Living in Viet Nam means adapting to local conditions of cleanliness and hygiene. If you want to eat and drink with the locals then you had better be tolerant of conditions that would not be acceptable in more developed areas of the world. Vietnamese people are well aware of this and tell me that it is best not to look at the kitchen before you eat in a restaurant and if you have to pass by it on the way to your table, better look the other way.
That’s OK with me. I’m inclined to think the same way about many eating places in Australia and, now that I’ve been through the rigours of getting the right bugs resident in my stomach, I’m confident that I can eat and drink in most places in this country with no ill effect. I’m prepared to accept different levels of hygiene in the preparation of food here than I would accept in Australia and turn a blind eye to conditions that are often less than satisfactory.
Many locals serving food here are aware that the standards need to be higher and I can see improvements occurring all the time. Old metal or chipped enamel buckets used for washing crockery are now often replaced by gleaming stainless steel ones and at one of my favourite pavement bun bo eateries I notice the owner now wears a disposable glove to pick up the food rather than just his bare hand.
But even though there is an awareness of the need for cleaner conditions, old habits die hard. I couldn’t help but notice that as the owner was intent on preparing his steaming bowls of bun in as clean a fashion as conditions on the pavement allow, his assistants were still using tried and true methods of preparation.
It is fair to say that the surface of any alley in this city probably harbours enough germs to kill an army. People walk over it, motorbikes and an assortment of other wheeled vehicles traverse it, most people hawk up and spit out their phlegm on it, dogs who lack any other place empty their bladders and bowels upon it and at night the local alley rats leave trails of who knows what on it. So the owner’s precautions at his end of the production line were somewhat negated when I saw his assistant preparing the vegetables by first dumping them directly onto the asphalt to sort them prior to preparation. Do I still eat the bun bo there? Well yes I do and its delicious. You see, that is the tolerance I was talking about.
Last week myself and a mate travelled out to a friends place at Thu Duc. After a meal in his house we went around the corner to his local bia tuoi place. Bia tuoi’s exist all over Viet Nam and they provide excellent fresh and inexpensive draught beer, usually at only 2-3,000 VND per glass. This place also provides excellent food also at very low prices, but remember? Don’t look in the kitchen.
We sat at the usual low stainless steel tables on the ubiquitous low plastic chairs and enjoyed the camaraderie that comes from good beer and good conversation. It wasn’t until we were on our forth or fifth beer that I noticed something that would send any workplace health and safety officer in Australia totally around the bend.
You see, this place has a procedure and it goes like this. Fresh beer glasses are stored on an open plastic rack upside down to drain from where they are taken to the tap, filled with the amber fluid and delivered to the table. Once they are empty the waiter will bring fresh beer and the old glasses are taken away and rinsed in a large open plastic rubbish bin (one or two swirls in the water) and placed back on the drying rack.
So far this isn’t too bad is it? OK, there is no beer soap or disinfectant so the chance of picking up the germs from the last person who drank from the glass is ever present. But what startled me was when I noticed that the two dogs who are resident in this place use the rinsing bucket as their drinking water. Yep, that’s right, there they were paws up on the edge of the bin dropping who knows what into it and lapping from the same water that is used to rinse the glasses.
I pointed this out to my friends and we debated about whether or not to say something to the owner. In the finish we said nothing, drank a few more beers and went home happy. Is this still tolerance or could there be a better word to describe our reaction to it?
The dogs featured in another entertaining episode before the night was over when a large rat scurried over the wall behind us and headed for the kitchen. Both dogs immediately went into rat catching mode snuffling through the kitchen amongst the pots and pans and attempting to get under the cupboard where the rat had taken refuge. However, as rat catchers these two leave a lot to be desired because they failed to notice that their quarry had headed back in our direction and back over the wall. Fifteen minutes later they were still trying to work out where it went.
So is it tolerance or stupidity that I am still prepared, even looking forward, to visiting that bia tuoi again and enjoying their hospitality and cheap tasty beer? Beer which, incidentally, never leaves you with a hangover because it is fresh and free of chemicals. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
Meanwhile, I’m off down the street for a large bowl of bun bo.