Before almost every port, we are warned repeatedly to neither drink the tap water nor eat food from street vendors. I’ve found this a fairly easy rule to follow, buying my drinks in bottled form and making sure I know that my food has been cooked thoroughly in a legitimate kitchen. With the exception of orange juice in Morocco, I’ve managed to avoid anything that could upset my stomach. But I ran into an unexpected question of etiquette in Vietnam.
I went to visit a friend of mine, Long, in Hanoi for a few days. Long was excited to show me around his city and to share with me things that locals would do, and I was just as excited to learn. Our objective on this voyage is to attempt to understand each culture from a native’s perspective, and to try to experience the same things they might experience.
Long showed me around the city, and when we were hungry, asked what I wanted to eat. My answer was always the same: “I want to eat something you would eat. What do you think is good?”
But what native Vietnamese people eat is street food. Long pointed out to me numerous times the corners of sidewalks where people were gathered around a spit, sitting on overturned crates or boxes. It was like fast food; this was what people ate on their way from point A to point B. Driving through town, Long would point out congregations of native Vietnamese people enjoying a meal straight from a fire pit outside of a shop front and explain that this was the kind of thing he would eat on a regular basis.
The first day, I was adamant that we could only eat at sit-down cafes and restaurants. Long would shrug agreeably, perhaps assuming that I just wanted a more upscale experience, and bring me to places with indoor kitchens. After a while, though, I began to wonder if my dismissal of street food was offensive to him, or if I seemed snobby for turning my nose up at the rice he ate every day without a problem.
By the third and last day of my visit, after I had insisted on “safe” food for every meal, Long’s annoyance with me started to show. We had a full day of sightseeing ahead of us, and needed to eat breakfast on the run. Standing outside at 7:30 in the morning, he finally said, “I don’t know why you think this food isn’t safe, this is what I always eat.” He couldn’t fathom the problem I had with it, and was disappointed that this was a part of his culture I apparently didn’t want to try. It was then that I decided that eating street food, as long as it was cooked, and risking an upset stomach was preferable to offending my friend’s culture and seeming uninterested in his daily routine. Putting aside neurotic fears of food poisoning, I bought a carton of chicken and rice. I didn’t get sick from it, but more important to me was the fact that I’d been able to let go for a moment and experience an aspect of Vietnam the way my friend did.