Sunday, January 29, 2012

The eating and drinking of Tet

     One of the traditions of Tet is visiting the homes of friends.  As students here we were invited to the homes of each of the program staff to share a Tet meal.  I wish I had some grasp of the Vietnamese language for this occasion, however as we say, “It is what it is.”  After our visit to pagoda Nga, Victor and I traveled to Xuan’s house for lunch.  It seems as though Xuan lives closer to Hoi An then to Da Nang.  Xuan served us the largest quantity of food I have seen since arriving in Viet Nam.  There was extended family and dogs and a holiday atmosphere that pervaded everything.  We ate until we were stuffed then dessert was served.  One tradition it seems is the ubiquitous watermelon seeds.  These were served at every home we visited.  I never knew that if watermelon seeds are dried there is a nutlike center resembling a sunflower seed.  The people open these with their front teeth and munch away.  Victor and I are not very skilled at this but I am getting better.
     Our next meal was dinner at My Hoa’s house which is within walking distance of the program house.  In contrast to the large quantity we had seen at lunch we were treated to an elegantly simple vegetarian meal.  Four days a month My Hoa eats vegetarian food and on the first day of Tet this was the case.  She made an exception for us and pulled out some delicious homemade jerked beef.  It was very good, and spicy.  Once again there were watermelon seeds and little candies for dessert.  On the second day of Tet we had lunch with Nga and dinner with Lieu.
     Just getting to lunch was a comedy of errors with taxi companies.  After about a 45 minute wait Nga and her brother arrived on motorbikes to take us to lunch. For us in the program there is a paradox around time.  It is very important to be on time for classes and program functions.  There is also Viet Nam time.  This is everything else, for example when friends say they will be by at noon and show up at one or two.  Except for program functions time is a mystery in Viet Nam.  At Nga’s house we had a very nice lunch and were entertained by her four year old son.  I found it funny how a mother’s scolding cuts through language barriers and yet the boy still found a way to ignore mom.  Some things are just universal.  Speaking of universal beer seems to be one of those things.  At each of our meals with program staff there was bia (beer).  Certainly during the Tet parties on Van Cao Street the bia was flowing liberally.  After lunch we were actually able to get a taxi back to the house for our afternoon nap.
     Dinner on the second day of Tet was at Lieu’s house.  We had a wonderful meal with Lieu and her daughter.  The food was good the bia was good and during dessert Lieu’s husband joined us.  He had apparently been celebrating Tet for quite a while before we arrived.  He was funny and taught Victor to say something like Viet Nam is beautiful and free because of Uncle Ho, in tieng Viet.  It was a very nice time with good food and good company.  On the third day of Tet lunch was at Dau’s house and dinner was at Hoang’s house.  
     We followed Dau to his house in a taxi and our friend Tre met us there.  It was a lively lunch with good food bia and conversation being interpreted back and forth.  Toward the end of lunch Victor was having stomach problems and had a rough time for a while.  Dau pulled out some kind of liquor that Tre and I enjoyed very much.  I have no idea what it was, but it was strong and had a very nice flavor.  Lucky for us it was served in a tiny glass.  When we returned to the house Victor was out of commission for the rest of the day.  He called Nga and she passed the word to Hoang.
     Since it was just me Hoang picked me up on his motorbike for a chilly windy ride out toward the beach to the north.  Hoang does not speak English and as I said I have no skill with tieng Viet.  I was concerned about how this evening would go.  This is Viet Nam and it is Tet so I decided to trust the gods and see what they had planned.  We arrived at the apartment building and went to their fifth floor apartment.  Hoang’s wife greeted me in English!  At least I would be able to communicate.  It was a wonderful meal with the best piece of fish I have tasted since arriving in Da Nang.  We were entertained sweetly by Hoang’s two cute young daughters.  The youngest wanted to sing a song for us and when we responded with applause there was more singing.  I asked the older girl who is twelve if she was studying English in school.  After some initial embarrassment she chose her words carefully.  ”Hello, how are you.” She said in fairly clear English.  After we exchanged greetings she sang “We wish you a Merry Christmas” a song they had been learning in English class.  I hope I do as well when we learn the song about Uncle Ho.
    Our language teacher invited us to dinner on the fourth day of Tet.  There were many in laws and relatives present and it was a lively evening filled with good food, good wine, and a bottle of 21 year old scotch.  I managed to screw-up the simple greeting of “Ban co khoe khong?”  Reaching for my notebook I managed to stammer “Toi Khoe cam on.  Con ban?”  All of that is tieng Viet for “How are you?”  “I am fine thanks.  And you?”  Maybe I need to write that 100 times so I will remember it.  Our teacher’s family is very friendly and everyone loves their little dog with the lucky money backpack, dessert camouflage pants and green hoodie.
     In Viet Nam the English word wine has a much broader meaning than it does in New York State.  In various homes of friends and our teacher when asked if we like wine we discovered it could mean actual red wine, rice liquor, or scotch whiskey.  It could also mean a wide variety of spirits in between all of those.  I have learned to expect just about anything when the word wine is mentioned.
     I am very happy to have come here and experienced Tet.  Tomorrow is Monday and it is back to class and our schedule of community service.  Having this break has been very relaxing and given me a chance to just hang out with a few people.  Everyone should have this experience.
Soooooo next vacation visit beautiful Viet Nam
Chuc Mung Nam Moi

1 comment:

  1. Cool post, Jim! You gave a very beautiful description of your happenings, which gave me a good visual picture!!

    The watermelon seeds sound interesting! Can you share a recipe?? I'd love to try them!