Badger fights back at buffet breakfast

(No.3, Vol.2 Mar 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

In the present, badgering story, as far as I recall, the last thing on my plate was a piece of goat cheese. When I looked behind the lapping top of my computer it had gone. It appeared as if someone had literally ‘moved my cheese’, an event famously recalled in the title of the motivational book Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr Spencer Johnson, M. D., in which fuddy-duddies fall victim to change. The therapeutic suggestion is that the customer might think of being more tolerant.
A member of the staff went to the larder and got me a replacement for the cheese that had been disappeared by a zealous collector of plates. That was commendable. The wheels had fallen off the traymobile of a grand, inhuman plan and she had put them on in a human manner. It is said that the Vietnamese like to leave something on the plate, even something as expensive as cheese, virtually all, or all, of which is imported. But further observation will lead you to think that some of the staff want too much to please the boss or the management system, that what blinds them is that the hotel could run out of plates, that they have to run a tight ship to segue from a breakfast that ends at 10 a.m. to a lunch that opens at 11.30 a.m.
At buffet breakfast you may be reading an International Herald Tribune article about finance and be interrupted with a question as to whether the waiter can remove a certain plate, even if it is showing parallel marks through whipped cream where it has been scraped as clean as politely possible. You find yourself being forced to answer, ‘Very nice of you to inquire, but it is a complex question, in the frame of mind this newspaper article has me. Given that we should not make decisions when we don’t know what is right, please do nothing.’
After all, the guest has been getting on very well with the plate somewhere on the table, and getting it away from him is only going to cause disturbance. It is an activity that does not serve the guest, so the guest is mystified, even alarmed. What is going on? Is it the gentle end of a scale that ends in being run over by a motorbike on a footpath? The impulse is to protect one’s ruffled self by replying with an equally baffling question, such as, ‘Is the discus still thrown at the Olympic Games?’ or, ‘Do you mean I should keep the plate and throw it along the hall on the Signature Floor?’
There has to be a very good reason to disturb a person reading an English-language newspaper, be it on a morning train or at breakfast. The only time I can remember a good reason at a hotel in Vietnam was when a tap broke off a tank of compressed air for a beer dispenser, and the tank jumped round the floor till exhausted, causing guests to hide behind a pillar. Perhaps we could add an earthquake some years ago, when I did nothing more than glance away from the type and look at a shaking aspidistra.
I have never met a ‘five-star’ manager who did not agree that the ‘five-star’ claim included replenishment of the dishes (as opposed to the plates) until the buffet was over, which is at 10 a.m. for many breakfasts in HCMC. Yet ‘five-star’ hotels that can actually do it are rare. This also seems inexplicable. You could theorise that the bad results from this foible were enormous, that it was a straight-out statement: ‘You are paying for this, this, this . . relentless demand for service. Take that! See, we have whacked you in the third eye with an empty dish or spaceship-holder with no spaceship in it.’
One theory could be that the above is what they in hoteliery really thought, in their subconsciouses, though what they thought consciously, and had been taught to think consciously, perhaps, was that they were wonderful, that they were oriented to the customer, not to the boss. Behavioural therapy could be used to analyse the situation. This branch of psychology is based on the idea that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is almost certainly a duck, no matter what it pretends to; if it flaps its wings and you get bird flu the conclusion is even more convincing. In other words, it does not matter what the Marketing and Communications Department (‘Marcom’) says about its hotel, you need to go there a few times and find out if they can walk the talk. I live within half-a-kilometre of five ‘five-star’ hotels and I have had breakfast at a particular one of them more than 100 times.
Grandiose hotel claims do exist in Vietnam. The phrases ‘five-star’ and even ‘seven-star’ are commonly heard. How can a hotel in a developing country be ‘five-star’ on an international scale? The answer is that the Admiral Benbow Inn has a Robert Louis Stevenson treasure map with a place called ‘Five-Star’ on it, and an actual coppery plate beside the door, approved by government authority. Very charitably, the ‘five-star’ appellation can be thought of as an ‘aiming for five-star’, or a ‘five-star aspiration’. Instead of watching episodes of Fawlty Towers, and avoiding the errors of Basil Fawlty, or even watching episodes of Yes Minister, the staff fall prey to itinerant charlatan gurus that tell them such plausible nonsenses as that it is polite – or at least can seem polite, which I will come to – to ask if they can take a plate, when in fact it is the job of a waiter to know whether he or she can or not.
The staff don’t know how ‘five-star’ is to be defined, as perhaps nor do we. However, an English-language-teacher in tailored trousers once remarked of my supermarket ones, ‘Not on the same page.’ He was right, because he had been in the business longer than me and knew that for teachers (in those days) pin-stripes and a gold tie pin with a diamond in the middle were de rigueur. I was going into the ring as a clown but without my harlequin trousers on. The making of five-star is done over the long term, on an ever-shifting border between demand and supply. We may not all be able to sniff out what five-star is, but we would know how far away from the gold standard and five-star service were some pretender establishments that let slip such beauties as, ‘What time did you attend the buffet?’ meaning that later in the allotted time (till 10 a.m., for example) they expect the supply and the service to slacken, or even – and I heard this very recently – ‘We didn’t know you were coming.’

There is nothing like the cheese-fuddy-duddy nexus as a litmus test, though the alignment and spacing of the stripes on your locally tailored shirt serves well as a measure for service more broadly in HCMC. It is not just that the cheese may be disappeared, but it may be replaced with another kind. What is a guest to do when flabbergasted by a change from goat cheese to Camembert, as happened to me recently? I told the staff, as portentously as I could, that being five-star meant allowing the buffet guest to get up and get more of the same, which he would only be doing if the cheese was damned good and he was hanging out for it. This pea-and-thimble trick might to some be taken as an inexplicable failure, but by now we must start thinking that the product on offer at ‘five-star’s is not good food and good service but a kind of a brawl, in which the Marquis of Queensbury’s Rules often have been left in a broom cupboard and not got out and reviewed.
Because the incident of the goat cheese was about goat cheese and not some other kind of cheese, several times subsequently I have been offered goat cheese though even though it has not been set out in the buffet. This is like an attack on my morality, or it is an innocent expression of what I could call amorality. Not the slightest heed is being paid to my point about buffet service, that it should not peter out, that it should not interfere, that it should represent a country that aims for development and international competitiveness. There have been times when I have had to point out that my desire was to see a dish replenished, not to have some of it brought to my table. ‘No, no,’ I say. ‘It is the national shame I cannot put up with.’ I thought that nowadays I would not be made into a petulant mandarin but be treated to scenes of magnificent standard.
While the local hotels’ claim is, to paraphrase, high-class international standards, in recent years there has been a Vietnamisation of hoteliery in Vietnam and fuddy-duddies who inevitably are confronted with a shifted cheese are now even more nervous. I was alarmed when suddenly I received on e-mail a press statement from a Vietnamised place – I mean the ownership becomes more or totally Vietnamese, as distinct from European –, particularly French-, owned – because the English was appalling and I started to think what else would be appalling if I darkened their door. At the famous place I have in mind there was going to be modernisation, when antiquity, or ‘heritage’, had been the prime attraction and bread-and-butter money-winner. So, on top of the bad English, were we going to get a product degraded, from my point of view, though upgraded, from another?
What of standards more widely in the economy? Recently I have heard from a foreign professional of long experience in Vietnam that he is leaving the country because Vietnamisation is making the Vietnamese branch of his international company unprofitable. He had in fact tried ‘knowledge-transfer’, over many years, especially during Đổi Mới, when quality was an innocently and genuinely avowed goal, but it had not stuck, and the Vietnamese person now replacing him was incompetent. As another alarming example, English teachers remark that to make English acceptable lately it has somehow to be dressed as a Master of Business Administration, and the teaching even of ‘business English’, if such a thing really existed, is regarded as excruciating and futile.
A Vietnamese expert in Vietnamese hotel publicity thought that the world might just have to conform to Vietnamese ways. This put me in mind of a linguist whose paper I read at library, perhaps at the history museum at the HCMC zoo, who believed Vietnamese was a better language than English and might one day go global. At the moment Vietnam loses to the Philippines, for example, at English. And this is partly because Vietnamese marcoms have been convinced by teachers of baby-formula, proprietary English that they have a magnificent command of the language. You are up against it persuading them that an inclusive 40 minutes’ ‘back stress’ at the spa is at best hard to understand and at worst debilitating, and that ‘Cheer up!’ is an expression to use in a hospital, while that for a boutique beer is ‘Cheers!’, or ‘Bottoms up!’, the latter being the sort of vernacular that does not normally appear in the textbooks.
Is it futile to be looking for a basically European five-star standard in a country where not so long ago an English-language adviser to a Vietnamese magazine company was thought, because of his seemingly erroneous text corrections, not to be a native speaker, and where some resorts claim they have a ‘private beach’, without explaining how this can possibly jibe with the ‘socialist republic’? ‘Net’, or ‘nett’ is often understood to mean including service charge and tax, when a check with an Oxford dictionary would lead you to think it meant not including service charge and tax.

Should a waiter ask to take the bread-and-butter plate when the guest is engrossed in the curious leadership challenge by Mr Rudd? For the request was in fact made

While five-star international is certainly something of value to both inhabitants and foreigners, so is being an exotic destination. The other evening I asked a hotel employee who answered the phone what ‘role’ she played in the management. She replied that that would depend on what town I was calling from. Hotel staff are in many cases still no different from picturesque vendors of brooms in small, upper-Mekong towns, who, however many times you ask, ‘Is the broom made locally?’ always answer, ‘Ten thousand dongs.’ This morning, when the paper was two days old, not one day old, I asked the waiter what day it was. She had two answers: one was ‘The 16th’ and the other was ‘The day we don’t have the newspaper’. That is fascinating, even in a ‘five-star’, ‘international’ hotel.
A Vietnamese familiar with hotels and the publicity for them told me the other day that there was a powerful rule in Vietnam that you needed to bargain. Another Vietnamese close to the hotel trade has reminded me it would be as hard for a Vietnamese not to haggle as it is for a European to get out of a Vietnamese hammock. That means we frequenters of buffets can’t just assume quality will remain the same or improve. If anything, quality will be lowered – until the customer fights back. The price (the shot for the moon), if it is not already hard to fathom, is hidden further with mentions of how much of a so-called reduction it is, as if there really had been a prevailing, steady room tariff, and not one that had been, to put it politely, hypothecated.
It was only after I had been in Vietnam for ten years that I began giving hotels my own price, and bargaining on line for a day or so before I booked. In fact, your Vietnamese holiday, or ‘adventure’, may well begin when you start contemplating it, and if are a tyro tourist you are not going to realise this and you are going to cry that you are being ripped off. You need to realise that what we call ‘ripping off’ is good, not bad, that the kind of achievement grandmothers give out candy for is getting something for nothing, which, again, is not a pejorative but just a cross-cultural difference. You just have to know that, like the badger, you can fight back. The ‘five-star’ question is compounded when not only do prices appear to be higher than elsewhere but are higher, based upon international surveying – nay, innocently stumbling upon things, on the ground, which is much more telling – by someone like Saigonsider H. T. Bathgate, who recently returned from two weeks on Guam with his pocketbook still half-full.
The buffet of the disappeared cheese had closed, at 10 a.m., and I could not just get up and get more. This was shifting the cheese in a grand manner. It was what some would call ‘boil-over’ time. They would say they were ‘cheesed off’. We would hear from Chicken Little. Then, to tip matters over in the direction of print, one day more recently, I forgot it was Sunday morning, when I usually sleep in, and went to buffet breakfast. As I approached my table, a member of staff looked at her watch anxiously. ‘That’s a bit odd,’ I thought, ‘but never mind.’ Ten minutes past closing time, before I had finished my coffee, a waiter asked if he could remove a small, unprepossessing plate. As usual, I could not get my mind around the issue, as I was dealing with something that had come up in the day-old paper, like the European debt, again. Ten minutes later, another member of staff made an assault on the table, after the same plate. ‘Damned important little plate, that,’ I thought, staring at the few crumbs on it and the butter knife across it, ‘of great strategic importance.’ After a little reflection, I realised they were worried about setting up Sunday lunch, or brunch, which the second member of staff confirmed. Lunch, or brunch, is an additional money-maker, unlike breakfast, which is inclusive for room guests.

Like the cheese, the quest for the bread-and-butter plate was part of the badger that was after the story’s being written, put out of its misery, not for reasons of vanity publishing, but reasons of being, in the fuddy-duddy’s language, subjected to ersatz, if not downright manipulative, service. I can hear the gent say on a bad, unreconstructed morning, ‘Why don’t they just say that they are going to be extra-stylish and romance the days of Somerset Maugham, and have “sittings” for meals?’ On, on, the gent would grumble, ‘Maugham hardly ever mentions the quality of food or service on an inter-island boat. Standards in his colonial times were open and understandable, though they were often not very high.’ The Maugham rule would be that buffet breakfast guest must not only have finished collecting food from the buffet by the appointed time (often 10 a.m.) but must have vacated his table. Alternatively, guests would be allowed half-an-hour after buffet closing time to finish with their table.
Giving the badger’s story further élan, I recalled that at another ‘five-star’ hotel I had been asked to move out of the way while I was up serving myself a yoghurt, because they wanted to carry through a table that would be part of setting up for lunch. I have a photograph of two tables within a metre of each other, one where guests are trying to eat and the other where a tablecloth is being sprayed with something from a can. This was all clearly before buffet finishing time. A young executive at the hotel, who had studied hoteliery in Europe, acknowledged this was a travesty, and added that the hotel had no intention of following what we would think of as European standards, and was out to make money through whatever it could get away with. The ‘adventure destination’ is not just for tourists, but also for entrepreneurs and simple carpetbaggers, some with knuckledusters (or at least a bunch of keys in a fist, which I have come up against).
I believe annoying the guest about plates, however consciously, or on what pretext, whatever it in fact is, looks like – to go back to behavioural therapy and the duck-like – a method to get the guest out and on his way, so that other guests can fill his place, even if in particular situations there is no need. It has become a habit. The other ploy, the not replenishing dishes, could precisely be to find out how far quality can be lowered, for the price, to find out how much of what a New Zealander called ‘spine’ a guest, or guests in general, have, or, I would say, how much badger.
I have over the past decade or so been banned from at least three HCMC hotels, two of them ‘five-star’, for making too much fuss, too much for them, sometimes within the hearing of other guests, something hotels loathe, about services not provided according to the claim in the – admittedly cheap – bronze. I have a brother who is a lawyer and not unruly, and it is significant that the only time he has been in a potential punch-up has been at a five-star hotel in another developing country.
As it was at the beginning of this story, it is now, and the badger is fighting back. It is not me. It is the story, not just a human thing. What this black, furry gent says is that ‘Good morning’, from a waiter, is OK, but once the guest is well into the race for satisfaction, has contracted on, like a greyhound (albeit one to carrying slightly too much ‘condition’) that the badger has seen going after a decoy rabbit on a wire, the badger would strongly advise the hotel not to change the straight-running rabbit for a zig-zagging hare, just because it also is furry and has even bigger ears, and not to make the rail beside which the dogs race disappear, and not to whisper – even to the casual, ‘never-see-you-again’ guest – seemingly bizarre, existential questions that in the end mean something like, ‘Did you know that you are a substitute for another dog that is right now being boiled to soap?’n

Text and pictures by James Gordon
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