Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Hen Gap Lai Feast

"Hen Gap Lai" means "See you again." Thuy and Thanh want to have my See You Again Feast at the new barbecue place right on Nguyen Canh Chan - about a block from where the stupid sushi restaurant opened and closed two years ago. So we stake out a spot and call Ms. Hao and Ut to see if they can join us. They can. Thuy's husband, Dung, is on his way too.

Vietnamese celebrations include lots of "Mot, hai, ba, YO!" (One, two three, YO!"). At the end of each toast, I add "Hen gap lai!" and this makes them laugh every time. (You have to stick with what works when there's a language barrier.)

We begin with deep fried squid and lotus root salad with shrimp:

Then it's grilled shrimp - they are so sweet and sticky:

Then a fire pit is brought to the table and a stone plate is placed on it. We wait about fifteen minutes for it to heat. While we're waiting, Thanh translates this conversation: Thuy and Dung are saying that in China, they put heroin in their food so that after you eat it you want more more more of...something. I kept asking, "What? What do they want more of?" I think they want more food, but who knows? Maybe they just want more.

They have so many funny opinions about the Chinese. I tell them they've already had too much beer.

Anyway, here is the beef and okra waiting to sizzle:


(You dip it in a salt, pepper and lime mixture.)

After this course, there is animated discussion at the table; they all want Thanh to ask me something. She laughs and asks, "Do you want baby duck in egg?"

I have experience with this. When teaching in China, on an ordinary day during lunch at the grade school, baby duck in egg was on our lunch trays. None of us could eat it...all furry and beaky and...a baby duck.

"Sorry," I say. "Americans have no courage."

They have figured on this, so they scour the menu and come up with the grande finale: deep-fried whole fish. It was hard to capture its immense beauty:

You wrap the delicious morsels of this fish in rice paper along with rice noodles, star fruit, basil, greens and cucumbers and dip it all into one of Vietnam's many amazing sauces.

The best part of this fish is its crunchiness; you eat the scales and all. I may not eat baby duck in egg, but I will eat fish scales if they are done properly.

Here is Ut, the bag designer:

And we're done.

Here is Dung with Huang. Every night he comes over for a few hours after work, and this is all he does. He looks at his son, plays with his son, makes sure his son is comfortable. At dinner Dung hardly ate anything because he was so enraptured with this child.

Huang has a village that caters to every single need he has before he has it. I have heard him fuss a little, but I haven't heard him cry. Not once in ten days.

We are done with our feast by 8. I drop by Tran's salon to see if she's there for a final massage. I'm in luck. She insists on touching up my lashes and says, "I hope your mother doesn't say 'Marjie, you look terrible!' when she sees you at the airport." They are so cool-looking. I give Tran a big hug when I leave and she kisses me on the cheek. She is, possibly, the purest soul on the planet.

And as I'm walking back to T and T's house - which is just across the street - Ut and his friend are passing on a motorbike. Ut stops and hands me a sugarcane drink that he had just bought for me. See what I mean about the timing in this place? It's like "cue massage." Or "cue eyelashes." "Cue grandma's amazing lunch." Or "cue sugarcane drink after your massage while walking across the street."
Earlier, Ms. Hao gave me a one-of-a-kind bag, too. She put a note inside that read, "I made this for you. I hope you think it nice."

"How can one person receive all of this love?" you might be asking.

I don't really know. I'm almost embarrassed to write about it.

When I get to their house, grandma and Huang are asleep on a make-shift bed on the floor. Thuy will join them here and Thanh will climb a ladder where she will share the loft with her father, two brothers, sister-in-law and nephew.

Part of me wants to join the slumber party, but I take the computer back to the hotel and write this final post instead.

We've already decided that we will say "Hen gap lai" at the hotel tomorrow- none of this "goodbye" stuff is going to happen. I'll eat my rice cakes, get my hair washed, play with Huang, get in a taxi and get ready to go to work tomorrow.

What do I do for work again?