My Dinner with a Madman

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Travel story: my dinner with a Madman in Vietnam

I had just arrived in Vinh and hadn’t eaten all day. Nine hot, ragged hours on the bike had left me tired and irritable, so I thought I’d just grab a quick bite at a sidewalk cafe, then return to the hotel. As usual, things didn’t quite work out as planned.

Vinh is a fairly large city –a quarter of a million people call it home– but it’s seriously lacking in anything one might call charm. Endless blocks of square, nondescript buildings sprawl in every direction and the streets are thick with noisy traffic. I was only here for the night, so I just walked a couple of blocks from my hotel and stopped at the first cafe that caught my eye, taking a seat at one of the tiny plastic tables on the sidewalk.

The manager, a young Vietnamese man with a sharp haircut, looked panicked for a second as I sat down, but the waitress handed him a laminated menu which he passed to me, averting the impending language crisis. All of the text was in Vietnamese, but there were several handy color photographs down the left side. He pointed to the photos and left me to decide. One of the dishes featured what appeared to be grilled beef, vegetables, and fresh herbs with rice — it looked like a solid choice to me.

Before I could order, an older man approached and started talking excitedly. He shook my hand vigorously and grabbed the menu, pointing at the first selection — something called tiet canh. He was insistent that this was what I wanted and gave it several thumbs up. There was no accompanying photo and I noticed it was the cheapest thing on the menu. That’s probably a bad thing.

Maybe it was one of those incredibly tasty, unknown dishes that Bourdain is always stumbling into…

But, hey, I had a recommendation from a local and maybe it was some delicacy, one of those incredibly tasty, unknown dishes that Bourdain is always stumbling into. I turned to the manager and pointed out my selection, noticing that he was glaring at my new friend. The waitress inside was giving him a hard look, too — I got the feeling that they knew him. That’s probably a bad thing, too.

He sat down at my table and gave me a wide smile, presenting the ugliest set of teeth I’d ever seen. It looked like he was chewing a Pollock painting, done in brown and black and yellow. I was feeling less and less hungry by the second and considered canceling the order, but the manager had disappeared into the kitchen.

My new dinner companion, Hien, was dressed in what we in the West would call “business casual” and was wearing a photo badge from a local bank. He proceeded to launch into a vigorous discussion of, well… something, despite my mimed explanation that I couldn’t understand him. He kept pointing to the menu and giving the tiet canh a thumbs-up, then would flex his muscles to indicate that it was good for me. Good for me? That’s definitely a bad thing.

Hien got up and walked into the kitchen, returning with a glass of water and a bottle of rice wine. As he was helping himself to glassware behind the counter, the waitress delivered my meal — two large crackers, a plate of herbs, and a bowl of some dark red concoction with peanuts floating on the surface. When I say “dark red”, I mean really dark — like blood red.

A deeper probe with the spoon pulled a gooey, gelatinous mass to the surface — blood pudding. This wasn’t a meal, it was a dare.

A tentative poke with a spoon found bits of what I assumed was liver (it was), intestines (still not sure), and gristle (cartilage, actually!) floating in a blood broth. A deeper probe with the spoon pulled a gooey, gelatinous mass to the surface — blood pudding, most likely made from duck’s blood. This wasn’t a meal, it was a dare.

Still rattling on about one thing or another, Hien proceeded to micromanage my eating experience, breaking off a piece of cracker, then handing me a bit of herb to dip in the bowl. He’d insist I take a drink of water, then hand me a napkin to wipe the sweat from my neck. I tried to be polite –worried more about offending the people at the cafe than my obviously-insane dinner partner– so I’d take a piece of cracker and dip it in the dish, then chase it down quickly with a stiff shot of rice wine.

Thankfully, it didn’t have a strong flavor but the combined textures of smooth blood pudding and crunchy cartilage was almost more than I could gag down. Hien kept ranting in dramatic fashion, gesticulating wildly with his arms and jutting his chin out as he flashed that nightmare smile. A table of young women sat just inside the cafe and would poke a head out from time to time and giggle madly at my predicament.

I tried several times to get Hien to have some tiet canh but he refused. He had no qualms, however, about helping me out with the rice wine. The waitress, who was very cute and spoke a fair amount of English, sat beside me and tried to join in the conversation. Hien launched into another energetic tirade that lasted a full minute — equal parts shouting, pointing, and head-rolling, followed by a long coughing fit. I turned to her for a translation after he finished and she said, simply “He say it’s hot”.

“Seriously?” I replied. “All of that for ‘it’s hot’?” She widened her eyes at me, as if to say “Yeah, in case you haven’t noticed: he’s insane.” He started up again, and apparently said something rude to the waitress, as she got up and left in a huff. Thanks, dude.

The rice wine was finished and I could take no more of the blood pudding. I waved my hand over the bowl, saying “Finished… finished. Too full…” After trying a few more times to force more on me, Hien agreed to have some. Grabbing a huge spoon, he shoveled several thick spoonfuls into his mouth and smiled wide, blood running down his chin and dripping onto his shirt. It’s an image that will follow me to my grave.

He polished off about half of the bowl, then pointed down the street, saying “cafe! bia!” and making a drinking motion with his hand. When I said no and motioned that I was going to sleep, he stood up and walked away without a word.

The night wasn’t a total loss, however, as a table of four middle-aged men invited me to join them as I went to leave. We had several bottles of rice wine and spent an hour somehow communicating without a word of common language, all howling in drunken laughter by the end. When they had to leave, another table of younger guys invited me to join them, but I was exhausted, drunk, and starving. Lacking the heart for another round of “Pass the Foreigner”, I begged off and staggered to the hotel to sleep.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Tavia July 11, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Yea…uh…this is where im beginning to think, Its only you that falls into these traps. Tho i have to follow this by saying I AM SOOO GLAD IT IS YOU! ha! Sorry, truelly i am. But really i love reading of your passing days adventures. Thanks for sharing. Stay safe dear cousin.

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Nick Laborde July 11, 2010 at 10:33 pm

The local crazy guy, every town seems to have one. “I got the feeling that they knew him” , yeah that’s a good sign that things will get interesting. They’ve probably seen the same situation play out several times.

At least you had the rice wine to wash it down…
.-= Nick Laborde´s last blog ..The Introvert Challenge =-.

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Natalka July 12, 2010 at 1:23 am

I think you really should start saying a firm “thank you NO” to the locals. I know it’s tough, you might offend them for about a second until the next foreigner walks by. But if you did that suppose we wouldn’t have these stories to read.

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wes July 12, 2010 at 9:07 am

Yeah, I’d miss out on too much fun ;) I do draw the line at going anywhere with someone. But if somebody wants to sit down and talk, I’m game.

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Andi July 12, 2010 at 4:59 am

OMG, totally sounds like a madman, but what an interesting experience! Wish you had gotten a pic of him. Hope you didn’t get sick from the meal?
.-= Andi´s last blog ..India- Day 6 =-.

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Liz July 12, 2010 at 1:11 pm

What an interesting experience! What the heck! Not to be missed for all the tea in China! Just think, you could have been sitting at a 5 star hotel, and it would have been totally uneventful and you wouldn’t have the story/images that will live with you for the rest of your life!

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wes July 12, 2010 at 2:09 pm

I totally agree :)

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pirate63 July 12, 2010 at 1:49 pm

these are the things from your trip that you will cherish in years to come,soak it up Wes,awesome blog,i said after our 3rd trip there we woud’nt go back but after following your adventures we will probaly will!

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wes July 12, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Thanks, man! It the crazy little moments like that that really make it interesting to me.

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Maria Staal July 12, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Great story. Your meal sounds like a Klingon dish. I don’t think I would have dared to try it (I ‘m a veggie in any case, but even so…).
.-= Maria Staal´s last blog ..Short Quest Break =-.

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Bruno July 12, 2010 at 11:44 pm

Great article. Personally, I don’t think I would have gotten as far as actually eating the blood soup!

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ayngelina July 13, 2010 at 4:33 am

It looked like he was chewing a Pollock painting….
Best.Line.Ever.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..How I spent my 33rd birthday part 1 of 2 =-.

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wes July 13, 2010 at 9:33 am

Heh, thanks. I was pretty pleased with that one myself ;)

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Caz Makepeace July 13, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Hilarious! I don’t think I would have put that soup anywhere near my mouth, the rice wine, however, I am with you on that. I love how Vietnamese men always want you to drink rice wine with them in their cafes. Dangerous stuff!
.-= Caz Makepeace´s last blog ..Comment on The Irony- the Dilemma- and the Betrayal by Kelly =-.

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wes July 14, 2010 at 6:03 am

Agreed — that rice wine is dynamite!

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Jayne February 9, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Great tale, disgusting experience. My face hurts from grimacing! Great post Johnny :)

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wes February 10, 2011 at 10:44 am

Ha! Thanks. I wish I had a photo of that guy. Or the blood pudding. Bleh!

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