Spring Rolls

The first spring roll I ate in Hanoi was sensational. I mean really good.

As were the second and third, but they come a little later.

To take it back slightly, an error had been made in the process of transitioning from the airport to the hotel. As we had walked out of the obligingly mobile doors underneath an EXIT sign, a man in a green jacket that made him look like an above average golfer made his presence, and business, known to us.

What occurs next is much too far off topic to bore you with, but it does end with me being berated in Vietnamese after categorically refusing to pay the unexpectedly doubled rate in what could potentially be described as a harrowing scene.

So the moment our bags connected with the impossibly tight bedsheets, it was out to the street in search of food.

Once we reached the bottom of a calf questioningly long staircase, we thanked the reception staff once more for a successful check-in and then exited into Vietnamese life. Our first explorational decision was upon us.

Left or right?

Such a simple question, so easy to answer and yet it does matter.

The decisions you make in a new city are what determines how it reveals itself. How the empty map is filled in. You become cartographer to an unknown place.

You are deciding what you will see, and what will happen, as your first experience of this new city. It is how you will be introduced to it.

We turned right.

I sometimes wonder what was happening down left that night.

It turned out, spring rolls lay in our chosen direction, and as I have already mentioned, they were good. Really good.

Spring rolls are one of the first things I look for on a menu when in a restaurant that could conceivably, even if remotely, serve a spring roll or two. Which isn't true because they always come in threes. This is insane to me. Surely it's two big ones or four smaller ones.

It is very hard to look suave while attempting to break a spring roll in perfect halves in the presence of a lady you're trying to impress in order to share them evenly.

I don't exactly know what it is about them, but when I find a genuinely good one, I never quite stop thinking about it. Always somewhere in the back of my mind is the question of when will I have that specific spring roll again. And there are many of them, spread across many cities.

As a brief digression, something I am making an unfortunate habit of, the best was also in Vietnam, a place called Bo Hung's in Da Lat. They also work out to be the cheapest given they were all you can eat for a set fee.

Occasionally in my life I will be having a particularly great day, thinking about how lucky I am, when the thought hits me that while this is true, I am not currently at Bo Hung's. It can send me spiralling for hours.

I really like spring rolls.

In an alley just to the side, the right side, of our hotel, a man stood behind the single wheeled cart where he plied his trade. The man was just starting to show signs that may lead someone to call him 'elderly'. While not too old to make a living cooking, he did appear to spend as much time as possible sitting on a well positioned stool that allowed both rest and work.

Seeing a fresh batch of spring rolls being pulled from restless oil in the centre of the cart, I knew I had found my first taste of Hanoi.

We had not yet located a bank from which to withdraw money and had lost slightly more of our local currency during the incident with the green jacketed man and his cronies, so I ordered just one of the shimmering spring rolls the man was offering.

The chosen delight was selected from several by a hand wrapped in a small, white paper bag. The roll, bag and all, was then presented to me with the asking price being an absurdly low number. I regretted not asking for more the instant it was handed to me, but once I had taken a bite, I was furious.

What a ridiculous decision to make. I never eat one spring roll. That's why there are three. Because the person I am with is polite and eats one whereas I am still hungry so plough quickly through the second.

We decided the best thing to do would be to return for a minimum of two more. The man greeted our return with a slightly surprised smile, but upon his realising we were simply back for more, he actually celebrated.

He grew a grin wider than his rolls and sent a fist pump into the muggy evening air.

He seemed elated. I couldn't help but think about that for the rest of the evening. The man was so happy that we had returned, clearly enamoured with his product, unable to continue without more. It seemed like such a great moment.

So much so that the next morning, I decided this would be the only spring roll vendor I would procure the services of. He was my guy.

The only problem was, I was never able to find him again.

As I awoke the following morning, every single one of my thoughts was aligned to the same mission. More spring rolls.

I hurried down to the alley the man had done business from the night before but he was not there. Unconcernedly I went about my day, confident the man didn't work so early and there would be plenty of spring roll opportunities come afternoon.

But even after noon was well and truly gone, the man had not reappeared.

A day off then? Totally fair for a man that slaved away making parcels of perfection for anyone with a single vietnamese coin in their pocket. But the days went by, several of them, and he never returned to that spot. Perhaps he was a travelling spring roll salesman and had set up shop somewhere else. Within me though I know this is not true. He was so comfortable in that alley. At ease with the others around him, himself a part of the environment. Those brick walls were not unfamiliar to him, they were characters in his story.

And so the only other conclusion I have been able to draw is that I completely misread the celebration from the man when we returned for more spring rolls. He was not simply elated due to another satisfied customer, he had in fact just sold his last spring roll.

The cart was gone. The rolls were gone. The smile lines that carved across the man's face were gone. In my mind, by returning to acquire two more items of food, we had tipped the man over into the retirement he had dreamed of for years. His financial goal was reached, the oil could be cooled, he was finished.

Perhaps we all craft fantasies throughout life that make our world seem a better place. This is one of mine, and I refuse to entertain the fact it my be untrue.

The best spring roll I have ever had is out of circulation, the search for a challenger continues.