As you hopscotch around a gaping hole in the sidewalk full of garbage, a truck goes flying by, horn blaring, the kamikaze driver with eyes glazed over; just about the last adjective you’d use to describe the Vietnamese is 'picky.'
Oh, but there’s an obsession with detail and perfection that lies a layer or two beneath the obvious, manifesting itself in subtle ways.
What is deemed critical is approached with great passion while what is considered inconsequential is ignored; that’s how things work here.
Let’s take a loaf of 'banh mi' bread — now that’s important. The hell with stopping at red lights, let’s get something scrumptious to eat!
Those baguettes are simple, inexpensive items, but I can’t think of anything more coveted by more people on a daily basis, and a symbol synonymous with Vietnam the world over.
I went sniffing around the biggest bakery in town recently, observing the 'banh mi' operation, much to the chagrin of the bakers.
The tone of their welcome switched from icy to warm to red hot when I convinced them I’m not interested in hijacking their tricks of the trade, and anyway couldn’t bake anything if my life depended on it.
Huge volumes of baguettes are involved each day in that operation — hundreds, if not thousands.
Any way you want to slice it, there’s a hell of a lot of bread coming out of that kitchen, turnover so large there’s a good possibility you’ll get a loaf still warm from the oven.
Once baked, the 'banh mi' are tossed into bamboo baskets, then shunted out to the sandwich-making area in the front of the shop.
|Fresh from the oven|
The sandwich team then inspects each loaf looking for imperfections and quirks, however innocuous they may seem to the untrained eye.
In the photo below, one rejected loaf has a tiny smudge of soot the size of a thumbnail — probably originating from the walls of the oven.
That’s an instant reject, such a sacrilege could never be tolerated in the Land of Baguettes.
Note the slicer in the background, the purpose of which is to make a horizontal cut sideways deep into the loaf, but not all the way, thus retaining one contiguous hunk of bread.
That way, the meat, pate (liver spread), pickled vegetables, and chili peppers and condiments can be stuffed and spread inside but the sandwich can’t split in two, so the goodies stay inside instead of decorating your shirt.
Another criterion for rejection is a deformity stemming from either the kneading or baking process, whereby part of the loaf is misshapen or the outside crust has come loose.
This abomination definitely won’t make the grade because it resembles a croissant instead of a symmetrical, smooth, cylindrical loaf.
|Deformed and rejected|
The perfect loaves go on to become perfect sandwiches made by the perfect sandwich people, while the substandard loaves are put into another basket to be sold over the counter for use as an accompaniment to 'bo kho' (beef stew), soups, and such.
Here’s another classic from the world of baking: a restaurant in town offers an array of baked goodies including a divine version of rye and wholemeal bread with a bunch of different seeds in it, to which I’m hopelessly addicted.
I prowled around the kitchen (I always hang around kitchens, that’s where it all happens), watching the baker prepare and knead the dough, then later place the various seeds on the loaf before putting it in the oven.
Be honest: would you meticulously place those pumpkin seeds at strategic spots on the loaf or randomly sprinkle them? You’d think she used a measuring tape and a team of physics gurus to ensure those seeds are perfectly spread.
That’s beyond the usual Asian obsession with symmetry, balance, and beauty. On top of that, there is a rumor circulating (yet to be corroborated) that when making cinnamon buns she uses a measuring tape to ensure consistently uniform sizes, dimensions, and shapes.
|Perfectly positioned seeds|
Food is a good place to start, but I’ve found samples of picky behavior in other facets of daily life.
I stayed in a hotel here in town for years, availing of their pick-up laundry service. The company was excellent and predictable; they never lost a single item, but that’s not the story — the knots they use are.
My clean clothes were always returned in a bag closed with a slick little slip knot, so all that was needed to open the bag was a firm yank on the appropriate plastic strand.
Suddenly I started to receive my clothes back in a bag with an intricate knot — no idea why — maybe they’d added a Boy Scout to their staff.
There was no way I could open the bag without ripping it half to shreds or going insane, whichever came first, a consequence of my impatience coupled with a preference for short fingernails.
After a few such deliveries, I couldn’t resist sending my dirty laundry back in the damaged bag just to see what would happen.
Low and behold someone picked up on it, despite having hundreds of customers, and miraculously, that lovely little slip knot appeared again as it previously had!
|The slip knot on a laundry bag|
Someone figured out that the customer is clumsy, possibly a spastic and impatient foreigner, and fixed the issue. Not only is that great service, but it’s also damn picky by any measure.
Here’s a topic dear to us all: ear wax de-gunking, undeniable proof of the engineering prowess in this country.
Most countries rely on q-tips, but not Vietnam, where ear cleaning requires expertise and finesse, so it’s done by skilled employees in barbershops.
The young lady pictured below is armed with no less than ten separate tools to extract gunk including a fluffy implement resembling a shriveled dandelion, which gives a little tickle at the end of the procedure, a happy ending of sorts.
I did provide a vivid account of the entire de-gunking procedure a couple of years ago and got strange feedback from several readers, no doubt the squeamish types that prefer their fish served without the head and don’t like guts and gizzards floating around in their soup.
Fine then, I’ll skip the gory details of how the attendant proudly spread the gunk on my forearm like peanut butter on bread, but you can sense the passion and attention to detail.
|Ear de-gunking equipment|
This one is the absolute topper: I belong to a private Vietnamese Cooking Group on Facebook, thanks to my Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) friends in the U.S.
I’m in awe watching their clips to see how they fiddle and fuss over every detail ad nauseam.
If one single ingredient is substituted, there’s a huge chorus of comments stating that the creation is not 'abc dish,' rather it’s 'xyz dish,' and it’s thoroughly different, as if there was no resemblance whatsoever, which I know to be untrue.
They rattle on and on, and I must hand it to them, none of their cultures has been compromised in their transition to the West.
One such whiz, Madame Jessie Tse, said I could use her photos and write whatever I want, which she may soon regret.
I don’t know Jessie personally, nor her husband (the lucky stiff), but it’s easy to see she’s like a dog with a bone in the kitchen — diligent, creative, energetic.
Jessie decided to make a 'vit quay' (roast duck), and, let me tell you, it was magnificent. The skin was brown and crackly, not burnt, and that bird was presented like a rare Picasso.
In Jessie’s post, there was a mega-detailed description of the steps, with a few hot tips tossed in here and there.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a bizarre photo among the bunch she posted and quizzed her on it.
It turns out she’d actually suspended that duck from a chair between two floor fans for a whole 24 hours so the skin would be perfectly dry!
Eureka! I’d finally found the ultimate Vietnamese perfectionist!
Would you hang a duck between two fans for 24 hours? Neither would I, not if you paid me, even though I adore crispy, brown duck skin.
With that, I rest my case on the Vietnamese obsession with detail and quality.
Fair enough, the traffic is a mess and half the time we can’t distinguish between the beginning, middle, and end of queues, but any country that produces people who would hang a duck for a whole day between two electric fans gets my vote.