Thursday, March 7, 2013


'Pho', a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup. But what kind of meat is within?
As the sky darkens in Vietnam’s highlands, dinner time beckons. With few choices for varied cuisine in Pleiku, I head into a local restaurant. As I’m walking in, I immediately notice that everyone is staring at me. The wait staff and patrons have stopped whatever they were doing, and just gaze at me in wide eyed amazement. It’s as if I’m a rock star, a celebrity. The staring continues as I take a table.

Perhaps celebrity is the wrong analogy here. Maybe I’m more of an oddity, an object of curiosity in these parts. They don’t get many outsiders here, especially a white westerner. I’m discovering that for most Vietnamese, there is nothing rude about staring at strangers. Westerners will look away in embarrassment when you stare back at them, but not here. When I match their gaze, many of the Vietnamese just keep right on staring at me, as though I’m some kind of circus sideshow freak. Oh well, on to dinner.

With my stomach about to growl, I look at the menu, and find it's only in Vietnamese text. So I do what foreign travelers often do in this situation. When the waitress arrives, I simply point to a dish that looks good at the next table. I've opted for a bowl of pho, a popular Vietnamese noodle soup. It comes with raw greens that you mix into the soup yourself. Also mixed in are spices, soy,  and chunks of what looks like beef.

Uh oh.

At least, I think it’s beef. I hope it’s beef. But is it really beef?? You can’t be sure out here in the highlands. I recall a conversation I had about food with other Vietnamese. I asked: “What food do you hate?” Rather than expressing dislike for broccoli or beets, their responses were unexpected.

“I hate snake,” one woman said.

“I hate dog,” said another. Eeesh I'd heard that some Vietnamese eat dog, but I couldn't imagine eating it voluntarily. My only hate at the moment, is not knowing what kind of meat this is.

Later, I hop onto a crowded Pleiku mini-bus, and I’m surprised when an older local woman seated near me starts speaking to me in English.

“I worked for ‘MACV’,” she tells me, “I cook. I work for American G.I. for seven years.” MACV was an acronym I wasn’t expecting to hear in the Highlands. It stood for ‘Military Assistance Command Vietnam’, and this woman worked on one of the US bases here in Pleiku.

“I worked for American, then VC come,” she continues. With the arrival of the communists in Pleiku, this lady cook was out of a job. But she still had plenty to keep her busy, since she had nine children.

I asked if she’s from one of the minority groups that live here in the Highlands, and she looks surprised. “I’m Vietnamese!” she says incredulously.

With her years of experience cooking for GI’s, she knows how to cook American food well. My mouth waters as she tells me, “I cook potatoes, dumpling, American eggs.” She’s retired now, but I wish she owned a restaurant in Pleiku. Vietnamese cuisine is tasty, healthy and cheap, but I haven’t had western food in a long time. I would have preferred her cooking, than that mystery meat that I had eaten earlier.

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