The Spock-haired waiter surprised us at our table; he asked if we were German, showing off his few blackened teeth resembling winter corn. When I admitted “American", his salamander smile slid off his face abruptly, then he announced with a piping castrato voice, “Spring roll with nuoc mam!”
What’s that, I thought. Egads. At least it wasn’t one of those unappetizing evil snakes languishing in a large jar on the bar.
I turned to thank him. But I was startled, like Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, by the fact that the Vietnamese waiter was a midget.
In the Graham Green gloom of the café, I was sitting next to a tall confident guy with curly black hair who had identified himself matter-of-factly as CIA. (Did he mean “Culinary Institute of America”). He commented, “Man, when you think your life sucks, it could be a thousand times worse.” He took a long lingering sip of his imported Carlsberg beer. “You could have ended up a frigging midget!”
“Agent Orange must have stunted his growth,” was his informed finding.
“Careful, he might hear you,” I said sotto voce, looking around uneasily.
Vietnamese spies, I imagined, were everywhere.
I’d heard stories of waiters (no matter their size) “spiking” the food of travelers they didn’t like. Even though I’d stopped taking the antimalarial Larium, which was causing me to see delusional dragons and sepia spaceships in the sky, I wasn’t feeling too chipper. I was subject to the occasional delusion in the former Vietnamese imperial city of Hué.
This restaurant hadn’t made the Lonely Planet guide; a good place to meet other budget travelers, careful with their "dongs" (the unfortunate name of Vietnam’s currency).
The CIA agent ordered another round of Carlsberg beers for us and began discursing humorously and at length about the midget-tossing contests they had in Great Britain.
I commented on how that didn’t seem very humane, keeping an eye out for the dwarf, whom we’d dubbed “Agent Orange". He reappeared briefly, eyes glinting like sudsy cutlery, asking, “Mo beer, mo beer?”
“Oh,” I added quickly, “I went to the Royal Palace today.” I wanted to change the subject. “In my guidebook it says that here in Hué, the palace used to be a forbidden zone. All male intruders to the palace were castrated in the past, and only eunuchs were allowed around the emporer’s wives.”
“Man, that sucks!” the CIA guy commiserated. “I think I’d rather be a midget than a eunuch.”
I imagined in the kitchen among the short-order cooks, Agent Orange (or "Baby Hué"), the vertically challenged waiter, plotting his dark dream of revenge against the big people who had made fun of him. Carefully, he added a secret ingredient from a phial to our pho.
I was flat on my back for the next two days.
I would not recommend this restaurant. Anyway, I’ve forgotten the name and it might not be there anymore.
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