That Is One Badass Noodle Soup Lady
Bun bo in Vietnam
In Vietnam, the police are universally reviled. Get stopped on the road by a cop and you’ll be losing a lot of money that day. The police are to be avoided, tiptoed around, and if you’re unlucky and are pulled over, you definitely don’t draw their ire because that “fine” could always be much worse.
I was especially wary of the country’s uniformed power while in Buon Ma Thuot, the largest city in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, a region heavily contested during the war; it’s been touchy ever since. In 2001, anti-government protests by 20,000 ethnic minorities on land rights and religious freedom were brutally suppressed. The government blamed overseas opposition groups for fueling the unrest, so foreign travel to the Central Highlands has been tightly restricted and monitored ever since, which is a bit of a challenge when you write Vietnam travel guides for a living.
But when it’s 6 a.m. and you’re smack in the middle of Buon Ma Thuot’s impressively ugly center, already sweating badly while perched on a plastic stool slurping up a mediocre bowl of bun bo beef noodle soup, and you’re watching the city’s sunrise hustle, a whirling zoetrope of vendors and traffic, motorbikes transporting a seemingly impossible load of cargo, livestock or people, avoiding the scrutiny of a paranoid Communist government is a distant thought.
Vietnam is always in motion but for a brief moment every morning, you can suspend yourself in a bun bo shop and ruminate. I liked the humorless grit of this city, a sprawl of bland, low-rise concrete built after the city was obliterated in the war. These days the region makes its money from growing coffee. Drink that stuff at your own risk. For me, Vietnamese coffee is gastrointestinal napalm, mercilessly sending all contents raging through my internal plumbing. Like I said, in Vietnam everything moves, for better or for worse.
I was fishing out the last strands of rice noodles when the driver and car I had hired for the day pulled up in front of the shop. I paid the lady, climbed into the backseat and we were about to leave when, suddenly, there they were, two policemen blocking the car. One officer, just a boy fresh out of academy, bore a scowl on his pimpled brow as if an idling car was a serious felony; the other was an older fellow and he could barely contain a smirk that foretold of an upcoming payday. There was no stopping allowed here.
But instead of getting out of the car and tactfully trying to wiggle out of trouble, as is the norm, the driver power-locked the doors, hurled some choice words, and refused to budge. Refused. He had reached his breaking point. The cops knocked on the windows. They tried the doors. They angrily paced in front shouting. The driver silently stared ahead and gripped the steering wheel tighter, as if bracing himself for impact. I sat frozen and wide-eyed, not knowing what to do.
That’s when I saw her, the noodle soup lady marching across the road, her red apron strapped to her like armour. A short, sturdy woman, she went right up to the po-po and let them have it.
“She’s my customer,” she said. “They were only stopped for a second.”
The cops remained unmoved and waved her off, like swatting a dogged fly.
“You let her go!” she shouted. “You let her go now!”
Then all the vendors left their sidewalk carts, they streamed out of their shops and surrounded the car. Within seconds there were 40 people between me and the police, an intense standoff. This kind of public opposition to the authorities is almost unheard of in Vietnam. The crowd crossed their arms and jeered; they, too, had had enough. The younger officer shifted uncomfortably. His forehead glistened with sweat. The other officer muttered something to the crowd.
They strolled to their motorbikes and hightailed it.
The vendors drifted back to their carts, the noodle soup lady returned to her world of doling out beef broth and the driver and I carried on our way.
One moment you are alone and anonymous, the next you’re an accidental revolutionary and the world comes to a standstill: it’s unnatural and you can feel it happen, the unpleasant sinking-stopping feeling like being in an arriving elevator. Then reality takes you back into the current.
One thing is for sure: that bun bo was the best damn noodle soup I’ve ever had.