by Richard Sterling
In which we discover some of the quirks, and pleasures, of Vietnamese culture.

Every time I try to speak a little Vietnamese I get the damned tones wrong. I’ve inadvertently told a woman that she was a urinal; I’ve asked a waiter to change my stomach; I’ve asked for extra “no” at a food stall and answered “rice” to a request for alms; I’ve tried to buy a bottle of “yes” and answered “wine” to a yes-or-no question. My fox paws patter on. The folks laugh, I laugh, and they all know I’m doing my inadequate best. So I have no trouble laughing my ass off whenever they make an erroneous error with my own lingo. I’ve been collecting fractured English menu items from all over town. Here are just a few.

Fried Rice Hell
Grind Potato Cold Meat
Frilled Beef with Pork
Fried Spaghetti Dry
Baked Honey with Garlic Ribs
Mexican Burrito with Mung Bean (That’s actually correct, sadly)
Wedges Served with Sour Cream
Banana Flammable (Yes, it’s what it sounds like)
Good Cyclo Driver (Don’t ask me)
Filleted Fish Paste Fried
Rice with Clab (No, that’s not crab)
Beef in Wild Battle
Fish Pie Broth
Dutch Spring Balls (Who says the Dutch don’t have balls?)
Boiled Bowels Instant
Pancake Horny (No comment)

Many first-time visitors are startled at the personal questions Vietnamese people ask upon first meeting. They will quickly ask if you are married, how many children you have, how old are you? This not to be intrusive, it is simply to place you in your allotted pigeonhole. Everybody must have one. If you don’t have one it upsets the natural order of things. So people remember your answers to these important questions. And that includes your birthday. Even if not everybody remembers the actual date of your birthday, somebody will. And if the folks will it, the grapevine will hum as your birthday approaches.

Now, I never think about my birthday. Hells bells, I often forget how old I am! If it weren’t for people like my sister Laurie in Eureka and my friend Laurie at the SFCVB it would go by unnoticed by me. But the folks in my alley would not let that be this year. My birthday was April 3. I sat at my usual table at Madame’s that morning reading the Daily Blab. My paper girl, Anh, (sorry, I don’t have a nickname for her) had given me the April 3 edition gratis. I’ve kept it. Madame came up behind me, grabbed me by my freshly shaved noggin and rubbed it against her 70 year old bosom! “Appy birsday!” she proclaimed. Madame is very physical. Many people here are. Soon thereafter Crawling Lady appeared at my feet and handed up one of her post cards inscribed with a birthday message. “You buy post card?” she asked, strictly out of habit.

“No thanks, my friend,” said I. “But thank you for this one.” She beamed, and sat beside me for a while. At length, she pulled on her flip-flops, wished me a happy birthday, and crawled away.

That afternoon I repaired to the Lucky Café-Bar for my usual postprandial suds. The girls of the day shift there presented me with an apothecary jar filled with colorful origami figures that they had made themselves over several days. There must have been at least a hundred in that jar. That evening the night shift ladies plied me with tequila. Or, as they say there, “Going to Mexico for Richard.” And they presented me with a one-portion birthday cake. The Vietnamese word for cake is “banh.” So they called it “banh birthday.”

Then I got a text message from Suzi Q. She said, “Daddy, come quick! I need you!” Suzi Q has done this in the past, as recently as April Fools Day when she begged me to come to Regional HQ at two in the morning only to find the doors locked! But I went. And Suzi presented me with two beautiful silk shirts, one for tucking, one for not tucking. She informed me that her mother had chosen one of them, and she the other. She further informed me that, as women will often do, she has observed my sartorial habits, and found them wanting. Especially as to variety. She hopes these shirts will be the start of a new wardrobe.

Also at Regional HQ Sally G gave me a lovely leather-bound notebook. She had noticed that the one I carried was just about filled up. She had also noticed that it was of wrinkled and broken cardboard on the cover and just didn’t look swell, functional though it was. Now I write on creamy paper in a book too big for my pocket, though I’m happy to carry it by hand wherever I go. Alfalfa gave me a card that I could see came from Crawling Lady’s stock.

Miss Chatter gave me her portrait and penned a love song into my new notebook. She decorated it with hearts and flowers. And she sang the song to me, as people in the alley listened. No doubt she hit a lot of wrong notes, but how would I know which ones? A couple of the Crumpets also wrote dedications into the book. It must be good stuff, because nobody will give me a literal translation. The Black Cat Bar named a drink after me. It’s called Richard’s Proper Martini. It’s done just the way I like it. They’ve even printed it on their drinks list.

I didn’t think it could get any better, but then I ran into Heidi and Bluejacket. It was pure coincidence that they would be within feet of each other. You know, Good Witch/Bad Witch, that sort of thing. But there they were. Bluejacket gave me one of her roses. She made sure to slap me with it first, and then stuck her tongue out at me. But that’s just her way. Heidi gave me a card, again I could see it was from Crawling Lady’s stock. Then she hugged me a long, long hug. And I started to get choked up, see? Because how can a guy not, when everywhere you turn somebody does you a kindness you never expected?

Well I couldn’t let the little witches see Mr. Hat bawl. That wouldn’t do in this culture. So I thanked them and went straight to my room on the third floor. I got misty for a few minutes. And then I stepped out onto my balcony, where I can see the whole of my alley. Bluejacket had gone back to work bullying foreign men and women into buying flowers. Miss Chatter was holding forth, God knows to whom. The Soaks were in their element. And the kids were playing hacky-sack, and the bell was ringing in the pagoda, and the cats were chasing mice, and the fruit ladies were hawking their wares, and the Crumpets were doing their best, and Miss Argument was arguing. All was as it should be in Pagoda Alley. And I decided that if they wanted to call it a California Hat, or a Cowboy Hat, or whatever, that’s okay with me. “Com sau.“ No problem.

And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the menus are confusing, all the old ladies are amorous, and where your hat can be anything you fancy.



Richard Sterling is the author of The Fire Never Dies, How to Eat Around the World, and several titles in Lonely Planet’s World Food series. His anthology, Food: A Taste of the Road, won a Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book, and he is also the editor of The Adventure of Food and coeditor of The Ultimate Journey.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.