After going out this morning to cash some travelers’ checks, I’m spending most of the day in my hotel room. I spent the last couple of days in Hue walking around in the heat and yesterday (wearing a t-shirt) I got a bit of sunburn on my neck. Nothing serious, but all the sun and walking have made me tired so I’m relaxing and writing in my notebook and starting to pack for the short hop up to Hanoi early tomorrow morning.
Last night, though, I had a great dinner. There are three small restaurants on Dinh Tien Hoang Street, all owned by the same extended family as far as I can tell, and specializing in banh khoi and bun bo, two Hue specialties. The firsst is a cross between an omelet and a pancake and is filled with onions and bean sprouts and served with a peanut sauce and spicy herbs; the second is Hue’s version of pho, a beef noodle soup that here in Hue is quite spicy. I had banh khoi in one little restaurant, then went next door for bun bo, then took a cyclo back to the hotel.
I had lunch yesterday with my friends Giang and Long at the publishing house where I worked when I was here on a Fulbright in 2000 – 2001. We ate in the rooftop cafeteria at their office, where the food is wonderful, though quite unlike what you would find in a restaurant. More like home cooking. The greens at the top are water morning glory, or convolvulus, which tastes like a more bitter version of spinach; then there is a little ommelet, and another bit of egg cooked as a kind of pancake with herbs, then some chicken in a savory sauce at the bottom, and as condiments some peanust and pickled cucumber.
This report from CNN on newly discovered species in the Mekong River basin is really quite amazing. I would love to see a Laotian rock rat next spring when I go to the delta, but I have no desire to eat one. The consumption of exotic animals — because they are exotic — was one of my biggest clashes of values with Vietnamese culture when I lived there. That, and a certain disdane for the suffering of all animals, really got to me. And I found it strange, too, in a Buddhist country. Buddhism’s doctrine that the world is defined by suffering has two sides: compassion and indifference. Over the course of their history the Vietnamese have had to sometimes eak out a living off of a parsimonious & capricious nature, which has led them to take a catholic view of what and what is not appropriate for eating. When you’re hungry, that coconut grub might look pretty tasty. I’m not an anthropologist, but it seems to me that there must be some symbolic process through with a food originally eaten for survival becomes a food of particularly high status, especially when times are more lavish.