It's Vietnamese Barbecue night. The five of us take a taxi to one of the largest restaurants I've ever seen: two huge grills welcome you as you enter (the restaurant is open to the elements on the sides, like many here) and we look around and up to see what we think must be at least two hundred tables.
Katherine points to the animal on the grill and says, "Is that a racoon?"
"No, no, no," I say. "It's a pig."
But then we sit down and begin looking at the menu. The first thing we see is "weasel."
"THAT'S what it was!" she says. "I knew it wasn't a pig! It had no snout!"
We also see porcupine, deer mice, snake and what looks like "men" listed. I tell Tarn he may not be safe at this restaurant.
Then I point out "Goat's prick stewed with Chinese medicine" to him. Thuy laughs because she sees what we're looking at.
Thuy takes over the ordering, as usual, and she keeps it pretty safe, ordering with our boring palates and Tarn's vegetarianism in mind. The first dish that comes out is a cactus, pork and shrimp salad, which is delicious (and the only thing T can't eat).
Next comes the best barbecued squid and shrimp I've ever tasted. The shrimp is draped over a coconut, and the juice is lit on fire (not sure what else is in it, but it burns for quite a while). The result is tender shrimp infused with just a bit of coconut flavor.
Next comes the hot pot. Noodles, more shrimp and calamari, lots of vegetables. It's spicy, and K has to rub an ice cube over her lips to numb herself. It's really fun to dunk all of the goodies into the boiling pot and fish them out, in a similar manner as fondue. The soup is delicious, but not so different than Thuy's. Thuy is a fantastic cook.
We are using this night to celebrate Thanh's birthday, too, so we meet her with roses. What I am really excited for, though, is to give both of them their gifts. We missed Thuy's birthday back in November, so I have a present for her as well. They are getting the same thing with a different twist: I made them both photo albums with pictures- from Thuy and my first cooking session to the Christmas party to Tet at their house to all of our Sunday cooking with my guests and time on the roof. Thuy's has more pictures of her, and Thanh's has more of her. I found some vegetable/food stickers, so I attempted my own scrapbooking look. They both have the reaction I'm hoping for; Thuy actually squeals with happiness. They can't stop looking at all of the pictures.
When we finish eating, we are stuffed and sweating from the spicy hot pot. Thanh picks up the bill because it's her birthday - she will not negotiate. I tell her that I will have her come to America for my birthday because there we treat the birthday person, and then I will never have to pay. I know it's their way for returning the Indian dinner favor from Friday night. These women do not take anything without giving back times ten.
Later, we come back to the castle for chocolate pudding eclairs, even though we have no room for them. We light funky, twisty candles and sing happy birthday to Thanh. She says she feels "lucky" today - celebrating her birthday with such good friends. Thuy has tons of friends, but Thanh spends most of her time with Monkey Boy and Tu at night, so I think she is really touched by her little party - this woman who was so shy about becoming our friend.
When they go, we all hug and Thuy says the usual: "We are family."