Six weeks or close enough not to matter is how long it’s been, six weeks of small red plastic chairs and random guesses at what we were about to eat. We sauntered into Vietnam knowing that the food would be good and that street food was a juggernaut that shouted on the world stage, and so we dictated that we could only eat on the street or in small local places. It’s in times of fatigue that the comfortable fit-out with an English menu seems so attractive but proudly we have stayed strong and it’s been local all the way; we now have an unnatural love affair with tiny red plastic chairs that possibly needs therapy. Surprised looks from locals, giggles at our attempted Viet language and not even needing to order to have food put in front of us has become the norm, how life is. But that’s not always how life is, we left behind many certainties on this trip and tonight we’re about to embrace one of those abandoned certainties all over again. A fancy restaurant; with a menu in English and everything.
Of course a bit of local food preceded at lunchtime, not street food exactly but no rules were broken as we stepped into a local restaurant for a different version of fresh spring rolls. Fresh spring rolls turned into pork sausage spring rolls, crap soup, noodles and rice in the type of smorgasbord I wonder how we’re ever going to do without. After farewelling Tung for the day we hole up in the hotel room after a few chores; this road trip, this binge, this adventure has been the definition of the broader escape from our regular lives as well as thoroughly exhausting. The last week in Hanoi has been little other than a slow stumble from meal to meal with the occasional coffee or beer in between sugar fixes in this slow farewell we’re not yet ready to make.But all this is about to change, six weeks of conditioning, both mental and physical, are dashed against the rocks to shatter into uncountable glitters like a great waves final hurrah. Floor to ceiling glass doors with elaborate gilded handles are pulled inward at our approach, the posh interior a slap in the face as we surface from a food immersion we have taken on so diligently, possibly too diligently. We’re even wearing jeans. Fine tasselled material waves from the bottom of too impeccable off white lamp shades when the raucous street slips into silence as the big glass door flops closed hushing us into a calm world of ambient solemnity. I wonder who died.
The marginally warm paintwork cutting into crisp white details is safe but elegant, the bar has the muted joviality of contrived mirth that could be patronising but it escapes with a certain charm. The world here seems close but maybe not quite on the money as the cheery waiter jokes with us as we sit. This is a posh restaurant, our typical sign off to any country; but more so than any other time it’s an occasion, a deviation, a treat that takes us far from our regular travel time here. As our bums collide with the plush padding that seems to occur to high yet sinks forever, a flashing lament for our little red plastic chairs tells us the truth of this world we feel so alien within. The door opens for another guest and on the waft of a social clamour it’s clear; the place is perfect, it’s us who have changed.
Like a surprise visit from an old friend the good times rush back through the curtain of fleeting uncertainty to nestle quickly in the groove they always belonged. A few dollars for a gin seems perfectly fine and a days food budget for red wine we haven’t tasted in months calls forth a shameful degree of Pavlovian response. We rush back into regular life budgets and expectations so quickly after six weeks of immersion like no other. In a way this is a sad farewell, the first sip of crisp gin with just the right amount of lime is the beginning of our long walk from this immense country.Like a ghost story of a near death experience we’re racing up a tunnel that no longer seems like just more tunnel toward the light at the end of it, this tunnel of Viet street food is not something we’re keen to escape at all. The street food world that has been like a maternal breast rages on the other side of those big glass doors. A blessedly good Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon calls us beckoningly to the light and washes away the tints of guilt that threatened us in this place of jarring opulence. Foix gras leads to spinach ravioli which is replaced by mushroom soup and a green bean soup that wins the night making us the regular critics we always were. Duck breast with orange glaze is tender and even though the rib eye is overdone we don’t really care at all. The light at the end of the tunnel is worth going to, even if this tunnel is not a tunnel we necessarily want to escape from.
It’s been hard to imagine anything better than Viet street food while we’ve been here but the world is a big place in terms of food and each subsequent plate that is placed and expertly whisked away fills our departure with excitement instead of despair. This dinner date is a regular tradition for us but never before has it transported us so far from the nation we are having it in. Vietnam, more than any other country we’ve ever travelled in is defined by its food; little red plastic chairs, how are we ever going to do without you?