It happened in sixth grade. I looked down at my partitioned plate of food, and without righteousness or visions of activism, I stopped eating meat. When asked to justify my decision by boys waving sliced lunch meat in my face at the school cafeteria, I answered without bother, “I just don’t like the taste.” James has been a vegetarian his entire life, and no doubt had to endure the same scene. But in Vietnam, we had agreed to try everything.
We usually ate breakfast at the hotel, finding comfort in the familiarity of yogurt and cereal, fried eggs and fruit. James and I would use this time to plan our day. We would make fun of the terrible movies on the tv. Obscure movies like City of Ember starring Bill Murray and Tim Robbins. Dated movies like Teen Wolf and Con Air. We would spend a few minutes checking various email accounts while sipping on a cup of tea. In a city where we were so out of place, this was our morning ritual.
While we were chatting and typing, the Vietnamese were taking their breakfast seriously. One day, we decided to join them. Early in the morning at Pho Bo Gia Truyen, a crowd of people extended from the glass encased serving station flanked by steaming bucket-sized pots and became entangled with a narrow row of motorbikes. The line gave us time to understand the ordering process. From my point of view, there were two options: raw meat or sliced beef tendon. We simply pointed, indicated two servings by extending our peace fingers, and received floral print bowls full of pho. Hot broth spilled onto my thumb as I settled onto an unstable plastic stool at a short wooden table. It only took seconds for a red blister to appear.
The broth was murky, cooked for hours with marrow-rich beef bones. Rice noodles supported a layer of chewy beef tendon, my first meat in years. Green onions and herbs added a crunchy texture and freshness. Condiments included fish sauce, chillies and garlic, and a red paste. After four bites, I was full.
Surrounded by the never ending buzz of Hanoi, we found ourselves sitting among a group of people giving full attention to their meal. Through the steady slurping of noodles, all was quiet. No mindless banter, no reading of newspapers, no text messaging or email checking. All paused long enough to enjoy the comfort of breakfast.
Our experience with bun cha was similar. Plastic stools, low tables, slurping noodles. The bun cha broth was clear and sweet. Pieces of caramelized pork grilled over an open flame left specks of charcoal in our bowls. The meal came out in three pieces. A bowl of broth and pork, a huge plate of bean shoots and herbs, and a pile of rice noodles. Assembly required. With increasing chopstick skills, I lifted the noodles into my bowl and topped it off with greens. Any remaining broth got soaked up by crispy deep fried spring rolls.
The food in Hanoi was fresh. Maybe not free range, but definitely local. Chickens were picked from cages and butchered and feathered on the street. On my way to the train station, I walked by a live duck with it’s body wrapped in a dirty plastic bag. To my human eyes, the duck appeared tranquil, resigned to the inevitability of dinner. On my way back, it’s throat had been slit, and a dark stream of blood stained her white neck before leaking into a blue bucket.
We drank mostly Vietnamese drip coffee and beer. Brewed with hot water dripping slowly through pin-sized holes, the coffee was served black with a side of sweet condensed milk. On days when it was so hot that we had to change our clothes more than twice, we drank it iced. The beer was not so good. Brewed daily and with a very short fermenting time, bia hoi was cheaper than water and not much more flavorful.
More important than the flavor of the beer was the bia hoi culture. Bia hoi joints were on every corner and midway through every block. During the day, men came to these places for quiet relaxation with a cigarette. At night larger groups came together to drink and toast while snacking on fried chicken feet and salted peanuts. This was a male ritual. And proudly Vietnamese. We weren’t asked to leave, but we also didn’t feel entirely welcome. Until we met a group of teenage boys one afternoon working at the dirtiest bia hoi place we visited. With the help of their limited English, a pen, and a few napkins, we were able to have a conversation.
“Are you…I love you?” the boy pointed to us and then pointed to his ring finger. “Ah, yes, we’re married,” said James and continued on to ask the boy if he had a girlfriend. His face turned red and his eyes glanced downward in embarrassment as he answered, “Yeah, some.” “Wait, you have some girlfriends?” I don’t think that he meant he was seeing multiple women, but for some reason, each time we asked a young adult male if he had a girlfriend, he would respond with the same embarrassment. After explaining that no, we did not have any babies, drawing a picture of us with two cats, and a successful beat boxing demo by James, the most talkative of the boys decided that they had enough trying to communicate. It was time to arm wrestle. The match was even.
Sometime later we learned how they washed the chipped beer cups. The method included five baskets layered with about 100 dirty glasses and a hose. Sanitary standards for street food weren’t much better. Open grills passed by curious dogs, plates of food prepared on the sidewalk and left waiting for customers. Our time in Hanoi ended with upset stomachs and extra-strength imodium. And I stopped eating meat.