Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Bar Fight Restaurant

In a previous post about my visit to Vietnam I mentioned, “the bar fight restaurant” but declined to explain further in what was already a long piece. It’s a story that warrants telling, so now’s the time.

The bar fight restaurant didn’t actually have a bar and the fight was more words than action. But the site—an open air restaurant in the Phuoc My neighborhood in Da Nang’s Son Tra District—is memorable. The restaurant’s real name is Hung Tam. “Hung” is common among restaurant names here—two nearby restaurants include the word in their name. An open air restaurant in this area consisted of a corrugated tin structure where some walls can be could be opened to create sheltered space for expanded into the sidewalk . The back end is more enclosed and encompasses the kitchen and family living area. Since the area is adjacent to the ocean, these establishments have tanks of live seafood or seafood on ice. And beer. Served in the Vietnamese style--warm, over ice.

The Hung Tam was the first place Maggie and I found to eat in Da Nang after arriving from Ho Chi Minh City. It’s one of several restaurants at the end of the block where our hotel was located. We were both hungry and didn’t see many options so we opted for the closest—Hung Tam. The menu was in Vietnamese only and no one besides Maggie and I spoke English. After stumbling past each other in our respective languages, the owner invited me into the kitchen where I pointed out what I wanted. Back at our table, we relaxed a bit. We had much needed food on order and our presence did not seem particularly notable or disruptive to the other customers. In all, our first foray into Da Nang seemed to be working out.

As we waited for our food, a young man approached us from another table where a group of men were drinking after a meal. He introduced himself as Vo and used his maybe eight word English vocabulary to “converse” with us. The conversations petered out pretty quickly, each of us soon realizing that we didn’t know what the other was saying. It all seemed friendly enough and Vo returned to his table.

By this time our order arrived—a large platter of stir-fried vegetables and another of steamed rice. Famished, we both dove in, wielding our chopsticks somewhat proficiently. Vo returned shortly, this time with two glasses of beer, one clearly meant for me, and offered a toast. I returned the favor and drank the beer. It was a small glass, at least half filled with a block of ice, so it went pretty quick. Vo was saying something to us that was mostly Vietnamese mixed with the occasional English word—largely incomprehensible—when another member of his table came over to retrieve him, gesturing to us that Vo was either drunk or crazy. As they headed back to their table, we returned to our first priority—eating.

Not long after, we heard a terrific “BANG!” I looked up to see the metal table where the men were sitting go flying, along with crockery, glasses and beer. Shouting ensued, mainly by the man who had retrieved Bo earlier and he kicked the table a second time. He was visibly agitated about something. Maggie and I kept eating, hoping that we were not involved but somehow thinking that was indeed the case and that somebody’s manhood had been questioned. Arguing continued even as the drinkers righted the table and the waiter picked up debris. At some point a plastic chair came flying in our direction. It struck Maggie’s chair without much force or velocity, most likely launched indiscriminately as part of a tirade rather than overt aggression.

Still, we are both edgy now. Do we bolt? This is doing nothing toward building my confidence in the goodwill of the Vietnamese people toward Americans. I’m watching the men. Maggie is watching the Vietnamese family at another table behind me. They sit tight. We do the same. The men finally disperse, heading off on their motorbikes. Things quiet down. We finish our meal. As we leave both the owner and the waiter, who I am pretty sure is his son, apologize for the incident. We thank them and pay the bill, which is 53,000 dong or about $2.50 for more food than we could eat.

That evening we ate at another restaurant in the area with Chuck Palazzo, a Vietnam veteran who has lived in the city for a number of years. This meal was at the Hung Map, just a few blocks from the site of our afternoon meal. Chuck was surprised to hear our tale of lunchtime mayhem. So, too, were others to whom we related our experience. Our experience in Vietnam pretty much validated their opinion—we experienced nothing similar at any other time during our visit.

Maggie and I returned to the Hung Tam several more times during the two weeks we stayed in the neighborhood. We ate grilled fish, fried fish, stir-fried veggies, rich and washed it down with soda and beer. The food was always good and plentiful although that first meal was the best of all. The family waved to us whenever we walked past during our forays into the neighborhood. On the day we departed Ha Noi we stopped our cab at the end of the block so we could say thank you and good-bye. We understood each other by this time.

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