Picture this: Vietnam*. New Year’s Eve, 2018. The air was warm with a gentle breeze. Ho Chi Minh was buzzing, because even though they have a slightly different calendar, they have a massive tourist industry.
We were staying in the Japanese quarter, at a lovely apart-hotel. The guy in the apartment next to ours was leading a very exciting life, if the “oh, ohhh, ohhhhh…” through the walls several hours a day were anything to go by. Both girls were faking it, but I expected they were getting ample recompense for their time and sparkling wit.
Our own trip was also exciting. Vietnam has some of the best food you’ll ever experience, and the Japanese quarter was extra-good because it was all top-notch Japanese food.
This isn’t about that.
This is a misadventure at the worst restaurant I’ve ever eaten at.
We’d walked past a “Vietnamese* Confusion Restaurant” many times as it was only a few buildings down the road from our apartment. Tonight, we decided to try it.
First, there was security on the entrance. I still don’t know why, or what they thought they were guarding. They had one of those big fuck-off dogs that you see in South Africa. We passed cautiously.
At this point, my husband and I exchanged a brief glance and I think we would have left, except this bloke appeared and greeted us like we were his long-lost sons. He put us at a table which was a booth like you get at some English pubs. In fact, a lot about the interior seemed to be styled on an English working men’s club circa 1980. Come On Eileen should have been playing on the speakers instead of random local music.
The rest of the place was completely empty.
We were each handed a big stack of mismatched photo frames, complete with the glass in them.
This was the menu. Someone was trying a bit too hard to be edgy and offbeat and was really just being floppy and out of tune. It was a sign of things to come.
We’d been here three weeks, now, and I was quite familiar with local cuisine, or so I thought.
I recognised nothing.
This could go one of two ways. The best way would be that we’d stumbled upon a local gem selling cuisine of the people, and we could discover how excellent the “authentic” food was.
It went the other way.
The other way was, we’d stumbled upon the only Vietnamese restaurant owned and operated by someone whose idea of cooking was scraping up abandoned rubbish from the side of the road.
Mine was some sort of dead animal, some mushy grated carrots, some sort of other vegetables or possibly shredded sea creatures, and a sauce with all the soul and flavour of vomit mixed with chili.
I took a bite and my eyes were watering. I’m a girl who enjoys a madras. But what I can’t stand is chili for the sake of chili. If it doesn’t add to the flavour, take it out of the dish.
In the case of this meal, that philosophy would have left them with an empty bowl.
I looked at my husband who was equally struggling.
“This is disgusting,” he said in a low voice.
“Oh thank God it’s not just me. I don’t want to offend them though.” Mostly, because I imagined any complaint could quickly be settled by the big fuck-off dog at the entrance.
“No, me either. But I can’t eat this.”
“It’s Godawful.” We looked at the bowls for a minute, trying to work out what to do. Then we did that thing couples often do, where we decided whatever problems we were having could be solved by swapping. I think Jack Sprat and his wife were the first to do this.
His was as bad as mine, it just tasted a bit different. Both had the vomit/chili top notes, but the undertones varied. His was body odour with a hint of tadpole. Mine tasted like earwax and that slime that builds up in the kitchen sink.
“Is yours… actually dead?” I asked, looking at the way his bowl bubbled.
“I’m not sure.”
“Mine’s quite a long way past its best,” I mumbled. “I feel like I might be auditioning for a remake of the Human Centipede.”
“Let’s just pay and leave.” He’s always the wise one with sensible solutions to the ridiculous messes I regularly drag us both into.
Leaving seemed like a good plan. Except every time we tried to do this, the waiter looked at our food, shook his head and said, “pay at end.” Then walked off.
They weren’t going to let us leave until we’d eaten it.
“Can we just sneak out?” I muttered, but even if my husband hadn’t nixed that idea, I couldn’t go through with it. We’d get caught and go to prison. I knew all about local prisons. I’d seen Bridget Jones 2. They make you sing Madonna. And I didn’t know any Madonna except Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, which probably didn’t count because it was in a film not on an album.
Beneath everything else, I am English. I know this because of what I did next. I took a deep breath and Englished my way out of this misadventure. See, I knew we could probably convince them we were done if one of us finished. I could save my husband without having to sing anything from Evita.
I scrunched my eyes up, picked up my fork and commenced shoveling.
“What are you doing?” my husband asked.
Through streaming eyes and nose, and a mouthful of being hit in the face with a shovel, I replied, “Rallying. Magnificently.“
I chewed for a bit longer and swallowed. And again, and again, until the bowl was empty. I hated every single bite of that bastard meal like I’ve never hated anything in my life. I’d rather swallow Donald Trump’s plum juice than ever eat at that place again.
To his credit, my husband gave his meal a good attempt, too.
“How was the meal?” the waiter asked.
“Oh yes, brilliant. Lovely,” I said.
“Great… stuff,” my husband added.
The waiter nodded. “Would you like to see the dessert menu?”
I suspected one of the dishes might be a house brick that a dog had urinated on.
“No, thank you. Very filling,” my husband said. And I remembered all the reasons I loved him. Other people could waste their lives arguing with the staff over having to pay money for such awful food. We were going to let it go and skip off into the sunset.
We paid and walked out, both keeping a straight face until we were back on the road.
“Any idea what you just ate?” I asked.
“Not a clue. I think there were some grated carrots, though.”
I think I vomited first. One of us made a joke about how the restaurant staff would scrape it up, put it in a bowl and sell it to the next tourist to come this way.
Then we spent the rest of the walk back laughing at the terrible meal. My husband is more of a dire-rear chap when he has bad food, so the next forty minutes were bathroom-bound. New Year’s Eve had been a culinary write-off, but we hoped the coming year would be better.
It was, by the way. 11 months later, I got pregnant and it finally stuck. Which meant I was throwing up in a hotel in Malaysia the following New Year’s Eve.
*Country has been changed for legal reasons; this didn’t happen in Vietnam. I’ve never been to Vietnam at time of writing. The country this happened in has a history of prosecuting bloggers for writing honest reviews.