By Melanie Bui Larsen
In the country of Vietnam, in the city of Hanoi, in a hole-in-the-wall cafe called Bún Chả Hương Liên, there stands a table enclosed within a great glass box. It’s joined by two blue plastic stools; two sets of bowls, plates, ramekins, chopsticks; empty beer bottles; and condiments. Everything sealed away, preserved for posterity.
Bún Chả Hương Liên’s newest employee is a nineteen year old girl named Van, whose job it is to clean that box. By day, she waits on customers. At night, she closes up shop and gets to work: polishing every square centimeter of the surface until you’d think you could pass your hand through it. The table underneath and its contents are very special; tourists come just for the privilege of viewing, and it’s vital that nothing interrupt their gaze.
Van’s previous job was as a bar girl at an upscale lounge in the Hoan Kiem District. A high school friend had set her up with an “audition”—not interview—in which she had stood in front of Mimi, LX’s manager, reciting phrases in English, French, and Japanese while Mimi swept around her like a hawk.
After her inspection, Mimi pronounced: “You’re pretty, but a little dark.” Van’s cheeks had heated; she’d heard the same from her mother many times. “Stay inside during the day, and if you have to go out before sundown, cover up.”
Still, she got the job. From 21:00 to 03:00 every night, Van served drinks to expats and tourists and wealthy locals at LX Lounge’s bar—drinks that easily surpassed a typical month’s salary in a night. Even a single Tiger beer was 200,000 VN dollars.
Leading up to her first shift, Van had to rapidly learn how to walk in eleven cm stilettos, apply false eyelashes, and curl the tips of her hair with a fat, hot iron to achieve what the other girls called the “American mermaid” look. “Western men are strange,” Mimi had said. “They like their women messy looking. Not like Vietnamese men.” Van wore a short violet dress, cut down to her navel, that gripped her body like a fist.
It was good money, and the girls didn’t even have to mix drinks. What they did was this: take an order, walk it to the backroom where the male bartenders (hidden from view) waited, then flirt with patrons until their drinks were ready to be picked up and delivered.
A few shifts, there were so many girls on the floor and so little to do that Van simply stood there, decorative, for hours.
One evening, Mimi had waved her over and pointed to a private booth in the corner. A sweaty, beady-eyed but sharply dressed foreigner slouched behind a gargantuan bottle of Grey Goose twice as large as his head. Around its base, eight small bottles of Evian arced in a semi-circle, like supplicants. It was a set-up for a party, though the gentleman was alone.
“See to him,” Mimi said, leading her forward by the elbow. The man’s gaze landed on her, already hungry but suddenly sharp, and Van soon understood that she was the party he’d been waiting for.
She quit two days later. She’d barely lasted a week.
Van is still adjusting to her new job when news of Anthony Bourdain’s death breaks. The cafe’s crowds are much denser that day, roiling and tittering.
“Can you believe it? Sixteen million American dollars and still he wanted to die,” says an elderly woman.
“If I were that rich, I’d make sure to live forever,” her friend replies. “Just to spend every cent.”
“Ha! Of course you would, old lady! Money leaks like water from those hands.” The second woman makes a scandalized sound. They huff and cluck at each other, and Van rolls her eyes before getting back to work.
Everyone wants a look at the legendary table where Bourdain had dined with America’s President Obama, the world their audience. The city had thrilled when they ordered bún chả—not a national dish like phở, but rather, Hanoi’s very own specialty: grilled fatty pork and vermicelli noodle. Bourdain had known enough to choose what made them special, what made them unique and apart from the rest, and they loved him for it.
The table looks mute under the glass—remote and unaware of the commotion—but also has the feel of a held breath.
That night, after closing, Van is performing her regular wipe-down routine on the box, when she suddenly freezes, cloth in hand. She looks closely at the table underneath, looks away, and looks again. She blinks hard a few times.
The table setting is dirty. There are slips of broth in both bowls, crumbs studding the chopsticks, and the plates bear glossy swipes of grease.
Van is dumbfounded. After some hesitation, she shifts the box aside—gingerly at first, then with her whole weight when it won’t budge—cringing at the scraping whine. She quickly cleans up, careful to replace everything as it was. Perfectly symmetrical.
When she tells her boss, Linh, the next morning, he’s furious.
“No one is supposed to touch that!” he barks. “I told you to keep an eye on those gawkers.” He pauses, eyes widening. “Aiya, someone probably switched the dinnerware out when you weren’t looking. And whoever that bastard is, he’s sitting at home with the originals right now!”
Van wants to say that she had been working the floor all day, hyper-aware of every customer, but she holds her tongue. Linh has always seemed suspicious of her, strangely bitter.
“Today, keep your brain in your head and do a better job,” he says. She clenches her jaw so hard it makes her molars buzz.
The next day is Van’s day off. The thick Hanoi smog is particularly toxic this morning, so she doubles up on face masks as she rides her moped to the closest internet cafe. She rents a computer for two hours and looks up whatever she can find on Anthony Bourdain, this American chef and celebrity. She learns that he clawed his way up the culinary ladder: dishwasher, kitchen prep, line cook, and sous chef.
She uses Google to translate an English comment from a YouTube clip: Rest in peace, Anthony. My family and I traveled the world through him. He taught us about humans, about finding humanity in ourselves and everyone else. He’ll be missed.
Her eyes feel hot and she doesn’t know why.
The first night that Van thought about quitting LX Lounge, her coworker Nhi had followed her into the bathroom. At 26, Nhi was the oldest girl working the bar. “Listen to me. There are two good ways to get out,” she had said. She held up an expertly lacquered finger. “One, save as much money as you can, then go back to your village and invest in some property. That’s me. Or two, marry one of these bastards.”
Van didn’t hide her surprise. “You can do that?” She imagined marrying one of the rich natives. Many of them lived in the new Ecopark development—a gated, guarded paradise where Van heard the air is cleaner, tastes sweeter.
Nhi grinned. “Oh, you’ll see.” She shifted a sheaf of honey blond hair over her bare shoulder. “You’ll get to know the regulars quite well.”
Once she was alone, Van leaned over the toilet and vomited. Her stomach tried repeatedly to bring up more food, but all she’d had to eat and drink that night were bar peanuts and shots of vodka.
When she returns to work on Monday, Van feels a tender swell in her breast at the sight of the table under its casing: a museum in miniature, altar to a single moment in time.
“Oi! Girl!” The cook interrupts her thoughts and raps on the counter to signal a dish that’s come up. Her saliva thickens when she picks it up: bánh tôm—fried shrimp and sweet potato fritters. They’re fragrant with oil and glow like little suns, sitting on a bed of lettuce.
All day, Van takes great care to keep the glass box and its contents in the corner of her eye.
Once the final customer has left and the remaining staff have vacated, she starts closing up. She makes her way over to the case with her cleaning cloths and solvent, and when she gets close enough, they tumble to the floor.
The setting is dirty again.
The tableau looks slightly different this time. Instead of puddles of broth greasing the bottoms of the bowls, bits of caramelized meat spangle their insides. Ghostly remnants of translucent rice paper have been left behind. The beer bottles have moved position, and there are dregs inside where before there were none.
A chill crackles up Van’s hairline like a bolt of lightning.
She hurries to clean it all up, heart racing like a rabbit’s, and doesn’t mention a word to Linh.
It happens again the following night. And the night after that.
After a solid week of the phantom meals, Van’s fear slowly subsides, and is replaced by a growing reluctance to continue erasing the evidence. She has nothing to hide, and what’s more, she feels increasing wonder at what she’s come to regard as a stubborn miracle. Each night brings traces of a different meal, and her stomach stirs at the sight, at the scents.
After some deliberation, Van shoves the glass case aside one evening, this time to seat herself. She’s unsure of where at first: Bourdain’s stool or Obama’s? Neither feels quite right. She finally pulls up a third stool.
She goes to the kitchen and fetches a new set of dinnerware, which she piles with the day’s leftovers: the cafe’s famous bún chả, spring rolls, roasted quail and rice, and sautéed watercress. She sits down to eat, and it all tastes better than she can ever remember food being.
But the more she eats, the hungrier Van gets. It roars up inside her like a cresting wave and empty pockets keep opening up, insisting on more. She goes back for the remaining leftovers, polishes them off, but the vortex in her gut, in her chest, tugs at her tongue with persistent force.
Single-minded, Van re-enters the kitchen and starts to pull out skillets and saucepans, colanders and whisks. She turns the stovetop on, then the oven. She goes into the back and grabs produce and cuts of meats and herbs and spices. Partially from memory and partially from instinct, she begins cooking. She fries and boils and bakes, eating along the way, not waiting for the food to collect mass or take shape on a plate. She lops the tops off of coconuts and sucks out all of their juice. She drains beer after beer.
By the time it’s all over and she’s sated in a way that makes her feel like lead, it’s 03:00. Half-dazed, she mounts her moped and rides home. She doesn’t remember climbing into bed.
When Van comes in late the next morning, Linh is waiting for her, his face the color of a pulp-fattened plum. With horror, she realizes that she never restored the kitchen, never cleaned up the tabletop, and worst of all—never put back the glass box.
She’s summarily fired, and it’s unclear whether or not she’ll receive her last paycheck. Still shaking off her stupor from the previous night, Van can’t summon the appropriate panic, and she wanders home, trying to comb reality from dreams like tangled hair.
The phantom food stains don’t come back that night, or any other night. Van won’t know this.
A difficult month passes before she lands a new job as a street ice cream vendor. The cart is parked in the Old Quarter and owned by a surly, wizened old woman. Most days she squats on the curb, spitting betel nut juice and rifling through newspapers, while Van answers to customers.
When she gets a new order, Van pours a measure of creamy sugar milk onto the stainless steel slab of the cart, letting it spread until the entire work surface is coated. A giant block of ice sits directly underneath, so the milk hardens in moments. She grabs two metal spatulas and begins to carve the thickening cream. She rolls it into a tight mound and then pounds it smooth, again and again. She slices and chops, separates and reunites, shaping the frosty clay of it into something silky and dense and delicious— ready for the finishing flourish of caramel or strawberry syrup or chocolate shavings.
The clanging of metal reverberates through her torso, sinking into bone, and she doesn’t miss a beat. Sometimes, she sings to herself—private melodies sealed under her mask.
Crowds gather to watch this lovely young woman with the skinny, dark gold arms sculpt their dessert into life, and she obliges them with performance after performance.
The cloudy breath of the cold kissing sultry city air blooms around her, and floats up and up, turning to mist over Hanoi’s streets.
Melanie Bui Larsen is an emerging Vietnamese-American writer and poet whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, Bustle, Little Patuxent Review, and others. In addition to being an incorrigible cat lover, she's also a former dancer and pianist. She lives in the DC Metro area with her husband and--you guessed it!--their two kitties. Find her on Twitter @melanie_buiii or melaniebuilarsen.com.