I went for drinks the other night with a couple of women, one I’d met before and the other was new to me. They have been living in Vietnam for at least half a dozen years.
We talked about a bunch of random things, but then, as seems to happen a lot, the conversation turns to food. Most times it’s without my direct doing. People find out you play with food for a living, and questions start coming left and right.
“So you must know the best addresses then”, said the French girl. “Where do you buy your produce?”
“Right back here, actually”, I said, pointing out the window of the café where we’d ensconced ourselves. “On Ton That Dam, near Bitexco Tower. I go to the same vendors every day. Three sisters run the stall”.
“A street market?”, questioned the other girl. The French girl looked doubtful. “You buy your groceries off the street? But how is that clean? Is it organic? I only buy organic”.
And here’s the part that annoys the crap out of me. You packed up your whole life to live an adventure in a foreign land, and you refuse to do anything not geared towards expats. They buy their shiny, perfect vegetables in shiny, perfect air-conditioned stores. I took a deep breath before replying, “Nothing in Vietnam is 100% organic”.
“Oh yes it is!”, cried the French girl triumphantly as though she knew something I didn’t, the other girl nodding her head knowingly. “The Organik shop in Thao Dien is 100% organic”. (Thao Dien is the expat-heavy area of District 2 that I fondly refer to as Miami).
“No, it isn’t”, I continued. “A woman I know who works for an appraisal firm researched this and went to Dalat to investigate the farms. Keeping an organic farm is expensive. At most, some of the farms are sustainable and what we’d call ‘naturally grown’ but even then the term ‘natural’ is ambiguous…” and this is where I stopped because I realized I’d completely lost them along the way. Deer in headlights looks from my two companions.
“But what about Veggy’s?”, the other girl asked, naming a store that’s been around since the 1990s.
“Nope. They might say they are but they’re not. But I won’t shop there unless I have to. The owner is unpleasant”.
“So you won’t shop there because of him, but you’ll shop on the street? And his stuff is organic”.
“No it isn’t”.
“Well, he says it is”.
Thing is, the farms and sellers here can call their vegetables ‘organic’ without any repercussions, because no one is going to come after them. I don’t know if there are any laws regarding the naming conventions, and if there are I’m sure the government doesn’t care. They’ve got bigger issues to deal with.
Then the French girl turned to me and said, smiling sweetly, “I meant to ask you something, but I don’t know if you’ll find it offensive. You work for Australians. Why on earth did they hire you?”
I was taken aback. “Excuse me?” Holy hell, are we rehashing this again?
“Well forgive me for saying so, but you’re not Australian. You’re half French and half American. There are lots of Australian chefs here with no jobs. Why didn’t your boss offer them a job instead of you? Seems the natural thing to do, right?”
“My boss likes me and my food, and I’m good at what I do. That is why she hired me”.
She laughed. “Can you imagine a Frenchman here hiring a chef who wasn’t French? That would never happen”.
“Well my boss happens to be more open-minded”.
“But it would never happen. It would be blasphemy!”
I left soon after.