I like to think the people of Vietnam know the value of everything but the price of nothing. Above all they understand the value of good food. But when it comes to understanding how much they should charge you or how their offering compares to the price of everything else, it’s a different matter entirely…
Very few things in Vietnam have a set price and the price you get for a meal here seems to depend on all kinds of factors – not least how good at haggling you are and how often you go back. Customer loyalty is important. When I first discovered clam rice porridge or cháo ngao in the An Bang neighbourhood of Hoi An, I paid đ40,000. When I came back again I paid just đ30,000 and the third time I came back, bringing friends with me, having raved about how good it was I paid just đ25,000. Almost half the price I paid originally.
The price shouldn’t matter and in many ways it doesn’t but the haggle is an intrinsic part of living in Vietnam and so too is knowing you’ve got a really good deal, a place that you can recommend about to your friends and come back time-and-time again.
And my favourite Chao ngao stall is exactly one of those places. Gio has converted the front porch of her home into a miniature restaurant. Complete with a fold down table and plastic stalls, every lunch time at 1pm she sets herself up and waits for the locals to slowly trickle in.
In bright red buckets, which she has wheeled in from her back garden where she has spent the morning slaving away on the ground, is what everyone has been waiting for. A slimy but delicious congee – rice porridge they call it. And in another bucket are the softly cooked clams. When mixed together they create the perfect lunchtime dish. Of course other rice porridge dishes are available and Gio usually serves chao heo (pork) as well. I’ve seen other vendors serve chao vit (duck), my personal favourite.
I usually opt for the clams because the pork is on the bone and not cut up and rather difficult to manage.
People travel from miles to come and see Gio and taste her clams. Many people drive from the nearby city of Da Nang just for lunch and she appears to be locally famous. In Hoi An’s old town, a few miles out from An Bang beach I was sitting down at another restaurant only to start talking to a couple. They spoke good English and seemed excited to be able to speak to a foreigner.
They asked me what my favourite food was in An Bang and I mentioned I liked chao. When I later mentioned that I lived in An Bang beach, their faces lit up as they began to tell me about the famous clam lady. They were even more impressed that I already knew all about it.
This is what makes Vietnam such a special place to be. The sense of community that comes with the food. The sharing, the telling and the feeling that when you hand over your money you are funding something and someone you really care about, not a corporation.
Gio also does not speak English and nor do most of the visitors, making it the perfect place for me to practise my Vietnamese though I still haven’t mastered speaking the six tones correctly even when I know I am saying the right words.