360 Days A Year

by Robert Strauss, Feb 1, 1996 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

It's a tough way to earn a living. Competition is vicious. Margins are small. Working conditions are hot and close-quartered. And the hours are long, incredibly long. Running a neighborhood restaurant in Vietnam is not the easiest or quickest way to cash in on the country's economic boom.

The Phuong Anh restaurant, on Mai Hac De Street just around the corner from To Hien Thanh Street in Hanoi, isn't much to look at. From the street, it's hardly different from the hundreds or thousands of small eating places that line the roads all over Asia. But over several days my wife and I had eaten lunch at Phuong Anh and each day the food had been marvelous. There were five or six different pork dishes. The same number of poultry and fish plates. There were a dozen delicious vegetable selections. There was no menu. We didn't know the names of anything. We simply pointed to dishes that looked tasty and ample servings piled onto small plates were brought to our table. With prices for everything in Hanoi shooting up, we were astonished each time we had a wonderful five or six course lunch for two -- never for more than three dollars.

"How does she make any money?" my wife asked. "How does she get everything ready?" was what I wondered. The restaurant itself was tiny, no more than a ten-foot-by-twelve-foot room. At lunch time it was jammed with up to twenty customers. The staff side-stepped in and around diners as Nguyen Thi Bich, the thirty-six-year-old owner, served up portions from an equally packed alcove at the front of the restaurant. One second she was serving, the next adding up a bill and making change, the next asking one of her ten workers for something. Every second she was on the go.

"Oh geez," Nina said, putting down her chopsticks. "Look at that." I followed her gaze to a corner of the room. An older, white-haired man, was slowly climbing down through a small hole in the ceiling. From one metal rung embedded in the concrete wall to the next, he carefully lowered himself down, just above the customers' heads. Only Nina and I acted as though this was unusual behavior for a restaurant. The old man squeezed onto a wooden couch that was already crowded with four customers and lit up a smoke. "We've got to find out more about this place," Nina said.

I often work as a small business consultant. Nina is a wonderful cook. Yet both of us, watching the frenzy of activity in the tiny restaurant, were absolutely bewildered. With the help of a translator, I explained to Bich that I wanted to find out more about what it took to run a small cook shop like hers.

She told me that the secret of her success rests on three key factors: fresh food, low prices and good service. If we wanted, we could follow her around for a day and she'd show us what was involved.

That day began the following morning at six. Perhaps three-quarters of Bich's supplies come from bicycle-peddling vendors who roll up to the restaurant all day long with rice, salt, vegetables, roasted poultry and frozen fish. But for the key ingredients, Bich goes to the market herself. She bicycled there. We trailed alongside on a motorcycle.

"She's so slim," Nina remarked as we followed Bich through the empty streets of early morning Hanoi. Bich has the trim figure of a world-class athlete. One would never know she is the mother of two teenage children.

At 6:30 in the morning the small market was surprisingly empty. We'd visited markets throughout Asia and the one common denominator shared by all was the overpowering, dank smell of animal blood and rotting vegetables stewing underfoot in the hot tropical weather. But at six in the morning, the meat and produce were still fresh. There was no smell but that of the cool morning. There were very few customers. Only restaurant and cook shop owners. They picked through the offerings like fur traders trying to select the best pelts. The variety of food before them was astonishing.

Live eels swam in basins next to still quivering, freshly skinned frogs. Thousands of small sand crabs tried to climb out of the metal basins that held them. Dozens of market women shaved the hair off the hides of slaughtered pigs and the skin of plucked chickens with double-edged razor blades held gingerly between thumb and index finger.

There were vegetables we had never seen before and the intestines of animals we wished we hadn't seen. Meanwhile Bich was selecting fresh meat and fish.

"Can you believe this?" Nina said as she watched Bich. "She's cutting her own meat." With the dexterity of a master butcher, Bich took a cleaver and pared the cuts she wanted from several large slabs of beef and pork. At stall after stall she selected just what she wanted. She trimmed away the bone and fat and paid only for the choice cuts she had made. "Try doing that at Safeway," Nina said.

When we returned to the restaurant at 7:30 a.m., the place was already buzzing. Bich's mother, father, aunt, and a variety of young relatives were all at work. The older women, also with razor blades, were slicing hundreds of scallions into what seemed to be thousands of thin green ribbons. They did this while squatting on the sidewalk, just inches from the street, where the earlier quiet of Hanoi had been drowned out by the continuous flow of cars, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles and cyclos. Across the street, construction on a new office building had begun. In and around the restaurant, Bich's employees quickly and methodically went about the dozens of tasks needed in a country where prepared foods have yet to hit the shelves.

In an alley alongside the restaurant, several girls tended two woks and several pots boiling with eggs and greens. An older woman squatted further down the sidewalk. She was washing dishes. For the next fifteen hours that is all she would do.

Bich's elderly parents had been at work since early morning. I asked Bich where they lived, wondering if they had to come from far away. She pointed to the space above the restaurant and the hole in the ceiling where we had seen the old man appear the day before. Turns out he is her father and the three year old restaurant is actually the parents' home. The dining area their former living room. Their bedroom is the loft just above where we had eaten each day.

"How old is your father?" I asked her. "Eighty-three," she answered with a show of fingers. "How many eighty-three-year-old American men do you think are climbing up walls to get to their bedrooms?" Nina asked. I pointed to Bich's mother, who was squatting in the middle of the room, slicing tree ear mushrooms paper thin, and asked how old she was. Bich held up seven then six fingers. Not too likely she'd be working a twelve-hour shift at Denny's in the States.

Soon after Bich's return from the market, all activity became centered in the middle of the living room. To be precise, on the floor. Twenty bowls and basins filled with meat, poultry, fish, mushrooms, spices, oils, fish sauce and molasses sat in the center of a circle formed by Bich, her mother, her aunt, and a teenage relative. For the next three hours they hardly moved from their squatting position. I told Nina to try squatting with her knees tucked up in her shoulders the way the women were. She lasted less than a minute and then hobbled around for several more minutes complaining she'd been crippled for life.

Basins of greens and boiled meats and fish came in from outside. The women quickly diced, sliced, mixed, kneaded and rolled these together with other ingredients and spices. Bich's mother measured out molasses in the palm of her hand. Bich's fingers were the scoop used to measure sugar, salt and pepper. Everything was measured by hand. No one sampled a thing. As quickly as the staff brought new items in, so went the now seasoned dish back outside for steaming, boiling or deep-frying. It was an assembly line where there was little talk. Everything happened with the precision of a Japanese manufacturing plant. Except that it was all happening on the floor, in a tiny space, with only the light of two dim bulbs.

Watching the fluidity with which everything was happening, I asked if Bich made the same things every day. "No, " she said. "It depends on what is fresh in the market." But I never saw her tell anyone that today they would be making this dish or that. Everyone just seemed to know.

Slowly, almost by slight of hand, finished dishes began to gather on the tables that had been pushed to the side of the small room. The place itself wasn't much on decor. Nothing more than a few outdated calendars and beer posters. Along one wall was the parent's large, mirrored wardrobe. High in a corner was a traditional altar, framed by Bich's two dead brothers, one killed in Hue in 1975, the other dead after an unsuccessful operation. The room was now a restaurant, but still had the soul of a Vietnamese living room.

Nina and I watched as tray after tray of complicated dishes of fried fish, steamed vegetables, boiled pork and barbecued meats took shape. "The work they do, it's just amazing," Nina said as we watched the women working into their second and third hour of chopping, boiling, stirring, turning, flipping and steaming, almost never rising from their crouches.

Bich's fluency as a chef was very clear as she began making van may (cloud in the sky), a Vietnamese dish that is something like a stuffed crepe. Earlier, one of the younger workers had made dozens of yellow and white crepes from separated duck eggs. Now, Bich, with a cleaver in each hand, began mincing together the pork, garlic and other ingredients that she would roll inside the crepes before steaming them. For an hour, the small room reverberated with the rapid pace of a drum roll as Bich minced ingredients using only the two cleavers and a small chopping board that was nothing more than a round section cut from a tree.

"Do you know how fast you could do this with a Cuisinart?" Nina whispered to me. The only time Bich stopped work was when she quickly sharpened her knives and cleavers by dashing them back and forth against the bottom of a plate with the same practiced indifference as a barber sharpening a straight razor against a leather strap. She did this every few minutes.

"How often do we sharpen our knives?" I asked Nina. "About once a year, " she told me. "But we should do it more often," she added. "We'll have to buy some plates," I told her.

I asked Bich if she had ever tried using a machine to mince the stuffing for the van may. She said she had but the machine couldn't produce the fine blend she wanted and it quickly broke from wear and tear. She went back to the basics even though she wears out her cutting knives in a month's time and her cleavers in six.

After four hours of tossing, mixing, shaking, kneading, chopping, hacking, slicing and cooking, it was time to move outside. Twenty different platters were ready for the lunch time crowd. Spring rolls, shish kabobs and eight other entrees were still waiting their chance in the wok or over the brazier. Bich still hadn't taken a break, hadn't eaten, hadn't stopped moving since before sunrise. "I'm exhausted," Nina said to me. "And I haven't done a thing."

We asked Bich how many hours she worked every day. "From six in the morning to ten or eleven at night," she said. How many days a year? "Three hundred sixty," she told us. She takes five days off during the Tet holiday when she mainly stays at home and tries not to think about food or cooking. She doesn't go out to other restaurants except to learn what they are doing. She told us she doesn't need to taste the food to know how it will turn out. She has the chef's equivalent of a musician's sense of perfect pitch.

As we chatted, the place was quickly swept clean. Tables were set out as were a dozen of the tiny stools the Vietnamese use for chairs. The thirty different dishes were stacked atop one another on the outside counter.

There were sea fish and river fish. Three different types of chicken. Six different types of pork. There was a shrimp dish and a squid plate. There were several varieties of small, broiled birds. She had salads of green beans, bean sprouts, pickled eggplant and spinach. There was a fried tofu dish, something like a frittata. There were spring rolls and shish kabob. For the refined diner, there was a platter of butterfly larva.

Five hours earlier, when we met Bich outside her neighborhood home, nothing had been done, nothing had been prepped. Her brimming counter was a tour de force of Vietnamese cooking. Bich's mother lit a handful of joss sticks and placed them at the front edge of the counter. Perhaps this was to ward off evil spirits. Certainly it wasn't to cover up any unappetizing smells as everything Bich had made that morning was fresh, clean and wonderfully spiced.

The sign above the entrance to the Phuong Anh restaurant, which is named for Bich's daughter, says Cac Mon An and Com Binh Dan which translates to something like "All kinds of food" and "Everyday home cooking." Evidently, Bich needn't say anything more because soon after she had laid out the dishes, lunch time customers began to gather at the front of Phuong Anh. For the next two hours, the small space was jammed with regulars. Bich stood at the doorway, now playing the roles of maitre d', cashier, hostess and server. In the alley, the staff continued cooking, replenishing the most popular dishes.

Nina and I squeezed into a corner, my back jammed between the small refrigerator and the large wooden wardrobe. We had pointed to shish kabob, the van may cloud, freshwater fish, a green bean salad, and a deep-fried, minced squid dish that looked more like a potato pancake than seafood. Our drinks came to us warm. We fished hunks of ice from a bucket. Earlier we had watched Bich's mother as she hacked a large block of ice into the cubes we dropped in our glasses.

Everything was delicious. Bich had no time to attend to us as she was completely occupied making change, filling plates, adding up bills, squeezing in new customers, directing her staff, and laughing at jokes.

I took a break from eating to take in the incredibly crowded space. The walls were painted in what might be called a distressed Jackson Pollack style. A locked door had the weathered look of the faux finishing that is now the rage in the States. It was weathered from wear -- not from the hand of an artist. A ceiling fan wobbled above the lunch time crowd and provided a soft breeze but little cooling. A bunch of young men at one table took turns flirting with a table of young women. Like in every other small Vietnamese restaurant, bones and napkins were idly dropped on the floor to be swept into the street later on.

Outside Bich continued serving up new portions. In place of a serving spoon or fork she used large tailor's shears to pick up the food and cut it into smaller portions. Our five course lunch had filled us completely. It was so much better than meals we had eaten at many of Hanoi's more established and widely reviewed restaurants. When we got up to go, Bich quickly totaled up our bill. She tapped her pen on the figure: 33,000 dong. About three dollars for lunch for two -- including drinks.

By one o'clock lunch time business was thinning. Bich stopped moving for the first time in seven hours. She leaned against a wall and lit up a "555." From two until five, the restaurant was closed -- although several workers continued cooking. Another rush of diners filled Phuong Anh from six till half past eight. That's when we came back for dinner. Bich had set out two small tables on the sidewalk to handle the overflow crowd.

I went back to the restaurant around eleven. The tables had been put away. The food was all eaten. The restaurant was again a living room. The father said goodnight and climbed up the iron rungs on the wall to the bedroom. Bich, her husband and children watched television. I don't know how long they stayed up. I never did get around to asking Bich if she makes any money. If she does, she certainly deserves it. For me, it was time for sleep. I had had a long day.

The next morning at six, I went out for a run. Bich's mother was already slicing onions on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. As I jogged past the market, I saw Bich haggling with the meat sellers. She didn't have time to waste. Lunch was only six hours away.