Thursday, July 06, 2006

A little less conversation (it's ok by me!)

Gruff service, as long as it’s also quick service, has its advantages and rather suits popular Hanoi lunch spots, at least so says
Teddy de Burca Jnr.


Recently I read in a local paper that service in some typical Hanoi restaurants was more “hostile than hospitable”. The reporter went onto question the etiquette and manners of Vietnamese restaurateurs in this day and age.

As interesting as it is to see this debate arise in the Vietnamese media, as a foreigner I sort of see this gruff service, at pho stalls and so on, as part and parcel of the Vietnamese lunchtime rush, and even inevitable, considering the amount of people being served in such a short space of time.

There’s always a kind of exhilarating yet manic air pre-lunchtime in Hanoi. As if, at a quarter to 12, you can here the collective smack of realisation by several million people saying all at once, “feed me!”

Clearly, no one wants to muck around. Men roll their sleeves up, women roll them down and everyone jumps onto their motorbikes and hurtles off, driving as if hunger might just kill them, rather than say, an accident (as if!).

If you’re heading for a popular restaurant, like “the” bun cha place on Hang Manh, for example, you’d do well to get a seat between the hours of 12 and one. By noon the bao ve (parking staff) are in full modus operandi, as in on their feet for a change; they tell you where you should park your bike, but as everyone scrambles for the last plastic stool I highly recommend the “pretend you don’t hear them” tactic and leave it on the street.

Who cares that they might mutter expletives in your honour behind your back, you get the last seat, and find yourself snugly sandwiched in between fellow punters, listening to the sounds of happy munching.

There’s no menu in these places. For bun cha you generally have to order a small or large bowl and specify how many spring rolls you want. Newcomers (as in naïve tourists) don’t get to choose. The servers just slap down a large platter of spring rolls, for which of course the newcomer will pay whether they eat them or not.

In Com Binh Dan I like the point-and-run ordering system. Inside the door you wag your index finger at your preferred meat, fish and veg, tell them if you want soup or not and then try and find a table. The food will then find you.

With such dubiously young staff in such establishments, even if they had time to chat with you, mightn’t you struggle to find something in common? (If you feel like trying though, I recommend, “Where’d you buy your dep (plastic sandals)?” for an opening gambit.)

In Vietnamese places there’s no after dinner mint, no espresso, no desserts; when replete, people just up and leave, often still chewing the last morsel, picking their teeth or lighting a cigarette, and paying as they leave. As soon as the seats are empty, people fill them again. Ship them in, ship them out.

Now the aforementioned article said Vietnamese people were being directly abused and that restaurateurs even felt that customers expected this (reminds me of those deliberately abusive restaurants in America) which is unfortunate but as a foreigner you will either be blithely unawares to any such flak or else, if you speak any of the local lingo, probably be treated quite well, at least in my experience.

One doesn’t always have time for leisurely lunches, and you certainly don’t need silver service to enjoy a good meal in this fair country. Vietnamese food is the ultimate fastfood: Pho, banh cuon, bun bo, bun cha, com – all of these dishes are near instant, healthy, and damn tasty. You then have time to enjoy the rest of your lunch hour(s) at your own pace. Why you even have time for a snooze if you want.

On the other side of the universe, I mean city, western restaurants, where coffee is never complimentary but a chat with the manager is, it’s quite the opposite. But I don’t need the banter, the business cards or the buttering up. With the greatest respect in the world, I need a menu and a waiter with paper and pen or a good memory.

Yes, I like service prompt, discrete and if that means it also being gruff, then two (good things) out of three ain’t bad. Don’t you think that when Elvis Presley sang, “Don’t procrastinate, don’t articulate, Girl, it’s getting late, getting’ upset waitin’ around” in A little less Conversation what he was really trying to say was, “listen, honey bunny, where the hell’s my cheeseburger?”

1 comment:

linhtinh74 said...

Conla oi,

Who is Teddy de Burca Jnr. ?