Sunday, May 23, 2010

T and T's Mom

Two days after the wedding, T and T's mom suffered some form of heat stroke and she has been in the hospital all weekend.

She did not make it to the evening ceremony on the day of the wedding - Thanh said she was "too tired." She has a hard time getting around and I'm not sure what her diagnosis is, but that was a very long day for her. Like I said, it was hot, and she had just a little bit of celebratory wine - something she never does - and her fever has been up and down ever since.

Thanh was supposed to run the fabric stand alone so that Thuy could go on her honeymoon to Hue; now, Thanh has been at the hospital since Friday night and Thuy - looking quite exhausted - is at the stand, getting up at 4:30 because she must set it up by herself.

I know we are constantly reminded how unfair life is, but this seems a little bit to the extreme of unfair to me. Please keep them all in your prayers.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Reception and Dinner

Vietnamese brides go through at least three dress changes during their wedding day - that's why you see Thuy in a white dress and a pink one in these reception pictures.

One minute she was wearing a beautiful white gown and the next she was in a pink princess dress. We're not sure how she slipped in and out of a dressing room so quickly, but I think she might just be a really good onstage performer.

Wedding receptions here seem to consist of coming, eating and leaving, which Katherine says is what the ants chant about the grasshoppers in the movie "Antz." "They come, they eat, they leave..."

That's basically what we did. The food was delicious - five courses - and the only one of us who was disturbed by the food at all was Katherine. After getting the baby pig's ear placed in her rice bowl, she began to comment upon a "'theme" in her life: getting undesirable animal parts at weddings (from a Western perspective, that is). Her fear stems from the only other wedding she went to in Vietnam, when a fish head was placed in her bowl. Tarn - only three months from turning from vegetarianism - took the hit, or took the baby pig's ear in this case - a favor he reminded her many times through the night that she "owed him for." (In the picture below, Tarn is perfecting his "blue steel" look).

Yeah, so after the five courses, we looked around and the two-hundred- or-so-guests began to disappear. There was no dancing, no lingering...after the female performer sang three songs up front and Thuy and Dung made their way around the tables toasting, we realized that the tables were empty. Maybe because it's such a long day for everyone.

Well, it's official, Thuy is married. For the first time her life, Thanh will go home without her sister - something that I can't think about too much. Thuy will still be at the fabric stand every day, but she no longer lives down the alley. I saw Thanh sort of linger saying goodbye to Thuy at the reception (right after this picture was taken of the six of us), but Thuy waved her on and just said, "go." I don't think they can think about it too much, either.

Tarn, Katherine and I agreed that this is a nice way to "go out." We all started this thing together, and we are all going our separate ways in less than a month. We are having a goodbye party at the castle on Saturday night. Time keeps on slipping into the future...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Ceremony

The ceremony began with Thuy waiting behind the deer curtain for Dung's family to come down the alley. When they arrived, Thuy's father - who looked so proud and handsome in his suit (I have only seen him in a tank top and shorts) greeted Dung's uncle who got permission for Dung' family to enter. Candles were lit and Thuy's father honored the ancestors, then the bridesmaids (is that what they're called?) came in with the traditional trays of fruits and beetlenuts.

Thanh and her mother then went behind the curtain and brought Thuy out - she had been dressed in her heavy ao dai for two hours already, just waiting - and then the other ceremonies took place: drinking of tea and Dung and Thanh putting earrings, necklace and bracelet on Thuy. Thuy's mother then joined their hands together...I love the somewhat blurry picture of this because it captures her jolliness - both she and her husband are such gracious and happy people.

Thanh looked especially gorgeous and was the perfect hostess - serving tea and drinks to everyone. I didn't get a chance to get my picture with them...the ceremony was quick and suddenly Thuy and Dung were heading down the alley to a taxi. Now they will go to Dung's house to host a lunch reception. I was invited to this, but opted to teach in the afternoon. Katherine, Tarn and I will attend the reception at a restaurant tonight at five.

This ceremony moved me - I am not a crier but I did cry when Thuy looked over at me and waved with such happiness before she reached up and wiped the streams of sweat from her new husband's face. This was about the same time I realized that the guest sitting next to me was their family rooster, kept in a cage underneath the fabric stand (I noticed him because he crowed right then), so it was a laugh/cry situation.

As I walked back to the castle, I got many nods and comments of approval from the women in the market, admiring my ao dai while smiling at me from under their conical bamboo hats. I am including a picture of Rita and me at Alison's wedding since I didn't get one today - I think I looked basically the same today...

Happy Birthday, Ho Chi Minh, and congratulations to my sister, Thuy~

The Morning of Thuy's Wedding

Live coverage from Thuy's wedding, Nguyen Canh Chan neighborhood, morning of Ho Chi Minh's Birthday.
You can't get any more traditional than this...

I'll try to give a play by play of the day. I'm taking the morning off, putting on my ao dai and going with the rest of the neighborhood to witness Dung's family coming to Thuy's house where the official marriage will take place.

I ran over this morning and got to ascend the ladder to T and T's second story room, where Thanh was having make-up done and where I got to help snap Thuy up into her traditional red and gold ao dai. Thuy is giddy with joy and excitement today.

Their house has been cleared of fabric (the neighbors are storing it) and the refrigerator and sewing machine have been pushed to the back and all is covered by a curtain with a beaded picture of a deer and the traditional wedding altar.
Thanh has spent hours cleaning and putting up the traditional decorations: the name of both Thuy and Dung cut out in styrofoam on the wall and lots of paper streamers - like what we might do for a birthday party. Tables have been set up around the house to receive guests for the ceremony.
I have been coming over each night to share in all of the excitement. For two nights, T, T, Dung and T's mother and father and I have sat on the cool floor saying not much at all, drinking ice water to cut into the night's humidity.
That floor has become one of my favorite and most comfortable places in the world. Every time I round the corner and stick my head into that house, I am received like a queen. The only thing I am not excited for today is the heat - it's a hot one here in the city. Stay tuned!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Saigon Cowboys and More Saigon Souvenirs

Katherine and I have experienced a lot together here in Saigon over these past two years, but we had not yet experienced a motorbike wreck caused by motorbike "cowboy" thieves. Now - unfortunately - we can add that to our list.

Thursday night we were coming home from a party at about 11 pm - Katherine on the back of my bike, holding her bag around her shoulder but close to her chest with both hands (like we have been taught). We had already manouevered around a construction zone with a fifteen foot pit, a bulldozer and a crumbled sidewalk. "Classic Saigon," I said to Katherine.

So we were riding pretty slowly down a busy street when suddenly I heard Katherine gasp and felt her weight shift dramatically. I had no idea what was happening but was trying to keep the bike balanced when I felt a final huge shift which sent the bike out of control. We were heading toward a parked taxi on the side of the road and in that cliche "slow motion moment," I knew I had the choice of crashing into the taxi or dumping the bike. I chose to dump the bike.

My first thought when we went down was that we were going to get hit by a motorbike coming from behind us, so both of us scrambled to the curb. A crowd of people surrounded us and this was the first time I understood what had happened. A pair of motorbike purse thieves - called "cowboys" - had ridden up beside us and had gone for Katherine's bag - even though she had been securely holding it against her chest. She had put up quite a battle and when they finally gave up and let go (they didn't get it from my strong Canadian friend) - that was the force that sent us flying.

The three men who stopped to help us were angels. They pulled my bike to the side (at first I thought one of them was going to steal it since this is another popular crime here and the keys were still in the ignition), gave me a wet tissue for my bleeding elbow, and after sitting with us for fifteen minutes as we calmed down, one of them took us to a nearby hospital to get checked. K had only a scraped knee, but I had hit the ground much harder on my left side and my arm was hanging kind of funny and I thought that maybe my ribs were broken. Short story - nothing broken, but I was in a lot of pain.

My mom's purse was stolen by a cowboy thief at Christmas as she crossed the street during a busy Christmas cruising night, and Alice's purse was stolen a month ago while she was on the back of a bike. A friend of ours saw a man get his camera bag slashed off of him, and his ribs were also slashed in the process. These guys are very hard to catch because of the nature of their crime. Every once in a while you will hear of someone going after one of them in a vigilante way and they will be cornered and taken in. This is definitely the dark side of Saigon, and it sure is sobering to realize that these people have absolutely no concern about injuring or even killing someone just to get a hold of a bag.

Thuy and Thanh, of course, were very concerned and told Katherine that she should have kicked them off their bike. Thanh sent me a text message that said, "You are my human hero, man!" which made me laugh in a way that really hurt my sore ribs. They also told me that these "cowboys" "smell heroin" - which - I'm guessing - translates to "sniff coke." Drug addiction explains a lot.

The good in Saigon definitely outweighs the bad by far, and we were very, very lucky the other night. But, I'm telling you, my legs are getting more and more ugly the longer I stay here. Now I have scrapes all down the left side of my body and three more bleeding knee scrapes to add to my two motorbike burns.

My legs are begging me to get the heck out of Saigon!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Thuy and Dung

This is my beautiful Vietnamese sister, Thuy and her soon-to-be husband, Dung, the kind and handsome jeweler. Their wedding will take place on Wednesday, May 19th, on the morning of Ho Chi Minh's birthday.

Yesterday, Thuy took me over to her future home - where she will live with her mother and father-in-law and Dung's three older sisters in a two-story, two-room house. We drove over on the motorbike to pick up her engagement picture album. I wish I could display all sixty pictures here - they are both beautiful and culturally fascinating.

The wedding industry here is huge. It is tradition to go to a "wedding shop" months before your wedding to have pictures taken. None of the dresses - nor the jewerly - are Thuy's; brides go there to have make-up done and to be dressed up, and somewhere along the way, the grooms insert themselves into this series of sentimental shots, most with backgrounds of classic Vietnam scenery (and sometimes with guitars that they don't play): Notre Dame Cathedral, the shores of the beach resort Nha Trang, and Lover's Lake of Dalat.
Don't you wish you could see them all?
Thuy has been walking on a cloud for the past month - it's really fun to see her so happy. And I will wear the same ao dai I wore to Alison's wedding and take the morning of Ho Chi Minh's birthday off so I can witness the marriage of my very good, loyal friend.

Ah - Back in the Hood

This pretty breakfast is called banh cuon; the white noodles below the fried bread, cucumbers, basil, crunchy onions and red pepper are made from steamed rice flour sheets. I had a double breakfast today, heading straight for this after a rice cake starter.

In the picture below, you can see the round pot that is topped with linen... the sheets are steamed and then lifted off the linen with a little bamboo stick. Some banh cuon - like this one - is then filled with a mixture of ground pork and wood ear mushrooms, rolled up and cut into chunks. Of course, the whole thing is covered with nuoc cham, the fish sauce, lime and red pepper sauce that makes everything even better.

In the past two years I have traveled in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and - of course - extensively through Vietnam. All of this Southeast Asia traveling has confirmed one thing for me: I chose the right place to live for this adventure. Vietnam wins in so many categories.

I love Vietnam. I love the way it moves, the way it smells, and - of course - I love the way it tastes. I love its people, its coziness and its craziness. Mostly, though - love for a place equals a whole lot of intagible qualities all tangled up together.

The food here isn't as diverse as in Malaysia, but I love the sweet aspect that is absent in so many cuisines, and I also appreciate the freshness. Everything is made right in front of you, even though oftentimes you wish they had done some of it ahead of time because of the wait required.

Anyway, it's good to be back~I think it will always feel good to be back.