Finding food at the late hour of 9PM is proving to be difficult in this small, Mekong Delta town (of which we don't even know the name). After a thrilling day of engaging cycling, we are overtired and very hungry, trudging around town, searching for any place that's open, trying not to let our night end in a total meltdown.
Eventually, we find a smoky bar that serves food.
Inside, the place is packed with Vietnamese men swigging large gulps of Saigon beer and popping peanuts in their mouths. Soon, we have two beers of our own, a bowl of soggy, boiled-in-the-shell nuts, and a menu in front of us. Inside the plastic cover, we find pages and pages of scribbly script of which we are completely and totally ignorant. Hmmmm.
Usually, when we don't know the language, we'll just point at a dish someone else is having. That plan isn't working out so well at the moment, as beer seems to be the dinner of choice here. We're nearly ready to use our last resort: pick something at random and hope, when a friendly guy at the next table notices our plight and comes over to help us order.
As he pores over the menu, he struggles a bit with his English, clearly reaching back into the recesses of his brain to find the words. "This is… uhhh… cheeken!," he says, pointing to one of several rows of options. Satisfied with the section, Tyler slaps his finger down right in the middle. The man responds, "That is… uhhhh…bowled cheeken!"
Completely beyond the point of caring, just wanting to get any sort of food into our mouths as soon as possible, I respond, "boiled chicken, sounds fine!" Our server scurries off with the order, and we thank our translator for his kindness.
Our food seems to be taking a very long time to arrive, but we don't mind, for a steady supply of mushy peanuts is tiding us over. Also, we're distracted from our rumbling tummies by a friendly man named Tâm who has joined our table. He has a broad smile, a gregarious nature, and a curious habit of punctuating his sentences with frequent high-pitched, singsongy "OH-kAay!"s.
As an English teacher who has never been to an English-speaking country and has rarely seen a western tourist in this small town, he is eager to talk with us. We're equally excited, hoping for a brief, and much-needed Vietnamese lesson. Over beers and peanuts, we chat about our respective languages.
After we've answered his many questions about English, we pepper him with quandaries of our own. Anything but a simple hello has thus far eluded us, so we ask about pronunciations of several basic words. Before we've gotten too far, he shares with us in a very matter-of-fact tone that with English, accent matters very much, but with Vietnamese, it doesn't!
What? we say, shocked. Vietnamese is all about tone, inflection and pronunciation! He refuses to believe us, until we try saying one of the phrases we've learned from our guidebook, jow doy (which means "I would like…"). We offer the two word phrase in as many different ways as we can think of, while he looks at us blankly, not understanding a thing.
jow doy? jo doy? jOW doy? joe dOY? …jAW doy?
Finally, he gets what we're saying, and says it for us, demonstrating how it is supposed to sound (it is actually jAHH doy… sort of). To us, it sounds exactly the same as several of the ones we tried just a moment earlier.
But English? English is easy. Right? Well, not so much. I remember my French friend Philippe, a lover of languages, and a man with whom I've had long discussions over the pronunciations of "ship" versus "sheep", and "shit" versus "sheet". As an English speaker, the differences between these words are quite profound, yet for him they sound basically the same, and are nearly impossible to pronounce.
As if confirming that the same holds true here, Tâm tries to tell us about some English word called ka-pow now. "You know, ka-pow now! ka-pow now!" To me, it sounds like a Thai stir-fry. What the heck could ka-pow now be in English?
After a few seconds of confused wondering, I switch my brain into to foreign language mode, and it finally dawns on me what he's trying to communicate. "OHHHHHHHHH!" I say, wishing I had a buzzer to slap down with the right answer. "COMPOUND NOUN!"
After quite some time, our conversation with Tâm is put on hold when our waitress returns bearing plates and plates of food, more than we ever thought we ordered. And, in the center of it all, lies a chicken. An entire boiled chicken.
…it was actually really good!