What Did You Say?

Jake is redefining the meaning of window shopping. We’re sitting in the window of a hotel lobby (not even our own hotel, which is an explanation all itself) and I’m not paying attention to him. But, I notice he’s making motions, so I look up and what do I find? A little Vietnamese woman out on the street, carrying a board of bric-a-brac (nail clippers, fans, bookmarks, bracelets, lighters, sunglasses, and so much more. Essentially, a walking convenience store.) And Jake, motioning to her from the window. She’d hold up one thing and he’d shake his head. He’d point at another thing and she’d hold that up. Nope, not that one. After about 5 minutes of this back and forth, Jake decides on a map (which he has somehow already bargained and agreed upon a price for) and leaves the lobby to go settle up with her outside. Ridiculous.

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We’re doing clinics at “stations” right now which means we’re traveling around Vietnam with a bunch of med students and government officials to government clinics and doing some outreach. They’re very good with us, keeping up with who we are and how we’re doing. This guy is even so nice as to carry my passport picture around just in case he needs to remember my name.

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That’s me.

So, after our first clinic station, they informed us that we had been invited to lunch. Where at? We didn’t know. But, our bus dropped us off at the entrance of a gate and we walked in. To this.

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I’ve seen some full tables before but nothing quite like this. We were seated with some of the Vietnamese medical students and were joking about having to put bowl on our heads because there was no more room.

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Hospitality is great but also kind of terrifying. Because you don’t know what you’re going to be served. You just know you’ll have to eat it. And when I sat down, I knew it was going to be one for the story books.  I also happened to be seated right next to the main “translator”, who is in charge of our group (she requested the seat next to me), so I knew I was in for it.

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Stuffed bitter melon, which I had decided not to try

We started with a table full and you automatically start looking around and wrapping your mind around what you’re going to have to try. You mentally prepare for battle. And you bravely dive in. But, then the war changes. The battle you were fighting is over and you think: I’ve made it. Then, bowls are changed out and people scurry around and all the sudden, a new fight begins.  This was a tough one, guys. Mostly, I had no idea what it was. My original plan was to stick with the fruit and some corn and see if I could make it. But, two seconds later, a lettuce wrap was being made and handed to me with whole shrimp in it (legs, head, shell, everything) dipped in fish sauce and ready to be eaten. And, when you’re handed something, there’s no escape.

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My “translator” feeding me the bitter melon five seconds later…

(PSA: If you haven’t ever traveled to third world countries, greens are one thing they advise not to eat because of the water they’ve been washed in)

I should also tell you that halfway through this meal, one of the Vietnamese students leaned over to Jake and said: “you’ll need to take a pill after this meal.” I had already guessed that, but I’m glad she felt the need to go ahead and tell us.  I’m not sure if Jake will need the pill though because at the beginning of the meal, the man of the house came around insisting that the men at the table take a shot of “banana wine”.

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Jake happened to be the first one he approached and after some insisting, he took it. So, he got a dose of medicine early.  Halfway through the meal, I began to question where we were at? It seemed to be a home, but more like a mansion. It had a waterway in the middle with rooms and stairs going off in different directions. I was informed by our “translator” that we had been invited to the home of the former Vice President of Vietnam. So, this was a big deal. Who knew?

Our lettuce wraps and fruit and corn and other various concoctions were only the appetizers. The meat dishes came out later, along with this soup, which they called “black chicken soup”.

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I asked what the meat dish was and she said “duck”. Okay, I can do duck. I took some, put it on my rice and ate it. It was good, a little different than the other duck I’ve had. It was darker and chewier and had a lot of cartilage. But, it was fine.


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My duck and rice and what I think may have been a potato.

After lunch, they took us on a tour of the gardens, as most of the fresh things we had eaten were from the garden. And, they were kind enough to give us sun hats to wear.

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My “translator” friend gave me and one of our other guys a little bit of a private tour, explaining what the different plants were and how they were prepared. We went by a cage with a dog and some chickens in it and the guy with me commented that it was surprising to see a dog so well behaved in a cage alongside chickens and how we wouldn’t see that on our farms in America.

We were asking her about the things we saw and as we were going along, the guy said, ask her what these greens are?  I recognized them from our table and so I called her back to have her tell us the name, but she didn’t know. The gardener happened to be nearby, so she called him over to ask and he spoke to her in Vietnamese. She said, this is the plant that you eat with the “duck”. I said, oh, yes, duck, because we had it at lunch. And the gardener said, “no, no, no, not duck! Dog, woof woof!” Only then did it dawn on me why the dog was in the cage with the chickens. And why that meat at lunch had been so dark and chewy.

Where’s that pill they were talking about? I think I might be needing it.

{post blog update: no one in our group got at all sick from that meal, in case anyone was wondering}


2 thoughts on “What Did You Say?

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