Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Perfect Afternoon in Thai Binh

Hey All. It's been a long time since I've been able to post anything on the Blog site. Ever since we got engaged we've been busy and December has just flown by. One very important event that went by so quickly it's almost hard to believe it actually happened was my first visit to Huyen's parents house in her home town of Thai Binh. Only 11 months earlier Huyen told her parents about our relationship and at that time their reaction was far from favorable. However, three subsequent trips, a meeting between our parents, and an opportunity to cook for father and mother separately at our apartment in Ha Noi had done a lot to bring us closer together. This was not just a simple social visit. Although the trip was an invitation to have lunch, I would also be introduced to the ancestors at the family altar.

We got up early on Saturday and packed up all the stuff we had prepared for the trip. We had bought gifts to offer at Huyen's parents, as well as both her grandparents, altars and some cakes I had baked for her family. I had taken Huyen to the bus stop several times before on trips she had make back home but this was the first time I had entered the gates of the sprawling Ha Noi bus station. Passing through a gauntlet of people selling everything for refreshments to alternate bus options we found the next bus headed to Thai Binh just about to depart. I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the bus was and that it was only about an eighth full. The driver popped a Hong Kong police thriller into the DVD player and we headed out of the station for the 2 hour drive to Thai Binh.

After arriving at the bus station in Thai Binh we caught a cab that would take us the 5 minutes through town to the new housing development where her parents had bought a place a couple of years before. Aside from the uniquely Vietnamese architecture it reminded a lot of my brothers' townhouse in Santa Clara. Row's of slightly different houses built wall to wall with landscaping between each section, and a large recently completed park in the center of the development. We found Huyen's mother and sister, Phuong, working away furiously on lunch, while her father had yet to arrive home from an early morning meeting. Huyen gave me a quick tour of the house and then we came back downstairs where I was forced to relax instead of helping out in the kitchen, though I did sneak in a few pan tosses of the stir fry when no one was looking. Her father came home and we gave him the belt we had picked up in Singapore after he had changed out of his work clothes and came back down to the first floor.

Though we had brought three tins of cookies and some money for offerings at the family altars Huyen's mother had done most of the work. Preparing the traditional whole steamed chicken, xoi gac (red sticky rice), and a variety of fruits, all of which would be placed on the altar. No sooner had her father settled into his tea in front of the new LCD in the front room than did Huyen's mother hurry him upstairs with a huge tray loaded with all the offerings to the third floor where the family altar took up an entire bedroom. After about ten minutes her father came back downstairs and told Huyen and me to go on up. Huyen's mother had already placed all the food and other offerings on the table and had lit the incense so we simply came into the room and stood beside her. I stood with hands clasped in front of my heart looking across all the things arrayed in front of me on the altar closing my eyes as Huyen's mother asked for my Vietnamese name to introduce me to the family ancestors. We all made three slow deep bows and with that it was over. We quickly made our way back downstairs to finish the rest of the lunch before everyone got too hungry.

After setting up the small oven on the ground in a corner of the kitchen to roast another chicken Huyen's father asked if I liked dog. I said "Sure" and a moment later he was out the door on one of the bicycles that stood in the front room. Huyen confirmed that her dad had gone out to purchase some dog meat for the special occasion. A very generous gesture despite what all you dog lovers may be thinking. Dish after dish soon began to appear from the kitchen, and I did my best to try and make room on the dining table. By the time her father returned with the dog there would be nine dishes crammed onto the glass table top. Far more than five people could hope to eat, but just like her father's last minute dog purchase, a really caring and generous gesture from her mother to me. We sat down to eat and her father asked if I drank. I knew what was coming (any man in Viet Nam is expected to drink some kind of alcohol when sharing a meal, even more so during special occasions, where "special" alcohol often makes it's appearance,) but said yes anyway. From another corner of the kitchen appeared a whiskey bottle, which contained not whiskey, but ruou thuoc, which translates literally into "alcohol medicine." A home-made brew of alcohol and various medicinal herbs (not bad at all, and a better pairing for dog than the Johnny Walker's and lime I had the last time I had dined on dog.) With a quick toast we all tucked in to the feast. It was all delicious and when her mother asked me if I felt "at ease" I really did, and even more than standing in front of the family altar, sharing this wonderful and happy meal made me feel a welcome part of Huyen's family.

There was so much food all of us forgot to have a bowl of Thai Binh's famed rice until we were all stuffed. I had to try it, so somehow I managed to eat half a bowl, but was then called upon to split the remaining pieces of dog with her father. An offer which, of course, I could not refuse. I helped clear the table and then waddled over to the living room for a cup of tea, but no sooner had it been poured then I was encouraged to retire to the spare bedroom on the second floor to partake in the wonderful Vietnamese custom of the afternoon nap. With all that food to digest I passed out right away despite MTV Asia blaring away on the T.V. I felt like only a few minutes later when Huyen roused me from my nap as it was time to head back to the bus station. It ended up I was out for over an hour. Enough time for Huyen and Phuong to go out shopping and buy me two Polo shirts for $6. A few family photos (minus her father, who was still fast asleep) in the living room before the cab pulled up in front of the house. Quick thanks and goodbyes and we were off again across town.

We boarded the bus at the far more relaxed Thai Binh station. This time a DVD of the omnipresent "Paris by Night" (An endless series of Vietnamese music and variety show produced in the States) would be our in-drive entertainment. Just a few minutes after we had settled into our seats the driver fired up the engine and we were off again. Perfect timing once again I thought. Just like the whole afternoon in Thai Binh and the rest of the 4 months I've spent in Vietnam. Somehow despite all the difficulties and obstacles we've faced things with Huyen and I seem to work out. After so many years of struggling to make things work in my past relationships it's so wonderful to be with someone where everything, from bus trips, to empty ferris wheels, to time with each others family just works out perfectly . . .

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