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The International Writers Magazine: Sparrow Heads and Rice

How to find a restaurant in Vietnam
John M. Edwards
In imperial Hué, Vietnam, “ethnic eats” expert John M. Edwards alights upon a café not located in the Lonely Planet guide


The boy waiter with a Mr. Spock shock of bowel-cut black hair materialized at our table. First, he asked if we were German, then flashily showed off his discolored teeth, which resembled winter corn stuffed in a scarecrow’s mouth. But when I reluctantly admitted “American,” the salamander smile slimed off his face abruptly-- closed tight. Dramatically, he announced with a piping castrato voice, “Spring roll with nuoc mam!!!”
       What’s that? I thought.
At least it wasn’t one of those evil icky snakes languishing in sideshow solutions within large jars on the bamboo bar. Or worse, roasted rat (a dish also popular in neighboring Cambodia). Who in their right minds, besides daredevils and suicides, would order such poisonous fare? A country stuck with a mean communist dictatorship and worse food than Viet Kiew imitators in American Chinatowns, Vietnam was willing to serve almost “anything” for US dollars to its new semi-free-market economic target: foreign white devils, the backpacking bourgeoise, smelling of dairy products.
       Even though they didn’t actually eat unusual delicacies, such as endangered waterbuffalo penises, themselves.
       I craned my neck to thank the server. But I was startled, like Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, by the fact that the Vietnamese waiter was a midget!

Finding a restaurant in Vietnam, a backwards country new to tourism, was a daunting task, since almost all the locals ate at the outside stands and night markets, immune to the gastrointestinal disorders which plagued tourist initiates.   At one restaurant, for example, I discovered that the place was deserted and seemed to be almost out of food, until my girlfriend finally received a plate of rice with a hot dead sparrow!
 “Do you eat the head?” she asked hopefully, upon which she received an uncertain smile and a vigorous thumbs’-up. I can’t believe she savagely gobbled up the innocent little avian tweety right in front of me, feathers and all. I decided not to kiss her for a couple of days.
       Sitting like the “Quiet American” back in the Graham Greene gloom of a circus mirage, I prepped my tastebuds for surrender. I was sitting next to a tall confident guy with curly black hair who had identified himself matter-of-factly as CIA. (Did he mean “Culinary Institute of America”?) He commented, “Man, when you think your life sucks, it could be a thousand times worse.” He took a long lingering sip of his imported Carlsberg beer. “You could have ended up a f****ing  midget!”
Uproarious laughter.
“Agent Orange must have stunted the waiter’s growth,” was his informed finding. “We should kick his candyass back to Hanoi.”
       “Careful, he might hear you,” I said sotto voce, looking around uneasily. Vietnamese spies, I imagined, were everywhere. I’d heard stories of waiters (no matter their size) “spiking” the food of travelers they didn’t like.

Even though I’d stopped taking the antimalarial Larium, which was causing me to see psychedelic sepia dragons and spaceships in the sky (resembling the Hanoi water puppet shows), I wasn’t feeling too chipper. I was subject to the occasional delusion here in the Indochinese former imperial city of Hué.
       “Mo beer?” the Lilliputian waiter, now resembling a midget Moe from “The Three Stooges,” asked again.
       “Actually, I’d like a Coke?” I responded bleakly.
       “No Cock!”
       “What what?”
       “No Cock, Fanta!”
       Eventually the dastardly dwarf brought out a phallic bottle of Fanta Orange buzzing with flies to the table along with the piece of resistance—some sort of stew resembling cannibalism, accompanied by sticky rice.

This restaurant hadn’t made the Lonely Planet guide. But it was a good place to meet other travelers. And face it: let’s be honest: we’d much rather sit around and swap tall tales with other travelers, than squander hours making spastic sign language with poor ignorant villagers just to get across what country we are from: “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon,” “Rambo.” Get the picture?
       The animated CIA agent ordered another round of Carlsberg beers for us and began humorously discursing about the midget-tossing contests they had in Great Britain.
       I swallowed my laughter and deadpanned on how that didn’t seem very humane, keeping an eye out for the rascally runt, whom we’d dubbed “Agent Orange.” The midget reappeared briefly, narrow eyes glinting like sudsy cutlery, asking, “Mo beer, mo beer???”
       “Oh,” I added quickly, “I went to the Royal Palace today.” I wanted to change the subject. “In my guidebook it says that here in Hué, the palace used to be a forbidden zone. All male intruders to the palace were castrated in the past, and only eunuchs were allowed around the emporer’s wives.”
       “Man, that sucks!” the CIA guy commiserated. “I think I’d rather be a midget than a eunuch.”
       “Me, too.”
Once again the little guy came around: “You want  Fu__?” This soup which sounded like a come-on swear word was the Indochinese pronunciation of pho, Vietnam’s signature dish, which isn’t much:  just a bowl of scalding hot water in which weird stuff (usually “meat” and noodles) is dropped. Sidedish: upon what blasted grounds of nuclear proliferation did they grow these miniature alien veggies?
       Like the protagonist of a Per Lagerkvist novel, Agent Orange walked off with an evil grimace, eyes embers.
       I imagined in the kitchen among the short-order cooks, Agent Orange (a.k.a., “Baby Hué”), the vertically challenged waiter, plotting his dark dream of revenge against the big people who had made fun of him. Carefully, he cackled with evident hilarity and surreptitiously added a secret ingredient from a phial to our pho.
       Luckily my French Colonial-style hotel room had a “bidet,” which of course no one is quite sure how to use. Except for this one time. I marveled at the baby corn and broccoli embedded in the recycled glop. The hotel manager gave me a Hefty bag for the heave.
I was flat on my back for the next three days.
I would not recommend this restaurant.
Anyway, I’ve forgotten the name and it might not be there anymore.

© John M. Edwards April 2011
New York

Basque Case : Separation Anxiety in the Pyrenees
John M. Edwards
A merry little trip to the Basque Country, an autonomous utopia containing a bit of both France and Spain is like trying to find the original site of the Garden of Eden, which Basques claim might be hidden in their unrecognized “country”: Euskadi!

Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus), with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking in Thailand to being caught in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets, Adventure Journey, InTravel, Travmonkey, Travelmag, Vagabondish, Literal Latté, He lives in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen.”
He is editor-in-chief of the upcoming Rotten Vacations.

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