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.

Labels: ,

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Time to Break Silence

Martin Luther King speaks out against war in April 1967. You probably won't hear it quoted today in mainstream celebrations but it's easy enough to find online. It's worth taking the time to read or listen. King's analysis is spot on. It's also timeless. Substitute names and ideologies at specific points of the speech and it characterizes, most unfortunately, America in the early 21st century and in many of the years following the speech.

King's vision was inspiring in the tradition of Americans' highest ideals and aspirations. But America did not pursue that vision. Our legacy, which Dr. King predicted, has been four decades of war and militarism. To the many dead of Vietnam, we have added the many dead of our wars in Central and South America, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Today is a day to remember that in matters of war in peace, Martin Luther King got it right. The rest of us did not

Quotes you definitely won't hear highlighted and discussed today (outside of Democracy Now!*):

Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.


This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.


And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.


Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.


At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.


The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.


A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.


Communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.... A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

* Free Speech Radio News also quoted from this speech in its broadcast today.

Labels: , ,