It is difficult to describe the joy that would overcome me from quieting my hunger on the side of a busy Vietnamese street whilst eating a slender baguette filled with liver pâté, sliced meats, slivered carrots, parsley, &c. If the vendor spoke some English, we would chat. Otherwise I would eat in contented silence, my presence occasionally drawing in additional customers, it seemed.
My most memorable bánh mì experience occurred in Hoi An, an ancient seaside city of culture and beauty. The evening before my bus left I had come across a woman selling sandwiches from a cart parked in a quiet side-street a few blocks from the farmer’s market. I had parked my rented bicycle and ordered a sandwich, eating it on the sidewalk whilst sitting on a colorful, child-sized plastic chair. The next morning I had checked out of my hostel, gathered up my ruck, and was waiting for the sleeper bus near the market when a pang of hunger hit. Walking down the block I discovered the same cart parked in the same spot, recognizing it from its unique banners and construction. Since the bus had not yet arrived I went quickly to it. The woman’s bánh mì had been the most delicious I’d tasted to that point, and I was excited to sample another.
Rounding the cart I found a man standing there, roughly the same age as the woman of the night before. I greeted him in his tongue, bowing to him respectfully. “Bánh mì?” he said to me, his eyes twinkling merrily. I nodded emphatically, answering him accidentally in Indonesian. He didn’t seem to notice but raised his right hand, first showing one finger, then two, his face mischievously crinkled, a pantomimed query. I raised two fingers, whereupon he nodded and bent to work, using the same hand to grab a pair of short baguettes from a wicker basket resting in the glass case in front of him. After putting the baguettes on a cutting board he picked up a chef’s knife in his right hand, then bent forward so that the stump of his left arm, which had been crudely severed below the elbow, could keep the baguette from rolling away.
Upon seeing the numbers tattooed into the skin near the stump I was instantly reminded of images I had seen in of War Crimes museums of Hanoi and elsewhere that chronicled the punitive, wartime practice of hacking off hands. Since my bus was set to arrive shortly, and figuring it would be rude to do so, I did not inquire as to the nature of the man’s wound. Given his age of roughly 65 years he would have been in his twenties at the start of the American War, however, meaning that he’d been tortured, branded, and disfigured by the invading forces, their allies, or the North Vietnamese Army. The sandwiches he made were as delicious and fortifying as any I have ever tasted. Memories of his twinkling smile, though, and willingness to engage kindly with an American tourist, will nourish and sustain me for far longer.
americanifesto / JPR / whorphan / 場黑麥