The Two Things People Asked About Before I Left: (No Food Content)

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There were two subjects that repeatedly came up for discussion when i talked about this trip with my friends (okay, three, but i’m saving the ladyboy hookers for next time). They were US-Vietnamese relations and traffic. They’re topics I think on often as I ride through Vietnam.

Traffic in Vietnam is legendary. Busses passing busses passing trucks passing motorbikes, all on a two lane road. Intersections where motorbikes stream through non-stop, and pedestrians hoping to cross the street are expected to wade into, and slowly through, the flow of traffic. The outsiders often remark that there are no rules, but after a few weeks of travel I’m starting to see some patterns emerge. Cars are a remarkably new addition to Vietnamese roads. Thirty years ago, bicycles ruled. Motorbikes are now available for a paltry sum of money, and soon cars will be within the grasp of all middle class households. I think the rules of the road in Vietnam came from a different source though.

I have a theory that they came from the boats. Smaller vehicles here always yield to larger, regardless of timing, lanes, direction. This is standard with ships, right? The way that traffic flows, around pedestrians or motorbikes crossing perpendicular, doesn’t involve maintaining lanes, but it closely resembles the flow of water around rocks in a stream. The hostel I’m in now has a warning about the traffic, and it points out that accidents happen when you try to impose your own rules on the roads here. It doesn’t work. Our system is a set of guiding principles to minimize the chance of collisions. The system here is one where the traffic is viewed as a whole, not piecemeal. It is a living thing, a writhing beast, but knowing this, accepting this, makes navigating it easier. You learn to balance the proactive with the reactive. You learn to take things in stride, to abandon the personal insult so often taken by Americans from the driving habits of others. When you view yourself as a drop in the stream, you focus on maintaining the stream, on not disrupting the pattern. This is how you safely navigate.

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In Laos, I thought I would find resentment under the surface, as our cluster bombs still kill and maim people every day. I never found it. I was never greeted with anger or suspicion, only warmly. In Vietnam, it’s the same, but with so much enthusiasm I’m often perplexed at the source. One man showed me how (conversing through hand signs) our countries used to butt heads, and it was bad, and now we are very close, and it makes him very happy. Another ran his hand over his head to indicate short hair and said “Obama” followed by a large grin and thumbs up.

So many people asked if I was concerned I would be ill-received by the Vietnamese. They asked if I would pretend to be Canadian. They had no clue what the current relationship between our countries is, and neither did I. Amazingly, my reception has been nothing but positive. Strangly, I’m greeted with more enthusiasm as an American than the Europeans and Australians I’m often traveling with. At first I thought this was a fluke, an act, but as I got the same energy from everyone I met, I began to realize it’s authenticity. Children shouting to me “I love ah-mare-ee-ka!”. Teens saying “America, very strong country”. 

Where does this warmth come from? Is it our exportation of culture? I don’t think so. It’s never “Oh America. Breaking Bad good tv show” or “Jonas Brothers, very good rock music”. Maybe it was Bill Clinton’s visits in 2000 and 2014. I thought for a while, perhaps, that it is due to rising tensions with China. As relationships with one global powerhouse crumble, they hope to see new bonds in another. I don’t think this is the case though; this love of America seems set too deep to be reactionary. I think it’s a reflection of how the Vietnamese view themselves, their future. They’ve worked hard to shed their past. Outside of the museums, there are very few reminders of the wars, of communism, of harsher times. This is a country on the rise, people looking forward to a brighter future. They’ve made an incredible tourism industry in not much time, with no evidence of slowing down. The work ethic and ingenuity displayed every day are a thing of beauty. I always try to communicate to the people I meet how proud they should be of their country.

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The best restaurant I’ll never return to [most likely].

Andrew Zimmerman, chef of Sepia (hi Sepia friends!), recently wrote an article about the joys of eating alone. He waxes poetically about a perfect sausage, some strong mustard, sauerkraut and a cold beer. That is a perfect meal, and one better not shared. This post is about another perfect meal, also eaten alone, but there’s one big difference:

Chef Zimmerman’s meal isn’t brought to you by a brutal totalitarian regime known for nuclear missiles and prison camps.

Pyongyang Restaurant isn’t your typical restaurant chain. It’s operated by Room 39, the North Korean government agency better known for Superdollars, the counterfeit hundred dollar bills so good they’re actually BETTER than the originals. It’s staffed by an array of gorgeous, multitalented North Korean women dressed like flight attendants. The upstairs VIP rooms are probably bugged. It’s like being in a spy movie. I spent the whole meal waiting for a giant North Korean weightlifter to throw James Bond out of a second floor window. I was ready for that. I wasn’t ready for the food though.

Pyongyang Restaurant, Hanoi

Pyongyang Restaurant, Hanoi

“Chinese food” in America is a bastardized take on Cantonese. “Mexican food” is the food of the northerners; “Thai food” is the cuisine of the south. I had never paused to consider the regionality of Korean cuisine until reading a Vice article about a North Korean restaurant in Cambodia, the Phnom Penh location of this same chain. The article mentioned how the employees are basically enslaved, kept on the premises at all times, with 50-90% of tips garnished by the regime. It covered how the servers are trained to fill South Korean businessmen with alcohol and then pry state secrets out of them. Annoyingly, it barely mentioned the food at all. I needed to know about the food.

Stone Bowl Al Bap

Stone Bowl Al Bap

I showed up promptly at 7 pm and was shown to a table. The furniture and tableware all had a nice weight, everything felt of impeccable quality. I ordered tea, fried dumplings, the Pyongyang Cold Noodles and a stone bowl of Al Bap, a cousin of Bibim Bap where the egg and meat are replaced with heaps of flying fish roe.

Banchan Assortment

Banchan Assortment

First up was the banchan, the array of small plates filled with pickles and preserved delights. My selection was shrimp chips, lightly sweetened boneless anchovies, daikon radish, some marinated greens, plain cucumbers with a funky fish paste reminiscent of peanut butter and a large bowl of napa kimchi in a perfectly balanced broth spiked with cilantro and scallion. All of the banchan was delicious.

The dumplings showed up next, crispy side up, covered in a light coating of chile oil, with edible flower and cucumber garnish in the middle. A pork filling heavy on the kimchi and a nicely balanced dipping sauce made these irresistible. There had to be a dozen or more in the order, and I stopped myself with four left on the plate to insure that I’d have room for the next two courses. I spent the rest of the meal staring at those four delicious dumplings.

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As I was enjoying my dumplings, the entertainment started. The servers took turns playing something like eight different musical instruments, singing and dancing. My favorite was the dancing, a two person dance with a puppet and puppeteer theme. It reminded me of a cross between japanese geisha and hip hop popping and locking. All of the entertainment was surprisingly good, but a few of the singers were unbelievably talented.

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Both the noodles and the rice dish came at the same time. The rice came with a clear broth that I was instructed to eat after finishing the rice. The noodles came with all their garnishes beautifully arranged on top, only to be pushed aside as the noodles were cut with a pair of scissors. These dishes were not as boldly flavored as the dumplings but were still rather tasty.

Pyongyang Cold Noodles

Pyongyang Cold Noodles

The noodles, which I love to get at Chicago’s Da Rae Jung, are subtle, they’re soul food. They’re more about texture than flavor, the contrast of the cold buckwheat noodle with the boiled pork slices, the chicken meat, the apple and kimchi and all of the other garnishes I couldn’t identify. The rice dish is also about texture, the intermingling of the flying fish roe with the soft rice inside the bowl and the crispy rice on the edges. More pickled vegetables balanced this dish and kept it interesting. The broth served alongside was rich in texture but subtle in flavor, well balanced, a nice finish. Dessert was a slice of watermelon bursting with flavor unmatched by American produce. With a focus on meat, seafood, chili and fermented things, well made Korean food always leaves me satisfied. 

This brings me to the great moral dilemma of this restaurant. I wasn’t able to identify a distinct North Korean cuisine, but I did have a truly great meal. A friend declined to join me based on not wanting to give the PDRK any of her money or support. I can make a moral exception for one visit, for the opportunity to see a culture unknown in my home country and the experience as a whole. Now, having been, I feel great about it. I’m just not ethically comfortable with returning, which is really disappointing considering how many tasty things I saw on other tables.

Nirvana is at the end of an alley in Hanoi.

Picture this scene: You walk down a long alley to an outdoor restaurant. A gaggle of shirtless teenage boys, clad in basketball shorts and flip flops, man a pair of eight foot long grills, filled with raging charcoal. There are a ton of seats, probably room for two hundred people. You sit on your diminutive stool at your diminutive table and some hot sauce, pickled cucumbers and handi-wipes are placed in front of you.

Photo courtesy upbeatsquare.com

 The menu is non-existent, but this is not a problem because it is only six items. Everything comes on wood skewers, and everything is cooked on the grill. Chicken leg quarters, flattened out, bone in. Chicken wing, stretched out joint by joint. Pork riblets, glazed and grilled to perfection. Banh mi baguettes, flattened, glazed with honey, and grilled until the charcoal flavor takes hold and the outside is perfectly crisped. Chicken foot and honey roasted sweet potatoes round out the food offerings. Cold draft beer is the drink option, though iced tea and sodas are available. This is heaven. This is the promised land.

You wade in slowly, ordering one of each thing. A young boy, not old enough to work the grills yet, walks by with a large pair of scissors, cutting your food off the sticks and into bits sized just right for gnawing. You quickly find your favorites, reordering many times, going for the cucumbers and the sweet bread when your palate tires of charcoal meats. Orders of more beer and more meat are immediately served. This is a place where you can eat as little or as much as you want, where you’re never without exactly what you want. This is the greatest restaurant concept of all time.

Time passes unnoticed. You find a perfect place, rest for a bit, then clean up with the handi-wipes. Wave over the oldest boy around; he tallies up your handscrawled tab. Beer, bread, and an amount of meat only hinted at by the mountain of discard bones are all accounted for. You’re stuffed, thrilled, and the check comes to a little under $8 a person. This is the greatest restaurant of all time.