Sitting around the living room coffee table, I sipped on Chè Thái Nguyên while snacking on butter cookies and Mứt Tết, a traditional holiday treat tray consisting of candied vegetables, nuts, custard sweets, and seeds.
The world suddenly seemed smaller. The classic blue tin of the butter cookies and their sugary sweetness instantly reminded me of eating the same at my grandmother’s home as a kid. It seemed those butter cookies in blue tins were an icon of grandparents no matter their location in the world.
After being introduced to all of Việt‘s relatives including his grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, and other friends, it was time for lunch. Việt still had to play translator as he was the only one fluent in English. All the adults sat down at a huge table in the kitchen while the kids settled nearby on the floor.
In front of us were dishes lined with vegetables, meats, traditional holiday rice cakes, noodles, and more while the other side of the table offered solely vegetarian options. As I began eating I noticed several family members watching me closely. It was then that I became aware of a stereotype that I had experienced in every Asian country I had traveled in: some Asians thought white people couldn’t use chopsticks. At this point it wasn’t uncommon for particular local people to stare at me, but in this case it was members of a family who stared in amazement as they watched me, a white person, use chopsticks (or even my hands to eat as traditional in India).
After the staring died down, I had time to fully appreciate what in retrospect was surely some of the best Vietnamese food that I had tried in my entire 2 months there. Even better, it seemed that there was no end to it and I was always being encouraged to eat or try more. The language barrier grew weaker and weaker. All the food was homemade and over the next two days I was spoiled over and over again by some of the best local cuisine I’ll likely ever try and Việt’s family’s seemingly infinite hospitality and generosity.
As Tết was about spending time with family, I found out that this included both the living and the dead. After lunch, we boarded a minivan and set out to find the gravestones of deceased relatives. Reaching the outskirts of town, Việt pointed out the very river where his grandfather had taught him to swim many years prior. We drove alongside it until we reached some fields.
Pulling up next to an endless horizon of farmland under the backdrop of cascading mountains, I was initially confused as to why. Việt then cleared up my confusion, pointing out a large gravestone hidden beyond overgrowth on the opposite side of a stream. With the car parked, the whole family walked down to the farmlands and had to either hop a tall brick fence or duck between a barbed wire one to reach the gravestone. I tried to imagine my family passing me over a barbed wire fence as a kid to reach an ancestor’s grave.
Once on the other side, the family gathered and meditated together along with some occasional chanting by their father Hiển. After some minutes of wishing the ancestor the best of luck in the afterlife, they began burning fake bills, specifically American ones, as a form of sending it to their deceased relatives. It was an old ritual.
Boarding back into the minivan, we continued our excursion. It almost felt like Halloween in that we went from door to door of relatives and friends in certain neighborhoods to indulge in sweets, teas, and sometimes even shots of homemade corn alcohol while sitting around a dining room table, catching up. Most of the relatives encouraged me to try all of the Tết sweets and even refused to let me leave without accepting their Li Xi, or lucky money in hopes for a better future.
After our full day excursion we returned home for another incredible dinner.
The next morning for breakfast Việt, his cousins, his siblings, and I all went out to grab rice cakes. As we were eating, I was continuously stared at as it was obvious that I didn’t fit in. Việt had told me that I was likely one of the first 5 foreigners who had ever set foot in his grandparent’s town. This wasn’t uncommon for me as it happened in most rural Asian towns I had been in so I continued eating.
A few moments later, we noticed a man sitting to our right who literally couldn’t stop staring at me. I waved and said hello to which he responded again and again, “blue eyes, money, chopsticks!” Việt talked with him and learned that he was amazed at my ability to use chopsticks and continued to repeat those words because they were the only ones in English that he knew. We uncomfortably laughed as we continued eating.
Once we finished our meal, we returned back home to board the minivan for our next day excursion before the big holiday dinner we’d be hosting that night. We spent the whole morning visiting different pagodas like we had in Nha Tranh.
For lunch, Việt’s dad took us to try a special local dish. Although he was vegetarian, he wanted Việt and I, as well as the rest of the family, to try chim cút chiên or fried quails. Many of his friends had insisted that we tried it and gave him their recommended restaurant for doing so however when the food was served, I was relieved to find that I wasn’t the only one shocked.
Trying to be polite, all the kids and Việt and I took small bites giving the food a chance but it just wasn’t very appetizing. Not only was it visually unappealing but it also lacked flavor beyond its obvious crunchiness. Luckily we didn’t need much as we returned home an hour later and began helping to prepare a dinner that Việt’s family was hosting for all the relatives and friends that we had spent the previous day visiting.
As usual, the food was beyond delicious and featured Việt’s grandmother’s homemade spring rolls that he had been raving to me about since I had first met him. They were all that he had made them out to be and more. I couldn’t help but stuff myself with them that night as we continued our rounds of shots with different relatives. As it was Việt’s first time celebrating the holiday in the country for the past 6 years, he needed to prove that he could still keep up with drinking.
The next morning I woke up still stuffed from the night before but Việt insisted that I tried bánh mì pâ-té before I leave, a local take on the country’s signature bánh mì dish. With our sandwiches in one hand and our bags in the other, we hugged his cousins goodbye who had driven us to the bus stop.
We had already said goodbye to the rest of his family and it was sad to part with his step siblings after bonding with them over the past week of holiday festivities. Leaving with an experience far greater than I could have ever dreamed of, I made certain to thank his whole family yet again for it all. I had come to the country wanting to celebrate the holiday with a family but I had gotten so much more. We munched down on our bánh mì’s as our bus departed for Hanoi.
Every Vietnamese post header image features a shot on film by Việt during our time together.