HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Grandma Bien's Birthday

You'll have to use your imagination for this post, because I didn't bring my camera.

Tonight I went to a big birthday party in District 7 for my buddy Thinh's grandma. Ba Bien was turning 82. I was told that her 80th would have warranted a large celebration, but she was in the U.S. at the time, so this shindig was making up for lost time. I was the only foreigner going, and as soon as I parked and walked into Thinh's parent's business headquarters/house/imitation embassy compound, I could feel many eyes from the crowd of 60 or so looking at me. This party was a full-blown production, with a professional cameraman recording the action; a band performing cai luong, classical Vietnamese music; and a seven-course meal provided by a catering company.

Ba Bien was sitting on a chair at the center of a semicircle of tables, expectantly waiting for gifts from arriving guests. I had brought a basket of flowers, and I handed them over while wishing her chuc mung sinh nhat (happy birthday). An emcee was moving the proceedings along at a brisk pace, and my flowers were quickly placed on a table with several elaborate cakes, one of which cost VND2 million ($100).

The tables were segregated by age, so I found my spot at the young whippersnappers table and was immediately handed a Heineken. A steady steam of beer ensued. One of Thinh's uncles who used to live in Seattle came up and introduced himself. Thanks to the huge size of many Vietnamese families, aunts and uncles are often assigned numbers to lessen confusion over names (aunt #5, uncle #7, etc.). Sadly this family stuck to names.

Once all of the gifts had been presented to Ba Bien, she was assisted to the old people table and a karaoke machine was wheeled to the center of the courtyard we were in. Relatives and family friends began taking turns belting out songs, both pop and more cai luong. A huge speaker was located about 6 feet from my left ear, making conversation with the others at my table difficult.

The food was pretty amazing. For a starter there was goi, Vietnamese salad with shrimp, and a delicious meat product that I later learned was pig tongue. Next was succulent beef stewed in a great garlic and peppercorn sauce with bread on the side. Then a pile of chicken with a layer of sticky rice fried on top of it was placed on the table, followed by an entire steamed fish. After that there was seafood hotpot, packed with shrimp, fish, veggies and clams, and finally coconut jelly for dessert. We only had six people at our table, while most of the others had at least 10, but we nonetheless managed to do some serious damage.

The karaoke had stopped once the food was served, and two performers began putting on a traditional Vietnamese show that seemed to be mostly humorous. At one point the male performer used the word dispute (dich) as a pun, since the word for fart - dit - sounds similar. Thus his quote "Nobody will dare dispute me" could have been taken as "Nobody will dare fart with me". This got big laughs. My Vietnamese listening skills are still pretty basic so I didn't understand most of what was being said at the tables, but I enjoyed seeing the red-faced men acting like drunken fools.

I was stuffed after we ate, and I hung out with the people who were near my age for a bit before heading home. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening at Ba Bien's birthday party.

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