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Vietnam journal: Which came first? Chicken or egg?

Thursday, January 25, 2018, 10:22 GMT+7

This theme began innocently enough in Da Nang, where I came across a great shop that serves bún thịt nướng (barbecued pork pieces, sausage wrapped in betel leaves, and ground chicken on a skewer, together with the customary mountain of various greens, rice noodles, and a chili-laced peanut sauce) and took the habit of calling in each week or so.

The single width standard-sized shop features those low-slung tables and teeny-weeny stools that all of us somewhat taller folks in Vietnam absolutely adore on the left side. It’s like a limbo dance to get low enough to sit on the stools without ending up sprawling on the floor, but once you’re seated it’s all good from there.

A serving stand spans the left half of the front entrance with mom and her nón lá (traditional cone-shaped hat) running the grilling operation on the sidewalk. 

The right side of the shop is actually a motorbike service and repair operation, with stacks of tires piled up, greased-up old broken parts, wrenches, other tools, and a pressure pump for tires - all strewn about in disarray.

Bún thịt nướng on the left, motorbikes on the right
Bún thịt nướng on the left, motorbikes on the right

Whenever I visit at lunch time the implements on the right side have been pushed over so that dining customers can navigate the entrance way. When I walk by in the morning heading for a coffee I see the gear on the right side has spilled over onto the left side as customers come for motorbike repairs. 

Inside view of the operation
Inside view of the operation

Tools are spread all over the place while customers stand with hands on hips observing proceedings and gnashing their teeth about the cost of repairs.

And so it is at various strategic times each day as priorities change and food customers are replaced by motorbike customers and vice versa.

The big question is: “Who started which business first?” I’m assuming the owners didn’t wake up one day, look at each other, and say “Let’s start a combination motorbike repair shop and bún thịt nướng joint!” That would hardly make sense.

It is possible that the two ideas were hatched concurrently based on an intuitive desire to give customers exactly what they need: “Hey Fred, can you give my bike a tune up? And while you’re at it, I’ll take a quick lunch - don’t forget a couple of skewers of ground chicken, they’re so yummy.” Equally unlikely….

My guess is one business came before the other, faltered, then a family brainstorming session ensued, and the other venture was added. If I was a betting man, I’d wager that it all started with the motorbike repair shop. Then Madame nón lá got the idea to add on the bún thịt nướng operation to their portfolio whilst cooking lunch on the sidewalk, which she probably was doing regularly anyway.

I found a similar operation in Da Lat some time ago - it’s a convenience store on one of the main streets. An alarm went off inside my head when I saw so many products in display cases out on the stoop in front of the shop. What’s inside that’s forcing all this stuff to be stored on the street? Or, is it just a marketing ploy to entice customers?

There are three and a half display cases covering nearly the entire shop width, leaving barely enough room for someone to squeeze through to get in or out. The cases are filled with tins of cookies, other sweets, personal grooming items, chocolate bars, many varieties of alcohol, beer in cartons of 24 cans, and coffee.

The half case is a makeshift plastic affair featuring disposable lighters and several brands of cigarettes.

More items for sale outside than inside….
More items for sale outside than inside….

So if all this is outside, what the heck is inside? 

My first thought was: “There can’t be anything else to sell!”

Ah, but there is more to sell. When I stuck my head through that slim space to check out the inside I saw the same style teeny-weeny short-legged tables with those limbo stools again as well as several smiling faces that I recognized seated at the tables.

There is just enough room for four of those tables with stools, and as is the custom in these parts, beer cans galore and the guys were enjoying themselves. Noteworthy is how quiet the place was compared to the usual raucous after work crowd.

Presto! A little bar on the inside!
Presto! A little bar on the inside!

One could walk right by that shop and not see what was going on inside, which may well be by design, since some of the customers may be playing hooky and don’t want to get busted drinking beer with their buddies.

That’s a lesson I won’t soon forget: It’s what’s on the inside that counts most!

This final example is one for the ages. There’s a hotel near where I stay in Da Lat, a typical 15 or 20 room family affair so common in Vietnam. Out front facing the street there are a few plastic tables and chairs, and to the right there is an entrance way to the garage.

I walked by that entrance way dozens of times without it capturing my attention, then I noticed a few more low tables and kiddie chairs inside along the wall on the right side. There is a portable separator panel placed across the room about 10 meters in from the building front, thus blocking the view to the back of the garage.

On the left hand side there is a simple table and a top-loading style fridge or freezer - not sure which it is - and a few Vietnamese-style coffee pots and filters in view. That’s when I realized that the garage is also a coffee shop.

Typical Vietnam, where the rule of thumb is: When in doubt, open a coffee shop!

And the coffee is just right every time, and is served with a cup of trà gừng (ginger tea) - real ginger tea with lots of chunks of ginger sunk at the bottom of the cup.

There are usually two or three ladies stationed at the back by the separator panel chopping, slicing, and cutting. 

The ladies joyfully peel, chop, and slice all day
The ladies joyfully peel, chop, and slice all day

They make homemade jam using lemons, oranges including some of the peels, pineapple, and ginger and sell it in 500 gram jars, and give away little sample dishes to the customers who eat with a spoon and chase it with a coffee.

It’s not the yucky over-sweetened manufactured jam you find in a supermarket, it’s the real deal. It’s tangy, tart, with a tinge of sweetness, and slightly spicy because of the ginger - a perfect example of the Eurasian fusion we so often find in Vietnam.

They cook it right there in the rear part of the garage, let it cool, and package it up in the aforementioned jars.

Dynamite jam!
Dynamite jam!

Easy for you to imagine what a civilized scene this is, with us enjoying coffee, a good conversation, and of course that jam.

And then this happens:

Coming through!
Coming through!

A guy zooms out of the garage on his motorbike and navigates his way right through the coffee shop!

Epic!

At that moment it hit me: That garage became my regular morning hangout. There’s no place like it. Of course nobody bats an eye whenever a bike passes through and the drivers are careful not to bowl anyone over in the process.

The same question comes to mind as for the previous two examples above: 

Which came first? The garage or the coffee shop?

The head peeler, slicer, chopper, cutter, and boss of the café is the lady just to the right of the passing motorbike in the above photo. She can smell a customer a mile away, and knows which drink is appropriate before I have the chance to say it, based on weather, time of day, and whatever special item she has up her sleeve.

My guess therefore is that the garage was just a garage until she talked the hotel people into renting it to her.

I can imagine the conversation between her and hotel management probably went like this:

Lady: “Could I rent the space in front of the hotel and part of the garage?”

Hotel manager: “The garage is for guest and staff motorbike parking.”

Lady: “I’d like to put a coffee shop in there.”

HM: “How will the motorbikes get in and out?”

Lady: “We’ll work around it.”

HM: “OK”

And she wasn’t joking. I’ve seen her deftly avoid a passing motorbike with a drink in each hand and not spill a drop, moving in unison with the tango playing in the background.

A quick, nimble sidestep….
A quick, nimble sidestep….

From coffee to jam to music to a quick sidestep, that boss lady sure has all the moves.

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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