Vietnam – pork on the side

Flirting with foreign menus

Ordering food in a new destination can sometimes be frustrating. You know, when there’s no translation, and the letters on the menu reveal absolutely nothing about the contents of the dish. I have spent most of my adult life cursing the so called ‘tourist menus’, you know, the type they give you in restaurants that tend to have all sorts of flags from around the world on display. But I tell you something. Some fifteen years ago,  the words ‘palak paneer’ had me wishing for a translation. (Or maybe even just the tiniest, tackiest picture). It took me one week in India before I realised that ‘palak paneer’ was indeed a safe bet. Spinach & cheese – you can’t go wrong with that.

Yeah, I know what it looks like - but the taste is nice...

On a more recent trip to Vietnam, we spent the last six days of our holidays on the island of Phu Quoc. By now we had mastered the chop sticks (our daughter used them more like stab sticks, but nevermind…) and we knew our pho ga (chicken soup) from our cute little chả giò (spring rolls).

However, the food on Phu Quock Island was different to everything else we had tried in Vietnam. It is richer, tastier and spicier. And there are neither chicken soup or spring rolls on the menu. The island itself produces peppercorns and that beloved Vietnamese fish sauce called nouk nam. The stuff is fermented, and some days when the wind blew north, the smell of rotten fish would linger. However, the taste is rather good. And combined with the peppery fish they cooked on the beach, it is a cuisine in its own right.

We stayed in a bungalow (17$ per night) at My Lan bungalow complex the Eastern side of the island. This is the less developped side, and as opposed to the Western side where the resorts are covering pretty much the whole coast, the Eastern side is still full of virgin beaches and plenty of lush vegetation. It is a place where tourism is still taking its first wobbly steps, and consequently, it is a place where the menus are hilarious.  Pork on the side, for instance, is a dish I hadn’t heard of before. Could it be spare ribs? Maybe, maybe not. We decided to give it a go.

The restaurant at My Lan consists of a small kitchen, a handful of aluminium tables scattered in the sand, an oblivious yet charming staff and possibly the best ingredients I’ve ever come across. But pork on the side..? We were intrigued as our hunger was gradually building up. Ding, our friendly waiter, showed up with our Tiger beers, plates and cutlery. No food in sight.  He re-appeared with a small metal dish, into which he poured coal. Aha! Pork on the side is a bbq’ed dish, we assumed. And rightly so. After a ceremonial wait while the coals turned from black to grey, Ding sat down on the deck chair nearest our table. He barbecued juicy pieces of what we assumed came from the pork’s side. Could it be pancetta, I asked myself. And in our 117th futile attempt to get Ding to translate ‘Pork on the Side’ for us, he simply pointed to us, to the bbq, to the meat and to himself – Pork on YOUR side, he smiled.

The conclusion? ‘Pork on the Side’ is a dish consisting of pork being bbq’ed to perfection by your side! Mystery solved! A great big cheers to Ding and My Lan and their truly entertaining and unique menu. May it long live before some know-it-all foreigner decides to correct it.

Pork on the side, a truly spectacular dish!

We stayed at My Lan on the southern end of Bai Sao Beach, Phu Quoc Island.  T: (077) 399 0779 F: (077) 399 1010

My Lan 'luxury'. Our humble bungalow - outdoor shower and all.

Lake Lake

Lac Lake in Vietnam. Lake Nyasa in Malawi. Did you know they both mean Lake Lake?

It’s the kind of interesting little anecdote that spices up your adventure. However, I have to ask myself – why do spectacular, natural lakes around the world end up being called something as uninspiring as Lake Lake?

This beautiful, Vietnamese lake could do SO much better than being called Lake Lake.

Well, what did the great big, discoverers do when they came to a new and wonderful place? I am only guessing here of course, but I reckon they must have made use of some sort of primitive sign language like pointing to the lake they had just ‘discovered’, followed perhaps by raising their shoulders to their ears as if to ask ‘what is that gorgeous lake called?’

The natives must have understood this and replied that it is a lake. So when the Vietnamese said it is a lac and the Malawis said it is a nyasa, it made perfect sense to the likes of Livingston to name them Lac Lake and Lake Nyasa.

Lac Lake in all its glory:

Today we can have a giggle about it. It sort of illustrates the essence of communication and even more so – miscommunication.

On the same trip to Vietnam as the one where it was our turn to ‘discover’ Lac Lake, I encountered a similar type of dilemma.

To cut a long story short we were driving through Vietnam, starving for breakfast. So when we spotted a little road side café we were only too happy to take a break. Now, try and explain with no menu available and in no language known to you, that you fancy a cup of coffee, some toast and some scrambled eggs. We knew they had eggs because there were lots of chickens running around.

Well, we tried by pointing to our (very empty) munching mouths. They did not understand.

So we pretended to be holding a piece of bread in our hands, and using the other hand to spread the butter. It may sound easy peasy, like something you’d get in a split second if we were playing charades. However, in a country where they eat with chop sticks, we found that our ability to imitate daily actions fell short.

Lady, we know you serve food! Could we please please please have some breakfast?

By now, our stomachs were doing the talking for us. They were rumbling in a language louder and clearer than any sign language lost between cultural differences.

How difficult can it be to make them understand that we want breakfast? It’s 9 am, this is a café and we are tourists. What else could we possibly be asking for? said the boldest out of our group.

She decided to make them understand once and for all by pointing to one of the chickens, imitate the actual process of laying an egg (facial expressions and all!). She then proceeded to air mixing the eggs together and finally pretended to eat it.

The staff changed their look. They looked happy to finally know what we wanted, and went into what we thought was the kitchen. However, they didn’t even give my sister in law the opportunity to revel in her claim to an Oscar, before they returned with two rolls of toilet paper.

We never got our breakfast. They had obviously mistaken my sister in law’s egg laying skills for another need one may have as a tourist in Vietnam at 9 am. My husband however, made the most of it, grabbed the toilet paper and headed straight to the loo. Next time we’ll bring flash cards with us.


Planning a trip to Spain? Save yourself the embarrassing sign language and find out exactly how to order breakfast as a local.