodles (the flat, white rice noodles are my favorite), and use a spoon to enjoy the steaming broth.
It’s after my meal I discover I’m stranded. The rain had caused the water level in the street to rise to the height of the sidewalk, making a walk home a rather involved endeavor. I call one of my friends from the center who has a motorbike to see if he wants to rescue me. Thankfully, he knows Vietnamese, and he gets us a pot of hot tea while we wait for the water to subside.
Before we drive off on his motorbike, we talk about my attempt at ordering. He corrects my Vietnamese, “It’s pronounced ‘Doi on chai.’” Thanks a lot Lonely Planet pocket phrase book.
Hey, I probably still have it wrong, but I’ll never know if I don’t try. One day at a time. At least I was able to make it home in between downpours with a nice hot bowl of pho to keep me warm.