Today is also Michelle Day in HCMC. You may know Michelle from her comments on the blog, or her 2nd place entry for the dress competition (she's on her way to joining the band) and if you know her this way, you know her as much as I do. I have never met Michelle, but she works out at the same gym as my teaching partner, Chris Brown. A few months ago, she happened to mention to him that she was taking a bike tour through Vietnam, ending in Ho Chi Minh City, so he told her about Sweet Sour Salty Spicy Crunchy.
So she's been following my blog, and I've been following Middle Age Biker http://www.middleagebiker.blogspot.com/ for the past two weeks. Our real lives will collide in about one hour, so I just finished getting the Balcony Room all set for her.
Today is also Ban Cu Day at the Castle.
Yep, the turmeric rice cakes...Thuy and Thanh are coming to make them with us at 3; I also just invited Ms. Hao and Lieu. Michelle is going to get to meet most of the cast today while eating my favorite dish in Vietnam,and though it sounds like I am an amazing host to plan all of this to coincide, it all really happened by accident. That's the way things flow around here. Pretty cool. And tomorrow...you already know that my mom is taking her all around town on his motorbike.
The reason I have a turmeric rice cake pan to make the cakes in is because last Saturday, My Mom the Cowboy of Nguyen Canh Chan took me on a tour of Chinatown. The three-hour trip exhausted me to such an extent that I didn't want to post about it. This is what the day looked like:
1. Nam walking in front of me, carrying my bags, and
2. Nam on his cell phone, calling every friend he knows so that I can meet Chinatown.
The Chinatown planning occurs the Friday before, when we go by his mother's and sister's next-door houses.
Everyone is talking at me all at once, and poor Minh is trying to translate everything. The conversation goes something like this:
Mai: I made some spring rolls today. Would you like some?
Me: Yes, thank you!
Nam: You said you wanted to go on a tour of Chinatown someday, would you like to go on Sunday?
Me: Yes, that would be a good day.
Nam's mother: Would you like to see this album of model shots of my very handsome grandson?
Me: Of course!
Mai (returning from the kitchen with a bag full of deep fried spring rolls): I want to give these to you, but they are cold. They really should be hot.
Me: It's OK. I like them cold.
Nam: And if you want that other kind of ban cu (#1 breakfast), I can take you there tomorrow morning.
Me: I am busy tomorrow morning, but thank you.
Nam's Mother: See, look at this one, doesn't he look nice here?
Mai: What are you doing at 6 pm tonight? I would like you to come over and I will show you how to make these spring rolls, then you can take them home hot.
Me: I am busy tonight, but I would like to do that another time.
Nam: You really should eat them hot.
Me: I know, but I can't do it tonight. I am going out with friends.
Nam's Mother: And look at this one...
Mai: Here, let me get you some vegetables to go with these...
Nam: What time on Sunday? I will take you to the best places.
Mai: Do you want some sauce with these?
And so on, and so on. I am there for twenty minutes.
Last Sunday, I meet Nam at 10. It feels a little strange that we are spending a chunk of time together outside of our regular schedule. He is in Cowboy Mode, though; he's swaggering a little...maybe he's drunk for all I know. But he's much more casual as my weekend driver.
We drive to Chinatown and stop outside of the Binh Tay market. I have heard of this market from many people - including, most recently, Sue. He parks his bike outside of the market in a safe lot, but he doesn't have to pay. "My friend," he tells me; he has connections, and his friends all take care of him. This is a phrase he will repeat about twenty times throughout the three hours I am with him.
The market is amazing; I'm sure it's where all of the small markets or tourist markets buy their goods: leather bags, purses, suitcases, stuffed animals, all kinds of dried food - fish and vegetables - clothes, material, etc. I find a kitchen store that sells the turmeric rice cake pan and tell Nam I want to buy one. He negotiates it, but he will not allow me to buy the one with seven slots; he makes me buy the one with ten (and I have to admit, with my large lunch party arriving today, he was RIGHT AGAIN). Then I want to buy a stacked tin carrying pail (like the ones we were served food in while staying in the Lao tree house). Again, Nam will not allow me to buy the small one. He keeps banging it with a knife to show me that it's not good quality metal like the big one is.
(I already know that I want to come back, but that I will have to secretly hire Mr. Seven so that I can buy what I want and make all kinds of mistakes, the way I want to do it at times.)
After saying hello to everyone Nam knows ..."This is Maory, she is American, I am her driver..." (and having him show all of them what I have purchased so they can all have a good laugh at the contents of my bag), he puts me on the phone with his friend.
"Hello! We are Nam's friends and we are eating. Would you join us for eating?"
"Thank you," I answer, "that would be nice."
So we drive to a little alley where a bunch of his friends are sitting on the red plastic chairs around a table with food, food, food on it. One friend meets us outside and he is carrying what I think must be a plastic replica of a crab; he says, "I am going to go down the street to boil this, I will be right back." I guess it is a real one.
I sit down and for the next hour, Nam's friends give me shots of Brandy, put shots of Brandy in my soda water, put the best portions of the sweetest crab I have ever tasted in my bowl, along with bites of omelet, beef stew, pan fried noodles and bread. They are stuffing my face, and about every five minutes, they count to three, click their drinks together and say "Yo!"
At one point, I am handed a spoonful of crab guts and eggs. I don't want it, but Nam insists. "It's Number One!" So I eat it; it's not bad. I know it's a delicacy.
His friends want me to join them tomorrow night for more seafood at one of the couples' home. I say thank you, but decline. "How about the next night?" they ask. I decline that, too. This is making me nervous...and I am so, so tired. I really don't ever want to eat crab guts again. I just want to ascend the steps of the castle.
Finally, Nam says the two words I am dying to hear, "Go home." His friends all tell me "See you again," and "You are now our family."
When we get home, Nam comes into the castle and unloads my bags. And he makes it clear that he doesn't appreciate the mess on the table or on the counter.
Which is what he just did when he gave me the flower, too. He came in to make sure I had a vase. I cut a bit of the stem off, and when I put it in the vase, it was obvious that I should not have cut the stem. And you know what? Nam tells me that I shouldn't have cut the stem, over and over and over.
But it was a nice gesture, and of course, the rice cake production will go so much more quickly this afternoon because of the Ten Slot Pan.
OK, now to go retrieve Michelle...