Tuesday, April 10, 2012

More Culture II

Here is another chunk of Vietnamese culture.
 I was writing about experiences with the program staff.....

    The second occasion was on the first day of Tet.  The first day of Tet is absolutely the most influential day of the year.  On that morning Nga came with the van and driver and took us to the pagoda.  We went through all of the rituals that the people were doing with Nga guiding and explaining as we went.  I have a little laughing Buddha statue made of resin that is special to me because it came from that milestone experience.  All of this is cherished by me because Nga gave her Tet morning to Victor and me in a way that, in my mind simply went above and beyond.  All of this took place in a light drizzle that Nga explained to us as “Tet rain.”  On the first day of Tet it is lucky to have a light rain.  Another thing I take from my experience on that morning is that a light drizzly rain will, for the rest of my life, remind me of “Tet rain.”
     I have spoken of the children of the Dragon and the Fairy and I will take the time here to explain that mythology.   A long time ago in a time before time there lived a magician King.  He met and married the daughter of a Dragon king, the Dragon Maiden Long Nu.  From their marriage came a hero son named Lac Long Quan.  He became King and traveled his kingdom doing many heroic deeds (Ngoc, pg. 836).  “At that time a northern chieftain invaded the country.  With him was his daughter Au Co.  Lac Long Quan drove him and his troops away and took her as his wife.  Later his queen was delivered of a sack containing a hundred eggs.  These after seven days hatched, and out of them a hundred baby boys broke.  They eventually grew up into strong and handsome youngsters.  Lac Long Quan told his wife:  “I am of the race of Dragons living in the sea.  You are of the race of Fairies living in the mountains.  We must separate.  Go to the mountains with fifty of our sons.  I’ll rejoin the sea with the fifty others.”  The divine spouses went their separate ways.  The eldest son, who was among those accompanying the father to the lowlands, eventually ascended the throne with the regal name of Hung Vuong who inaugurated a line of 18 sovereigns called the Hong Dynasty (Ngoc, pg.836).”  That mythology has been referenced throughout the history of Viet Nam.  Ho Chi Minh was a brilliant motivator of his people and he cited this mythology.  “In 1954, following victory over the French colonial troops, President Ho Chi Minh, before the temple dedicated to the Hung Kings, addressed the troops about to liberate Ha Noi in these terms:  “The Hung Kings had the merit of creating our country.  We, their descendants, must defend it (Ngoc, pg. 837).””   When I have mentioned the mythology in conversation with Vietnamese friends they usually say, “Oh it’s just a story.”  I believe they take a certain hidden pride in that story.  I tell the story here because in my experience from 1968 to now it makes much more sense to be friends with the Dragon than to make an enemy of the Dragon.  It has been a lot more fun too.
     Since I have mentioned fun I will expand on that.  One of the fun things Vietnamese people do is to eat and drink.  Whether it is having coffee with friends or food and beer at a sidewalk restaurant, eating and drinking is one of the ways the people of Viet Nam come together.  Gathering together around food is deeply ingrained in the culture and the people of Viet Nam.  I have come to realize that what appears to be a simple invitation to have coffee says much more.
It says “I want to spend time with you and know you better.”  In this culture I have not seen coffee “to go.”  Having coffee with friends typically means a group of more than four and we sit and share about our families and ourselves, and we spend time over one tiny glass of ca phe.  The sidewalk restaurants and cafes are a very adaptable part of this culture.  A simple example is the day a large group of us arrived at a tiny sidewalk coffee shop.  There were not enough tables and chairs for us.  Apparently café and restaurant owners in Viet Nam are magicians.  Tables and chairs seemed to materialize from nowhere and our group was seated with no problem.
     In the US we talk about balanced meals.  In Viet Nam balanced meals are extremely important and it means something very different.  The qualities of yin and yang, cold and hot have traditionally been applied to foods in Viet Nam and each meal should have a balance of these.  An example would be things like mint, ginger, chicken, pork and nuoc mam (fish sauce) are considered warm or hot or yang.  Foods such as duck, various seafood, and sour items are cool or cold or yin.  The Vietnamese people are well versed in this and plan meals accordingly even when ordering at a restaurant.  My experience with food in Viet Nam has been mostly all positive.  I cannot handle the fatty gristly parts of the meat that Vietnamese people happily munch away on.  Other than that I have tried foods that I would never have tried in the US.  Da Nang is noted for two things around food.  It is known for its seafood and its spicy food.  Tiny sidewalk restaurants have wonderful dishes like frog legs, whole steamed squid, spicy clams, and plates full of shrimp.  I have been to places where individual dishes like these were about three dollars each.  One of my personal favorites is the Da Nang specialty of Mi Quang, which is flat rice noodles with vegetables in a small amount of broth.
      If beer is ordered with the meal, typically a case is brought to the table along with a bucket of ice and glasses.  They do not have huge coolers at these tiny sidewalk eateries so the beer is not cold, it is served with ice.  As drinking with friends continues sooner or later the call is heard, mot, hai, ba, YO!  The translation of this is, one, two, three, DRINK!  I can always tell when a group of Vietnamese friends are enjoying themselves at the restaurants near our house on Van Cao Street because all evening long we can hear, mot, hai, ba, YO!  We heard this quite often in the weeks before during and just after Tet.  All of the little restaurants on our street had one big Tet party that lasted about six weeks.  In Viet Nam there is a saying “khong say, khong ve” literally, no drunk, no home.  In other words nobody goes home until everybody is drunk.  It is not a wonder that we heard a lot of ambulance sirens during that time.  They may be shy in class, but once the party gets rolling the Vietnamese people know how to have some fun.
Mot, hai, ba, YO
Nevt Vacation drink in beautiful Viet Nam
Hen gap lai

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