Our friends enjoying a candlelit sidewalk dinner in Hoi An, Vietnam
Our three-week adventure with our friends was such a blast.
The hubby and I are so thrilled that we had the opportunity to share the life we’ve built for ourselves over here, and especially to have friends come and savor the amazing variety of food in this part of the world. From the beginning, our trip was planned as a food tour, and that’s exactly what it was.
Food adventures, I’ve learned, are a great way to experience other cultures. We met interesting, and, for the most part, incredibly friendly people along the way, even when we didn’t speak the same language. At every turn, we needed help to decipher tricky alleyways, find streetcart vendors with no fixed business names, and determine what dishes to order in mostly menu-less venues. Regardless of their roles ranging from restaurant proprietor to interested fellow diner, everyone was clearly proud of their cuisine, and seemed pleased at our enthusiasm and appreciation. Meeting and interacting with them made our dining experiences all the better.
I also learned a lot about my friends and our collective exuberance towards food. Within our group of five, each person played an important role in our gastronomical capers. First, we had the Instigator. Our Instigator spent months prior to our trip plotting and mapping which places made the cut and were worthy of our limited stomach space. The Instigator was rarely a naysayer, yet part of him always wondered whether or not the thing we were eating at the instant moment was good enough. Maybe we should’ve gone to the other place that the other food blogger wrote about or that thing with the fresh noodles that he read about on the discussion board. Or maybe we should’ve gone off the grid for this particular midday meal and chosen our own adventure.
Ordering our food was always a bit of a gamble, once we’d arrived at the Instigator’s chosen dining destination. The Instigator always came prepared with a list of the dishes that made this particular haunt famous. We’d order those, for sure. Then, our Off-Roader (the hubby) would interject, veering off-course to choose a few other things. Sometimes it was a dish that he’d never seen before. Other times, it’d be a dish that all the other tables were ordering but that weren’t on the Instigator’s list of must-eat items. (As a sidenote, the Off-Roader’s role also entailed spotting places off-course from the group’s plan; one of our favorite coffee joints in Saigon was found by the Off-Roader’s morning pursuit of a good cup of joe.) Adding in the occasional suggestion from the rest of the group, the Instigator and the Off-Roader would end up ordering more than we ever needed to eat, gesturing wildly at the dishes scattered on neighboring tables if necessary.
Shortly after the ordering was done, we’d all chuckle at how we’d manage to consume all the soon-to-arrive dishes, considering it was the second breakfast or third lunch of the day. That’s when the Rationalizer would step in to explain away our guilt-tinged gluttony and justify why it’s perfectly acceptable to have that third lunch. The other two places had exceedingly small portions. We’re not spending that much money, thanks to the strength of the US dollar. We all could really use a cold beer in this hot, humid weather, and beer at this time of day just doesn’t make sense without fried soft-shell crabs.
At some point during the rationalizing and accompanying chorus of head-nodding, our food would arrive, and the whole group would dive in, competitively jostling and bumping elbows to vie for the tasty offerings. Silence would fall over the table as everyone took their first bite. If the dish was exceptionally tasty, the Repeat Offender would speak up. “I want another one,” she’d say, even before we were finished with the first portion. Every time, if the dish met or exceeded her taste standards, she’d want to relive the experience, right then and there. If meals were a game of dodgeball or four square, she’d be the Queen of Do-Overs. But without her, some of us would’ve only gotten a meager morsel of that particular dish. Portions are not very large in Southeast Asia, and our American appetites are particularly big.
In the foreground, local diners enjoy a leisurely meal at a sidewalk seafood joint in Saigon; in the background: our group tries frantically to figure out what everyone else is eating
Then there was me, the Enabler. Like a good shampoo, I took the information the Instigator dispensed to the group and worked everyone into a frothy lather about the food they were enjoying. “This is so tasty,” I’d say. “Look at everyone else! They’re loving it! We should get a second portion! You guys are only in Asia for a few weeks! This is the trip of a lifetime!” We’d then sit around and discuss the merits and drawbacks of each dish (or second helpings of said dish), relishing in tasting new flavors and experiencing them together.
That is, until the check arrived, signaling to us that it was time to plot out our next dining destination. Is there such a thing as Second Post-Dinner Dinner? If not, we may have just invented it.