Eating with Saigon’s Transgender
On Monday night, Hai and I headed off for dinner to a small neighborhood eatery alongside one of Saigon’s main “canals”.
Now, to be clear, that would NOT be “canals” in the sense of Venice, Italy, fed by open seawater. But, much more like the “canals” of Bangkok, fed by the local neighborhood sewage runoff.
In recent months, however, we’ve watched as many of these Saigon canals were dredged, giant sewage caldrons submerged, tasteful canal-side sidewalks and handrails installed, and attractive landscaping introduced, almost overnight. I’m not sure which foreign government or international NGO funded these infrastructure upgrades, but the “canal-side” visuals are now quite appealing. On a cool, high-water-flow evening, there’s a nice “river-side” feel. On a hot, stagnant day (since the sewage cauldrons are apparently not quite yet operational), there’s still a Bangkok canal stench.
We were lucky. Monday night was a relatively cool, post-rain storm evening. So, a pleasant night to cruise alongside the canal, trying to locate our dinner destination. Just a half a block from the railroad tracks crossing the canal, we found it, Quán Thúy Linh restaurant.
We were a bit unsure exactly what to expect as we arrived since a friend at the gym had recommended the small eatery with the intriquing comment, “Don’t be too surprised when you get there.” Mmnnn?
We arrived to find a very pleasant looking, middle-aged woman sitting curbside in her small plastic chair. She gave us a friendly smile and directed us where to park our motorbike. Clearly she was the owner since she sat with a huge wad of Vietnam Dong in her hand, receiving all incoming cash proceeds for the evening.
The small neighborhood restaurant looked totally average in every way, with wall menus offering ốc (snails), lẫu Thái hải sản (Thai seafood hot pot), hột vịt lộn xào me (duck embryo with tamarind sauce) and mục nướng (bbq’d squid). We pulled our chairs up to the small table, and I asked Hai to select our food items for the night. As he scanned the menu, …
“Oh my god!,” I interrupted him “Our waitress is a man!” Hai looked up and we both scanned the floor. “Oh, wow, so is she!”
All the service staff were men. I mean all the women were men. I mean we were in a small neighborhood working-class neighborhood, away from Saigon city center. And everyone working here was a Transgender! Ối Trời Ơi!
Makeup, dangling earrings, ruffles, long hair (pony-tailed tonight), and, well, generally feminine attire and mannerisms. But not in an outrageous San Francisco kind-of-way. And not in a classic Thailand elegant style. But, in a uniquely simple Vietnamese working-class-attire look.
I mean, no big deal – normally. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area. “Some of my best friends” (or at least one of them) have been know to cross-dress and cross-gender. I mean, I’ve been to Bangkok many times – there, “Lady Boys” (excuse the term, if offensive) rule.
But, we’re in Saigon. Communist, one-party controlled, corrupt-police dominated, traditional-Asian-family values, developing-country, conformity-is-the-rule, Vietnam. And, in a remote, non-tourists area of a Ho Chi Minh City working-class neighborhood. Amazing! What an eye-opener. “How cool”.
OK, Joe, calm down, we need not be obnoxious.
We casually ordered, enjoyed our meal, engaged our service folk in friendly chatter, snapped a few photos (with permission, of course) and invited our waitress and the owner to share a beer with us.
Mixed-sex couples enjoyed their hot pot dinner meal. Apparently-lesbian couples, arm-in-arm, laughed with friends over their drinks. Transgender workers swished (literally) across the floor (hips first), taking orders, delivering food, cleaning tables, and exchanging coy smiles with customers. A table of construction workers (gay? who knows?) laughed together with their Trans waitresses. The server, with dangling earrings, sang confidently as he/she refilled the trà đá (ice tea) glasses. What fun. How inspiring. What a non-traditional ray of hope for the developing world.
Chatting with the owner, we learned that she (a “real” woman) has owned her restaurant for over 8 years. In the beginning the Trans simply came and volunteered to help out her business because she supportively welcomed them and their friends. Gradually, as business picked-up, some transgender folk became formal employees and now fully staff her eatery.
After six+ years in Vietnam, this was a first for me. Encountering a fully open, truly supportive, warm and friendly atmosphere for all of Saigon’s diverse community. “Quite wonderful!”
OK, now putting my Eating Saigon! hat back on, I must say the food was good – but, not exceptional. The mục nướng (bbq’d squid) was very tender and yummy. The lẫu Thái hải sản (Thai seafood hot pot) broth was good, but perhaps a bit too sweet.
The food here earned a clear Yum on Eating Saigon!’s Yum Meter. The unique and gracious inclusion of Saigon’s transgender population by the owner here earned yet another Yum. And finally, the courage of the individuals staffing Quán Thúy Linh, proudly, confidently, yet casually asserting their individuality earned a strong third YUM.
The overall eating experience, a YUM, YUM, YUM here at Eating Saigon!
OPEN from 3:00 p.m until 1:00 a.m. (although they were closing down about 11:30 p.m. the Monday night we were there).
[OH – this is so disappointing! Hai and I invited our friends, Rick and Lisa, to join us for dinner here. Seems they lost their lease and has to re-locate several doors away on the same street. In true Vietnam style, kept the same address :-/ !?!? With just 50% of their original space and perhaps 25% their customers, the food was okay, but not excellent. Sadly, we must let you know, it was no longer a unique and special experience for us – JANUARY 2016]
Quán Thúy Linh
239/66A/66B Trần Văn Đang Street
P.11, District 3
View Quán Thúy Linh in a larger map