There are many ways to try to explain this culture: the motorbikes, cars, bikes and pedestrians that, aside from the occasional stoplight (which are increasingly minded), move as fish swim, sort of; the heat the kind of slows people down, but not too much since they keep zooming along on their motorbikes -- and those motorbikes are literally the coolest place to be; and the hotpot.
how the hotpot works: Everybody eats family style, even in the fanciest
restaurant. A hot plate kind of thing with a large bowl of broth in it is
placed in the middle of the table, and then meat, fish, seafood, and vegetables
are added to bubble and cook until they are done. It would seem as though no
two hotpots are the same, but maybe they are. (And you are wise if you manage
to sit downwind from the hotpot as it simmers.)
the side, on a plate, is usually a pile of rice or cold rice noodles. Each
person puts rice or noodles (usually just one or the other is served, not both)
in their own small rice bowl and then someone serves the hotpot -- the
soup with all the fresh, tasty ingredients -- over it. And eventually, as often
as not, everybody is serving everybody else. Everybody tries to help everybody
have a good meal, so with your chopsticks you deliver food to your own mouth as
well as you make sure everybody else has something -- or more than just
something -- in their rice bowl.
meal here is a social, group enterprise; food is not just nutrition.
A meal is an act of connection.
the hotpot, then, redefines the meaning of "we are what we
eat" -- yes, we are what we eat, but we also are who we serve: we serve each
other, and we do so just as the spices in the broth and the fish and tamarind
and celery and unnamed vegetables and all the other ingredients blend together
to make one soupy, slurpy, messy and incredibly tasty piece.
in one, one in all.