Living in Vietnam can bring moments of total pleasure and those of total wonder. When is a hot dog not a hot dog? Well, that answer came to me through experience some 10 years ago when I began my teaching career here in Vietnam.
It was only weeks after I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City to start a new life journey and I had already experienced my first episode of 'Vietnam Belly.' I wasn’t feeling all that great and I found that the local food and cheap beer just weren’t what my body wanted.
I met a fellow Australian expat who introduced me to his employer – a major name in Vietnam’s teaching industry. Despite my unreliable health, I interviewed with the company. I was just hoping things would hold themselves together long enough to get the job, and they did. When I found out I got the job, my only thoughts were about how much I hoped I would be able to recover by the time I started classes.
Early the next morning, my phone rang. It was the school asking if I could cover a class because a teacher had taken ill. Of course, I jumped at the chance to do my first class in Vietnam and a mere 45 minutes later I found myself at a public school in District 3.
Shortly after arriving, my stomach began to cramp and pain rumbled throughout my body. Then, I looked up and saw a familiar sign. It wasn’t bun bo, com tam, or banh mi, but blazoned across a street stall. It was 'HOT DOG.'
A smile of relief spread across my face and my body and, for a moment, I began to relax. It was Western food.
|A sign reads 'Special hot dog - Try and get addicted' at a street stall in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News|
I shuffled from the parking bay out of the gate and to the street cart. With no Vietnamese skill, I raised a finger and said, "One hot dog please.” The woman looked at me in total confusion as she mumbled something in Vietnamese. I just kept saying, “Yes, one hot dog, one hot dog” as I pointed to the banner on her cart.
Eventually, she gave up trying to understand me and from the cart she produced a bag with food inside. I gave her the money, which wasn’t much, and I walked back into the school to find a seat to enjoy that familiar Frankfurt in a soft bun with ketchup.
After I sat down and opened the bag, I realized the hot dog wasn’t what I thought it would be. Instead, I saw a triangular sandwich. I was stunned!!
I asked for a hot dog and she gave me a waffle. A sweet bland half-cooked cheese and sweetened bread toasted waffle. What could I do? At the time, nothing. So, I just ate it and went to class.
|Vietnamese hot dogs are stored in a glass cabinet at a street stall in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News|
In the months after I was to learn that 'Hot Dogs' on the street in Vietnam are not actually hot dogs but toasted waffle sandwiches. Different sellers sell different versions of them but all of them have cheese and bread, some might also include meat and other fillings.
Knowing this cultural difference led me to try to understand how this use of the term 'Hot Dog' came about.
From the scant information available, it appears that Vietnamese hot dogs only became popular around the turn of the century. Based on a lack of evidence, some stories I read said that local mothers began buying more electronic appliances and one of the items that became available was what Westerners know at a toasted sandwich or waffle maker, depending on which country you come from.
|A couple makes Vietnamese-style hot dogs using a toasted sandwich maker on the street in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. Their cart's menu displays a list of different fillings customers can opt to their liking. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News|
Children needed to eat something filling and cheap for breakfast and after school, so local mothers began making triangle toasted sandwiches and some sold them at the gates of local schools to kids coming to and from classes.
These rather bland and sweet triangles were perfect. Children are not always attracted to the heavy taste of traditional Vietnamese food like com tam (broken rice) or hu tieu (hu tieu noodles), so the bland taste of processed cheese, sweetened sandwich bread, and the occasional processed sausage was a perfect fast-food option that was easy and cheap to make.
There is no record as to how they were called hot dogs but it is fair to suggest that it was seen as a cultural equivalent to grabbing a street hot dog in America.
|Vietnamese hot dogs are sold at a street stall in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News|
Over time, the practice has grown across the country and can even be seen on highways and main roads day and night. For only VND5,000-6,000 (US$0.21-0.26) you can stop and grab a quick filler any time you like. They are small enough not to spoil your appetite and are big enough to give you that little bit of energy to get home or to your next meeting without having to stop.
These days, I tend to turn to fresher options when it comes to snacks between meals, but I always have a little giggle to myself when I come across a 'Vietnamese hot dog' seller. The hot dog that isn’t a hot dog.
If you haven’t had one yet then make sure you stop and have at least one on your travels, and get a picture of the Hot Dog sign for your social media page. It is yet another inventive and wonderful part of Vietnamese culture that makes this country special and unique at every turn.