Well, the first trip notes on 9/24th worked pretty well, so let’s move on with the dairy. We are now in Lung Prabang, Laos, in a bamboo cabin overlooking a tributary of the Mekong River, and thinking back to Hanoi.
Still dwelling on this alternate thought process thing between eastern and western civilizations. Richard, the Brit who manages Lotus Villa has recommended a book by Richard Nesbitt titled “The Geography of Thought” that was published back in 2003. I can get it on Kindle, but Pat has limited my number of book downloads per month, so I have to wait another 8 days.
On our last day in Hanoi before departure for Luang Prabang, we were staying at a hotel nearer the airport than downtown, and so asked their advice on where to eat. They suggested a nearby buffet which we thought would be great and give us a chance to try a variety of foods. I wanted to get into the insects and beetles and other weird stuff while Pat values her protein.
The first of many word confusions. Apparently there is no difference in the Vietnamese language between buffet and banquet After much meanderings around the perimeter of West Lake, a suburb of Hanoi, we were unloaded into a Coney Island-esque Palace, with about twenty tables each able to seat between a twelve and twenty. The staff found the only small table with two chairs in the hallway and before we could sit down they had placed a full 30” round platter of (my God) sushi and sashimi, complete with every shellfish imaginable! For a year we had been reading guidebooks, all of which were adamant about travelers not eating the raw fish. (Full of parasites with associated bacillary diarrhea, amoebic dysentery, and of course Guardia) And shellfish. (Take your pick, Hepatitis A, B, or C?)
So carefully ignoring the advice we piled in and ate the entire platter. As soon as the platter was removed, servers started showing up with bowls of steamed crab, more shellfish, chicken parts, and one poor soul hauling around what looked like a thirty pound ham leg. He would plop this thing vertically, joint down on the table, and try to carve off hunks for us. We kept waving them off, but he would hide behind pillars and make a beeline for our table when we were not looking. Finally, we talked them into clearing the table so that Pat and I could attend to the real buffet which consisted of eight — 16 foot long serving tables, each staffed with a cook and serving your choice of meats or other produce prepared as regional specializations. I found enough bugs and worms to satisfy me that I was eating local, and Pat found plenty of soups, meats, and vegetable wraps to keep her more plebeian appetite satisfied. However, we had not set up a chair barrier around our table, and apparently the serving gremlins had attacked during our departure. There was so much new food on the table that we could not find space for our dish from the buffet. I think the owners of this place must have read too much Camelot in their youth and were attempting to show King Arthur how it is really done.
Then we discovered the international song. People of the various nations may not have English as a first or second language, but apparently everyone across the globe knows how to sing “Happy Birthday” in English. It turns out that we were indeed in a banquet hall, and their specialty was birthdays which are a really big deal in Vietnam.
All the tables were surrounded with hidden speakers and at the opportune moment all speakers would kick in at 200 watts with “Happy Birthday”. The table would join with gusto and then all the servers, cooks and bottle washers would rush to cluster around the table, with the elder at the head beaming delightedly. The Head Waiter would show up with a cake with one Roman-Candle sized sparkler which appeared capable of setting everyone at the table on fire. We saw their reserve of birthday cakes, all identical in size and pink in color. Once one birthday was accomplished, the servers would rush to another table across the hall for the identical celebration.
Our snack ended up as an all afternoon affair. Having blown our budget and not having near enough cash on me, I gave them a credit card. The credit card disappeared and we waited….and waited. Finally as a server passed by, I asked “where was my credit card?”
Big mistake. The server threw up has hands and rushed to the Head Waiter’s stand. We watched, as about six collected in a group talking excitedly and all waiving their hands. Finally they reached a conclusion and sent a young lady to our table as emissary. The lady asked me to follow her. She first led me to the waiter who had been serving our table and re-introduced me. Much bowing. She then led me to the Head Waiter’s stand for my introduction. Much more bowing. Then, she ushered me out of the building and down the street to a large hotel. I was introduced to the head desk clerk with associated bowing. She then took me to the third floor of the hotel and opened the door to reveal six startled accountants, and again we bowed our way through the introductions. Then we retraced our steps out of the hotel, down the block, into the restaurant and back to my table where she pointed with pride to my credit card, now returned with the invoice.
It took us a while afterward to decipher this latest bout of East versus West, but we finally determined that their interpretation of ….“Where’s my credit card” was ….“Where did my credit card go?” and therefore they dutifully showed me all the steps in my credit card’s travel to the final invoice on the table.
Next Time: Onward to Luang Prabang!