Life in Vietnam

Thursday, 25/04/2024 09:35

Hidden gems of kindness await at every turning point

Illustration by Trịnh Lập

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

If you are living in Việt Nam, the chances are that you have had lunch or dinner at a pavement Cơm bình dân.

A Cơm bình dân, or popular rice eatery, is what its name suggests. Average dishes with cooked white rice with toppings of some meat (caramelised pork, or beef stew), fish (caramelised fish or deep-fried), eggs, and all sorts of vegetables from stir-fried mustard greens to bean sprouts or bamboo shoots.

This meal has almost everything a person needs to function during the day. At Cơm bình dân, they also have the secret little snacks that bring an accentuated feel to otherwise a normal meal, such as sesame and peanut mix or salty roasted peanuts. 

The price can vary, but it won't be less than VNĐ20,000 or over VNĐ50,000. It is truly a meal of the people. At these shops, we can order burnt rice at the bottom of a cast iron cooker to be dipped in some caramelised pork/fish gravy. 

But a Cơm bình dân can be more than just a food shop. It's a place you can easily gift someone a meal. "Do you take cơm treo today?" is the question you may ask. 

Cơm treo literally means "a hung up meal" and the popular saying goes, "Cơm treo, mèo nhịn đói," which means the family has food, but its cat stays hungry. When you ask a Cơm bình dân seller for a cơm treo, you actually pay for one full meal that will be given to someone who comes in later for food. You won't know who gets it, and the receiver won't thank you for your generosity. 

Last summer, a former colleague brought her family home from the UK. The long travels, and move from one hotel or apartment across Việt Nam had exhausted everyone in the family at the end of their trip. They arrived late back in Hà Nội, and went out to have some simple food at a Cơm bình dân, near their AirBnB apartment. 

"They had started to clean up, but when we got in, the owner was really nice to our children," she said.  "They asked details about what my kid would like in her omelette and her husband pulled the fan closer to us. They made an effort to cater to her quite picky eating demands, and nurtured her as if my daughter was her own child, which touched us all."

At another Cơm bình dân, my friend felt her efforts to bring her British children closer to their Vietnamese side were paid back. Even though they don't speak Vietnamese every day, Vietnamese food has been part of what they grow up on, so they can start exploring their mother's culture from there. 

"Having grown-up children and travelling far sometimes wreck our pockets. But going to a beach in a central town in Việt Nam, having coffee in Đà Lạt, or having a simple yet fresh homey food at a Cơm bình dân cost is always fairly priced, and it makes us feel so much happier, and relieves our financial worries," she said.

"Not everyone can afford to take the family home to Việt Nam every year, and we have to save up for a few years for each trip." 

The country has been undergoing serious economic and political uncertainties at a high level in recent times. Yet at the grassroots level, normal people find ways to support each other, and hand out a little help to the people around them.

There's also an unspoken, unwritten rule of thumb in street noodle soup shops, that when you order food to take away for two, they often give out enough soup and fresh noodles for four people to have at home.

"People sometimes cannot afford to eat out," our local street duck noodle shop said when I asked why they packed so much food for two. "People buy food for home, so everyone can share, we always give more." 

This deed takes its root from the hard old days in post-war Việt Nam in the 1980s, when the economy was hard and the country was undergoing wars in its northern and southwestern borders. Children were assigned to buy phở broth from the phở stalls home so that they could ladle it on their rice and have a great meal, without having to pay for the actual beef phở

This style has prompted a phở seller in Hà Nội's Nguyễn Du Street to add a bowl of white rice for phở customers, so they can have a fuller meal, reminding them of the good old days, when they were small and still living with their parents. 

During those hard years, Lưu Quang Vũ, one of our generation's celebrated poets and playwrights, penned a brilliant poem Phố ta. He wrote:

"Nếu cuộc đời này toàn chuyện xấu xa,

thì sao cây táo lại nở hoa?" (If this life is full of bad things, then why does the apple tree blossom?)

This little love poem by Vũ shows how he loved life despite all the bad things he saw in life. 

He was right. The children of today's cơm treo and "double dosed" soup bowl shall grow up and start to give away what they had received as children in the future.  VNS 

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