Every city in Asia has a dish they’re known for serving on the street, and in Hoi An, Vietnam there’s no question what that dish is: Co’m Gá. It’s a simple chicken and rice dish prepared with seasoned chicken, shredded carrot and Papaya, and served with a bowl of broth with cilantro.
In my book, there is no better way to connect with local culture and people than to find a busy food stand on the street, and sit down to a meal. As you enjoy the food, you don’t even have to speak to anyone – just people watch. Invariably, you’ll find you are the one being watched, and that can lead to the kinds of experiences that will stay with you forever.
As I was sitting at my table late one evening, enjoying this local specialty, the man running the stand with his wife stood silently staring at me. After about 15 seconds, he asked quietly: “Are you American?” Now, you don’t have to be a detective to identify me as an American while I’m traveling, but there was something in the way he asked question that piqued my interest. “Yes.” I replied, with a friendly weariness developed from traveling in a world where that’s not always an invitation to be friends. “American military?”, he continued. Uh oh. He was at just about the age that made me go through a check list: does he have all his limbs? Check. Is he with family? Check. Is he smiling? Not really….”No. Are you Vietnamese military?” “Yes. For six years I fought with Americans.” Or was that “…fought Americans…”. “South Army?” I asked. “Yes…” And with that, we had a nice interaction where he described the American army as “his friends”.
It was the kind of conversation that makes some Americans uneasy to travel in Vietnam, but it’s also the kind of experience becoming easier for everyone to initiate. When I first visited Vietnam in 2001, the people were friendly in the south, but the further north you went, the harder the stares got. Now, it seems everyone is eager to put that behind and move onto a new era of cooperation and understanding. And nowhere was that more evident than at a Co’m Gá stand in Hoi An.
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