My uncle rented a van so that our 22 person entourage could spend a day at Vung Tau, a locals beach that’s about an hour and a half from Long Khanh. Because beach day is serious business, we rose at four in the morning and were on the road by 4:30. We were in the water by quarter after six. Even though the sand was silky soft and the ocean was as warm as bathwater, the beach suffered from what much of the country suffers from; its inhabitants don’t take care of it. Several times as I was swimming I freaked out thinking that a jellyfish had grazed me, only to discover that it was a plastic bag. The litter on the beach was so disgusting that when workers arrived with their rice hats and straw brooms, I spent a little time helping them collect debris because I couldn’t stand to see my kids playing in sand littered with so much garbage.
Our meals at the beach, however, perfectly illustrate the paradox that is VN. The family brought a tiny charcoal grill and butane stove and feasted on fresh crab, shrimp, grilled fish, squid, spareribs with French bread, stir-fried egg noodles with beef, and for the grand finale busted out fish hotpot in a tangy Thai-style tom yum broth, served with fresh greens and rice noodles. I can’t imagine that very many American cooks would attempt such an undertaking in the comfort of their gourmet kitchens, let alone outdoors. Americans are all about convenience. There’s no shame in ordering a pizza and calling it a day. My uncle’s family, however, does not take any shortcuts when it comes to food. These people lugged all these ingredients and prepared all these amazing meals at the beach. I’m starting to understand that my obsession with food is part of my ethnic, cultural, and familial heritage.