At first flush it appeared that the female porters in conical straw hats carrying a pair of baskets, one at either end of a bamboo yoke, were there for touristic purposes. Padding along in their flip-flops, they seemed to march out of a black and white film to selling prepared pineapples, mangoes and homemade donuts to other visitors in front of our hotel.
I later noticed that they sold produce to families in city apartments and businesspeople at work along their routes, bringing the world to every inhabitant’s door. Far from catering to tourists, they’re part of the social and economic fabric of Vietnam’s cities.
At mealtime, which means just about all the time in Vietnam, they come through with complete meals, setting down in front of one client’s door and letting others nearby place their orders.
I was skeptical – How would they clean dishes? I wondered – but was lured in through the backdoor. In Hue, I’d gone to a café to write in the afternoon, writing up rough drafts from Laos, which I’d just left and preparing visits to Saigon then Hanoi.
While I sipped a strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk, a porter arrived in front of the café, hailed by the shop owners who were sitting in the open storefront. She got to work immediately, stoking a flame below a pot of broth in one basket, while pulling noodles and filling a surprising number of accoutrements from the other.
Working like a surgeon with chopsticks, she assembled the hot soup, handing prepared bowls up to be eaten by the owners and, now, the table of hungry card players. I watched her work and chat with her clients as they ate and realized it was a tiny marvel of efficiency, ingenuity and mise en place. Everything was ready to go in an instant – her two tiny stations creating a line cook’s dream. She even had a system worked out to wash the dishes.
The smell of her soup wafted into the inner reaches of the café where I was sitting, convincing me that I felt peckish.
I raised a finger to order and the owners invited me to eat with them. My steaming bowl of soup arrived a moment later, a clear aroma from the sea rising from the surface.
“What is it?” I asked.
They looked at each other and an owner made a hand gesture that indicated a small creature with legs. I may have turned pale thinking the worst, so they tried again, finally making a gesture that finally clicked: prawns. The homemade soup was a tiny bowl of perfection.
When I was done, she washed my bowl, returned everything to its proper place in the baskets, lifted her yoke and disappeared into the city.
Acclaimed travel writer Joe Ray is the 2009 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year from the Society of American Travel Writers. We first posted on Joe’s work in the Wall Street Journal last year in a story entitled, “In Search of the Perfect Gelato.” He’s also written another posting about exploring with Classic Journeys in Laos entitled “In Laos, a skeptic turns into an elephant man”.