After the visit to the school, 0ur little party of visiting dignitaries prepares to leave Son Hai and repair to Pho Lu for lunch, and the children walk back down the hill to their home, from which Tuyen had fetched them up, picking her way through the mud and dung in her tight skirt and heels. We’ve left the huge bag of candy at the village center, but I remember I have my stash of Kind Bars, so we hand one to each child, and the oldest one asks if she can get one for her younger brother who is one month old. Good try. I don’t know if I like myself for doing this, but I do it anyway. It wasn’t my idea, and at least they’re nutritious.
I am so hungry at this point that my eyes are crossing and I forget that on these kinds of occasions I will have almost no control over what food is put in front of me. Food in these small villages can range from homey and very good, to weird, to downright septic in my experience. I know this will be a high-stakes lunch, but still I am unprepared for what is to come. The obligatory meeting in the village center earlier that morning is a preview. I’ve screwed this part up before, first by disappointing with my female-ness and then by failing utterly to charm the grumpy and resentful local chairman. I need and want things to go better this time, and I know Le will be a better and more sympathetic diplomat and translator. And I will need all her help. We convene in the village center, with its U-shaped tables covered with blue acetate cloth that sticks to sweaty arms like napalm, under the watchful eyes not just the ubiquitous Uncle Ho, but Uncles Karl and Vladimir as well. Awkward conversation made much more awkward by this arrangement, it’s just minutes before the awkward foods arrive. First, huge and beautiful grapes with a pronounced pesticide flavor to the skin and enormous pits that I don’t know how to get out of my mouth. I swallow them. Next, very appealing warm peanuts. Great, I know how to eat these. But, no, the shells resist all my ballgame and barroom skills and refuse to give up their nuts. Tuyen eagerly cracks them for me and delivers a little pile of pale, larval, unsalted, and I guess, raw nuts that taste awful. The warmth is from the sun of the road on which they were probably drying. I eat. Next, bowls of the legendary Bac Ha plums, little round ones in Impressionist shades of green and magenta. They are trying to trick me, I know, but I have to bite and praise. The first note is chemical again, followed by astringency so powerful that makes your tongue feel like it’s been dry-cleaned and your face draw up in a cartoonish pucker. The finish is sweet and lovely and welcome, but by now you have a slippery magenta pit in your fingers and juice on your chin and nothing but a sad little Kleenex to help you. Thank god you don’t have to swallow the pit. Later, I discover purple dots far down on my arm, and I say aside to Le, “how did I get this all the way there,” and she says, “I think that’s from me; I squirted juice onto you,” and I feel better. I tell her I will always remember her and this day every time I put on this shirt and see the stain. The final course is watermelon, which is delicious, but comes with yet another pit problem. I swallow some more before I notice everyone else is extracting the seeds with toothpicks before they eat the fruit. Still, the meeting goes well, and there are warm handshakes and photographs of me presenting notebooks and pens.
Lunch will be like this, except I will have to be even more alert to secret codes and, ha, pitfalls. Be the open-minded and grateful eater you say you want to be, I counsel myself in the car. Not “adventurous,” because other peoples’ food isn’t a theme park or an test of strength; it’s food, and it is meant to be shared – and appreciated. We pull into the restaurant in dusty Pho Lu to find that behind the usual craptacular façade is a stunning old beamed Chinese-style house. Promising. Let the impenetrable tea rituals begin. And they do. Somewhere among the pouring and the rinsing and more pouring, Le says to me, “you don’t mind dog, do you?” I’m mortified to report that my actual, thoughtful response was, “Well, I don’t much care for it, but I don’t mind if other people eat it.” Much to her infinite credit she does not say, “You don’t ‘mind’? What kind of fucking answer is that, and who the fuck do you think you are?” Just gives me the Vietnamese smile and nod.
We move to a semi-air-conditioned chamber for lunch and the plates start arriving, the first a plate of sliced roast something. “Is that duck?” I ask Le, and we get so confused with the similarities between the words that I ask “quack quack or ruff ruff?” “Yes, ruff ruff,” she confirms. Nothing to do but have the smallest bite possible and hope other foods come soon so I can distract attention by eating them instead of the dog, which is, in fact, not vile, And what a spread it is: another dog dish, and three goat dishes. The curried goat is pretty good, but since no rice has arrived yet, it’s not very easy to eat. One of the other goats is okay, so I decide to try the third, and my luck runs out. Halfway through a chewing marathon, which was, regrettably, beginning to yield up some flavor, Le says, “it’s tasty.” No, it most certainly is not. Oh, no, I realize, she didn’t say “tasty,” it was either “testes,” or “intestines.” It hardly matters which at this point, and dear reader, I had swallowed the fruit pits, the sour plum, several shots of grain alcohol, and the slice of dog, but I did not swallow that bite of goat unmentionable. I really tried, but I knew if I did it would come up with everything else in a rainbow of plum and curry and watermelon and pumpkin vine. I almost pulled a Seinfeld and put the Kleenex of goat-whatever in my bag, but, alas, I just dropped on the floor behind me, and raised another toast in my half-assed Vietnamese, downed it in a single shot, and charmed the living shit out of the robustly drinking female teachers and male local leaders. You gotta play to your strengths.