How do you buy SALT?!

July 2nd, 2014, 12pm

I open and close the cupboards in this L-shape studio in Hanoi (home for the next two months) and mentally take notes on the basics missing. I don’t need much but judging by the emptiness, this furnished apt is not equipped to make even the simplest meals.

Tam, my landlord, thoughtfully left me with a print out of the neighborhood, complete with coffee shops, restaurants and stores identified. I start with ones that are closest to the apartment and work my way around. It took longer than I anticipated, it always does.

Lychee, mangosteen, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, carrots, yogurt, butter, eggs, milk —- some of them came from vendors on the street, some from convenient stores and other from the proper market which I finally found. Setting up house in a foreign country is akin to a scavenger hunt. A bit from here and bit from there and it takes a while to complete the puzzle. Coffee….I really want / need coffee, real coffee, not the 3-in-1 bullshit I’ve been drinking for months. This is Vietnam for Christ sake, real coffee should not be hard to find. Yet two hours of wandering and multiple stores later, I found plenty of places where I can have coffee but not a place that sells it. On a recent trip in India, a friend and I sat down to breakfast and she ordered coffee, and followed up with, REAL coffee please. The waiter was slightly insulted and confused. “I’m sure they believe Nescafe to be real, I don’t think the word real is gonna get us what we want.” Instant coffee was what was served. But I digress.

The kitchen is desperately empty of basics. I stand in front the sundry shop and I look hard. The lady speaks to me in Vietnamese (which I understand none) and points to various items displayed. Fish sauce, chili powder, dried beans, I shook my head at each of her offerings. Salt. I want salt. I need the most basic of basics. Except I am at a complete lost on how to communicate that. I point at a packet of MSG, thinking of a way to say, I would like something that is white and in crystal forms, kinda like this but not this. She digs out cans and packets of dried goods from inside the shop and show them to me one by one. No…that is not it. She gestures for me to come inside the shop, into the tiny 2x3 feet space, and look for myself. Oh, there is olive oil, I will take that. I dig into the shelves and find ground black pepper. I will have some of this as well. How do you mime salt?! Had I given this a little bit more thought before hand, I would have looked up the word for salt in Vietnamese and wrote it down, that would have been the smart thing to do, except I didn’t. So here I am, standing in the tiny tiny sundry shop in the middle of the market, with the girl who just sold me vegetable across the isle looking on amusingly, thinking real hard on how to communicate the concept of salt.

Robbery, physically hurt, illness, directions, hunger, beer, spicy, a place to stay for the night —- there are ton of things one can mime and communicate without words, but salt?! Oh champions of charade, I besiege you to come up with an international language for the most basic of culinary staples.

I left the market defeated.

Christine, Vivien and Shu said thanks.

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Charlie Grosso

Photographer - Writer. Adventure Traveller. Brand Consultant. Art Gallery Director. Possible Spy. Always on the road, living under an alias. Seeking co-conspirators.

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