Life Lessons from a Sandwich

I was so excited to come to Vietnam and have bahn my, what I thought was an authentic Vietnamese sandwich. At home, it is essentially a baguette with meat, cilantro, a spicy and sweet sauce, and other sandwich ingredients like lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, carrots, and more. Every one that I’ve had in the US, at Vietnamese-American restaurants, was delicious. So it must be better in Vietnam, right? Wrong. In buying it, and setting my expectations so high, I had made a very rookie tourist mistake: seeking authenticity from a tourist experience.

Being a tourist is emotionally straining. On one hand, you know that as a tourist, you stick out way too much to be just another person in a foreign country, particularly if you are a racial anomaly like I am in Asia (I have yet to be mistaken as Asian). You probably don’t speak the language, you don’t work there, and you don’t do what normal people do, since you are on vacation and they are not. But on the other hand, you want to know what “life” is like. So you spend lots of your time trying to figure out where to go to get an authentic experience.

The truth is that as a tourist, you don’t want an “authentic” experience. If you did, you would want to see people getting up in the morning, inhaling meals, running to work, working, getting coffee on their break, picking up the kids on the way home, and making a nice dinner if they’re lucky. In poorer parts of the world, an “authentic” experience probably involves skipping one or two meals, since you cannot afford to eat all the time. Not fun, and not what you want on vacation.

When I went in search of good bahn my, I was seeking authenticity. I wanted what real Vietnamese people eat, and I expected it to be better than what I ate at home. That was stupid. Think about it – a sandwich is a quick meal. When you make yourself a sandwich in your kitchen, it is not a gourmet affair. And usually, you don’t go to a gourmet restaurant and get a sandwich. So when I ordered bahn my as a meal, I should have been expecting a nourishing snack, which is what it was, instead of some amazingly delicious dish.

Sandwiches are a bit of an art form in the US. People eat them a lot more than in most other countries, and now restaurants even specialize in sandwiches. So I should expect that bahn my would be awesome at home, but not here in Vietnam, which seems to be a largely non-sandwich country.

Here’s my advice on travel and food: if you want real local cuisine, go to restaurants that specialize in it. That’s the kind of authentic experience you want. It will give you a taste of the native flavors, what people would love to eat if they had the time, money and energy to prepare a good home-cooked meal, and offer you a satisfying experience that’s fun. Street food can be hit or miss; some are too authentic and have food that sucks but fills you up, but others can give you a good taste of local dishes. Don’t expect too much, and don’t deny yourself the pleasure of being on vacation. Try it, but don’t do it exclusively.

And if you want something that you have from home and expect it to be good or better, think again. It’s home for a reason, and you are no longer there. Nothing is authentic 10,000 miles away.

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