(No.9, Vol.2, Sep 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
At the rice noodle restaurant at No 57 Ngo Sy Lien Street, in Hanoi, I trembled when the owner cursed about _trivial things. I looked back at myself to see if the way I sat, the way I ate, the way I talked were decent enough for her to pass me over. Midday was scorching and the restaurant packed.
A young woman sitting at a table across from me complained, ‘Oh, I said no rich gravy!’
The owner said, ‘Neither rich nor light! Bugger off, go home and be the boss there. Here that’s all we have. If that doesn’t make you happy, take off to make room for other people!’
The owner paid the poor customer a dirty look as if she was tossed noodles. Her angry eyes and cruel words darted at the young woman like arrows, which hurt me too. The young woman now was too scared to answer back. She could only mumble a protest to herself, ‘I’m paying money to be treated a beggar.’
The next day, at the slowest time of the business day, around 7 p.m., I went back hoping to get to talk to the owner, Ms Thao.
I said, ‘Madam, people call yours the “cursing rice noodle restaurant”, but somehow I’ve eaten here a few times and have never been shouted at. I wonder why.’ Ms Thao jumped at that, and poured her heart out to me. ‘Right, right! You see? I don’t just swear at everyone. As a business-owner, of course I wish to please all my customers. Someone like this young man, how can I not treat him nice? He ordered a bowl of rice noodle with pig’s legs and a bottle of beer. How could I pick on him? If I abused them for no reason, the customers would punch me in the face. But many people are just ridiculous. They ask for this and that, and order me around. At the rush hour, and someone is picky, like come later but want to be served first, who can tolerate that? Isn’t it fair that I scold them?’
Traditional noodle. Cartoon: Duc Lai
Ms Thao elaborated that the other day two young women came for her rice noodles. She had showed them inside but they had insisted on sitting outside. ‘They must have worried about their motorbike. I tossed them out immediately: “F [. . .] off if you refuse to sit in there!” Yesterday, two other young women came to eat rice noodles. However, they wanted two cups of ice tea first. It was the busy time, and they asked to drink first, even before they ate! I said, “No tea, no noodles, just go and leave me alone to mind my business!”’
Ms Thao said she had been selling rice noodles at Ngo Sy Lien Market for over 30 years, without even having to put up a sign at the door. Every day, she opened her restaurant at 11.30 a.m. and closed at 7.30 p.m. As for the cursing rice noodle ‘fame’, she explained she did not know who had first attributed it to her service. Whatever it was, she was not happy with it. ‘Bitching only makes one age faster. But it’s my time and energy. I don’t beg anyone for free money.’
‘It’s said that the customers are the king. Hell, I don’t think so. I don’t have to do everything just to have more and more customers. I’d rather have fewer of them than bring myself to satisfying unreasonable demands. Whichever customer is insensible [to this], I kick them out.’ Ms Thao declared.
At Bát ?àn Ph? restaurant in Bat Dan Street, as well as at the ‘Subsidized Beer’ pub at 115 Quan Thanh Street, customers all have to form a line and help themselves. Plus, at ‘Subsidized Beer’ people have to take a number before they can stand in a line and wait for their turn to . . . help themselves.
The other morning at Bát ?àn Ph? restaurant, a customer walked in, took a seat and shouted, ‘One ph?, please!’ As he sat there waiting for a long time without being tended to, a new customer, who did not know the rules, repeated his request. Immediately, the new customer was yelled at. ‘If you want to eat, form a line, and help yourself. No slave here to serve you to your mouth!’ Humiliated and embarrassed, the man was speechless. It was a long time before he could pull himself together to stand up and join the queue.
In Nha Tho Street, there is a chicken rice soup, run by Ms My, also infamous for her disrespect to the customers. It is said that one night, recently a group of young customers staggered in and ordered chicken rice soup. Ms My served them but when they asked for some green onion stalks, which were free, the elderly lady swore at them. The angry youngsters attacked her restaurant. Since then, the woman has become less hard on her customers. Instead, she has turned on her staff and has bitched at them all the time. Strangely enough, her restaurant is always very busy.