Snack food diplomacy in Vietnam

Snack Food Diplomacy in VietnamI’ve never been so happy to see a cockroach. There it was scurrying across the floor near my feet, around the empty snack food wrappers. It meant I was on the Saigon-bound train from Nha Trang. Which also meant it would (hopefully) skid into the steamy Vietnamese metropolis somewhere around 4:15am and give me about an hour to jump in a taxi, point it to the airport, and (barely) make my flight back to New York. Hopefully. This was a future chain of events that had to be perfectly synchronized in a Rube Goldbergian fashion. But at this point, I almost didn’t care. One near miracle had already occurred today. Would it be divinely gluttonous of me to ask for two?

The day started like the 13 others I’d spent in Vietnam. Crawl out of bed, quaff three or four sugar-laced coffees, and then stroll down to the local market to consume as much as my stomach would allow (pho, chao, spring rolls, more pho). This was my last day here, ending my first trip to Vietnam. I came here to write an article on Saigon and then spent the last week traveling around the country, heading up to Hoi An and then, with Gadling’s own Jeremy Kressmann, down to Qui Nhon and Nha Trang, where we ate and drank and rode backs through a leper colony and somehow ended up driving around with strangers in clunky cars late at night.

The day I was leaving Nha Trang, I got myself to the airport early enough to sip coffee in the business class lounge (it was the only ticket available for this Vietnam Airlines flight). My friend Richard Sterling–the so-called “Indiana Jones of gastronomy”–had a big night planned for my last evening in Vietnam: he was going to take me on an adventurous eating tour of Saigon. Then I was going to get approximately two hours of sleep before getting my flight home. I couldn’t wait.

Movies and novels often begin by showing the protagonist having what seems like a normal day. They get up, they drink coffee, they take their kids to school, whatever. And then, as the formula usually goes, something happens. Something extraordinary. Usually something bad. In the biz it’s called the “inciting incident.” My real-life inciting incident occurred somewhere in the middle of my second cup of coffee in the airport lounge.

It wasn’t an alien invasion or an oversized simian introducing itself to a large metropolitan area. It was an announcement saying all flights out of Nha Trang that day had been cancelled due to forthcoming inclement weather.

What was a once placid group of about 100 people became an angry mob, leveling frustration at the gate agents and clerks behind the Vietnam Airlines desk. The airline employees, however, just shrugged, saying that the only thing left to do was go back to the airlines office in Nha Trang to see what they can do.

I was the first person in a cab. I directed the driver to the railway station. I sprinted into the station, hoping, fantasizing, dreaming there was no line at the ticket window and a Saigon-bound train just about to leave. At this point–with just 12 hours to get 300 miles south of here–there was no other way I’d make my flight. But when I skidded into the ticket hall, I was greeted by snaking lines.

Immediately a middle-aged woman who was manning a snack bar grabbed me by the arm. “Where you going?” she asked.

I told her I needed to get to Saigon in 12 hours. I figured she’d give me a slow shake of her head or fill up her cheeks with air and let it blow out in defeat. Instead, she gave me a gentle push toward the miasma of tightly packed humanity and said, “Go, go, go!” There was, in fact, a train leaving for Saigon in two minutes.

The first attempt to circumvent the dozens of people in one line was met with hostility. A teenager shouldered me out. The second attempt I was shouldered out by a short old man. At the third window, I got in. I just had to wait for the person in front of me to get their ticket. I stood there, tapping my foot, rotating glances between the train outside and the person behind the counter and the snack food woman who was giving me a perpetual “well….?” look. I looked back at the ticket agent, who was fumbling with the printer. There was a printer jam. Ugh. A new piece of paper would have to be inserted. It worked! Yes. I’m about to buy my ticket. Not really. That’s when the clerk took out a pair of scissors and decided it would be best to snip off the edge of the ticket around the ink-printed border.

Finally she handed the ticket to the person in front of me and, steepling my hands like I’ve never steepled before, I told her I needed to get on that train. “No!” she barked. “Too late.” Suddenly, though, the woman from the snack bar was there. I’ll call her Phuong because that’s what I think she said her name was. Phuong dug her face in the hole and explained in Vietnamese what I wanted. The woman behind the glass just shook her head.

I was ready to give up. Phuong, though, was not. “Okay, come on,” she said pulling me by the arm, as I, like an apathetic pinball, bumped into other people waiting in line. By the time we got across the ticket hall, I had another companion: a female dwarf, locked onto my other arm, and pulling me toward a door. Together–me, Phuong, and the dwarf–found ourselves on the platform. Phuong opened the backdoor to the ticket agents’ office. She began explaining my situation and the ticket agent looked at me and said: seat or sleeper.? Yes! I was going to get on this train. I was going to catch my flight. I was going to make it home.

Just then a piercing whistle blew and that massive piece of machinery began crawling away toward Ho Chi Minh City, the metropolis everyone still calls Saigon. And with it went my hopes.

But there was news. There’s another train in an hour and a half. It gets to Saigon an hour before my flight. Seat or sleeper? I was on it.

I had time to kill and when I was exiting the station, Phuong called out for me: “When you return, don’t forget to buy snacks from my shop.”

An hour later, I was back and decidedly calmer than the last time I turned up here. Phuong, her dwarf in tow, ran up and gave me a flirtatious bump with her hip.

They sat me on an open bench in front of Phuong’s snack bar kiosk. She placed her hand on my knee and caressed it gently; not in a romantic way but in more of a deeply caring way. Phuong’s niece, who I had pegged as 12 years old but was actually 21, began peppering me with questions.

“Are you married?” she asked in near-perfect English.

I nodded, knowing what the sequel question was going to be.

“Do you have children?”

“No,” I said.

“Are you going to have children?”

I told her I probably was not. The niece was aghast. She tugged on Phuong’s arm and told her the devastating news about my ambivalence to bringing another human into this world. She called the dwarf over to tell her the bad news.

I asked Phuong if she was married. She shook her head from side to side, looking down at the ground. “He’s dead,” said the niece. Then Phuong mimicked guzzling a bottle and held her neck with a panicked look on her face. Did he drink poison?

During her death pantomime, an announcement for my train sounded. Phuong reminded me of my end of the deal and we walked over to her kiosk. After all, without her help, I may have been stranded. “I’ll take some Mentos, a bag of dried jack fruit chips, four cans of 333 beer, a pack of gum, a package of cookies, and a bag of those ‘New York-flavored’ potato chips.”

Phuong looked at me, pouty, her lower lip eclipsing the rest of her mouth. “Okay, okay,” I said, frantically looking through the glass counter of snack foods. “Give me the dried shredded pigs ears.” Phuong smiled and tallied up my bill. It came to about five dollars in total, which didn’t seem like much but Phuong looked pleased.

Maybe I was just projecting it, but as Phuong, her niece, and the dwarf stood there with me on the platform, I felt a sense of warmth between us. As if these three people and I had shared something magical together; like we hadn’t just spent the last two hours together but the last two weeks. I insisted we take a photo with my telephone and then I picked up my bag to get on the train.

That’s when Phuong stepped in front of me and rubbed her belly. “Oh, please sir, give me money,” she said.

I knew all along Phuong’s motivations for helping me were not entirely out of altruism (something about the way she said, “Come back and by my snack foods” tipped me off). After all, she didn’t even know my name and the only thing she really knew about me was that I lived in New York and I didn’t think I wanted to have children. But I was choosing to suspend reality for a few hours, to pretend that we really did have a bond, that she did care for my well being. In a way, I cared for hers. We both got something out of the experience: I (barely) got home and Phuong got some extra money. But I think we both got something more out of it. I did. For a few minutes, I didn’t feel abandoned in a place so foreign to me; just a few hours earlier, I was utterly helpless and had no idea how I was going to get myself out of this situation. That’s when Phuong stepped into my life.

I opened up my wallet and handed her a few large bills, maybe the equivalent of $20, and she pocketed it with such automation one could have easily been fooled into thinking we’d done this –said goodbye on a train platform in central Vietnam–dozens of times.

Phuong gave me a long hug. “See you next time,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “See you soon, I hope.”

I got on the train with my small backpack and large bag of recently purchased snack food. As the train began to chug away, I waved to Phuong, her niece, and the dwarf on the platform until they disappeared.

If I ever get back to Nha Trang, I will make a point to visit Phuong’s snack food kiosk in the railway station. Is it naïve to think she’ll remember me? Probably. Instead, though, I’ll buy another bag of dried, shredded pigs ears and introduce myself, as if we’re meeting for the first time.