As an act of gratitude, the staff of San Sa Ho school wanted to take us out for a special meal, for which they paid. It was a local practice called Hot Pot. This was an important step for all of us, because it was a tremendous offer of hospitality on their part and to refuse would have been just as tremendous an insult on our part.
On the other hand, to accept would deepen the bonds of friendship and give us more opportunity to grow in our understanding of one another.
So the choice was obvious if uncomfortable: We were going for Hot Pot.
To my mind, the phrase “Hot Pot” conjured the street vendors in Hanoi who cooked pungent foods with rickety equipment that looked like it had been cleaned sometime last decade. In my imagination, each pot had an odd meat or other food that we would sample from.
I was pretty close in my initial estimation, and yet the reality far surpassed my mind’s eye.
We were led through town to what appeared to be a house no longer lived in, but in fairly good repair. We climbed the steps to a larger room where we found 4 tables set with 8 chairs around each. Each place was set with chopsticks and bowls, the traditional method of eating in Vietnam. We spread out among the tables and the school staff did the same.
Jerry, David and I sat at one table in the far corner of the room, as did Sherman, the country director of GVI. Ken and DeAnn sat together at another table while Selena and Emily sat at the other two tables.
The Headmaster (Principal) sat with us as did the Foreman of the paving job we had been working on.
When we sat down, many of the foods were already on the table. There was raw beef, finely chopped, raw chicken with the skin coarsely chopped, some unknown meat with large and small orange spheres, a plate of boiled and peeled quail eggs, a bowl of tofu, a bowl of tomatoes, a row of prawns and a bowl of various greens. A little later, someone brought a plate of salmon.
In the middle of the table was the Hot Pot: a large bowl of broth on a butane burner in which was already cooking some tofu and tomatoes. The concept of Hot Pot became apparent. It was like a shrimp boil, where you put different ingredients in the same pot and ate what you preferred.
My initial thought was that this was uncomfortable, but survivable. Until someone set a bowl of Vit Lo (I’m guessing on the spelling) at David’s elbow. It looked like eggs, but there was something more to it. More texture. Jerry recognized them first and it was later confirmed that they were unhatched duck embryos.
I glanced sidelong at Sherman with a half smile and said, “If one of those goes in the pot, I’m done.” He chuckled and David refused to look anywhere near the Vit Lo.
When we started eating someone dumped the whole plate of chicken into the pot. I told them I would like to try the beef, so the Headmaster picked up some beef and put it in what appeared to be a wide flat ladle with holes in the bottom. He set the spoon in the middle of the pot and it cooked there for a few minutes. He then raised the spoon out of the broth and beef was cooked through. Jerry and I both tried some and I thought it was pretty good.
Just about the time we were getting comfortable, the job foreman scooped up the Vit Lo and dumped the entire bowl into the pot.
We all watched in stunned silence as they plopped into the mix. Sherman tried to stop him, but it happened so quickly that it was done before anyone could do anything. The foreman looked at Sherman inquisitively as he set the bowl back down and Sherman explained that we weren’t used to that.
The foreman asked what we were used to. Good question. The honest answer, was “nothing in this room.”
I don’t know what Sherman said in answer.
After a while, I did eat some salmon and quail eggs after the Vit Lo were in the pot. I looked over at David after eating the quail egg and he had this odd look on his face. I asked him, “You’re proud of me, aren’t you?” To which he replied, “Yes, indeed, I am very proud of you.” He said this in a way that made me feel that he was both proud and a little repulsed.
Later, the Superintendent of all the schools in the region dropped in to meet us all and toast us.
However uncomfortable we were, being there did more for our relationships and future work than anything else we have done or could do.
Throughout the night, the words of Paul ran through my mind, “I have become all things to all men that I might win some.”