In my last post, I showed you the “new” Việt Nam, with all the trappings of an emerging consumerist culture. Now let me take you to a more traditional side of the culture – one which Ái Nhân (say eye nyun) graciously invited us to be a part of. She brought us to a very intimate family event that involved ancestor worship. Before reading further, I invite you to read a paper written by one of my former students back in 2005. "Ancestor Worship at Home." It will give insight into the day we spent at Ái Nhân’s home.
Ái Nhân’s father passed away last spring. It was hard enough to be on the other side of the world at that time, but she also missed some of the culturally obligatory events intended to honor and worship her father after his death. But, she was home for the 100th day after his passing, and that day is marked with a family gathering.
And – she made us a part of the gathering. We were very honored and pleased.
The 100th day is less of a formal ceremony than it is a time for friends and family to have the opportunity to stand in front of the family altar with incense in hand and pray. Cindy and I, as practicing Christians, believe as the Vietnamese do, that the spirit of a person lives on after death, but, unlike the Vietnamese, we do not believe that the soul has any power – all power belongs to God. Ái Nhân knew of our beliefs as we stood before the altar and prayed to God for the soul of her father. After all, the sixth of the Ten Commandments instructs us to honor our mother and father.
Once that formality was out of the way, it was like a family reunion - a time for folks to exchange news and enjoy each other’s company. The house is fairly typical – a small three room stucco-brick house that has the inevitable rooms added on – a kitchen, and in this case, Ái Nhân’s old room. As you enter the home through the front door, the family altar is there to greet you, fronted by a low table. A patterned paved courtyard, well shaded with big trees, all tucked away on a narrow kiệt (alleyway) make for a comfortable place to sit and savor the world. Yes – there are televisions inside and cell phones in the pockets, but this day was for talking.
Kids romped around (politely), while the men gathered in one area and the women in another. (Another trait shared with Americans.) Ái Nhân and her fiancé Kien made sure Cindy and I were comfortable and had a translator. I was asked to be in this shot of Ái Nhân, Cindy, Kien’s mother and Ái Nhân’s mother. These ladies chatted over tea while the younger women did the work of food prep and serving.
As for me, I wandered out into the courtyard where the men had gathered under a tree. Most were older men – my age. The amateur historian in me wanted to ask them questions about the difficult decade after 1975 when the war was over and Việt Nam was reunited. Even Kien’s father, who was a teacher and could find work, found it necessary to make whatever other money he could make to feed his family. Another of the men was a farmer, and he told of how he been forced into a collective farm as part of the new socialist system. Kien’s translation skills were put to the test, but he was saved by the call to eat.
I will spare the reader any description or analysis of Vietnamese cuisine – you can read about it elsewhere. But I can say that anytime food is served to guests in a Vietnamese home, you can be assured of two things: the food will be delicious and there will be huge quantities. Nobody leaves a Vietnamese table hungry. This was no exception – the table positively groaned under the weight of the dishes. As is custom, the older people sat at one table, while the younger people and their children sat at other tables. In this case, the exception was that Ái Nhân and Kien hovered around us as translators, but did not sit at the table with us. Though Cindy and I speak no Vietnamese, the competent translations of Ái Nhân and Kien allowed us to keep a lively chatter. I also noticed that Ái Nhân had one plate of shrimp taken back to the kitchen where the shells were taken off. The Vietnamese eat shrimp with the shell still on (I have eaten them that way – when well cooked, the shells are quite soft) but Ái Nhân had the shells removed for the two Americans.
One dish is a special note – the sticky rice cakes. Sticky rice is just what it sounds like – glutinous rice that can be molded into balls or cakes, and then wrapped in banana leaf. One special rice cake is made by grinding rice into a paste and mixing it with the ground leaves of a certain plant that imparts both a dark rich color and a sweet taste. Inside the little cake is mung bean paste – also sweet and delicious. Folks – this is good eating. That is Kien’s father in the background, getting a smile out of my enjoyment. As in many tropical countries, the hottest time of the day is not a time when people are out and about. As the heat of the day approached, the gathering wound down. We said our goodbyes, with many a word of “cám ơn” (thank you), and headed back to our hotel.
It wasn’t a good day – it was a great day. Thanks to the entire Ngô family for their wonderful hospitality on a significant day. I also want to thank Ái Nhân’s brother Đê for the photos where I was included. A photographer himself, he made better use of my camera than I did.
(For more about Ái Nhân, go to http://www.virtual-doug.com/virtualdoug/2011/08/the-start-of-goodbyes.html.)